Monday, January 4, 2010

The "Christmas Day Massacre"

Over the holidays, we had a near-terrorist attack over the skies of Detroit. Predictably, the issue became more fodder for political capital than it did anything meaningful regarding the nature of terrorism and how to prevent it.

The "rhetoric of war" was ramped up by dunderhead columnists, while predictions of the apocalypse rang out from politicians (my favorite was Rep. Pete King, R-New York, who said the alleged attack, "came close to being one of the greatest tragedies in the history of our country. If we had lost much 300 people on Christmas Day, this would have been remembered forevermore as the Christmas Day massacre."). In the minds of some, no doubt.

Lost in the hysteria was the recognition that terrorism is a criminal act, perpetrated by criminals, and as such the government's role is limited in "protecting" the people from it. As with any crime, it is the people who have more of a responsibility for their own protection from victimization than it is the government.

That's why Amanda Ripley's "Please Remain Standing" in this week's Time is required reading. I can't put it any better than Ripley does in her column.

Since 2001, airline passengers — regular people without weapons or training — have helped thwart terrorist attacks aboard at least five different commercial airplanes. It happened again on Christmas Day. And as we do each and every time, we miss the point.

Each time, we build a slapdash pedestal for the heroes. Then we go back to blaming the government for failing to keep us safe, and the government goes back to treating us like children. This now familiar ritual distracts us from the real lesson, which is that we are not helpless. And since regular people will always be first on the scene of terrorist attacks, we should perhaps prioritize the public's antiterrorism capability — above and beyond the fancy technology that will never be foolproof.

Instead, we hear this blather from President Obama: "The American people should be assured that we are doing everything in our power to keep you and your family safe and secure during this busy holiday season." He forgets that Americans have never really wanted the government to do "everything in its power" to keep us safe. That would make this a terrible place to live. And yet, after eight years of paternalistic bluster from President George W. Bush, we have grown accustomed to the cycle of absurd promises followed by failure and renewed by fear. Bush liked to say that the authorities have to succeed 100% of the time and terrorists only once. The truth is, authorities never succeed 100% of the time at anything. And they never will.

By definition, terrorism succeeds by making us feel powerless. It is more often a psychological threat than an existential one. The authorities compound the damage when they overreact — by subjecting grandmothers to pat-downs and making it intolerable to travel. Even though the Christmas bombing suspect had been stopped, stripped and cuffed before the plane landed, we still talk like victims.
And the reason we do is social control. As Ripley goes on to note, politicians don't really care about my security or your security: what they care about is power and control, and the issue of crime (terrorism) makes for great political capital and great political theater. It's much easier to generate control by scaring you into thinking you are going to die in a terrorist attack at 30,000 feet. That's much more powerful than the mundane reality, which is that you are far more likely to die on the way to the airport in a car crash.

In that sense, what the Nanny State fears the most is citizens believing it is up to them to stop terrorism and criminals. Breathless statements regarding "neo-vigilantism" are thrown around by pundits and politicians, on both sides of the aisle, who fundamentally prefer the citizenry docile, sheep-like and submissive to paternalistic big government solutions. Why?

Because an empowered citizenry, a citizenry who does not see themselves as victims and who can reject the politics of fear and control, is the biggest threat the Nanny State faces.

UPDATE: Tom Tomorrow, who draws "This Modern World," nails the whole thing in this week's panel "Underpants of Mass Destruction!"

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