Terrorism Works, but it Doesn’t Have to Work So Damn Well

(Photo by Thierry Chesnot/Getty Images)

Thoughts after Paris:

–I fear one of the most consequential results from the attack is the end of the Schengen open border system in Europe, which is another way of saying the end of the EU. Following the attack, the French government reintroduced systemic border checks at all entry points in conjunction with their declared state of emergency. Belgium has also introduced checks on the French frontier. Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, and Slovakia have all put in place various degrees of border checks. Most of this is deemed “temporary”, but these sorts of security decisions tend to have a one-way ratchet effect. I fear “temporary” will stretch into “indefinite.” You can say the European currency union has been a rotten idea, but the idea of a right of free movement of people, capital, and goods in Europe is revolutionary, and its demise is worth lamenting. How will the curtailment of open borders affect the flow of capital and goods over time? How will it change the political and economic relationship between European countries? Sad, sad.

–I know there are clear psychological reasons why we fear rare, violent, spectacular deaths from terrorism more than we fear far more common deaths from car accidents. And we fear a mass shooting from a jihadist far more than from a random troubled white dude, even though the latter is far more likely in this country. This error leads to unbelievably clouded thinking. Right-wing commentator Erick Erickson displayed this fear bias in its purest form this week on his radio show:

I’m really glad I didn’t get tickets on opening day to see Star Wars. Seriously.

I have no confidence in this Administration to keep us all safe, particularly in light of President Obama’s statement today that there’s really no way to stop this stuff.

There are no metal detectors at American theaters.

I think I’ll wait till Star Wars is less a threat scenario.

Brian Beutler had some fun with this: a self-proclaimed “alpha male” who advocates universal concealed-carry laws so good guys with guns can have heroic shootouts with bad guys with guns, basically begging his government to protect him from hypothetical violence at the movies. But Erickson didn’t cower at home in fear of violent death after James Holmes non-hypothetically shot up a movie theater in Aurora, nor after the hundreds of mass shootings in this country in 2015 alone.

It’s unclear exactly how far Erickson would want his government to go to reduce or remove the “threat scenarios” he perceives in his life.

But it remains the case that anything short of going the full North Korea will leave our society with an acceptable violent death risk well above zero, from terrorism or other means. By “acceptable” I mean that life amid and in between the risk goes on much as before. This “acceptable” violence level is different for different societies. Pakistan has a different level than Israel, which is different than Switzerland. Like Erick Erickson, many Americans have agreed that the baseline risk of white men amassing personal arsenals and using them to murder people in theaters or children in schools is at acceptable levels right now. But for other sources of violent death, any risk above zero is unacceptable. Terrorism works.

One factor surely explains a lot about the current American freak out: We are in the middle of a Republican presidential primary while a Democrat sits in the White House. So you’ve got Trump and Carson setting the outer bounds of acceptable discourse to “super crazy/fascist”, which makes the “moderate” position set to “medium crazy/fascist.” It’s not a dynamic amenable to reasoned and rational thought. And remember, this is in response to violence 4,000 miles from America! Just imagine the forces unleashed if there is an actual American attack.

The terrorism fear is bringing all sorts of latent reactionary/authoritarian impulses to the surface, and it’s fusing with the GOP electorate’s general cultural and ethnic anxiety. (The Erickson example is instructive again: he’s not just afraid, but he seems to want big government to impose security measures on private businesses to protect him exclusively from the threat of brown-skinned violence. Authoritarianism plus ethnocentrism.) It was remarkable watching last week how quickly GOP candidates sublimated a fear of terrorism into a fear of Syrian refugees, even though there were no Syrian nationals or refugees among the Paris attackers. And it was a quick side step from there to calling for databases and searches and surveillance targeting adherents of one religion. It’s almost as if people were looking for any pretext to express their more general ethnic anxieties. I mean, Trump moved like a hundred dog-whistles away from terrorism pretty quickly, maneuvering expertly to pure anti-black racism over the weekend. Lee Atwater would be very impressed.

I know that we humans are primed to fear and react irrationally to terrorism. I just wish we didn’t do so much of its work for it.

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