A while back I read this rather on-point post about the fundamental hopelessness of the current terrorism situation, and I figured I should fill in the other half of the argument. Because there is a real solution here.
The issue is that low-tech, uncoordinated attacks are impossible to really do anything about. The only way to fully prevent people from doing things like making bombs out of pressure cookers or driving trucks into large crowds is to establish a police state. And while these things are scary, we’ve been hyperventilating so heavily about terrorism for so long that we’ve forgotten what it is that we’re actually looking at. You’re familiar with the statistics, I’m sure; you’re more likely to be struck by lightning or killed by your own furniture than you are to be a victim of a terrorist attack. And it’s not like terrorism is the only source of random, meaningless death. People actually do up and have strokes or step backwards and fall into the Grand Canyon or whatever. So terrorism is neither a distinctive nor a prevalent source of danger. Small-scale attacks can never be stopped, but they’ll also never add up to more than a tiny percentage of the deaths caused by heart disease or car accidents or suicide.
But if this is so obvious, then why do terror attacks scare people? Precisely because they do not feel like accidents or forces of nature; they feel more purposeful than they actually are. This is why it’s so easy to get people to believe that there’s a single belief system called “radical Islam” that is the direct cause of all terrorist attacks: because this explanation makes more sense than the truth. And once you’re there, the natural corollary is that terrorism can be “stopped,” that we can “win” the “war on terror.” When an attack happens, the idea that we could have done something to prevent it is what’s actually scary.
This is more than just irrationality, though. There’s a specific reason we’re unequipped to deal with this problem, which is that the ideal of America is actually just the ideal of perfect safety. Some people use the term “American Dream” to refer to the idea that you can get a job and work hard and you’ll be guaranteed a comfortable middle-class existence. This concept is rather ingrained; even among people who position themselves in opposition to the current social system, you’ll often hear the claim that the American Dream is “no longer” achievable, or that it has been “betrayed.” But even if we assume there was some point in time where the American Dream was within reach of all people (which is not even close to being the case), it’s still bullshit, because it’s just flatly impossible as an idea. You cannot have a perfectly safe, risk-free existence, ever.
I’m not one to give much credit to grand plans; history is far more random than anyone’s really comfortable with. But intentionally or otherwise, ISIS’s actions are exposing this critical contradiction in the American promise. They are proving, the hard way, that Americans and Europeans are not special, that “Western culture” is not a magical force field, and that well-off white people die just as easily as everyone else. And this is the part of the fear of terrorism that is actually legitimate: if you’ve lived your life valuing only comfort and security, if you thought you were safe because you only went to cafes and concerts and never did anything “dangerous,” then ISIS is a critical threat to you, personally. They’ll never actually put a bullet in your head, but they’ve already put one in your heart. They have destroyed the world that you thought you were living in.
One of the more disturbing aspects of ISIS specifically is the fact that people from developed nations have on occasion joined them voluntarily. This is why that happens: America has nothing to offer people but safety and stability, so if that’s a lie, then there’s no reason to stay. The thing about the American Dream is that you either make it or you don’t, and if making it isn’t a realistic possibility – if, for example, you can be randomly murdered at any moment and therefore have no expectation of safety – then America is worthless. If danger is unavoidable, comfort becomes hollow; if you’re going to die, you might as well die in a real fight. And precisely this is ISIS’s pitch: join us, and die a meaningful death.
Of course, this is also a lie. ISIS isn’t actually waging a worldwide holy war; they really are just murderers with delusions of grandeur. Their mythology is just as much of a con as America’s is. And living even a meaningless life in relative comfort is a hell of a lot better than getting shot and dying in the desert. That’s the thing, though: the fact that something like ISIS is able to pose any kind of threat at all to a country as rich and powerful as America ought to be deeply embarrassing. This is what’s so upsetting about all those politicians going on about all the drastic measures we have to take because of terrorism. We’re being ruled by incompetent cowards.
