As I write this, Dubya is addressing the UN General Assembly. Here’s the view from the back of my monitor:
The General Assembly Hall is on the left with the Headquarters building straight ahead. But what’s most interesting to me are those 41 official vehicles in the UN circle, which is normally empty. At some subconscious level, it’s also what’s most interesting to the people at the top of the New World Pecking Order. Those conveyances are an important part of what makes them important. A portent. When lights flash and sirens wail and traffic stops, you know you’re important. And importance outbids utility every time.
We live a block west of the UN. When there’s a big meeting like this, the east side of midtown Manhattan devolves into an orgy of inconvenience thanks to the Important People who are authorized to tie up traffic, vs. the N’Yawkers who wish they’d just get over themselves.
The vibe we all live with in our little Tudor City ‘hood is the silly self-importance of all the clean-cut white guys with wrist mikes and earnest demeanors defending their precious charges against . . . what? Korean deli and nail salon owners? What you take away from these shows of force is that the whole show is about . . . the Show. The Pecking Order. The Authority to fuck up a high-functioning East Side neighborhood with a show of force out of all proportion to any real threat.
The Expert Threat
It’s not actually the Important People who are the problem, it’s the Secret Service and cops and SWAT teams and the neighborhood restrictions we suffer. When the heads of state are in town, you get it that what’s really at work here is a full employment program for security professionals. Who do we think designs the security protocols? Do we believe that the Presidents and Secretaries of State and Diplomats sit down and lay out the security measures they require? Of course not. They hire experts who, like all experts, design a system that requires more of whatever the experts are selling. How likely is it that any security expert is going to design a reduction in security based on, for example, Reality? Rather, officials are protected more and more, cost us more and more and, essentially, are driven by their handlers at 45 mph in the fast lane of the lives of the rest of us.
That’s the part that’s grating: the unstoppable full employment program for cops and security professionals. But since their bosses have no say in the design of the protocols, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: “Sir, you need more of us because we need more of you.”
The dirty secret is that there’s a Security-Industrial Complex that’s a superset of the Military-Industrial Complex that Ike warned us about a half-century ago, and we’re all hostage to the Security-Industrial Complex. When we accept the judgment of experts who are in the business of defending us against incalculable force, we are agreeing to starve our children to pay for the incalculable burden of an unlimited effort to counter an unknown threat. It’s an open debit we bequeath to our grandchildren.
Of course, any politician worth the pejorative will use incalculable threats to dominate our national agenda. Maybe that’s what Samuel Johnson meant when he said that “Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels.” The architect of that refuge may be the defense imperative.
That’s why we need to beware of pre-emptive attacks on nations that are not an obvious threat to us because in those circumstances it’s more likely that the danger is from within than from without. But there’s a question unanswered. Why don’t we recognize this endless charade we’re paying for so dearly? It’s because we’re no more clued than the officials who fall for the security shell game. All of us have bought into the seduction that life can be without risk and that there are experts who care only about protecting us from real bad guys.
Once we make that Faustian bargain, we get the burden we deserve. We start to rely on anyone who represents that they can defend us from the indefensible.
OK. I know, There’s a real threat out there. How could I so quickly forget the tragedy of the Twin Towers that killed 3,003 of our fellow citizens? Would I be so uncaring as to suggest that that attack was an anomaly, that there is no terrorist threat? No, of course there’s a terrorist threat. Just as there’s a second hand smoke threat. The EPA reports that 3,000 people die annually from second hand smoke. But that’s not as dramatic a threat, since it’s not spectacular and there are no foreign “evildoers” involved. On the other hand, we don’t lose 3,000 civilians annually from terrorists. Over the last five years (the latest five year period for which we have data), we’ve lost 600 civilians a year, on average, from terrorist attacks. A lot fewer than from recreational boating (714 in 1996). Over the last ten years, we’ve averaged 300 civilians per year lost to terrorism, about the same as from campylobacter–bacteriological reactions to chicken.
As my two remaining readers may remember, I’m more interested in the odds of death than the romantic themes involved. That’s partly from my experience on my first night mission in Viet Nam, when a fellow C-130 pilot flew into a large mountain avoiding small bullets. I want to suggest that we have elaborate cultural rituals which focus on trendy threats rather than actual threats. Call me a hard ass, but I have no sympathy for people who die of obvious threats while distracted by inconsequential ones. Far more women die of heart disease than from breast cancer, but we wear pink ribbons for fashion, not effect.
We’ve made a cultural fetish of stupidity because there are lots of visible people who want to leverage their visibility into more power. That includes politicians and talking heads and evangelists who are, essentially, stamping their feet petulantly and demanding to be paid at