Monday, September 11, 2006

Security and Insecurity


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.

14 comments:

roger said...

and the "security measures" these fools clamor for are all theater. take off your shoes to get on a plane, but don't give a thought to the uninspected baggage being loaded on the same plane.

the "terrorists" have won against these terrorized fools. let's all panic about the gay agenda too. be afraid...be very afraid.

thanks for the link on friday. we are honored.

Nanette said...

I find it a bit strange, this incessant bleating for safety. But, really, only safety from certain deaths, at the hands of certain people.

I think that last is rather the key - for many of these people it's not even so much the fear of death (although there is that); it's the (age old) fear of death at the hands of people "not like us". Not being white, right wing or male, I keep thinking that there is an extra layer I am probably missing, but I do believe that, for the most part, it's the thought of death (or humiliation) at the hands of "savages" who are daring to threaten their "betters" (Western society/people) that is the real source of much of the fear. This seems, to me, to be the reason that the much greater threat of white supremacist or anti government types in the US is pretty much ignored (even though they make up the bulk of the successful terrorist preventions, arrests and convictions over the past few years).

Theoretically (from the comfort of their own livingrooms) of course, death seems to be preferable to "humiliation" at these same hands - witness the fury directed towards the 2 journalists who were captured in the Palestinian areas, when they didn't die instead of falsely converting to Islam.

Anyway, all the other threats you've mentioned... medical, environmental and so on, carry little or no dishonor if one is felled by them. Giving in to the "liberal orthodoxy" behind the ideas of universal healthcare, climatology, prevention of death or disease by government regulation and so on, though, especially things that will be beneficial for the undeserving who, if they were simply better people, would be able to take care of these things themselves ... now that is showing weakness and brings dishonor.

Engineer-Poet said...

A phrase which deserves scrutiny:

"the 2 journalists who ... didn't die instead of falsely converting to Islam."

If they publicly renounce their conversions, they are subject to death.  This would not just be dangerous working in the ME; ex-muslims live under threat even in the USA.

Phila said...

I do believe that, for the most part, it's the thought of death (or humiliation) at the hands of "savages" who are daring to threaten their "betters" (Western society/people) that is the real source of much of the fear.

Hmm. That's interesting. I'd normally tend towards the idea that they're especially afraid of the people they hate and oppress, basically because they expect to reap what they've sown. Obviously, race enters into that theory as well. The idea that some people find it especially humiliating to be killed by "darkies" doesn't seem implausible, though.

You're absolutely right...there's something incredibly weird about the right-wing obsession with types of death. I always assume it comes down to a fear of vulnerability, but that may be too pat and simplistic.

As for the Fox journalists...I think we all know that the bloggers who attacked them would've converted instantly to any religion on earth to save themselves. Like pretty much all the rhetorical bullying of the warbloggers, picking on those journalists is just a way for small people to make themselves feel tough.

On the other hand, I have to say that I think that at least some of them like it when captives get beheaded on video. They think it gives their eliminationist arguments more credibility, but I also think they just enjoy the way it makes them feel. In this case, I think they feel like they were cheated.

Phila said...

If they publicly renounce their conversions, they are subject to death. This would not just be dangerous working in the ME; ex-muslims live under threat even in the USA.

I think most people would've preferred to take that risk, rather than get beheaded on the spot.

Obviously, I'd admire the courage of someone who chose out of religious conviction to die then and there rather than convert. But I really don't think this is a moral duty that one can scold other people for not living up to (especially if those people aren't religious!).

And I sure as hell don't believe that martyrdom would be the chosen path of a bunch of stateside loudmouths who have conspicuously failed to enlist.

Nanette said...

