Thursday, September 17, 2009

David Foster Wallace: Thoughts on 9/11

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?


Put The Lotion In The Basket said...

This David Foster Wallace knows his stuff.
Seems to me that once governments start acting the same as terrorists then the whole games up really. I really do believe that it is the responsibility of democracies to bare the pain and sorrow of terrorism thus showing terrorists there is another way, the minute we go bombing and shooting as well I'm not sure where the line is.
Anyway as sad as 9/11 is surely more Americans lose their lives every year because they cant afford medical insurances or the insurance companies weedle out the deal, now that is capitalism and we buy it apparently.
Brave post in the land of the free babe.

Sarcastic Bastard said...

Thanks, Nick. DFW was very brave and smart indeed.

Your comments are very astute.

And you are loved.

Syd said...

Indeed where is the public debate today? I wonder what DFW would think about what has gone on lately.

Ms. Moon said...

You know what I think? I think the terrorists won.

Sarcastic Bastard said...

I think DFW would feel like throwing up, just like Jesus would, if He came back now.

Love, SB.

Sarcastic Bastard said...

I sort of feel like throwing up myself.

I think Ms. Moon is right.