We Can Keep the American People Safe

Watertown, MA. Image by Daniel via flickr.

David Foster Wallace was not especially interested in politics over the course of his life, and what interest he did exhibit was not driven by much of a political intelligence. He supported both Ronald Reagan and Ross Perot, although the absence of politics from his correspondence suggests that neither position was strongly held or carefully thought out. In a Rolling Stone cover story on the 2000 John McCain campaign that has since become a fixture of his anthologies, he describes American politics as a sentimental battle between cynicism and real feeling, political gamesmanship and public-spiritedness, the last of which Wallace yokes McCain into symbolizing. (He also says that McCain could be the country’s first “real leader” since JFK.) Wallace had a lifelong suspicion of cable news, but the textures of his political thought could sometimes appear to be drawn from that medium.

Nevertheless, one of the first things that came to mind after the mass shooting in San Bernardino was a tiny piece of Wallace’s political writing. In 2007, as part of an anniversary issue, the Atlantic called everyone in their Rolodex and asked them to write a paragraph or two about whatever they wanted. Wallace turned in a couple hundred words asking whether American deaths at the hands of terrorists were acceptable. “Are you up for a thought experiment?” he wrote. “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?” Forty thousand people die in highway accidents every year, and yet “the mobility and autonomy of the car are evidently worth that high price.”

Now, this is a pretty clumsy thought experiment. First of all, America isn’t a religion, or at least it really shouldn’t be, so I’d rather not think of those who died at the hands of terrorists as martyrs. Second, it seems to me that Wallace is committing every clever college freshman’s favorite argumentative mistake: presenting a false dichotomy. We should definitely be able to preserve American freedoms and prevent terrorists from destroying some of the tallest buildings in the country with passenger jets. The San Bernardino shootings, however, look a lot more like the kind of thing that Wallace was talking about. Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik quietly self-radicalized in their California home by reading the internet. All the guns used in their assault were legally bought. They weren’t on watch lists, and they didn’t do anything that would have justified putting them on one. They never publicly expressed a commitment to martyrdom. Laws preventing the couple from buying weapons that are specifically designed to kill as many people as possible would have been helpful, but it is impossible to imagine ethically implementing the degree of surveillance that would have been needed to notice their plan before it was carried out.

Of course, many politicians, especially politicians hoping to become the President almost exactly a year from now, want to implement that kind of surveillance (plus a lot more). From a professional standpoint, who can blame them? We’re now entering the fifteenth year in which safety and security have been the preeminent terms of our political discourse. In Boston, in the wake of the marathon bombing, “safety” excused the imposition of what constituted martial law in everything but name: nineteen thousand national guard troops, a “shelter in place” alert, police instructions that people stay away from the windows in their homes, the MBTA shut down, people yanked out of their buildings at gunpoint. Friends of mine living in Watertown photographed a SWAT team rifling through their big plastic garbage bins and put the pictures on Facebook. This was done so that police could find a 19-year-old whose bomb killed three people and failed to cause structural damage to any surrounding buildings. (By comparison, this was not done when two men blew the entire front off of an Oklahoma City federal building in 1995, killing 168 people, destroying dozens of cars, and damaging hundreds of other buildings within a sixteen-block radius.) When they finally did find Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, hiding in a boat and bleeding, hundreds of people took to the streets in celebration. In Watertown, they sang the national anthem and clapped and whooped for a cop who cruised by on a bicycle.

Not everyone supports the lockdowns, the bombings and drone strikes overseas, the surveillance of mosques, the contempt for war refugees, the militarization of law enforcement, all of it driven by our relentless security discourse. But over the last fifteen years, the only politically viable defense against security discourse has turned out to be more security discourse. Earlier this week, something on the internet reminded me of an article from last summer. In July 2015, Obama’s press secretary announced that the administration was drafting a plan to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay, “safely and responsibly.” This was one of Obama’s signature campaign promises. On January 22, 2009, his second day in office, Obama signed an executive order requiring that the prison be closed “as soon as practicable, and no later than 1 year from the date of this order.” Eight years later, you can still find this executive order on the White House’s website, where it emanates frustration and melancholy. By September, having heard nothing more about this alleged new plan, I assumed the project had been quietly abandoned, but Obama reiterated his commitment to closing the prison in October. In November, the Washington Times reported that the plan’s release was expected “within days.” There has been no sign of it since, but the prison’s closure does appear to be important to Obama. I imagine that he rightly expects his presidency to be judged in part on what happens to the 105 men who are currently held there.

