Perspective Break

I’ll delay the vision thing RE Open Republic, Phase II to reflect on Ellen Dana Nagler’s excellent post, Letting the Terrorists Win. She says that we let the terrorists win every time we factor their threat into our planning, and she catalogues the moments in her life when she altered her behavior because of terrorist activity: London in the early 70s, Paris in the summer of ’86, winter, 1991 and January, 2002.

And Tuesday.

Ellen’s is a candid, revealing and courageous essay. She describes her mother’s way of looking at the world:

In her heart, where she receives the world as a fearsome thing and shrinks from encounters with it, she is letting the terrorists win.

And the pressures she felt in London during the IRA bombings in the early 70s:

I avoid Grosvenor Square and the American Embassy, which for some reason seems to be on the list, or at least on the list in my head.

The List in My Head

Ellen is teaching us by example, admitting the habits of perception she’s not proud of but which might inform our own behaviors and perhaps free us from hatred and terror in our hearts, which is truly terrible, while confronting terror objectively, which is terrific. What we’re really reacting to, she’s saying, is the list in our heads.

This is a recurrent theme for me, having placed myself in so many precarious circumstances, first as a clueless, grandstanding young man and later as a habit useful in combat. Here’s a repeat of something I published last August:

About that Face Slap

What if our 9/11 tragedy wasn’t? I hate to sound harsh about our losses, but has it occurred to anyone else that running airplanes into buildings might not have been the logistical masterstroke of the century?

I’m suggesting that there was an operational hole in our hijacking prevention system and that some passionate Arabs got lucky and managed to kill some of us. I’ve got about 2500 hours in a Boeing 707, and I’m sure that a couple hundred hours in Microsoft Simulator would be enough for the average person to switch off a 767 autopilot, turn left and crash into the Twin Towers. The fact that they did some actual flight training in a Cessna seems irrelevant.

There’s almost 300 million of us. On 9/11/01, those Arabs killed a little over .001% of us, fewer than die from smoking every week. Instead of panicking, we could have started locking cockpit doors, continued to keep guns off airplanes, and we’d have plugged that loophole.

Perhaps 9/11 was more spectacle than significant. Of course, there’s a war on terror, but we’re the foot soldiers in that war, and we should acknowledge that some of us are going to get hurt. It’s a war, fer chrissake! I’ve been traveling a lot lately, and as most of us know, the airport precautions are more charade than anything else. We all understand that we’re not significantly safer than we were before. Feeling safer is not the same as being safer.

What we might have done in the middle of September 2001, if tough-mindedness were part of our national makeup, would be to say,

OK, you motherfuckers, you got lucky once. We’re not changing how we live our lives, but we’re changing how you live your lives, starting with Saudi Arabia, which is the obvious catalyst for this foolishness. We’re going to do the thing you can’t stand us to do: Freeze your assets, dictate what we’re willing to pay for oil, and spend those saved billions on energy independence and telecommuting technologies. Any company that resists that initiative will be exposed for its un-American activities. Now you guys fix that Taliban problem or we’ll get really nasty and put an embargo on bizjets.”

That kind of thinking arises from my sense that we spend most of our lives flying into large mountains avoiding small bullets. I learned that lesson when I saw a guy do that very thing in Viet Nam, so clanked was he about the idea of someone shooting at him that he ignored the reality that airplanes and mountains are a bad combo.

Yeah, yeah, I know, we can’t dictate market forces. But if OPEC can, we can. Of course we’d only do that if we had confidence in the resilience of the American people and if national security were more important to us than oil company profits. Our homeland security problem is that the American Oil Industry benefits from high prices as much as the Sheiks of Araby, as ex-CIA Mideast specialist Bob Baer points out in Sleeping With the Devil: How Washington Sold Our Soul for Saudi Crude, cited by Salon,the real war we should be fighting is not in Baghdad.”

