Monday, July 25, 2005

Welcome to New York!

Tourists evacuated from a New York sightseeing bus after police were alerted to the presence of "suspicious" men carrying "backpacks."

I don't mean to make light of the dangers surrounding life in New York now. As a matter of fact, horrible things like the searches of innocent people in the NYC subway or the British police's shoot-to-kill policy almost seem reasonable given the threat posed by suicide bombers. But we have to shake our heads and remember that the former is unconstitutional and the latter has already resulted in the death of an innocent man. Both will affect mainly people with darker skins. Also, we should worry when we hear justifications like that spoken by a citizen interviewed on the news last night about the subway searches: "If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear, and anything that protects our security is good." The theme song of authoritarian regimes.

I myself have no greater fear about taking the train in NYC than before, just as 9-11 did not cause me to pause before taking an airplane. Obviously, if there are threats, the police and government should respond, and an attack resulting in one death greaves me greatly. But terrorism at this level does not make me fear for my own personal safety. Millions of people ride the subway every day, and thousands of planes fly without incident every day. The risk does not seem great to me.

So why are people so affected by this? I think terrorism at this level plays on a particular feature of our Western (and especially American) society: the feeling we are entitled to a life of absolute safety. Don't get me wrong, I do not join my voice to right-wing critics of seat-belts and air-pollution regulations. I see no reason why corporations should profit on our injuries, illnesses and deaths. We need more regulation, not less. I just want us to remember that the level of safety middle-class Americans and Europeans expect as our birthright is very much a historical anomaly. Behind this obsession with safety lies fear. In this period of what Phillipe Aries called "invisible death," instead of availing ourselves of religious/cultural methods of dealing with death (methods dismissed usually as "morbid"), we hide death and risk away. In fact, risk has become so absent from our lives that we have to create false conditions of risk in controlled situations (amusement parks, bungee-jumping, parachuting) just so our animal bodies can still feel alive.

Of course, real death and risk always lie under the surface, because we still continue to die, and we still live in a world that can surprise us. This is the weapon of terrorists. When I lived in Spain, ETA had a different strategy. They singled out individuals and aimed to provoke indignation, division, and hatred. The new style Al Quaeda terrorists (whatever they may be) are preying on something different, our exaggerated and extremely fragile sense of safety. The personal fear that results from these attacks has been exploited and exaggerated by the current administration and its allies, as well as by the press. Orange alert!

We should protect ourselves, but we should never give into manipulation. More than anything, we should always strive to know why we feel what we feel. If not, we open ourselves up to the malice of anyone who understands us better than we do ourselves.


Henri Beauregard said...

My German friend Klaus has said he would rather have more terrorist attacks succeed than belong to a society responsible for grave human rights abuses. I tend to agree. Granted I never lost anyone to a terrorist attack, but we don't lock up the makers of faulty tires and torture them into confessing their friends' whereabouts.

Liam said...

One hopes one doesn't have to decide between the two. I agree with you about the makers of faulty tires.