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September 30, 2006

Terrorism And The European Mind

As I did this post, it went from brief comment to lengthy tirade to primal scream, so I'm putting the whole thing past the jump to keep things here on the main page pithy.

It rambles a bit and jumps around, but I needed to get some stuff off my chest.

I originally found the link on the website that keeps on giving.


Curious as to why we Euro-pessimists think the way we do? Read this essay by a Norwegian blogger:

Terrorism will be in our lives for a long time. When and if it ends, it will end because the terrorists grow tired of it, not because we somehow find a permanent way to protect ourselves. Why would terrorists grow tired of terrorism? Who knows? Perhaps, embarassed by the naivety of today's terrorists, who thought they could destroy their way to an Islamist utopia, tired after decades of fruitless effort, a new generation of Islamist fanatics will decide that pragmaticism is a smarter road after all. They wouldn't be the first movement of violent radicals to do this...Or maybe they won't. Whatever happens, I do not believe we can make the threat go away with outside force. Not with police work, not by invading terrorist states, not by solving any social problems, nor by making the world more peaceful and wealthy, and not - certainly not! - by giving them what they want. We can reduce the threat, we can make it difficult for terrorists to succeed, but the threat is not going away. The risk of terrorism will always be there, until they choose to remove it.

Got that? All the proposed solutions we've heard, whether from left and right, aren't what's going to make a difference. It's all up to them.

There's really only one place this line of reasoning can take you:

When we talk about terrorism, it is usually to say how horrible it is, and to ask what we can do to fight it. A lot of people died! Or they could have died! What are we going to do about it? Who's to blame? Is there a law we could pass? Should we give more money to somebody, or maybe invade some place?...This is useful. There are many things we can do, and there's no reason to make it easy for terrorists to kill us. New laws can be useful, and so can money, and even sometimes invasions. But there is another thing I believe we should also talk about, and think about, which we usually forget, and that is how to live with terrorism. How to deal with terrorism as a part of our lives.

The interesting thing here is that he's trotted out a line that we're probably going to be hearing a lot more as things keep getting worse. It's the same attitude the British took back when IRA bombings were at their height: We have to learn to live with a certain acceptable level of violence. We have to wait them out.

What?! Live with terrorism? What are you, a defeatist?

Actually, Bjorn, I don't think you are. A defeatist doesn't necessarily lack the will to fight. You're something worse: a passivist. While a defeatist worries that he might lose, you've decided that there's not even going to be a contest. You're proposing we stand there and take it on the chin without lifting a finger.

This guy's a European intellectual, which means that he's hyper-rationalist, so he's naturally got a foolproof explanation for why this is such a swell idea:

Accept that there is a threat, but don't exaggerate it. Don't trust your instinct to guide you, our instincts are notoriously bad at risk assessment, use reason and facts instead. When people are afraid of flying, they remind themselves that they're much more likely to die in their car on the way to the airport than on the plane itself. Do the same with terrorism. Fight your fears with facts. I don't believe in denial, and it is not denial to say that terrorism is one of the smallest threats that any of us face. It is simple irrational to fear terrorism more than traffic.

I think I get it...the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, right?

Here's the problem: fear, like laughter, is involuntary. You no more control what makes you chuckle than a claustrophobe can control that chill that goes up his back every time he steps into an elevator, so I think that our boy Bjorn's casual assumption that we should just not let them hold sway over us is condescending and unrealistic. If he can do it, great, but you can't expect the majority of us to follow suit.

Nor are our fears irrational, at least not in the sense that they're without a certain rational basis. I'll illustrate this with a story.

My parents were booked on a west coast flight out of Logan airport on September 11. It was a mid-morning flight; the only reason they didn't take an earlier one was that my father refused to get up early enough. Had my mother been traveling alone, she almost certainly would have chosen to leave at eight in the morning rather than ten.

Now, as far as September 11 stories go, that's pretty tame, but let it sink in: Imagine knowing that, but for your husband's laziness, you could have been on one of those planes that hit the Twin Towers. Imagine thinking about that every time you step onto a plane for the rest of your life, that sheer luck was the only thing that saved you on that occasion. Will it hold out for your next flight? How about the one after that?

