The Agenda

Brief Note on the Tragedy in Arizona

I can’t imagine I have anything to say that hasn’t already been said. When I first heard the news, on a packed flight landing at JFK, I was reminded of David Foster Wallace’s very short essay on “the American idea,” published in The Atlantic in 2007:

Are some things still worth dying for? Is the American idea* one such thing? Are you up for a thought experiment? What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, “sacrifices on the altar of freedom”?* In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea? And, thus, that ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our democratic way of life—sacrifices not just of our soldiers and money but of our personal safety and comfort?

In still other words, what if we chose to accept the fact that every few years, despite all reasonable precautions, some hundreds or thousands of us may die in the sort of ghastly terrorist attack that a democratic republic cannot 100-percent protect itself from without subverting the very principles that make it worth protecting?

Our elected representatives are not always held in high esteem. But they put themselves in harm’s way on our behalf, and for that they deserve considerable credit. During the darkest days of the sectarian strife in Iraq, elected officials — down to the equivalent of town selectmen — faced assassination as a matter of course. Consider that there were Iraqis who kept standing up to take the place of those who had fallen even so. In Mexico, mayors and police officers who dare to take on the drug cartels are being gunned down in heartbreakingly large numbers. We’re lucky to live in a country where we take basic security for granted.  But though we’re powerful and prosperous, we’re not immune to random violence and terrorist violence, and I’m sorry to say that we never will be. 

In 1989, the liberal foreign policy thinkers James Chace and Caleb Carr wrote a fascinating book called America Invulnerable: The Quest for Absolute Security from 1812 to Star Wars. The book was in part a critique of Reagan-era U.S. foreign policy, but it also contained useful lessons for all of us about the extent to which we can legislate ourselves, or rather wish ourselves, out of danger. I recommend it. 


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