Menschenhawks

On this, the anniversary of the WTC and Pentagon attacks, I’d like to introduce you to my friend Brian.

I’ve known Brian for around 13 years now. He’s got a lovely wife and an adorable tyke and a baby on the way, and you can see pictures of them all at his website. He’s got a great head for business and an inexhaustible reservoir of good advice which he dispenses to his friends. If you look up the word mensch in a Yiddish-English dictionary, you’ll see his picture. (It means “truly decent guy”.)

Which is why I was struck by his essay about the WTC. You can read it for yourself, and I strongly recommend you do, as it lays out his background for what he has to say. This includes the following, which he thought as he visited Ground Zero for the first time:

Think what you will about the war against terrorism, the war in Afghanistan, or a war in Iraq. At that moment, staring at the burning rubble, it all seemed very clear. It didn’t need to be fair. It didn’t need discussion or debate. We were going to find “them” and destroy “them.” We were going to make sure this kind of thing would never, ever happen again. And we alone were going to determine when we were finished. Period. The rest of the world could help us or get the hell out of our way.

Brian implies, although he doesn’t actually say, that he’s moved on from this visceral reaction. But this crystallized for me the fear I’m feeling about the motivations of the administration, and of the people who are either supporting them or tacitly going along.

It takes a strong individual to face fear, anger, and the urge for revenge, and then move on and say that those were feelings of the moment. There’s no question that Americans are feeling much less secure than they did on September 10, 2001. Some people are downright petrified.

Part of it is fear of the unknown. The big medical news here is West Nile virus, which has killed several dozen people and has everyone nervously checking for mosquito bites. These are largely the same people who try to go to work when they have the flu, which kills around 10,000 Americans a year.

Likewise, the best way for you to not make it home tonight is to get in your car and drive somewhere, which prevented 41,821 people from ever getting home in 2000. Doing some quick math, that’s about one WTC attack per month. Around eight times as many die from cigarette smoking. Therefore, if we were blessed with Vulcan logic, our war on terrorism would be taking a back seat to other matters more likely to kill us.

But obviously, logic has nothing to do with this. If it did, people would always fly instead of drive. Risks are assessed based upon our feeling of control, and driving brings with it an illusory sense of control that you don’t get in the passenger cabin of a 747.

So now our leaders are fighting for their own sense of control, however illusory. We gained it first with our victory over the Taliban, if not Osama. We maintain it with airport security lines, threat assessment color coding, and ongoing statements from the administration that range from the vaguely reassuring to the vaguely terrifying, sometimes in the same sentence. Soon, unless there is a major sea change in the political tide, we’ll be going to war in Iraq to get our next hit off of that very addictive drug.

The reason we want to go kick some Iraqi ass is because all of us had our metaphorical moment at Ground Zero, and few of us have recovered. And if we go, we’ll win; if we doubted that for a second, perhaps we’d be less willing to go. The only question is whether Iraqi casualties will outnumber ours by 10 to 1 or 100 to 1.

The problem is that the true questions of security in the Age of Terrorism don’t get answered by the defeat of nations. No one can say whether defeating Iraq is better in the long run for our safety than not going there in the first place. Sure, Saddam’s a bad man who wants nukes, but we’ve known that since 1989. (Before which time, he was our ally against Iran.) The only thing that’s changed vis a vis our national security regarding Iraq in the past year is that there were rumors that he sorta had something to do with al-Qaeda. Those rumors have been repudiated, but here we are, getting ready to head back to the Persian Gulf and leave it a lot flatter than it is now.

If that someday makes it more likely that we’re targeted by terrorists, and decreases our security, the lines of cause and effect will be far too fuzzy to draw convincingly. If you don’t buy the idea that American actions have some effect on the emotions we arouse in others, no amount of this kind of evidence will ever convince you otherwise.

But if our goal is truly “to make sure this kind of thing would never, ever happen again”, rather than raw vengence or the need to just do something to make ourselves feel better at any cost, we need to start giving some serious thought to what we mean by security, and what we do to sustain it.

[This essay is part of The Red and the Blue discussion: 9/11 Anniversary, 2002.]

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