Thursday, February 25, 2010
Lately I've been having an interesting, but ultimately depressing, convergence of knowledge inputs: I'm reading Dexter Filkins' The Forever War (if you're only going to read one book about the Iraq conflict, this should be the one), I'm plowing through a bunch of books about social trust as part of my research for a new project, and I've been listening to conservative talk radio on my drive in to work (it's maddening but strangely addictive). In combination, these information streams have been kicking any confidence I have in humanity right out of me, which might not be altogether inappropriate for Lent. In terms of specifics, though, I have become even more concerned about our society's apparent expectations that our government eliminate any risk of terrorism at any cost. Our policy discussions seem to be premised on the notion that we must do everything humanly possible to prevent an act of terrorism on American soil. President Bush made it plain when he explained that he wouldn't risk a single American life on trusting Saddam Hussein. Well, he didn't, and you can read Filkins to see how that turned out. I wouldn't trust Hussein either -- Filkins details the horrors of his regime with horrific accounts -- my point is really about American lives. We see a similar reaction to the Christmas Day "underwear bomber." In order to prevent any possibility of such an act, we must move heaven and earth, even if it means full-body scans, billions of dollars in resources, and diverted attention from other pressing social problems. If a successful terrorist attack occurs on American soil, the most tragic consequences will of course be the lost lives. I also fear, though, that a corresponding tragedy will be the fact that whoever is President will be categorically deemed a failure, especially if he or she has had the gall to extend a semblance of rights to any suspected "terrorists" in the past.
To be clear, I'm all in favor of being aggressive and creative in battling terrorism. But when we set the bar so high, as though the death of any Americans at the hands of a terrorist is automatically considered an epic failure of the federal government, it warps our national priorities and commitments. I should note that I've also been reading plenty of Niebuhr recently: the world is messed up, evil is out there (and in us), and more Americans will probably die at the hands of terrorists. We should not passively accept that sad reality, but we also shouldn't defy that reality to the point that it defines us.