If they publicly renounce their conversions, they are subject to death. This would not just be dangerous working in the ME; ex-muslims live under threat even in the USA.

engineer-poet, I don't believe many people, including most Muslims, think that those were true conversions. Possibly the more uneducated or more radical types do, but I can't imagine that most believe that conversions at knife or gunpoint will have any lasting effect. Nor do I think that any but the most nutty would attempt to harm them for no longer declaring themselves Muslim after being released. I think where some are threatened (and that usually by the nuttier religious) is when they speak out against the religion or religious people after they have left the faith. At least, that's how it seems to me just through observation... I've done no studies on it or anything.

Nanette said...

That's interesting. I'd normally tend towards the idea that they're especially afraid of the people they hate and oppress, basically because they expect to reap what they've sown.

I think this is true as well... except, most right wingers that I've spoken to don't feel they've oppressed Muslims (or, what they really mean, Arabs). While there is definitely contempt for the people themselves, they also make the argument that it is the Arab regimes, such as the Saudis, that are oppressing the people (while conveniently ignoring the fact that they do so usually with our assist). I often sense a feeling of a sort of aggrieved injury that Iranians weren't more appreciative of that nice Shah the West installed, and instead allowed the Mullahs to take over.

Obviously, race enters into that theory as well. The idea that some people find it especially humiliating to be killed by "darkies" doesn't seem implausible, though.

Well, it sort of fits in with the entire US culture, if not Western culture in general. Religion is part of it too, of course, but ... well, read some of the stuff RedState.com sometime. I haven't gone there in a while, but when I used to, half the people there wrote like they just stepped out of a Jane Austen novel, or something. Couching some of the most vile hate speech in grandiloquent phrases - I get the feeling that their armchair fantasies are not so much those of riding in tanks in the desert, but proudly sitting astride a mighty steed, swords ready at their side, cutting a dashing figure with their straight backs and waxed mustaches.

In that particular world there is a certain order of things, and I think this is also one reason why it's so important for many of them to view Muslims and the "Muslim World" as 14th century holdouts - unEnlightened, un "civilized", not worthy interlocutors and people who will only kill by stealth and trickery, instead of lining up properly on a battlefield.

This makes them unworthy. At least, that's the only reason I can figure out why being killed by a bomb set by a Muslim is so much worse than being killed by a bomb set by a McVeigh clone ;)

In this case, I think they feel like they were cheated.

Definitely. Freaks.

Phila said...

I haven't gone there in a while, but when I used to, half the people there wrote like they just stepped out of a Jane Austen novel, or something. Couching some of the most vile hate speech in grandiloquent phrases -

Oh, I know the syndrome, believe me. There's a wingnut named Maximos who writes some of the most entertainingly stilted prose on the Internets...see Whiskey Fire for more details.

I tried to defend Maximos against his detractors here, but I failed, alas. It was probably the insincerity that did it.

Nanette said...

Oh my... the original was hilarious, but your defense was priceless. Now that I've stopped crying from laughing so hard I need to go find both a dictionary and a thesaurus, though.

Engineer-Poet said...

"I don't believe many people, including most Muslims, think that those were true conversions. "

Sorry, Nanette, but apparently Muslims do believe that mouthing words the speaker does not understand amounts to a conversion.

Even those who've emigrated to Western, English-speaking countries.

They appear to believe the same thing about memorizing the Koran in Arabic, when they do not speak a word of Arabic and have no idea what it means.

You are projecting your feelings and attitudes onto them.  Because you would never consider such "conversions" real and legitimate, you don't believe that anyone else could either.  I should not have to point out the error in that.

Nanette said...

engineer poet:

Sorry, Nanette, but apparently Muslims do believe that mouthing words the speaker does not understand amounts to a conversion.

No doubt some do, as I indicated. There are (from what I understand) something like 1.2 billion Muslims in the world and admittedly I only know 5 or so of them personally, as friends. Others I know through their writings or speeches and so on.

While, as with Christianity or any other religion, there may be some basic core beliefs, there are also diverse interpretations and practices among followers of Islam around the world.

It's impossible (or, at least, inaccurate) to say "Muslims believe this particular thing" and have it apply across the board (unless it is something like "Muslims believe Mohammed to have been a prophet of God" or some other core belief, and even that I couldn't say with certainty that all Muslim sects believe).