Naturally, there is a third option, which is to say that civilization has a purpose beyond mere comfort. And when you think about it that way, the correct response to terrorism becomes fairly obvious. Everyone has something that they actually live for rather than something that they’re merely trying to avoid, and the extent to which America allows people to pursue such things – minus the extent to which it actively prevents other people from doing so – is the extent to which it is justified as a human endeavor. Valuing safety is a category error; what you actually value is the stuff that safety enables you to do. In other words, the way civilization works is perpendicular to how it’s normally portrayed. We don’t start from a state of maximum danger and then gradually progress towards perfect safety. What actually characterizes the state of nature is uselessness; when you’re constantly focused on survival, you can’t get anything else done. So what happens as civilization progresses – and this is true even in the ideal case – is that people gain more and more opportunities to do different things, and in so doing they are exposed to correspondingly to more and more dangers. Utopia is impossible on the logical level; there will always be another mountain to climb. Given this, we ought to stop aiming at impossible goals. The focus of civilization must be on opening doors rather than closing them, even though doing so lets the monsters in.
As a small personal example, I go to shows fairly often, so the Paris attacks spooked me a little bit. Given my temperament, I have on occasion mused that if some shit were to go down while I was standing in the middle of a dense crowd, I would be completely fucked. But it would be absurd for me to consider changing my behavior on this basis. The fact that there’s nothing I can do about it is exactly why I should ignore it in favor of something that’s actually worth focusing on. Indeed, everyone makes choices like this every day; no one actually goes around trying to be as safe as possible, because it’s just ridiculous to even think like that. Applying this broadly, then, while there is such a thing as reasonable caution, there is also such a thing as cowardice. Nobody can “keep you safe”; you are definitely going to die, and you are going to die with regrets. So pointing out those terrorism statistics really misses the point: terrorists or no, there are things to be afraid of, and the only reasonable response to them is to be afraid, to reject the fantasy of security. I mean, it’s not even a good fantasy. Security leads naturally to paranoia, because when you think you’ve got everything under control, each tiny imperfection sticks in your skin like a splinter. The more you hunker down, the more the demons close in on you. So given how bad of a deal this is, the simple alternative is to just not make it, to stop pretending and accept what is inescapably the case.
Politicians aren’t in a position to make this argument. They have to act like they’re tough and they’ve got all the answers; they can’t actually admit that they can neither keep you safe nor provide meaning to your life. And we shouldn’t expect them to be able to do so – the fact that we so often do is our failing, not theirs. Politicians have a job, which is to make policy, and beyond the basics, terrorism cannot be solved by policy. There are few straits more desperate than those in which you’re seriously looking to a politician for salvation. Tolerating the existence of the ruling class is one thing, but it is among the worst mistakes a person can make to adopt ruling-class values as their own.
And yet, this is precisely the situation most of us are stuck in. Even those on “the left,” or whatever you want to call it, too often talk as though the “American Dream” really were both possible and a desirable goal. Conservatives are criticized not for believing in the wrong things, but merely for being factually mistaken about the best way to reach the same fantastical goals. The Sanders campaign was all about going back to good old fashioned liberalism, when everyone had stable jobs and corporations played nice (the unionized New Deal era is the liberal version of conservatives’ hard-on for the cultural repressiveness of the 50s). It does suck that we aren’t even doing that well; it would be pretty great if people had consistent access to things like healthcare and living wages. But politicians want us to believe that these things are enough, so that they can dangle that carrot over our heads for eternity.
And this is exactly how fear becomes fuel for racist resentment. Valuing safety above all else leaves you defenseless against risk blackmail. Any politician can say “vote for me or X will kill you,” and as long as there’s any chance that they’re right, you’ll have to do it. If all you care about is protecting what you have, then anything foreign is a threat. And those of us who consider ourselves more rational than that are far too often complicit in this lie. Naturally, everyone wants to make their own political philosophy sound like the one that’s going to lead to the land of milk and honey, but there are times when good tactics become bad ideology. By accepting safety as a valid goal, by evading our responsibility to push the bitter medicine that is required to cure this disease, we have allowed this to happen.
At risk of grandiosity, it is the task of this generation to fix this mistake. The only way out of this is to come up with a new value system which resists these sorts of manipulations. Yes, the world is a dangerous place. It would be irrational not to be afraid. But it is nihilistic to aim for a life confined within an Absolutely Safe Capsule. If we conceive of our task as “fixing” society in order to “get back” to an imaginary time when everything was in order, we will have failed before we start. The past is what led to the present; we require a different future. We have to have something that makes living in fear worth it, because there’s no other way to live.