Sometimes, in the wee small hours, I worry that our national paranoia is not entirely consistent. In San Francisco, a small group of bluegill perch are being monitored at a water-treatment plant, in the hope that they'll provide early warning of a water-contamination plot. Meanwhile, the question of industrial water contamination is an ideal subject for relentless skeptical inquiry ("anything could've killed those fish; let's not jump to conclusions!").
Argue that you should be protected from mercury emissions, and you're a fearmongering chemophobe. Suggest that you should be protected from catastrophic medical expenses, and you're parasitic socialist scum. Shriek at the top of your lungs that you must be protected from "Islamofascism" no matter what it takes, and you're as courageous in your own little way as the soldiers dodging bullets in Iraq.
It's all very odd. A lot of security-conscious Americans seem perfectly happy speeding around in dangerous and defective vehicles, wolfing down dubious meat from uninspected factory farms, taking unsafe prescription drugs, and courting cardiac arrest by listening to Rush Limbaugh explain the horrors of government regulation. At the same time, they're stricken with grandiose self-pity at the thought of being beheaded by a terrorist - that bearded guy driving the taxi, for instance - or blown up by some obscure shock-sensitive explosive concealed in a tube of hemorrhoid ointment.
The essential question is, what would it cost our society to make a person like this feel "secure"? How can you assuage the fears of someone who believes that terrorism is an "existential threat," but also insists that climatology is a hotbed of liberal orthodoxy, and that the public-health system is a colonial outpost of Stalinism, and that anyone who has enough character and common sense not to buy into these weird, craven delusions is - of all things - a sissy?
You can't, because this kind of bullyboy paranoia is persistent and adaptive, much like the hypochondria to which it bears more than a superficial resemblence. Howard Hughes used to ward away germs by swaddling himself in acres of Kleenex. He terrorized himself with irrational fears, and then dreamed up irrational remedies for them in order to remain somewhat functional. Sound like anyone you know?
These mental bulwarks tend to be temporary, because the sufferer's problem is not with a specific threat, but with the world as it is, and the stark fact that death has us outgunned. The threat of disease is real, obviously, but there's a huge difference between taking sensible precautions against common illnesses, and cowering in a pitch-dark room with Kleenex boxes on your feet to ward off "contamination."
Having a wingnut tell you that you're weak on national security is like having Howard Hughes tell you that you don't wash your hands often enough. The obvious problem with this is that you can't wash your hands often enough to satisfy a maniac; there's not enough soap and water on earth.
Similarly, "securing the homeland" can never go far enough to reassure people whose own psychological borders are under constant attack. What links the conservatarians' blustering insouciance about the everyday threats that are statistically most likely to kill or cripple Americans, and their insistence that it's somehow possible to "kill all the terrorists," is the inability to face up to vulnerability and limitation: "I won't get mangled in a workplace accident that leaves me bankrupt and unable to work, and we can kill all the terrorists!"
"A day of horror like no other," you'll recall, was what Dick Cheney said we'd experience if we let the sickly, middlebrow dictates of law and rationality guide our anti-terrorism efforts. He implied that only cowards and traitors would question the wisdom of the administration's tactics. Actually, only cowards and traitors would see such tactics as wise.
For these damaged people, who crave a level of power and security that they can never have, every day is a day of horror. They want to sit safely in their panic rooms reading back issues of Soldier of Fortune until all the bad guys are dead, and they get furious when sane people tell them that this would be a miserable, occluded, ugly way to live even if it were at all feasible. That's defeatist talk, according to our hypochondriacal armchair warriors. Their plan is a perfectly good one; it just hasn't been tried out on the proper scale.
It's a bit like Howard Hughes imagining that one more layer of Kleenex will protect him. Except, of course, that these people aren't using Kleenex to protect themselves. They're using the lives of other people's children. That's why they're despicable, rather than merely depressing.
Monday, September 11, 2006
Posted by Phila at 10:07 PM