Anyway:

They appear to believe the same thing about memorizing the Koran in Arabic, when they do not speak a word of Arabic and have no idea what it means.

Again, some do. I think the feeling is, because the words and phrases don't translate properly across languages, that one can only get the full meaning of the Koran by reading it in the original Arabic. Some schools/madrassas seem to feel that learning by rote and repetition, basically chanting the text hour after hour, is the proper way to learn both the Arabic and the Koran. Others seem to more resemble the Jewish yeshivas, where (from what I understand) there is the study of Hebrew and the various texts of the Torah and the Rabbis and so on who have written discussions and interpretations of the texts over the centuries (there is a name for them, I think, but I forget what).

You are projecting your feelings and attitudes onto them.

No, I am going by that dreaded thing, personal knowledge of a few people, some of whom I've known for years (pre 9/11), and others for a shorter period of time. Are the Muslim people I know representative of the vast whole? I doubt it, as each person is different in how they view Islam, their place in it and its place in the world, and also how they practice the religion itself.

I would say that the most knowledgeable and the most um... Muslim (non American, Arabic speaking, well versed in not only the Koran but also the individuals who have written various interpretations and studies throughout the centuries), of my friends is an elderly man who can converse with equal love and knowledge about not only Islam, but various sects of Christianity, Judaism, pre-Christian (and Islam) gods and goddesses and so on.

So, no... for me there is no nebulous and scary "them" for me to project my feelings on to. I am sure there are followers of Islam who believe as the jihad watch person stated, but there are definitely others who do not.

I am not Muslim, by the way... I am actually of no religion at all (I think it is all bunk).

Phila said...

for me there is no nebulous and scary "them" for me to project my feelings on to. I am sure there are followers of Islam who believe as the jihad watch person stated, but there are definitely others who do not.

It's interesting to think about what would happen if, say, Christian Identity took an American skyscraper down. I think we'd suddenly have a more nuanced - and maybe even exculpatory - societal view of the role of religion in terrorism.

There are very different tipping points at which groups are perceived as all, or mostly, bad; some people's acts are seen as aberrant, while others confirm what we knew all along about "those people." This is an ongoing problem, and even the most intelligent people fall prey to it. (It's a bit like Bertrand Russell's idea of emotional conjugation: You're fanatical, he's dogmatic, I'm principled.)

The word "culture" gets tossed around a lot (cf. the "Cultures of Mass Destruction" cartoon referenced in the next post up). But culture doesn't come out of a vacuum, and it's not static. Granting, as I always do, that Muslim extremism is a serious threat - if not an obviously existential one - I think it's time to start pressing people on what their solution is (kind of like the pro-choice advocates who demand to know, specifically, what punishments are appopriate for women who have abortions). There are too many people running around who think that "Kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out" is a strategy.

(Just to make it absolutely clear, I'm not referring to E-P here; he's good people, though we have our friendly disagreements from time to time.)

Nanette said...

It's interesting to think about what would happen if, say, Christian Identity took an American skyscraper down. I think we'd suddenly have a more nuanced - and maybe even exculpatory - societal view of the role of religion in terrorism.

I don't think so... at least, that's not been the case so far. Christianity has already been accorded individual status, and the actions of one Christian group don't necessarily reflect on a different Christian sect, or even on those within the same sect. I think, probably, the closest things have come to blanket condemnation is with the child molestation scandals of the Catholic Church, and even those - tho the crimes spanned decades and borders and the coverups stretched from the Vatican on down - were relatively well contained. There was (and continues to be) some fallout, but it's not really affecting other sects.

If Christian Identity or World Church of the Creator or one of those groups felled a tall building, it would just be stated that "they are not real Christians" and people would nod and agree and blame the perpetrators, not the entire religion. Familiarity probably has quite a bit to do with it (among other factors)... most everyone knows at least some (or know about) Baptists and Episcopalians and Catholics and Methodists and all the other sects, so it's easier for them to make that separation in their minds.

