Monday, September 11, 2006

It's My Birthday and I'll Be a Jerk if I Want to

Today is September 11, 2006, the five-year anniversary of, um, September 11, 2001. (Does the day have an official name yet? According to one calendar in my house, it's called Patriot Day, but I refuse to accept that it would actually be given such a horrible title.) Here are a few 9/11-themed observations:

A topic is interesting in direct proportion to how closely it can be related to 9/11. This is the same syndrome that plagues local news (e.g., "Seventy-eight million people killed in earthquake in Pakistan. ... The Bay Area connection," or, "George W. Bush outlaws whistling. ... How this will affect your morning commute! News at eleven."). Similarly, every news story, every moment of special programming, everything but college football seems to be 9/11-themed in the few days flanking today. Even KQED aired an episode of "Nova" outlining the structural failings of the World Trade Center. (For some reason, state and local building codes didn't dictate that the structure be fuel jet crash-proof. What were they thinking?!) It seems that this obsession and this prolonged mourning, well, emboldens those who wish to hurt us through terrorist attacks. (I sound heartless, don't I?)

Many Americans still mourn for the victims of 9/11. Even those who had no personal connection to the victims of the 9/11 attacks (or even New York, D.C., or Pennsylvania) actually feel emotionally tied to the events of that day. While I'm enheartened by the outpouring of empathy our citizens are showing for complete strangers, I don't understand why 9/11 victims should be grieved any more than, say, the 99 innocent people who have been murdered in Oakland this year. My cynical guess is that people want to feel like ALL of America was a victim of 9/11; it makes us feel special. (Now I really sound like a jerk.)

Many Americans sincerely believe that their lives were changed by 9/11. Beyond the realm of airport security, many folks think that their day-to-day activities were significantly altered because of 9/11, but not in the paranoid "Rumsfeld is reading my e-mail" sort of way. Instead, it seems that people actually think that they need to be more alert and more suspicious, and that 9/11 was a huge awakening to the seedy terrorist underbelly that thrives within our borders. At the very least, people think that the economy is somehow less stable because of the threat of terrorist attacks. Again, quite cynically, I think this reflects an ignorance about secuirty and the economy, and a self-oriented desire to be part of the action. When I hear people in rural Texas worry about terrorists attacking their town, it kind of reminds me of the misguided narcissism of a "Waiting for Guffman" character. I'm officially a horrible person.

Many Americans are worried about more terrorist attacks in the near future. For some reason I'm not. What's the deal?

Religon is a way bigger deal than I realize. I live in a cozy little atheist bubble, wrapped up in a warm fleece blanket of secularism. I forget that some people turn to faith when they feel they're experiencing a personal or even national crisis. Religion very strongly shapes the everyday opinions and emotions of a huge chunk of Americans. It creates an identity, which sometimes leads to feelings of solidarity, sometimes to exaggerate difference. This ignorance of mine might explain my disbelief at the observations above.

16 comments:

Paul said...

Many Americans are worried about more terrorist attacks in the near future. For some reason I'm not. What's the deal?

You are not as bad a judge of risk as most people. Not that that's a super-high bar to set, but you've nonetheless cleared it.

As for why people in the middle of nowhere fret about terrorism, I think it's probalby closely related to your point about wanting to feel like all of America was attacked. We saw Raiders fans setting up tailgate parties yesterday for the game today. Team identification makes people do dumb things.

Also, good exercise of birthday privilege.

Aaron said...

So, I'm just curious, what do you guys think that U.S. counterterrorism policy should be?

Aaron said...

Or, to look at it another way, do you two think that the Bush administration is doing enough to secure our ports*? If our aggregate probability of being attacked is so low, why worry about that at all?

*I sure don't!

Paul said...

I don't pretend to know the nuts and bolts of domestic security issues so well that I would want to make specific policy prescriptions.

I think your fundamental misunderstanding is in thinking that if the overall risks due to terrorism are "so low", we don't need to worry about them "at all". The straw man suggesting that anybody is arguing that terrorism poses no threat whatever is not terribly interesting.

I think that a few things are fairly obvious - that the threat posed by terrorism is not so great as to justify releasing the executive branch from the burdens of congressional and judicial oversight, for instance. Or that it doesn't make a great deal of sense, from a counterterrorism point of view, to undermine reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan by toppling the relatively secular government of Iraq and then leaving an occupying force in the ensuing chaos.

But once you get past the really big screwups above, you're left with pretty wonkish, nuts-and-bolts type issues like, How much port security can we put in place before it becomes unacceptably expensive? Would I like to see more inbound containers searched? Sure. Do I think they all need to be searched? Probably not, unless it can be done pretty cheaply.

The real upshot of Rebecca's points, though, is that when people get into a panic about terrorism, they start advocating, or at least tolerating, policies that do not make sense based on the reality of the situation. Those are the big things I mentioned above.

Aaron said...

No, I agree with that. But, while I don't think that it should substantively intrude upon our daily lives or our civil liberties (or the first article of the Constitution), I do also think that Americans should be alert to the terrorist threat. We don't need to live in a state of panic, but we should be more aware than we have been. And, I'd argue, we should also be more engaged with the world outside of our borders, but I also accept the near-futility of that hope.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

I don't think anyone who reads this blog can disagree with the text of what you have written, Aaron.

Aaron said...

You write that like it's a bad thing. ;)

Rebecca C. Brown said...

In other news, Aaron claims puppies are cute, and other inarguable statements.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

It reminds me of this. Not to say that Aaron is sympathetic to the Euston Manifesto, just I suspect a similar dynamic is at work.