And that's why you can't expect people to walk around and ignore their fears. Uppity Norwegians can lecture us all they want on how it's a random threat and therefore not worth thinking about, but that's precisely why it's so unnerving: once that bomb is in place, it's just a matter of chance whether or not you're going to be around to see it go off.

I'll bet that there are people alive in London today because, on July 7 last year, they stopped on the street for a moment to tie their shoes, or paused to give directions to a tourist, and ended up missing their usual bus. At the same time, people are probably dead because on that particular day they were in a hurry, didn't stop to buy coffee or a newspaper, and caught the wrong train.

What terrorism of this sort removes is the element of control. Sure, I'm statistically less likely to have my plane hijacked than I am to get in an auto wreck, but at least in my car I can do things like keep an eye out for other drivers and avoid areas that I know have a history of accidents. In other words, my fate is, partially at least, in my own hands. Once you're on a plane, train, or bus, there are far fewer precautions you can take, and so its arrogant to believe that people will be continue indefinitely to be fine with trusting to chance.

European politicians and intellectuals don't seem to understand this--hell, plenty of Americans don't--but it's the biggest challenge they face, because their constituents aren't going to remain passive forever. I'm firmly with those who believe that, if things don't start to change soon, there's going to be violence within the next few years, because--and it can't be repeated enough--people will not put up with inaction forever.

Now, I know what the big objection some people are going to have to all of this: This guy isn't the big wuss I'm making him out to be. He isn't as unserious as I'm claiming, he's not saying we should dismantle all our anti-terror programs; he's simply asking us to realize that we can't expect to thwart every planned act of terrorism every time, and that we need to live with that fact.

I'd be on board if I thought that were it, but I don't. In fact, I think he's intentionally encouraging activity that makes terrorism more likely:

I don't see much bravery anywhere, but least off all among the loudest of the anti-terror warriors. It's not brave to scream on your blog for even more anti-terror laws. It's not brave to be willing to torture innocent people because there's a chance they might be guilty...Brave is sitting down calmly on a plane behind a row of suspicious-looking Arabs, ignoring your own fears, because you know those fears are irrational, and because even if there's a chance that they are terrorists, it is more important to you to preserve an open and tolerant society than to survive this trip. Brave is insisting that Arabs not be searched more carefully in airport security than anyone else, because you believe that it is more important not to discriminate against people based on their race than to keep the occasional terrorist from getting on a plane.

Note the contradiction here: Your fear of the suspicious Arabs in the row in front of you is irrational, and yet it's brave to ignore it. But in order to do something brave, don't you have to be putting yourself at risk? Because if that's the case, than your fear can't be irrational. So which is it?

That's not the worse part, though. Here's the worst part, again: "it is more important to you to preserve an open and tolerant society than to survive this trip".

Take a minute and think of the most important person in your life. Maybe it's an unsurprising choice, like your husband, your daughter, or your best friend. Maybe you're old and can't get out of the house much, and it's the young person who comes over a few times a week to check up on you and keep you company. Maybe you're a poor kid from a bad neighborhood, and it's the teacher at your school who took you out to play darts and drink root beer on your birthday because he knew your parents would forget.

That person's life is less important than taking fifteen extra minutes to check somebody's carry-on.

Maybe some people can do that, but most of us can't. Actually, "can't" isn't even the right word: Most of us won't even try, because we, unable to look down on the world from the rarefied, Olympian heights occupied by Bjorn Staerk, refuse to give more importance to an abstract principle than we do to the person sitting next to us. This is because we are better than him.

Since this Scandinavian sophist places so much weight on "rational" thinking, I'm going to let you in on the first primal realization that crawled out of my id when I finished reading this piece of self-congratulating, masturbatory filth:

I wouldn't trade the convenience of every Muslim on the globe for five minutes off my little sister's life.

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posted by AndrewR at 12:28 PM

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