Traveling by air is a hassle. I was reminded of that once again when Pam and I flew to Texas in October. Flying used to be easy, with minimal intrusions. But since 9/11, the airport screening has gone increasingly overboard. At least I think so. Most people probably accept it, willing to endure whatever inconveniences and indignities to ensure safety. But I can’t help thinking we’re going too far with our zeal for total security.
David Foster Wallace felt the same way, and wrote about it in a very short piece in The Atlantic which he called, “Just Asking.” He argues for preserving freedom at the expense of safety.
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?
We already accept other sacrifices as part of living in a free society:
- Thousands of traffic deaths each year, so that people have mobility and autonomy.
- Rampant deaths from alcohol and cigarettes, so that people can make personal choices.
Wallace refers to measures we’ve taken to makes ourselves secure in the wake of 9/11–Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, the Patriot Act, torture, warrantless surveillance. Yes, they may contribute to securing the homeland. But are they worth it?
Wallace makes this fascinating suggestion:
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?
It’s worth thinking about.