Small Minds, not Small Government

Maybe we got it wrong. We thought the Bushies were about small government, but perhaps it was only about their small mandate. Maybe they were fixated on what everyone seems to ignore: without extraordinary measures, they’re unlikely to get more votes than last time. The opportunity the Bin Laden family handed the Bush family was to paralyze our culture so ordinary electoral logic would not apply.

“Lucky me. I hit the trifecta,” Bush told [Mitch] Daniels shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, according to the budget director.
– Miami Herald , Nov. 29, 2001*

These cynical points have been made by smarter people than I. I’m just riffing on the role of our cultural aesthetic and high tolerance of cynicism. The political cynicism we’re seeing is related to the cynicism of public companies and TV evangelists and the media. Our cultural taste no longer reflects the high personal values most of us hold, regardless of our politics. Instead, we’re gripped by the opportunistic economic aesthetics of large groups, where anything goes as long as it increases stock values or electoral votes or collection plate revenues.

Buzzing the Machine

This recurrent theme reminds me of an enjoyable lunch conversation I had on this topic with Jeff Jarvis at Etech in early February. The bright San Diego sun was smiling on our grateful faces and I lobbied for this notion that we somehow need to separate one’s personal fate from one’s actions, that the battle plan must be consistent and smart, not hostage to a few casualties. I believe our nation’s battle plan is to live according to the Bill of Rights, even if it costs some of us our lives once in a while.

Today Jeff writes,

…we have to remember that these are pathologically insane and evil beasts and it’s impossible to guess how low they will stoop.
If we were lucky enough to have intelligence inside their devil’s cult, then, yes, we might have foiled their plot. But that’s obviously hard to do.
If we were lucky enough to have stopped one of them for speeding and locked them up, then we might have f
oiled their plot. But that’s like counting on a lottery ticket.
What matters now is learning the lessons we can learn — and to that extent, the hearings are valuable — to protect us as best we can.
But I find the blame game going on now unseemly and divisive and unproductive and distracting and just a little bit tasteless.
I saw people die that day not because of anything we didn’t do but because of what a bunch of soulless murderers did do. Let’s never forget that.
It’s us against them, not us against us.

This is where Jeff and I diverge in how to wage war well. Rage hampers your ability to function in combat, and we are in combat. One prevails by respecting the enemy, not in seeing him as inhuman. Further, I’m convinced that no one is soulless, though many on both sides are deluded by fundamentalist leaders and happy to kill in their personal quest for meaning. Just as our vets have been to Viet Nam and met and hugged and wept with their former enemy, someday Iraqis and Yanks will sit down in Baghdad over sweet tea and grieve for the lost days of their youth, seeking to maim each other.

Though we’re not at war with with ourselves, we must be antagonistic to our own errors. NFL teams review the game video and fighter pilots the gunsight film and grade each others’ landings because they’ve got past the idea that discovery is blame and that criticism is personal. The military has a lot at stake so it’s pretty comfortable with the idea that perfection is the absence of mistakes: their only hope is to get the mistakes out in the open and learn from them. If George Bush were a warrior, he’d get this, and he’d never have allowed Rumsfeld to fire General Shinseki for his foreknowledge that it would take more troops and money to occupy Iraq than the White House wanted to consider.

Kicking the Dog

The Iraqi war was a catharsis, not a strategy, the equivalent of kicking the dog after a bad day at the office. Does my analogy belittle the agony of all those families? Think about it rationally: our problem was in witnessing all that agony all at once, so dramatically, and dwelling on it for months. It built a dangerous list in our heads. Every life is precious but most end badly, with tubes and machines and grieving relatives around us. Multiply the affect surrounding those individual deaths times 3,000 and it’s probably the same as 9/11.

Living fully and free is more important than a specious guarantee of domestic tranquility. The list of blessings in an open heart trumps the list of threats in a timid head. Our spirit is destined to celebrate the universal dignity of life and keep the hope that tomorrow, everywhere, can be a renaissance of understanding.

12:14:58 PM    

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