Granting, as I always do, that Muslim extremism is a serious threat - if not an obviously existential one - I think it's time to start pressing people on what their solution is...

I think probably, when searching for solutions, we need to first decide what Islamic extremism is. I am most likely in a very small minority in objecting to the use of religion at all in these things... not only because of the unfairness to other practicers of the religion, but also because I don't believe it can be effective... it tends to allow people to sweep all sorts of things under one Islamic extremism or jihadi or whatever rug.

I am sort of this view because a few years back I and a few British chatters started a history chat room and one of the first subjects we tackled was Northern Ireland and the mess going on there at the time. (Mind you, I'm of the opinion that any study of a current conflict that starts out with "Well, in 1600 and something, Oliver Cromwell did this... " is not meant to be understood, but still).

There were really too many unfamliar names and groups involved for me to get a handle on, so I, and the other Americans, used the shorthand that most US papers of the time used, which was Catholic and Protestant. This really irritated the Brits, as they said that whatever else the conflict was about (and it was lots), it was not about religion, even if it did tend to break down along religious lines. By using the shorthand, we were in essence avoiding having to decipher all the underlying problems and issues related to this. Anyway...

I am a believer in non violence, so while I may not approve of methods, and possibly disagree on motives, people usually do have reasons for what they do. A young man (or woman) strapping themselves with explosives and going in and blowing up families and holiday makers in a pizza parlor may be caught up in religious fervor, killing for Allah, death to the infidels!... or maybe his family was killed the week before and his only thought is vengeance. The reasons people (Muslim) in Chechnya, or Urgyr (sp), or China or any number of places resort to violence are probably as widely varied as they themselves are. Still, their governments can do anything at all to them, at this time, because they are all Muslim... I've even had right wingers tell me that, in retrospect, they think Milosovec was justified in his attempt at ethnic/religious cleansing, because he was trying to get rid of the Muslims...

I think the reasons (even if they do not justify the actions) are important, because marginalized, disaffected people will find a way to communicate (whether through music, art, books, chat, etc) and get together in some way... which is (I believe) why you read reports .. in mainstream, NYT, LATimes type papers, of the IRA in Colombia (I think), helping to train the rebels there, or at least an attempted cooperation between US anti govt (but not necessarily white supremacist) groups and anti-US Muslim groups, and so on.

Sigh, I'm yammering on way too long, as usual, but I'll just say that I agree that extremism is a problem, and that sometimes religion exacerbates that and feeds it, but I don't think that is actually the main problem.

Phila said...

If Christian Identity or World Church of the Creator or one of those groups felled a tall building, it would just be stated that "they are not real Christians" and people would nod and agree and blame the perpetrators, not the entire religion.

That's what I was saying. I meant, "Suddenly religion wouldn't be quite as much of a factor."

I am a believer in non violence, so while I may not approve of methods, and possibly disagree on motives, people usually do have reasons for what they do. A young man (or woman) strapping themselves with explosives and going in and blowing up families and holiday makers in a pizza parlor may be caught up in religious fervor, killing for Allah, death to the infidels!... or maybe his family was killed the week before and his only thought is vengeance.

Well, of course. When I say that Muslim extremism is a problem, I'm referring to the entire situation, including the ways in which we're culpable for it.

I think the reasons (even if they do not justify the actions) are important,

Absolutely. There's a difference between understanding why people do something, and seeing them as acting justly. I can understand the desire for vengeance against the United States. That doesn't mean that I think that vengeance = justice.

sometimes religion exacerbates that and feeds it, but I don't think that is actually the main problem.

Sure, and the proof of this is simple. Get rid of religion tomorrow, and you'll still have territoriality, racism, battles over resources, and centuries-old blood feuds. Get rid of aggression and greed tomorrow, and you'll have a peaceful world.

But as we can't accomplish either task...