''ARE YOU SAFER today than a year ago?'' a New York Times headline asked the
other day, and a TV news reporter was asking persons in the street, ''How safe
do you think we really are?'' In recent days, perhaps because the purported voice
of Osama bin Laden announced his resurrection, government warnings have heightened
national anxiety again.
When casual talk touches on public questions, the pleasures of conversation
give way to worry. That we are a people poised to go to war against an unpredictable
adversary in an enflamed region adds to our unease. Meanwhile, Al Qaeda has taken
on the dimensions of a mythic enemy. Our ignorance of its actual make-up makes
it seem omnipotent.
What is safety, anyway? More than the absence of immediate physical threat,
the word refers to a feeling. Indeed, one might say the word refers to a delusion,
for in truth it is the business of life on the earth to be dangerous. What humans
ultimately long to be safe from is the threat of death - and yet every human is
dying. We clothe ourselves in denial of mortality, paying as little heed to the
iron law of time as we can.
Life requires these mental tricks: that we embark upon each day as if it will
go on forever; that we take up our mundane tasks as if they have ultimate significance;
that we act as though our necessarily imperfect love for one another will eliminate
loneliness; that we ignore the radical contingency of existence in favor of a
feeling of being ''safe.''
There is nothing wrong in all of this. The waking dream of a snug immortality
is a necessary, even ingenious, adaptation to an earthbound finitude unrelenting
consciousness of which would be immobilizing. The feeling of being safe, in other
words, may have nothing to do with our actual condition in a tragic universe,
but it is essential to the human act of turning tragedy into hope.
But a longing for safety can be carried too far, and such a wish can be unworthily
exploited by government.
In the name of American safety, the once unthinkable is being done: In Yemen
two weeks ago the CIA unapologetically killed six labeled terrorists, a legitimizing
of extra-judicial execution. Assassination abroad is being openly proposed, and
totalitarian controls at home are being installed. Under cover of escalating citizen
anxiety, the administration is masterfully reshaping foreign and domestic policy
both - according to pre-set ideological dispositions. The policies promise ''safety,''
but Bush's recast America feels less safe than ever.
Why are we so afraid? That question drives the disturbing and important new
Michael Moore movie ''Bowling for Columbine.'' An absurd dynamic of fear peculiar
to America - fear prompts reactions which make fear worse - is captured in the
movie's display of how gun violence generates gun purchasing which generates more
gun violence. That irrational cycle defines the US gun-obsession - and the US
war economy. What lies beneath such fear? Moore suggests that the unreckoned crime
of slavery and the resulting unhealed wound of racial antagonism underwrite the
readiness of fearful American whites to bring loaded weapons within range of their
The obsessive quest for ''national security'' has been a version of the same
impulse on a larger scale. During the Cold War, the demonized communists turned
our own nuclear weapons against us. As with the aftermath of slavery, the threat
involved an unreckoned moral catastrophe of our own making. The nightmare scenario
of incinerated cities so devastated us, even if subliminally, because we had already
incinerated cities ourselves. In each terrifying case - slavery and nuclear war
- merciless enemies are feared as striking back for crimes which deserve no mercy.
Could something similar be at work in our fear of terrorism today? One needn't
recognize bin Laden as a tribune of the dispossessed to acknowledge the vast gulf
between privilege and desperation as the very precondition of terrorism. Here
is the true meaning of the phrase ''Gulf War'' - safety-obsessed Americans on
one side, most of the imperiled human race on the other. This disastrous inequality
is not of our making, exactly, but our prosperity derives in part from the worsening
of the lives of those who do not share it. (Our greenhouse gasses lead to their
floods; our war economy supplies their rogue armies with highly destructive weapons;
our oil-thirst empowers their tyrants. And so on.)
Why don't we feel safe? For the reason American whites don't feel safe after
slavery; the reason nuclear weapons traumatize us above all. We are conditioned
to be terrorized by terrorism because it moves along a fault line for which we
ourselves share responsibility. The fault line widens. And we do nothing to close
it. The favored niche of fear is an uneasy conscience, and from its sure knowledge
there is no escape.
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company