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.


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.

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.

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.

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.)

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...