The Calculus of Fear

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?

– David Foster Wallace, “Just Asking”

I have read that essay dozens of times, and in the wake of the most recent tragedy in Paris I’ve found myself reciting those lines again and again as if thumbing a rosary. And then I’ve started spinning my own hypotheticals, clamoring, like everyone else, for some idea that makes it all seem a little less horribly inevitable. I desperately wish there was some solution besides putting my hands over my ears and screaming.

I’m now of the mind that there aren’t any good solutions. This is the bed we’ve made for ourselves. Is it crazy to assert that maybe this was the kind of outcome that we should have expected when we began our not-so-surgical operations in the Middle East? Is it crass and insensitive to say that we’re undeniably responsible for the circumstances that have sprouted the most recent crop of extremist murderers?

I’ve learned this lesson (excruciatingly) in my personal life – there are conflicts in which one person is certainly the aggressor, and one person is certainly the victim, but there is very often a liaison without whom none of this would have ever happened in the first place, and who is in no way free of blame. A lot of my personal growth in the past year has centered on a really cathartic undertaking – sifting through all of the bad things that have ever happened in my life and parsing out how things might have been different if I hadn’t been selfish, reckless, and irresponsible. No, I didn’t personally regurgitate red wine all over the carpet, but I was the one who had the party and plied my drunk friend with my parents’ wine. Yes, my car was senselessly vandalized with a beer bottle last weekend for no good reason, but I did leave my car behind a building by a dumpster on a Saturday night in a known hotbed of crime and indecency.

Getting back to geopolitics, if we hadn’t stormed into an enormous desert and used heavy artillery to inflict democracy upon scores of heretofore indifferent shepherds, we might not have created the power vacuum that fostered the terrorists who want to destroy us.

Is it out of the question to demand a little bit of introspection on the part of politicians? To ask them to accept the responsibility that comes with being hired to alter the course of human history? We trust them to do it, we pay them to do it, and then we dab at our tears and nod when they stand at podiums and give very somber tributes to the dead before promising to unleash rivers of blood in retaliation.

Maybe instead of shrugging and muttering “boots on the ground” around the water cooler in the wake of tragedy, we should ask ourselves some difficult questions. Let’s start there.

First of all, to what degree can we prevent bad things from happening in general? To what degree should we try? To what degree have we squandered any chance of that? How close can we realistically get to creating a risk-free utopia? Hasn’t “getting rid of Them” proven to be a little bit too hamfisted to be a viable solution to terrorism?

Besides, who exactly are They? Who is Us? Even if we could eliminate Them, what kinds of thugs do you suppose would pop up in their place, and would we feel compelled to eliminate them as well? At what point do we declare victory?

Who do we entrust with the charred landscape of that victory?

And, at the risk of sounding cold and utilitarian, shouldn’t there be some kind of calculus or measure or scale that we can use to weigh the deadliness of a thing against the fevered alarmism that we employ in response to it? Cancer is deadly. Car accidents are deadly. Terrorism is deadly. The only thing that is inherently different about terrorism is that it’s a manner of death created for the sole purpose of instilling fear in a population. That’s the great paradox of it – the way we revile it is exactly what makes it successful. 

There is always an it-could-have-been-me after terrorist attacks (at least the ones that happen on Western soil). It’s that weird twinge of self-centeredness we get when we imagine our own lives ending in the same gruesome way – I went to Paris once and went to a café just like that! That’s the response that the terrorists were aiming for. Isn’t that frustrating? Our empathy begets our fear, and that fear is the victory of the terrorists. They’ve won, in their twisted way, the hearts and minds of the people.

Terrorism frustrates our baseline perceptions of safety in such awful ways because it isn’t something that we normally consider during routine risk-analyses (with the exception of a couple of government departments whose very existence depends on perpetuating fear). Car accidents and cancer diagnoses are statistically probable fates, and falling victim to brainwashed murderers is not. Death at the hands of brainwashed murderers is just not the kind of death that we’re prepared to accept. So we (whoever that is) have to do something. And the Do Something Mentality has begotten some of the absolute worst ideas the world has ever seen. Public policy borne out of the Do Something Mentality is almost always ineffective at best (the TSA) and evil at worst (Japanese internment camps).

And then there is the matter of Us vs. Them.

Terrorism is something that They do to Us. It’s our natural inclination to appreciate that simple dynamic. There’s a lot of nobility in fighting to preserve one’s way of life. People relish the opportunity to feel like they’re a part of something great. We love solidarity.

But no one said “that could have been me” when a remote-controlled flying robot blew a Yemeni wedding party to smithereens. Doesn’t that say something about where are our sense of solidarity comes from? If any wedding in the West had been vaporized for any reason, it would have received a hell of a lot of airtime or at least a couple of casseroles.

Before November 13th, there was (rightfully) a huge amount of media attention given to a movement that is based on the idea that we should feel solidarity with people who come from different backgrounds. That those lives matter. It’s a platitude, to be sure, but it’s not without merit. An innocent life lost is an innocent life lost. What difference does it make if it’s Jonbenet Ramsey or Trayvon Martin or Abdul Khader?

Am I out of line in pointing out the discrepancy between the respects we pay the 129 victims of the November 13th attacks and the indifference with which we regard the hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars? Am I such an isolationist for thinking that there’s no difference whatsoever between a dead Parisian and a dead Iraqi? Can I make the case that maybe the term “isolationist” is Orwellian newspeak? That the people who throw around the term as a pejorative are the very ones who think that lives like theirs are the only ones worth protecting?

Are we, by failing to accept responsibility for the colossal role we’ve played in fucking up the Middle East, tacitly in support of the idea that one American victim of 9/11 is worth roughly 71 innocent victims of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? What constitutes a reasonable amount of “intervention,” and how accurately does that body count reflect our values?

Screen Shot 2015-11-24 at 1.59.13 AMI have to wonder if doing nothing would be the ultimate triumph over terror. What does it say about our purported resilience that we are so warm to the idea of European countries instituting martial law as a precautionary measure? What message does it send to our enemies that our defense relies so heavily on drooling high-school dropouts wearing latex gloves and plastering color-coded “threat levels” all over the airport? Are we scared, or aren’t we? Is it out of the question to grit our teeth and continue to enjoy life in the wonderful, rich cultures that we’ve created by embracing free minds?

If every action we take in response to an act of terror is an admission of our own vulnerability, haven’t we already lost?

 

One thought on “The Calculus of Fear

  1. Absolutely brilliant, what an amazing train of thought Emily! You truly are a gifted writer and this article is the best thing I’ve read online in a long long time! I actually have an article in the making that is down the same lane and focuses especially on the aspect related to the quote at the beginning: that certain (terrifying) things in life (not just terrorist acts) can never be fully prevented and that it is a matter of accepting the fundamental nature of this world or taking desperate measures chasing some utopia of absolute safety by all the wrong means.

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