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?
I 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?
It’s that time of year again. Every shitty seasonal article clogging your News Feed starts with the same hackneyed opener, everyone is too politically correct to find your grandfather’s senility endearing, and the perennial flood of Thanksgiving turkey how-to articles is just ramping up.
You probably have a vegan friend who delights in reminding you about the genetic modifications that have rendered the modern turkey so buxom as to be immobile. You probably have a neckbeard friend who opportunistically mythbusts that old wives’ tale about tryptophan making you comatose. But I’m going to take a somehow unpopular position and advise you to say no to turkey. I’m going Nancy Reagan this year. Just say no. Turkey is not good.
It’s touted as a lean meat by health nuts, which is essentially an admission that it tastes like shit. The debate should end there. Turkey’s one alleged merit is that it lacks the most desirable, most delicious component of meat, which is fat. Notice that the food scientists who are paid huge sums by multinational conglomerates to chemically engineer gustatory perfection never make turkey-flavored anything. Because turkey has no flavor.
On its best day (that would be Thanksgiving, because no self-respecting person would undertake the Sisyphean task of trying to make a turkey palatable unless tradition demanded it), turkey is really, really average. It’s just okay. The meat itself is just – it’s like eating styrofoam that’s been in the same room as homeopathic chicken broth. The goal of cooking a turkey is to make it taste like something else entirely. It’s a canvas for gravy. It’s a stage for cranberry. A cozy nook for stuffing. A lovely centerpiece.
When people discuss the turkey at Thanksgiving, they expect it to be shitty. If the chef manages to salvage any trace of moisture or flavor, it’s considered a success. Nobody ever fawns over turkey. “What a beautiful turkey!” they’ll exclaim. This just means that it adheres to society’s standards of what a holiday spread should look like. They’ll say, “It’s so moist,” meaning that you managed to preserve the water content – which is extremely difficult to do when there is so little fat to help contain the moisture. They’ll ask, in amazement, “how did you do it?!” because they cannot believe that you managed to not fuck up the meal by ruining a notoriously fickle bird. Nobody orders turkey at a restaurant, unless it’s one of those bullshit locaganigluten-free cafés that value elitism over food.
This Thanksgiving – when you’re indulging in a truly succulent morsel of ham or beef or duck – any animal who hasn’t been genetically Dolly Partonified, who grew up singing in an Alpine pasture wearing repurposed curtains, who did not die for the sake of being the cartoonish nucleus of your smorgasbord, whose preparation does not require constant waterboarding – this Thanksgiving, you can direct your trite I’m-thankful-fors to me, Nancy Reagan
We accept the enormous risk of automobiles even though it’s statistically certain to kill you, kill someone else, maim you, maim someone else, make you want to kill yourself, make you want to kill someone else, and/or contribute to climate change. It sucks. But we accept the risk every day and we drive. Because It’s Free Pie Wednesday at O’Charley’s!
Why can’t we have the same attitude about terrorism and bacon? Yes, we can molest every single person at the airport while they’re on my way to my grandfather’s funeral God rest his soul, and we could stop enjoying breakfast and brunch — but is that the world we envision for ourselves? Is that the world we want to inflict upon our progeny? Cant we stand in awe of the miracle of human flight without imagining ourselves involved tragically in some pervert’s apocalyptic fantasy? Can’t we accept the nourishing perfection of pig flesh without confabulating some unlikely scenario in which a coroner attributes our demise to Oscar Meyer himself?
We tell them – you know, the Children, For whom we Do everything because we hate everyone over the age of 9 including ourselves – we tell them to reach for the stars and we don’t publicly taunt them with the exact mechanisms by which they would die if they happened to be in space without a space suit. You didn’t see any health and safety warnings on the Apollo 11 broadcast, did you? No you did not, because the heroes at NASA left their pillow forts every morning and planted the American Flag on the moon.
Which was crass if you ask me.
