We pay to play the human way

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.


  1. 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. 
  2. This in fact happened recently. The Oakland Ghost Ship fire killed 36 people. Fire safety codes are more important than counterterrorism. 

Death before dishonor

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.

It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home

Okay, I’m done finding this funny:

While using Agrabah as the name of the fake country is amusing and certainly good for mad clickz, it’s actually bad survey design, because it conflates the issues of Islamophobia and support of arbitrary bombing in general. There should have been a second fake country with a non-Middle-Eastern-sounding name to measure the gap. Also, using a recognizable fake country skews the results, because people who get the reference will answer “no” even if they actually do support bombing arbitrary Middle Eastern countries, but again, mad clickz.

Here’s the thing. 57% of Republican respondents were “not sure,” which, in a sense, is a reasonable answer if you don’t recognize that the country is fake. You don’t actually have enough information to decide. It’s not a good answer though, because the only good answer to the question “do you want to kill a bunch of people” is “no” until you have some serious evidence that the “cure” is actually going to be better than the disease (and maybe not even then if you’re like a Kantian or whatever).

And that’s why the liberal response to this, which, as usual, is to point and laugh at conservatives for not understanding a cultural reference, is totally inadequate. Ignorance is not the problem, because ignorance leads you to the “not sure” answer, and that answer is still immoral.

Speaking of which:

So that’s, you know, better, but 19% of Democrats are in favor of killing people for no reason. Still pretty disturbing! Also, the plurality response in both cases was “not sure,” emphasizing how few people actually oppose arbitrary murder on principle.

The real issue here is that concept of “bombing” has become completely detached from the concept of war. Even if you have no idea whether “Agrabah” is a real country or not, you do know that we’re not at war with it, because we’re actually not “at war” with any specific country right now. So what this survey question is actually asking (aside from the very real issue of Islamophobia, which, again, they should have controlled for) is: “do you support attacking a country that we are not at war with?” Which ought to be an unimaginable question.

But, as you know, we live in an unimaginable society. As the very existence of this survey question reveals, bombing is a completely unnotable act within the American political system. There’s only a “debate” when the government wants to start an official war, or at least “send in ground troops.” Bombing just happens whenever the government feels like it. It’s pure banality of evil.

This is the point that Noam Chomsky was trying to get at in his ridiculous undebate with professional C student Sam Harris:

“They are not imbeciles, but rather adopt a stance that is arguably even more immoral than purposeful killing, which at least recognizes the human status of the victims, not just killing ants while walking down the street, who cares?”

That is, we can distinguish between at least a few types of political murder. In one case, a specific target is killed for direct practical reasons, such as the fact that they’re about to commit an attack of their own. This is what the U.S. claims to be doing with its assassination program. In another, many people are killed indiscriminately in order to achieve a political goal, which is what terrorists of all stripes are doing explicitly (by definition, actually). Finally, there is the truly arbitrary murder that is committed for no explicit goal at all, but merely because one is capable of it. This is what the U.S. is actually doing with the drone program, which has only a tiny percentage of “intentional” kills, as well as what we’re talking about any time we talk about “bombing.” This is what that survey question is finally getting at: it’s revealing the number of Americans who support this last type of murder.

But to reduce the debate to whether the U.S. is “more evil” than al-Qaeda or ISIS or whoever is to miss the point. These entities cannot be meaningfully compared because they occupy different structural positions. ISIS does not have the capacity to bomb arbitrary countries, and it’s nonsense to ask what they would do if they did, because if they did have that capacity, they wouldn’t be ISIS. They’d be America.

There are times when the Republican/Democrat distinction matters and times when it doesn’t, and this is one of the latter. Our current drone assassination program has nothing to do with whether or not Obama is a good person and everything to do with the fact that he is the President of the United States. Anyone with the capacity to occupy that office is structurally obliged to implement these sorts of policies. In the same way, any entity with the kind of world-dominating power that the U.S. has will necessarily commit the same atrocities. To believe in a global superpower that does not arbitrarily murder people is to believe in horsemanship and not in horses.