Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Item #187273 on the "It would be funny, if it weren't so depressing" list

I'm somewhat late to the party on this one, but via Atrios comes Salon's "Down with the Kerry Haters". Many choice bits therein, but the one that bothered me the most was the following:

"I'm definitely gonna vote for him," [22-year-old Ohio resident Nick] Karnes said of Bush. "Because he's been the president for four years and nothing bad has happened since Sept. 11. He's kept me alive for four years." If Kerry becomes president, he said, "We'll be dead within a year."

Now, I was living in uptown Manhattan in September 2001. I have never viewed the threat of death from terrorism as an abstract fear. The fear is quite specific. I recall sleeping fitfully through the night of September 12, waking every so often to the boom of thunder --- from the lightning storm wrought by smoke and dust from the smoldering ruins --- and wondering whether this time, this time it was a bomb.

Most of my family lives in the New York metro area; my brother still lives in Manhattan itself. Al Qaeda has struck New York twice (1993 and 2001), and Washington, D.C. once. They clearly intend to hit America where it hurts most, which means the centers of American economic, political, and cultural power: New York, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago. Seattle, which is where I live now, might make the list only because it's a major port city.

Columbus, Ohio? Get real.

And this is not mere Northeastern regional snobbery (although I harbor no guilt about feeling snobbish towards the likes of Nick Karnes). The invocation of the terrorist menace since 9/11 has always bothered me, for a variety of reasons, and I have never been able to articulate them all completely. But when I read the paragraph above, one of those reasons became clearer: for most Americans, the fear of terrorism is an abstract and nebulous fear. 9/11 was something they watched on television.

I don't believe that residents of Columbus seriously think they will be hit next, rather than New York, L.A., or D.C. They feel afraid, and their fear is genuine, but at the same time, on some conscious or half-conscious level of awareness, they also feel safely insulated from the truest, keenest danger. And so when people like Karnes invoke the threat of terrorism, I can't believe they're really being honest, rather than using terrorism as a rhetorical club to beat their political enemies.

Furthermore, I can't help but think that the spectatorial abstractness of their fear is partly responsible for the ease with which they embrace abstract solutions: a distant war whose rationale bears only the most tenuous relationship to our national security; a President whose cheerleading and manly "resolve" supposedly strikes some vague, paralytic fear into the hearts of terrorists; the embrace of torture to extract unspecified information from unidentified persons for inscrutable objectives.

Who cares about the nuts and bolts of securing Russia's loose nuclear material, or training a new generation of intelligence operatives and analysts conversant in Arabic language and culture? Bruce Willis would never do any of that. He would go out there and kick ass. The terrorists might scoff at his humble everyman attitude, but pretty soon he would be impaling them on meat hooks and electrocuting their genitals (not that he would enjoy any of that, mind you, though he would have some punchy one-liners to mark the occasion). Who cares if rules get bent or even broken? Who cares whether all the death and cruelty even accomplishes a recognizable concrete policy objective, by any credible logic? It's enough that America kick swarthy heathen foreigner ass. The inexorable plot mechanics of action movies dictate that the toughest man inevitably wins. Since the War on Terror is an action movie, it is enough that we be "tough" (whatever that means) in order to prevail.

Is this a caricature of Bush supporters? Yes, but not by much.

And given the seriousness of the consequences, the laziness of this thinking borders on criminal negligence. It makes me furious. If the attack comes, will it be Nick Karnes who dies? No, it will be my brother. And yet I and my brother live at the mercy of Karnes, his fellow-idiots, and the bungling, dishonest President whom they elected.

1 comment:

  1. I agree. Everyone who voted for Kerry agrees. According to some bloggers, this sort of reasoning, i.e, "I voted for Bush because he makes me feel safer," is a "rhetorical club," as you say, wielded mostly by nationalist Christians as a mask for the social wedge issues that are the actual reasons they voted for Bush. I don't know if that's true, but I suppose it's likely/possible. I will add, though, that you can't simply say they only experienced Sept. 11 via TV. Many of my students have brothers or sisters in the military; they themselves are in the military; or, they know people who died on Sept. 11. (And while Iraq is not related to Sept. 11, many of these kids, because of Fox News?, who knows, still believe it is.) One of my students' uncles was on the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. I agree that the majority of heartland Americans engage in fuzzy, irresponsible thinking of the nature you describe, but their fears may be more genuine and more concrete than you think.