Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Freedom, safety, and the victory of Osama bin Laden

The last time I took of my shoes in the airport, which even the TSA now admits is done primarily to stop drug smuggling rather than to look for shoe bombs, I realized a very sour and sobering truth:

Thus far, Osama bin Laden has won the so-called war on terror.

This statement depends, of course, on my definitions of victory and defeat.

To my mind, Osama bin Laden has won the war because he managed to wrench us almost completely out of the traditional American dynamic of freedom vs security, with the scales tilted toward freedom....

... into a new dynamic of security trumping even political discourse about freedom, and not just security in the sense of avoiding fuel-laden planes flying into buildings, but security in the sense of having become so risk-averse that we are now in danger of losing something possibly essential to American society.

We have accepted the creation of a dehumanizing bureaucracy that turns air travel into a masochistic exercise that has no demonstrable track record of making it statistically any safer to fly than it was before 9/11.

We have not only begun to discuss (ala President Jimmy Carter and the Brady campaign) policy ideas which would ultimately make it illegal for American citizens to own deadly weapons not reported to the government.

But, what the hell--who cares about that?--since we have also accepted the idea that it is illegal for Americans to check a book out of the library without the government potentially knowing about it.

We have criminalized the act of photographing bridges, or even police officers.

We have so internalized that concepts of terrorist and torture that we are actually happily labeling other Americans as domestic terrorists instead of criminals, and we're actually conducting a nationwide debate over torture that turns not on the morality of the practice, but on how safe it makes us feel in our little suburban rabbit warrens.

That domestic terrorist label has become really, really important, because we have complacently accepted the visceral equation that terrorists have no constitutional rights, so it is far easier to demonize American citizens with contrary political views.

We have acquiesced to the idea that America's safety depends on spilling blood and treasure in obscure corners of the planet, that it is somehow better to accept the mathematical certainty that thousands of our sons and daughters in uniform will be killed or maimed than to risk a significantly smaller, randomly selected cross-section of our entire population....

America used to be about balancing freedom and security. As a parent, I used to be able to make the decision about when my kid was old enough to get out of the car seat, or stop wearing that bicycle helmet. Not any more: Uncle Sammy knows that the little darling might crash...

And Uncle Sam is horribly right. Teaching kids to take reasonable risks is an exercise in knowing they will get hurt sometimes, maybe even big-time. My daughter plays goalie against girls three years older than she is, many of whom are willing to kick her in the head as hard as they can if they think the ref might not see. I hold my breath every time she dives under the foot of an oncoming striker....

.... because John Ford was right. In the film She Wore a Yellow Ribbon John Wayne has just retired from the US Army, along with his old sergeant. Part of the company is still under attack, ten miles out, fighting a rear guard action at the bend in the river. The sergeant (Victor Mature, if you care) wants to say the hell with retirement and go help out the two young lieutenants suddenly dropped into a bad life and death situation. John Wayne stops him, and tells him that young people have to start defending their own river crossing some time....

.... and sometimes they die trying.

But not any more. Any more the idea that our generation or the next generation should do or die, that people should accept the consequences of bad decisions and drive on with their lives, is being slowly ground out of our society in pursuit of a life that is not necessarily fulfilling, but is always ... safe.

Don't run with the goddamn scissors, because if you hurt yourself my insurance premiums will go up and that's not fair.

There used to be a time when individuals had a much larger range of making their own decisions about how much risk was acceptable. Unfortunately, that's when I grew up and had my preferences and prejudices formed. When you could say, "I'm willing to accept a higher level of risk in order to make my own decisions about wearing seat belts, smoking, eating trans-fats, or juggling with chainsaws."

There used to be a time when this image of the Gadsden flag was considered patriotic rather than an indication of unacceptable extremism:

There used to be a time when the statement, The cowards never started and the weak died along the way was a challenge to be overcome, not a fate to be avoided.

There used to be a time....

Ah shit. I'm getting old and maudlin.

Those days are gone. Gonna have to go join a militia or something.


Townie 76 said...


It took you this long to realize the terrorists won; when we reacted as we did to 9/11, the nation and its citizens allowed the leadership of our nation to say order was more important than liberty.

Every time I go through the TSA lines my blood pressure rises. It doesn't help any that my blood pressure when I see grandma nearly stripped search because she forgot to tell TSA she has an steel hip. Of course if TSA treated us like fellow human being rather criminals it might help.

Of course if I was to complain I would hauled off to the Gulag.

a most peculiar nature said...

I have the Gadsden flag on my jacket. Next to it it says:

"I refuse to allow my civil servant to run my life".

I think I've lost.