Declaring something "almost frightening in its banality" carries a subtext that a large number of people disagree. In the Euston context Yglesias explains "...[t]he inference that the reader is plainly intended to draw from the statement [is that] that those of us who've been agitating against those who are agitating to start a war with Iran are anti-Semites, apologists for terrorism, and perhaps eager to see the population of Israel wiped out in an unprovoked nuclear first strike…"

In your case the subtext is pretty clearly that some bajillionaires disagree that “Americans should be alert to the terrorist threat. We don't need to live in a state of panic, but we should be more aware than we have been. And, I'd argue, we should also be more engaged with the world outside of our borders, but I also accept the near-futility of that hope.”

This sub-textual interpretation falls in line with many of your previous claims that most anti-Iraq-war sentiment on the left comes from simple isolationism or “ignore terrorists and it’ll go away”-ism. (Surely *some* liberals must… but here? On Bajillion?)

Again, I’m just explaining the subtext as I read it.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

http://www.brookings.edu/press/books/myth.htm

Rebecca C. Brown said...

Don't get me wrong, I realize that the government needs to take preventative action to continue to keep the threat of terrorism so distant. Though you're more likely to get struck by lightning than by a terrorist attack, if the armed forces and border secuirity weren't there, there would be more terrorist attacks. The total reserouces a nation should devote to preventing a threat (T) is the sum of it's likelihood (L) and the sqaure of the severity of that threat were it to attack (S), multiplied by it's preventability factor (P). So T=P(L+S^2). Lighting has a 0 preventability factor, so we shouldn't bother trying to prevent it. Terrorism is preventable and carries high consequences, so it's worth dumbping resources into preventing.

Plus obligatory statement about balance between protection and civil liberties. So maybe the formula should be T=(P(L+S^2))/C, where C is the negative impact such preventative measures will have on our civil liberties.

Maybe I should be a scientist.

Aaron said...

I really like that, when I try to seek some kind of consensus in a nonconfrontational manner, it's a reason for vocal displeasure on this blog. :)

But let me reframe my point just a little bit:

Many Americans sincerely believe that their lives were changed by 9/11.

Look, I do believe this. Not necessarily on the day-to-day micro level that Rebecca's framed the argument in terms of (even though I do now happen to live about ten miles from the Pentagon and deal with the micro stuff more regularly) but on a more macro level. 9/11, despite its unfortunate political utility for Bush, also changed the nature of our foreign policy as well as many of the domestic priorities in Washington. And it would have done that, I'd argue, no matter who was Pesident. Speaking personally, it also reset many of my own priorites and is at least part of the reason that I'm now in graduate school for public policy rather than Shakespeare studies.

It also, I would argue, should have changed the country to be more alert to and engaged with the world outside of it. I'm glad that you guys are all in such agreement with me on this point as to ridicule me for it, but look, here's what I was responding to with that argument:

Instead, it seems that people actually think that they need to be more alert and more suspicious, and that 9/11 was a huge awakening to the seedy terrorist underbelly that thrives within our borders

As I basically said before, no, of course we shouldn't justify 9/11 as a catalyst for domestic paranoia, but I don't see it as so ridiculous that people might want to view the event as an awakening of sorts, not just to the presence of domestic terrorists, but also to the complexities and the challenges of our various security threats, domestic and international.

In other words, just because 9/11 has been abused for poor ends doesn't mean that it also wasn't also a big deal and that it didn't rightly have lasting effects on many of our policies and perspectives. Maybe this is all obvious to you guys, but go back and read the original post; I was trying to defuse some of its cynicism, which, no offense, seems a bit narrowly focused in retrospect. Everything that you say can be true, Rebecca, and it can also not be the full picture.

That all said, I did agree, more or less, with your ultimate formulation in that last comment.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

"I'm glad that you guys are all in such agreement with me on this point as to ridicule me for it, but look, here's what I was responding to with that argument."

People can disagree with you without it amounting to ridicule. I thought my comment was pretty measured and clear. If you think I'm not being honest when I say that the US should be more engaged with the world, say so.

Aaron said...

In other news, Aaron claims puppies are cute, and other inarguable statements.

I was responding more to this than to your comment, Tom.

And, rereading your comment, I probably should be clear: no, I don't think that most anti-war sentiment is born from isolationism or a sense of sticking heads in sand (and I'd challenge you to find a case where I reduced the left en masse to either of these beliefs). In fact, if there's a single, simple -ism that I think that anti-war people tend to indulge in, it's pacifism: a separate animal that possesses indulgences all its own; for more on this, see Orwell's "Notes on Nationalism" or the last few pages of "Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool".

Tommaso Sciortino said...

I didn't read much "ridicule" in rebecca's comment but I suppose it might look different if it was directed at me.

The only umbrage I might take is the "But" in the sentence. I don't see any other reason to put it there besides a desire to imply that others disagree. Word choice is important.

To take an extreme example, you'd be kind of put-off as well if in response to something you said, I wrote:

"No, I agree with that. But while I think we should be engaged with the world, I don't think it's ok to start wars with a people just becuase they have a different religion than you."

You're comment wouldn't be nearly as insulting as this fictitous one above - even given the worst reading. I just chose an extreme example to make a point.

Again, I'm not saying that you defintly were implying anything with your stray "but". I'm just saying that it could be very confusing and we should watch out for that in the future.

Aaron said...

Yes, I'm sure that you would have felt differently if the remark had been directed at you. I actually smirked at it, but it was designed to make me look ridiculous.

And not to sound patronizing, but the word "but" can sometimes be used to introduce a somewhat-unrelated thought into a paragraph. But of course you understand this point, so I won't belabor it.