by Barry Edelson


The Fear This Time

Americans are shocked — shocked — to discover
that the world is a violent place

"The truly historical view…was not a tale of man's progress from barbarism or superstition to modern enlightenment, but a recognition that enlightenment had shown itself in a variety of guises, and that barbarism and superstition were enduring elements of the human story."
— Robertson Davies


Imagine how little news coverage there would be about an unexploded car bomb in the busiest square in Baghdad, Kabul, Islamabad or Jerusalem. So commonplace is the threat of mass violence against civilians in so many places, that an amateurish device failing to detonate, like the one left in Times Square a week ago, would barely attract the notice of the local population, let alone the foreign media. We would almost certainly never hear about it here.

It is an indelible aspect of man's tribal identity that he is unable to rouse himself to great emotion over the misfortunes of those who live at great distances. To be sure, we are moved to sympathy for the foreign victims of famine, floods, earthquakes and hurricanes, but only as long as images of their suffering remain in our consciousness. Americans ought not to be criticized for worrying more about an attempted bombing in New York than an actual one in Jakarta. It is only natural to be more concerned about one's own welfare, and of those of our acquaintance, than about people one has never heard of on the other side of the world. But Americans, though no more lacking in compassion and empathy than anyone else, are particularly susceptible to charges of insularity. Our physical remoteness, economic sufficiency and military power have long rendered us uniquely capable of ignoring the world when we choose. Despite the shrinking of distances in the age of air travel, the increasing interdependence of the world's large economies, and the growing realization that our armed forces are largely impotent against ideologically motivated terrorist warfare, we cling to cherished notions of isolated superiority. Hence the ceaseless anxiety about encroachments from abroad over which we have little control: illegal immigration, credit crises, imbalances of trade. For the vast majority of Americans who have never been to a foreign country other than Mexico or Canada, there is a persistent illusion that if only we could close the door everything would be all right. No more hordes of dark-skinned wannabes pouring across the southern border. No more jobs shipped to China, or poisoned pet food shipped in return. No more fanatics slipping through airport security.

Hence the symbolic potency of the jet plane as a terrorist weapon. The evil genius of 9/11 was not merely in harnessing the maximum destructive power from a human invention not intended for such purposes. That was a mere technical innovation. The attack was most successful in undermining our deeply held belief in our geographic invulnerability. It was the airplane that had brought the world close, that made us even richer and more powerful. And it was the airplane, fittingly and shockingly, that shattered the illusion that, no matter the turmoil that rocked the world, we would be forever safe in our own land.

Our terrorist enemies also succeeded, probably beyond their wildest dreams, in making us — more importantly, our government — afraid of our own shadow. This new-found fear for our security is grossly out of proportion to the actual threat, and for several reasons. First, no matter how many deaths and how much damage a terrorist attack may cause, the United States of America is not going to be invaded by another country during the lifespan of any American living today. No American city is going to have to endure sustained aerial bombardment by the air force of another country, which is more than we can say for Baghdad or any number of other foreign capitals. The threat of dirty bombs or biological warfare is real and not to be taken lightly, but even the devastation of an actual nuclear weapon would still not be a precursor to an invasion by al Qaeda, or anyone else. There is absolutely nothing that terrorists can do to us, physically, from which we would not be able to recover.

One suspects that the government's hyper-reaction to the terrorist threat, and the news media's hyperventilation about it, are also out of proportion to the degree of fear actually felt by people in the street. A documentary aired last week on PBS about Japanese plans to attack the U.S. mainland in World War II through the use of super-submarines suggested that such an attack was intended to sow panic in the American population. Experience would suggest that such expectations were perhaps unrealistic. The German blitz was singularly unsuccessful in inducing panic in England despite the nightly death and destruction of air raids on London and other cities. Similarly, the 9/11 attacks, far from making people afraid of New York, prompted thousands to flock to the city to help with their aftermath. Few New Yorkers took the opportunity to move out, and the city is as vibrant as ever. The latest incident, once the momentary mania passes, will subside into forgetfulness. Perhaps the government is more fearful because its knows more in detail about the potential threats than the rest of us do, but perhaps it is mainly because our security apparatus is run by politicians more terrified of being blamed for letting their guard down than of the threats themselves.

Another reason why the fear of terrorism is out of proportion to the threat itself is that violence is hardly a rare phenomenon in American life. We are at much greater risk of violent death every day by the hands of our fellow citizens. There are about 17,000 murders in the U.S. every year, which means that 50 times as many Americans have been killed by deliberate human action since 2001 than were killed on 9/11. There are also about 40,000 traffic fatalities every year, and numerous other kinds of accidental death that can, and do, take lives every day. If you are suddenly afraid to walk in Times Square because a bomb might go off there at any moment (which some people almost certainly are), you should ask yourself how you could even consider leaving the house without wearing a bullet-proof vest, or riding in a motor vehicle of any kind, or using an electrical appliance, or standing near a railroad track, tall building or body of water. Any of these risky behaviors is far, far more likely to kill you than a terrorist bomb.

Finally, considering the real and constant danger that people in other countries face at the hands of suicide bombers and even their own governments, we ought to be ashamed of our own fear. The following are some recent headlines from The New York Times:

"Bombs Hit Mosque in Somalia’s Capital, Killing Dozens"

"Bombs Hit School Buses in North Iraq"

"Afghans Die in Bombing, As Toll rises for Civilians"

"Pakistani Man Found Guilty in Mumbai Civilian Attacks"

"New Death in Moscow Jail Renews Calls for Reform"

"Three Reported Killed As Violent Groups Overtake Athens Protest"

"Abducted Turkish Writer Is Found Dead in Iraq"

All of this mayhem was reported just in the last week, since the non-bombing in Times Square, and by only one newspaper. Every story involved the death of civilians. There were also any number of other stories about military deaths: firefights in Afghanistan, the sinking of a South Korean warship. Compared to the daily threats to life and limb endured by people in Congo and Darfur, Helmand and Waziristan, the shanty towns of South America and the sweat shops of Southeast Asia, even the ghettos of Chicago and Houston, what justification do Americans have to be so frightened of terrorists?

The United States is hardly blameless for its often callous and clandestine behavior in pursuit of its own interests, but its civilians are no more deserving of death than those of any other country. There is no suggestion here that Americans are somehow at fault for the rise of Islamic fascism, or that our actions around the world have invited this invidious enemy to attack us at home. Nonetheless, we would do well to consider how our characteristic ignorance of the people of the rest of the world can easily be mistaken for indifference or even cruelty, how our self-regard can be interpreted as an absence of empathy for the suffering of others. We open our hearts and our wallets in the aftermath of hurricanes and tsunamis, but pay scant attention the rest of the time. It is natural and understandable for a country to spend most of its time and resources taking care of its own, but America is not just any other country. Our wealth and power comes with special obligations, whether we like it or not. We cannot reduce our foreign policy to defending our borders and sending occasional relief to disaster zones. Even if such a stance were not plainly immoral, it would be blatantly harmful to our own interests. Not to mention our self-respect. Caring as much about bombs in other countries' busy streets as we do about our own will not solve the world's problems, nor even reduce the motivation of our enemies. But it is the bare minimum we owe to our fellow creatures, and we should do it anyway.

May 8, 2010


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