I’m quite sure I could beat LeBron James in a game of one on one basketball. The game merely needs to feature two special rules: It lasts until I score, and as soon as I score I win. Such a game might last several hours, or even a week or two, and James would probably score hundreds and possibly thousands of points before my ultimate victory, but eventually I’m going to find a way to put the ball in the basket.
Our national government and almost all of the establishment media have decided to play a similar game, which could be called Terrorball. The first two rules of Terrorball are:
(1) The game lasts until there are no longer any terrorists, and;
(2) If terrorists manage to ever kill or injure or seriously frighten any Americans, they win.
How else can one explain the extreme and ongoing over-reaction to last week’s botched attempt to blow up Northwest flight 253? Commentators from Glenn Greenwald to David Brooks have pointed out that demands that the government keep us completely safe from the risk of terror attacks are both absurdly infantile, and very helpful to terrorists, since such demands place the bar for what counts as successful terrorism practically on the ground.
Meanwhile, in the week that began with a terrorist incident in which no one other than the pathetically incompetent aspiring terrorist was hurt, approximately 47,000 Americans died. Around 13,000 of these people never reached old age, including nearly one thousand children.
Indeed over the past seven days approximately 350 Americans were murdered. About twenty of these murder victims were women killed by their husbands and boyfriends, while something like 35 were children who died as a result of abuse. Several hundred Americans committed suicide between Christmas and New Year’s Day and several hundred others died as a direct consequence of not having any medical insurance.
All of this is considered completely natural and normal and therefore not in the slightest bit newsworthy. At the same time, President Obama is being criticized for not rushing back to Washington from his holiday vacation because a wannabe terrorist managed to set his own underwear on fire.
On one level, Terrorball can be understood as a product of straightforward cynicism: Both politicians and media moguls know that fear can be exploited for power and profit. But the rules of the game have another source as well.
In the more than eight years since the 9/11 terror attacks, I’ve often been struck by inability or unwillingness of Al Qaeda to carry out occasional small-scale terror attacks within the United States. Given the climate of hysterical nationalism and rampant paranoia that continues to grip much of America in the wake of 9/11, setting off a car bomb once or twice a year on some big city street would probably whip up enough panic to satisfy the ambitions of any terrorist organization.
So why do Islamic terrorists continue to try to blow up commercial jetliners, rather than focusing their efforts on more vulnerable targets? Besides the most obvious reason – that there are very few such terrorists, and their destructive abilities are in fact extremely limited – it appears these terrorists understand the psychology of our political and media elites quite well.
That psychology dictates a third rule of Terrorball: destroying a commercial jet is the most terrifying form of terrorism, and if (when) terrorists once again manage this feat, in the face of all the elaborate steps taken to stop them, then they will have truly “won.”
Now why should this be? Part of the reason is that the normal conditions of airline travel, which create feelings of claustrophobia, helplessness, and a general loss of control, are ripe for exploitation by those who want to use fear as a political weapon, i.e., terrorists and those eager to enhance and manipulate the fear of terrorism.
Another reason has to do the imaginative capacities of our elites. The typical Congressional subcommittee chairman or cable news anchor or syndicated columnist can’t really imagine not being able to afford to take his child to a doctor, or being wrongly convicted of a crime, but he is quite capable of imagining being on a Paris to New York flight that’s blown out of the sky. And while it’s true the risk he faces of suffering this fate are very close to zero, they are not, as they are for a poor person, literally zero.
Terrorball, then, is an elaborate political game that seems irrational on its face – after all, it’s certain that more than 2.4 million Americans will die this year, and fairly likely that not even one of those deaths will be caused by terrorism — but which features its own peculiar logic. That logic reflects the anxieties of those who have created its rules, and serves the interests of both terrorists and those who profit from exploiting the fear of terrorism.