On May 22, 2017, a suicide bomber attacked the foyer of the Manchester Arena in England at the end of a concert. 23 people were killed and 116 were injured. These deaths are “appalling” and “sickening” and “barbaric” and “horrific.” Meanwhile, on that same day, worldwide, approximately 3,425 people died from road accidents, 22,466 people died from cancer, 3,014 people died from AIDS, 8,640 people died from starvation, and 2,192 people died from suicide. These deaths are not appalling or barbaric or sickening or horrifying. They’re fine.
Tabulating statistics is a good way to get yourself labelled a robot or an asshole or a robot asshole, but seriously: why are deaths from terrorism more important than other deaths? Are people who die from “ordinary” causes any less dead? Are their deaths any more justified? Do their friends and family suffer any less? Are those other things even any less scary? Is it really more terrifying to think that you might be killed by someone who hates you just because of who you are than to think that you might be killed for no reason at all?
Obviously, everyone’s going to have their own emotional reactions, and there’s very little point in judging people for how they express themselves, but that’s still the same question: why do we care more about terrorism deaths? Why is our instinctive emotional reaction here to grieve publicly and demand that Something Must Be Done, and why is this not our reaction to the rest of this blood-strewn hellscape we’ve been cursed to inhabit? It’s not because terrorism is some sort of “extra” evil that doesn’t “normally” exist in the world. As long as people have conflicting desires and are killable, murder happens. That’s the cost of being human in the first place. We conceive of terrorism as special because we view it not as random death, but as an attack on “us,” and for that reason, we get scared. This is entirely unjustified. The sorrow of this event belongs to the people who were personally affected by it and to no one else. We are not being “compassionate” by proclaiming our own grief. We’re doing the opposite. We’re fetishizing our immediate subjective reactions, imposing a narrative of generic drama, and eliding the real human reality of the situation. We are devaluing real kindness.
Worse, by doing this, we are not opposing the attack, but conspiring in it. We are fulfilling our role in ISIS’s plan. The point of dramatic attacks like this is not to kill people. It’s to make us feel personally threatened, and to make Muslims feel like our personal enemies. It’s to make this made-up “war of civilizations” fantasy feel like a real thing, and to make us assign outsized importance to it. By itself, ISIS is only capable of killing tiny numbers of people, one sad little bomb at a time. It is only with our active support that they are able to terrorize millions.
But, guilty though we may be, we’re no match for the experts. Every time a politician opens their filthy mouth and pollutes the air around these tragedies, the world becomes a more disgusting place. It is now de rigueur for politicians to compete amongst themselves over who has the biggest and most raging hard-on for skull-fucking terrorist corpses. More to the point, the politically mandatory response to these attacks is to do the attackers’ job for them. The fact that ISIS “claimed responsibility” for the attack doesn’t change anything about the event itself. What happened and who died are all the same either way. (Also ISIS “claims responsibility” every time a dog shits on a Western sidewalk.) Rather, the claiming of responsibility is itself a political act. It is the act of declaring war, of telling you which deaths to focus on and how to feel about them, of forcing one particular understanding of the world onto you. And when Western newspapers print up their headlines making the same claim, and politicians declare Terror Threat Level Burgundy Omega Five, they are taking the same action. They are telling you to be afraid. What we should expect from politicians here is not sympathy or respect or what the fuck ever. It is professional decorum, which in cases like this means keeping their fucking mouths shut. Even if this stuff weren’t directly their fault, even if they weren’t themselves mass murderers, they still have no right to care. They’re fine, and they’re going to be fine. We’re the ones who have to live with their decisions.
Which is of course the point. By appropriating tragedies like this, politicians redraw the battle lines. They point out “those people” as our enemies in order to portray themselves as our allies. They’re lying, and we know this because we can run the numbers. If they were really looking out for us, if they really cared about our lives, they would not be spending billions of dollars on the military and intelligence agencies and a burgeoning police state for the sake of slightly ameliorating a statistically insignificant threat. They would be spending it on fixing the things that are actually killing people, right now, in numbers far greater than any bomb-toting jackass could ever dream of. In order to make these things sound scary, people always like to say that every attack is the deadliest of whatever type since whenever – in this case it’s the deadliest bombing in England since 2005. This sounds dramatic, but what this statistic actually demonstrates is the opposite. It emphasizes the fact that these things almost never happen, that preventing terrorism is among the lowest possible moral priorities of modern society. Numbers don’t signify a lack of compassion here. They signify the truth. It was Dwight Eisenhower who said that every bomb dropped and missile fired directly represents food stolen from the hungry and medicine stolen from the sick, and he was right.