In his 2008 campaign, Obama talked about Guantánamo in terms of constitutional principle. “Our legitimacy is reduced when we’ve got a Guantánamo that is open, when we suspend habeas corpus” he said at a primary debate. “Those kinds of things erode our moral claims that we are acting on behalf of broader universal principles.” A week after he won the election, he said that shutting down the prison was “part and parcel of an effort to regain America’s moral stature in the world.” Obama doesn’t talk like that anymore. Here is how he described his effort to close the prison at a recent economic conference in the Philippines:

Guantánamo has been an enormous recruitment tool for organizations like ISIL. It’s part of how they rationalize and justify their demented, sick perpetration of violence on innocent people. And we can keep the American people safe while shutting down that operation. We’ve already reduced drastically the populations. . . . We are spending millions of dollars per detainee, and it’s not necessary for us to keep our people safe.

Set aside the characterization of Guantánamo as an example of wasteful, big-government spending. The thrust of Obama’s argument is that while you may have thought that setting these terrorists free would make things more dangerous for Americans, it is actually the other way around! Only by continuing to imprison them do we put our lives at risk. The idea is to think of the closing of Guantánamo as just another weapon in our anti-terrorist arsenal, like a predator drone or a group of “moderate rebels.”

My hunch is that Obama’s thinking about the meaning of Guantánamo hasn’t changed all that much over the last eight years, that he still sees the prison as a moral, not just tactical, failure. But if he does still hold that view, he can no longer say so, nor can any officeholder in a position to do anything about the prison. It’s tempting to think that if he does finally manage to shut Guantánamo down, it won’t matter which rhetorical devices he used to do it. But the obsession with security and safety obscures the fact that closing Guantánamo won’t be enough, because the security questions that come up for debate—Does this make Americans safe? How vulnerable are Americans?—specifically exclude the people Guantánamo imprisons. The moral failing isn’t the facility. It’s the indefinite detention of people who have not been formally charged with a crime. It is the government’s refusal to release those people even though its own evidence-gathering techniques (among them, torture) obviously make a successful prosecution impossible. Those people will still be indefinitely detained even if Americans do finally work up the courage to ship them from Cuba to some Colorado supermax. If the security discourse won’t even take up these prisoners’ safety, it doesn’t seem likely that it’s going to take up the issue of what are supposed to be their basic judicial rights.

If the political system’s myopic focus on safety induces a kind of paralysis in terms of policy, I think it also cultivates a feeling of neurotic claustrophobia on the level of individual experience. For the last fifteen years, I have been told over and over that my experiences of not feeling threatened by terrorists, of not once worrying that I or someone I cared for was going to be killed in my home country by a fundamentalist with a vest or a gun, have been false. I’ve been told this even though the statistics convincingly demonstrate that my non-apprehension of danger is correct. Since September 11, forty-five people have been killed by violent jihadist attacks in the United States. That’s three people every year. Televisions kill more than that each year by falling on people. Cows kill more than that, too. Husbands kill many more Americans than ISIS. These statistics can seem glib, and they’re certainly fodder for left-wing listicles on the internet, but they’re also true! If you include those who were killed on September 11 itself, a one-time, extraordinary event, the number rises to roughly two hundred people per year, the same number of Americans who are killed each year by failing to come to a full stop at a stop sign. Try to imagine a decade and a half in which the country’s politics completely reorganized itself around getting people to make full and complete stops.

At the current moment, it is not clear that our political system is capable of imagining the country as being for anything other than keeping its citizens safe. At debates and press conferences, presidential candidates and actual presidents alike are often asked some version of the question, “What is the President’s most important responsibility?” The answer to this question is now depressingly easy to predict, no matter who gives it. “The first and most important priority of the President of the United States is to protect the safety and security of Americans,” said New Jersey Governor Chris Christie at a December primary debate. This sounds a lot like George W. Bush at the 2004 Republican National Convention: “I believe the most solemn duty of the American president is to protect the American people.” Which sounds a lot like one of the “Guiding Principles” of Obama’s national security strategy, as outlined on the White House’s website: “The President’s highest priority is to keep the American people safe.” It may be useful to think of this phenomenon in light of a 2014 study conducted by political scientists at Princeton and Northwestern, which found that the opinions of middle- and low-income Americans have little to no impact on the country’s policies. The people whose opinions really do impact laws are all rich people, meaning that it seems to be a live question whether, in practical terms, the United States currently functions as a democracy. It is in part the absence or failure of other political aspirations—even basic ones that are widely thought to be fundamental to a given form of government—that allows security to take up such a dominant role. In other words, a political body that can only articulate hopes for safety is a political body that is not hoping for very much.

The War on Terror has of course made life extremely dangerous for millions of people, but almost none of them live in the United States. They live in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia, a list of countries that has steadily grown over time. They are not who presidential candidates are talking about when they talk about making people safe.

This is the third installment of Richard Beck’s column on the war on terror. Read more here.

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