He knew long before he pulled the trigger that he’d be starring today on your News Feed, that he’d be a Wikipedia page, that he’d have the singsong voices of Morning Edition drilling his name into infamy during your commute and all the housewives wringing their bejeweled hands. He knew he’d get an emergency press conference shoehorned into the President’s agenda, that he would prompt national conversations about whatever it is he’d scrawled into the margins of his Algebra notes, that he would take the starring role and his victims would be nameless extras in his production.
He did a damn good job, didn’t he? When he stared cold into the gallery of camera lenses as he was escorted by police into the next act of his suddenly meaningful existence? When his name, over the course of a single day, was branded into dialogues on things we’re conveniently already mad as hell about, but had forgotten to tisk-tisk until today? Do you think he’d intended to put a bullet through his own skull but decided at the last minute that he’d rather include the part where his trial and execution were also dissected, filmed, and lauded by critics everywhere?
There’s a sequel. There always is. There’s a little boy with knobby knees and plaquey teeth and a sticky keyboard who is feeling inspired tonight, imagining his own name catapulted onto the illuminated marquee of your consciousness.
Don’t utter his name. Every time you say his name, you’re creating the next one. Every time you watch the grainy footage of his boyhood and of his rise to fame, you are applauding his showmanship. Every time you use him as the anti-hero in your self-righteous soliloquies, you’re giving credence to the motives of the next.
Let them scream in silence. Let their little Mein Kampfs rot in the dampness of their mothers’ basements. Leave all the carpets white.
Hello from Budva, Montenegro, the Russian-owned Riviera. It feels good to be back in picturesque little seaside towns after spending two weeks in some of the more, ahem, frayed parts of the Balkans. This particular neighborhood of nations is defined by stark contrasts. The gorgeous, striking landscapes are periodically blighted by gray communist-era brutalism or inexplicably unfinished buildings. The mountains around Sarajevo – home to the 1984 Winter Olympics, and less than a decade later, the Republika Srpska forces who besieged the city for 1,425 days. The lovely, generous people never fail to prove the resilience of the human heart in the aftermath of one of the worst wars of our time. Contrasts.
The other defining feature of the Balkans is – well, it’s like something you have to whack with a wrench a few times before it turns on. I’ve gotten used to things being a little bit fucked up all the time. The road from Sarajevo to Podgorica – the capitol cities of two tiny neighboring countries – is a one-lane road that is only paved some of the time. The train? Oh, there is no direct train. I could conceivably get there by train; it takes 47 hours and two changes. So I take the bus.
The bus driver smokes. Constantly. I can’t open the window because the window doesn’t open. Sometimes when we go around a bend, a welcome breeze makes its way back to me. The bus screeches to a halt on the side of the road and picks up an old toothless man, who also smokes. The ancient marshrutka is full, so he stands in the aisle. One cow and a few meager fruit stands later, we again come to a halt. We’ve probably only traveled about 3 kilometers – the bus is going at a leisurely pace to avoid head-on collisions. Remember, this is a one lane road. We are stopped because there is an excavator blocking the way. It’s moving a pile of dirt and Coca-Cola bottles off the road. The toothless man gets off the bus and smokes. The bus driver stays on the bus and smokes. I laugh.
I get to Podgorica and set out to find my hostel. But I walk up to the address I’d saved on Google Maps and it is a little hovel with an old truck in the front yard. In this European capitol city. No hostel. No problem! I am in a European capitol city. I will find a cafe, hop on to the wifi network, and figure this out. I walk around a bit and see plenty of shoe stores and lots of communist-era brutalism and unfinished buildings. Lots of betting parlors. Several shops that cater to the distinct male Balkan uniform of Adidas pants, a graphic polo shirt, and a man-purse. A couple of meager fruit stands. Not a cafe in sight. I keep wandering. I don’t have any Euros (did you know that the Euro is the default currency of Montenegro because there is no official state currency?) so I look for a bank. Nope, no banks either. Huh. I can’t buy myself a coffee at the cafe I eventually find, so I just ask the waitress, who is wearing the female Balkan uniform of what can only be described as stage makeup, if I can use the wifi.