Unfortunately, this is still our fault. Politicians aren’t demons, preparing secret rituals to summon beasts and rain fire on the world. They’re lizards. They find the warmest rock in the near vicinity and they plop themselves down on it. They’ve chosen the terror rock because we’ve kept it warm for them. They are able to blackmail us only to the extent that we convince ourselves we can be saved. The mechanism by which we do this is sympathy. We imagine that there is such a thing as “people like us,” that we’re the “good guys,” and that we “deserve” to be safe. We do not share in people’s suffering for their sake; we appropriate it for our own. People who complain about the “us vs. them” effect usually focus on the “them” part, but it’s the “us” that’s really dangerous. The function of public grieving is to create an “us.” An eight-year old Arab girl killed by a U.S. military action is not “us.” It’s a real shame she had to die, but we’re not actually going to do anything about it. An eight-year-old British girl killed by a terrorist attack is “us.” If we have to keep killing eight-year-old Arab girls in order to prevent that from happening, well, that’s just the cost of doing business.
It is of course impossible to bring this up in the American political context without addressing the attack on the World Trade Center. Even a catastrophe on that scale belongs to the people who were directly affected by it and not to the rest of us. When we say that “everything changed,” we are saying that some deaths count and some deaths don’t – that some victims are real people and some are not.1 This dynamic is easy to understand when actual ghouls like Giuliani use it to jack themselves off, but the rest of us aren’t really any better. We do not have the right to grieve for those people. We have the obligation to do the motherfucking arithmetic.
AIDS is the perfect example. People tried to compartmentalize it away, imagining that it only happened to junkies and degenerates, but eventually they realized it could happen to anybody, and only then, only when rich white people started to feel personally threatened (or, if you prefer, when the activism around the issue was successful enough to garner general sympathy for the existing victims, but that’s the same problem), did they start taking it seriously. This is what happens when you make sympathy a prerequisite for action. People die preventable deaths. What should have been done in the first place, instead of trying to sympathize, was to run the numbers. We should have looked at how many people were dying and spent that much money on the problem. That is the only justifiable political response. Note, for example, that every time a terrorist attack happens, the blood banks always have to put out a statement saying that they’re full up and everybody can calm down. People rush into frenzied action when something sympathetic happens, and they sit on their hands the rest of the time. Resource misallocation kills.
This is also why cancelling concerts in the wake of the attack was objectively the wrong thing to do. If Ariana Grande or whoever else couldn’t personally handle it, then sure, they’re only human, but it’s still wrong. The attack didn’t change anything. People could have died driving to the venue, or there could have been a fire,2 or any number of other things more likely than a terrorist attack could have happened. Cancelling events only serves to reinforce the narrative that this is more important than everything else that’s happening, that these deaths matter more than others. It is not just “okay” to enjoy your life in the face of tragedy, it is the right thing to do. It’s how ISIS loses, and it’s also how our own ruling class loses. If you’re going to get sad and broken down every time something bad happens, you are either sad and broken down 100% of the time, or you are a liar. You risk your life every time you go out your door, and you also risk your life every time you stay home. The cliche that “the show must go on” is deeper than it sounds.
The one sort of tolerable thing about death is that it’s just death. It removes a single unique human from existence and it doesn’t do anything else. How we feel about it, what significance we choose to impart to it, and which actions we choose to take in response to it all remain in the realm of the living. The dead have no claim on us and no power to compel us; transitively, we have no further ability to hurt them. Everything remains, as it always is, up to us.
Meaning this is on you. None of us chose to play this game, but the chips are on the table. So, assuming you’re not going to fold, you have to accept the hand you’ve been dealt. If you try to pretend like there’s any other solution here, you are going to get hustled.
- In the spirit of intellectual honesty and/or killing one’s idols, there’s a relatively godawful Sleater-Kinney song that is specifically about not being personally affected by 9/11, but being scared of it anyway just because you’re a cute white person with a cute white baby. Not that a song is a political platform or anything, but it’s an expression of exactly the reaction that ought to be avoided. ↩
- This in fact happened recently. The Oakland Ghost Ship fire killed 36 people. Fire safety codes are more important than counterterrorism. ↩