Thursday, November 13, 2008

Just Asking

I want to repost this here because I think David Foster Wallace gets at the right idea about how we should approach terrorism. And it's not by shopping. This is from The Atlantic's 2007 "Year in Ideas"

"Are some things still worth dying for? Is the American idea* one such thing? Are you up for a thought experiment? What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, “sacrifices on the altar of freedom”?* In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea? And, thus, that ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our democratic way of life—sacrifices not just of our soldiers and money but of our personal safety and comfort?

In still other words, what if we chose to accept the fact that every few years, despite all reasonable precautions, some hundreds or thousands of us may die in the sort of ghastly terrorist attack that a democratic republic cannot 100-percent protect itself from without subverting the very principles that make it worth protecting?

Is this thought experiment monstrous? Would it be monstrous to refer to the 40,000-plus domestic highway deaths we accept each year because the mobility and autonomy of the car are evidently worth that high price? Is monstrousness why no serious public figure now will speak of the delusory trade-off of liberty for safety that Ben Franklin warned about more than 200 years ago? What exactly has changed between Franklin’s time and ours? Why now can we not have a serious national conversation about sacrifice, the inevitability of sacrifice—either of (a) some portion of safety or (b) some portion of the rights and protections that make the American idea so incalculably precious?

In the absence of such a conversation, can we trust our elected leaders to value and protect the American idea as they act to secure the homeland? What are the effects on the American idea of Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, Patriot Acts I and II, warrantless surveillance, Executive Order 13233, corporate contractors performing military functions, the Military Commissions Act, NSPD 51, etc., etc.? Assume for a moment that some of these measures really have helped make our persons and property safer—are they worth it? Where and when was the public debate on whether they’re worth it? Was there no such debate because we’re not capable of having or demanding one? Why not? Have we actually become so selfish and scared that we don’t even want to consider whether some things trump safety? What kind of future does that augur?

1. Given the strict Gramm-Rudmanewque space limit here, let's just please all agree that we generally know what this term connotes—an open society, consent of the governed, enumerated powers, Federalist 10, pluralism, due process, transparency ... the whole democratic roil.

2. (This phrase is Lincoln's, more or less)"


dbow said...

While I think he makes a really important point, I also think he's a little misleading in how people perceive the trade-off. It's not so much that people fear another 9/11, but that they fear something much worse, i.e. biological or nuclear attack, which could exceed the highway death toll he cites. 9/11 made people feel vulnerable to anything and everything. I imagine people would accept a certain level of terror, but the perception is that allowing a certain level automatically allows the highest level, which is unacceptable.

Perception plays too important a role in these things to rely on simple statistics. Or to imply that rationality based on those statistics is the only measure of value. Numbers show one side of the story, but the impact on a national consciousness of one attack of 4,000 deaths (plus the live national collapse of two hugely symbolic structures) is far greater than 40,000 deaths in numerous small isolated incidents that you never even hear about nationally. So I suppose it's really a question of value - should national psychological damage carry any weight in assessing relative value?

I still think that conversation needs to take place, but I'm uncomfortable framing it as he did.

Ol Mucky said...


I agree when you say "9/11 made people feel vulnerable to anything and everything." But you seem to suggest that sentiment developed organically to a fear of a worst case scenario. I would argue that progression was not at all natural - that it was a narrative force-fed to us and authored by Dick Cheney: "If there's a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response. It's not about our analysis ... It's about our response."

It was the news reports on dirty bombs that played up their psychological threat, and then ended with this:

It was Colin Powell at the UN pointing to the trucks used for transporting chemical weapons.

It was George Bush in the 2003 state of the union asserting, "[For the past 12 years Saddam Hussein has] pursued chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, even while inspectors were in his country. Nothing to date has restrained him from his pursuit of these weapons--not economic sanctions, not isolation from the civilized world, not even cruise missile strikes on his military facilities."

It was Joel Surnow and the propaganda vehicle that was "24" in its second season, which conveniently concluded just as the Iraq War began, offering this plot line: "The season's main plot follows the work of now-President David Palmer and agent Jack Bauer to stop terrorists from detonating a nuclear bomb in Los Angeles."

I'm not saying that a nuclear weapon in terrorist hands is not a threat, but that the narrative you are advancing is not organic. We were led to the conclusion, as a people, from all sides, that what we should be doing is imagining the worst case scenario and doing everything we can to prevent it.

DFW does not advocate sitting idly by and allowing attacks to continue. When he says "despite all reasonable precautions" I take that to include initiatives such as Barack Obama's work with Sam Nunn to secure nuclear material in former Soviet bloc states. DFW simply reinforces the Ben Franklin aphorism: "They who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security, deserve neither liberty nor security." The fact is our liberties never needed be impinged upon to make us more secure. I would say that today we are far closer to a nuclear weapon falling into terrorist hands than we were eight years ago; just look at the teetering government in Pakistan, undermined by US pressure and cross-border raids, that sits on a nuclear arsenal of 50+ warheads with a military sympathetic to the Taliban.

Perception is important, but we have a choice as to how we approach it. The 9/11 attacks were more visceral and required a different response than 40,000 highway deaths, yes. But I think it was precisely our unwillingness to push back on our emotions and perceptions that led us to embrace irrational responses to 9/11. Think of highway crashes. Yes, they are emotional for the people effected by them, but nationally they do not arouse the same sentiments as a terrorist attack. So we approach them rationally, unemotionally, and since 1976 auto fatalities, adjusted for population, have declined 36%. What if we had taken a similar approach after 9/11? Instead of turning the Afghanistan invasion into a field exercise for Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Wolfowitz's real target, Iraq, we might have listened to Colin Powell's doctrine of "overwhelming force," captured Osama Bin Laden when he was only miles from our troops and put enough people on the ground to secure Afghanistan, help Pakistan in Waziristan and destroy the Taliban's ability to regroup and rebuild. Instead we sent in fewer troops than patrol the streets of New York City.

Our perception - which I think is synonymous to some extent with our emotional response - is precisely the problem. We were meant to overreact, and we did. There is no need for Al-Qaeda to bring a nuclear weapon into the United States, they are achieving their aims just fine by keeping us bogged down in two catastrophically mismanaged wars and bleeding our economy slowly dry.