I find another hostel very close by, miraculously, in the 36 second window between the moment I connect to the wifi and the moment it stops working. The hostel is in “Blok 7.” Easy enough! I get to the place where Google alleges there to be a hostel, but I once again see no evidence of a hostel. Lesson learned: Google Maps is not to be trusted. I see a conspicuously non-local guy wearing crocs and a fishing hat who I assume to be another traveler. It’s a guy from St. Petersburg who is here to make a transfer in the bank, which closed at 3pm. He has no idea about the hostel, he lives in a neighboring town. He gives me 5€ and advises me to “get out of this fucking shithole as fast as you can, this place is terrible, why would you want to stay?” I can’t fathom the idea of spending any more time on a godforsaken bus. I give him back the money. He asks a local guy in Serbian if he knows where this hostel is, and the man points me in the right direction. Thank god.
But this is one of those enormous apartment buildings built by Tito’s men. There are 5 entrances and 8 stories. I walk into the betting parlor downstairs and ask the kind lady if she knows where the entrance to the hostel is. “No,” she says. “People always come in and ask me but I don’t know.” Okay. But it’s in this building. I sit on the steps outside and try to connect to one of the open networks to check the hostel website. None of them work. As luck would have it, a man walks up and asks me through an impressive bite of hamburger if I’m looking for the hostel. This is the owner of the hostel. The entrance is about 15 meters away. He points at the sign – a piece of sun-bleached paper in a plastic sleeve posted far above eye-level on the corner of the building. How could I miss it?
I’d seen the picture before while thumbing through the delicate, crumbling photo albums that lined the shelves in the breakfast room. The sepia lives of my grandparents were arranged behind brittle cellophane on yellowing pages, their eyes shadowed slits in the sunlight, their glasses full, their hair present and perfect.
Ewart, Trieste, 1948. It was scrawled on the back in fountain pen by his flickering hand. He is pictured in a sergeant’s uniform, leaning against a wall, one hand in his pocket and the other at his side in the same loose fist that he’d carried next to him his whole life – a small detail of his being that I had always noticed but never thought about. It was part of the minutiae that I associated with my grandparents – the lingering smell of noxious chemicals in the garage or the whispering tick of the small clock on the mantelpiece or the lichen on the stones of the terrace.
He was twenty years old in the picture and still, somehow, my grandfather. His fist at his side, his smile poised between witticisms.
We’d been sitting on the pier for hours, drinking out of small plastic cups and playing instruments while a large group of Afghan refugees watched intently and said little. Federica and Nathan looked at the picture on my phone and immediately identified the place as Piazza Goldoni. Nicola, a squat young woodworker, who had taken an unfortunate and canine liking to me in the hour since we’d met, offered to take me there on his motorbike. In spite of the looming certainty that I’d spend some time deflecting wayward affection, roaring through empty streets on a motorcycle in pursuit of family honor seemed like the Italian thing to do.
I tore the helmet off and ran to the staircase that overlooked Piazza Goldoni. It was as though I was sleepwalking, like I’d been guided there by some undercurrent, and when I reached the wall on which he’d leaned 68 years earlier I was somewhere else entirely. I was running towards him at Gatwick Airport. I was unsticking my legs from the gray leather seat of his Saab on the way to Cornwall. I was being renamed Felicity Jane or being accused through his grin of being a tornado – inside jokes that he waited all year to revisit. I was watching him drink beer or tea and never anything else. I was laughing while my grandmother continued the tradition of admonishing him for shooting squirrels from the bathroom window. There were hundreds of them but they weren’t complete memories. They came one after the other, in quick succession, in no particular order. It was an upwelling and then a deluge.
When he stood there in 1948, he had ahead of him an entire lifetime of decisions that, in the benign and magical nature of fate, had brought me there. It was as if I’d arrived on a Möbius strip – a straight line that connects the past and the present, twisting undetected along the way.