Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Just Asking

I was leafing through a copy of The Atlantic from a few months ago, and enjoyed this little piece:

Just Asking
by David Foster Wallace

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)


Note that this mirrors the case for pacifism as well. Pacifism isn’t about being safe all the time, but about adhering to the ideal that violence is wrong.

Of course, there’s a practical side to it as well. The methods that try to get us to 100% safety also create more enemies, and is thus impossible to reach. For pacifism, the belief is that violence begets more violence, and in rejecting violence as a response, the circle is broken, and at least allows space for peace.

It doesn't always work in the short term, but that's not always the point either. The point is that ideals are sometimes more important than safety.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting the article, Dan, and for your comments on it. The same idea -- that a similar argument could be made for pacifism -- crossed my mind as I read the first paragraph.


Dan S said...

Yea, this has been sitting around in my blogpile for little awhile, so I thought it would make a quick post.

John said...

I'm a big DFW fan, and I didn't see this, so thanks for bringing it up to my attention. Did you see "Authority and American Usage"?

Dan S said...

My only other familiarity with him is that "Consider the Lobster" is on my reading TODO list, because it looked interesting once when I was in a bookstore. It probably needs to move up my list. IS A and AU an essay or a book?

Anonymous said...

It's an essay, and it's actually in "Consider the Lobster", as well as online.

Also, I recommend