The Atlantic’s 150 Year Anniversary Issue – David Foster Wallace asks how much our security should cost

The new issue of The Atlantic (the 150th Anniversary issue) has reached me in Stockholm. If you don’t subscribe, pick it up at newstands. It’s a terrific issue, with nearly 50 of American’s great minds and writers speculating on the “future of the American idea”. Since The Atlantic won’t let ANYONE read their articles without being paid subscribers, I’ll republish just one of the 50 essays here and see if they get all worked up about it. This was the article that had the greatest impact on my thinking, giving me new perspective and providing clear delineation where I was otherwise a little fuzzy.

The Future of the American Idea
November 2007
Atlantic Monthly
by David Foster Wallace
Just Asking

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?

Is this thought experiment monstrous? Would it be monstrous to refer to the 40,000-plus domestic highway deaths we accept each year because the mobility and autonomy of the car are evidently worth that high price? Is monstrousness why no serious public figure now will speak of the delusory trade-off of liberty for safety that Ben Franklin warned about more than 200 years ago? What exactly has changed between Franklin’s time and ours? Why now can we not have a serious national conversation about sacrifice, the inevitability of sacrifice—either of (a) some portion of safety or (b) some portion of the rights and protections that make the American idea so incalculably precious?

In the absence of such a conversation, can we trust our elected leaders to value and protect the American idea as they act to secure the homeland? What are the effects on the American idea of Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, Patriot Acts I and II, warrantless surveillance, Executive Order 13233, corporate contractors performing military functions, the Military Commissions Act, NSPD 51, etc., etc.? Assume for a moment that some of these measures really have helped make our persons and property safer—are they worth it? Where and when was the public debate on whether they’re worth it? Was there no such debate because we’re not capable of having or demanding one? Why not? Have we actually become so selfish and scared that we don’t even want to consider whether some things trump safety? What kind of future does that augur?

1. Given the strict Gramm-Rudmanewque space limit here, let’s just please all agree that we generally know what this term connotes—an open society, consent of the governed, enumerated powers, Federalist 10, pluralism, due process, transparency … the whole democratic roil.

2. (This phrase is Lincoln’s, more or less)

David Foster Wallace is the author of several books, including Infinite Jest (1996), A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (1997), and Consider the Lobster (2005).


8 responses to “The Atlantic’s 150 Year Anniversary Issue – David Foster Wallace asks how much our security should cost

  1. Crystal clear and clearly put. But a “vox clamantis in deserto” – “voice of a man shouting in the desert” – I’m afraid, in Europe no less than in US.

  2. I’m waiting for Wallace to volunteer himself and his family to go first.

  3. And I’m waiting for vanderleun to do the same.

  4. Steven Berlin Johnson brought up a similar scenario when talking about the growth of cities, past, present and future, toward the end of his book, The Ghost Map.

    I think this goes beyond politics, to a basic animal need to stay alive, at any cost. Humans have rarely, if ever, gone against their basic genetic directives, to stay alive, to consume, to reproduce. Freedom is a recent invention, and a wonderful thing, but tough to compete with the ancient imperatives.

  5. This sacrifice, this tradeoff of lives for a way of life is certainly the calculus performed by the neocons when they dreamed up their plan to remake the Middle East in their image. Their logic was that constant low-level terrorism was the price of being in the game. That was before 9/11, of course.

    The flaw in this logic is to assume that terrorism is like the weather — everyone complains about it, but no one can really do anything about it — and that it has always been with us and will always be with us.

    This is nonsense, of course. Terrorism is a symptom of the abject failure of human relations, of the imbalance of wealth and power in the world, and of the unreasonable tolerance our societies have for fundamentalist religion of all creeds.

    Imagine if, in the wake of 9/11, Bush had announced an energy-independence program is a similar vein to Kennedy’s moon shot program. Imagine he had committed only ten per cent of what the Iraq war will cost to a program that would move the USA from an oil-based economy to a hydrogen-based economy.

    Such a program would, over time, relieve the fanatics of their money, which ultimately comes from the sale of oil. It would relieve the US of having to intervene in the Middle East, thus removing the stimulus for terrorist attacks against the US. It would save lives. It would boost the American economy by making the US a technology leader in cleaner energy. And — oh, yes — it would curb global warming.

    If your way of life is causing people to fly airplanes into your office buildings, it is time to examine your way of life.

  6. Pingback: James Governor’s Monkchips » links for 2007-11-08

  7. Pingback: “Until I meet resistance” : Four arguments for the elimination of the TSA « The Ludic Ledger

  8. Fascinating! Great blog all-round, by the way.
    Let me know what you think of mine . . .
    Keep on posting!

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