November 2015
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Ripples from Paris

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

I lived in Paris for a year in 1977-78 and hoped to stay permanently (it didn’t work out). Paris for me is a particular hazy, sharp but not unpleasant smell different from New York City streets; the taste of a pain raisin at the corner bakery; toy sailboats in the pond at the Tuileries, and the dissipated-looking but pleasant man who rents them, to be played by Jean Gabin in the movie version; and wonderful phrases that don’t resonate the same way in English, like “un tout petit bout” and “tout casse, tout passe, tout lasse”. I love the French language, which I read fluently and speak badly. I would rather sit with a random group of young Parisian people than New Yorkers--I am snob enough to expect that I would find them classier and more enjoyable. One thing which Parisians and New Yorkers share is that we are becoming quaint, anachronistic, denizens of the world before Year Zero, in which you can go out to the Bataclan to see the Eagles of Death Metal (blues rock band with an ironic name, by the way) and not be machine-gunned. People are actively transforming this into a world in which we can’t live in complete softness, affection, and amusement. We are caught up in a battle of Narratives. The Parisian Narrative is about walking on the Seine with a girl with elfin features with hair shorter than yours, and witnessing her delight as she finds a first edition paperback of Aimez Vous Brahms? at a bouchiniste. In the other Narrative, you read a prepared statement and then are beheaded on video.

All that said, I indignantly deny that Paris Changes Everything. There is some showmanship on our side’s part--whoever coined that phrase did not bother when almost twice the number of people died on a Spanish train a few years back; why now? It seems really convenient to be talking now, suddenly, in the wake of Edward Snowden’s disclosures, about the need to outlaw encryption and continue collecting metadata.

What I want to tell you from a 5,000 foot level is that, even with the frightening increase in mass shooting and suicide bombing incidents world-wide and in unexpected places (Bali, tourist destinations in Egypt and North Africa), my odds of dying from heart disease or cancer are much greater than of dying in a terrorist attack. September 11--I was under the Towers a moment after the second plane hit--has changed the way I think about public spaces: I avoid Times Square and actually don’t go to crowded halls of any kind, concert or otherwise. But I stop way short of wanting to change values, mine, or ours.

If you, I and ten thousand of our closest friends were gathered on a hill on an Earthlike planet to form a government for our new space colony--my favorite thought experiment-- I would advocate urgently to spend an extra million dollars on health care rather than surveillance. Or, another thought-experimentish way of seeing: if someone powerful offered you security but only if you sacrificed a thumb, would you do it? You would draw the line somewhere, right? Why would you agree to sacrifice your privacy and independence for protection against anything, especially a danger that continues to be statistically remote even if CNN, MSNBC are providing round the clock coverage?

We have seen episodes every week of homegrown mass shootings, some of which have achieved terrorist-style numbers (the Virginia Tech shooter killed more than thirty people). None of these have particularly motivated us to give up any of our freedoms (not even our guns). Why does it matter, why do we get so much more hysterical, if a mass shooter says, “I am from ISIS”? Does that really Change Everything?

The phenomenon of suicide bombing and mass shootings in which the shooter does not expect to live, is new in the world. I would never have expected that the terrible, violent world of the Second War could look quaint, but one thing it emphatically lacked, though it had heaps of bodies everywhere, was American teenagers deviding to be Nazis, picking up weapons and killing shoppers or schoolmates. To attack Pearl Harbor, the Japanese invested billions of dollars building aircraft carriers and planes; it never occurred to them to use our own against us. Something facile and deadly is loose in the world.

The only explanation I can find is not a very satisfying one. I obscurely sense that the increase in suicidal terrorism is somehow linked to the doubling of population in my lifetime, and possibly also to the Internet. There are twice as many sociopaths, and they now have a medium for recruiting each other.

In the very first issue of the Spectacle, I wrote that problems must be solved as far upstream as possible. Trying to detect every alienated, murderous person before he acts is a downstream solution, at the very end of the stream. Growing a world without terrorism, and probably a much smaller one, certainly seems well nigh impossible from the tiny, individual perspective of a human who feels like a chip in a tidal wave--which is most of us. But at times like this, the challenge may be simply to endure, preserve your values, live as if you were an optimist.

I can't help thinking that for some of the Parisian dead, the rush to war, the knee-jerk reaction of bombing Syria, may be a second insult: Some spirits, instead of howling "Avenge me!", may be asking that we not kill for them, especially if our vengeance will inevitably destroy children and other innocents.

Even if we all yield up our meta-data, relinquish encryption and so forth, the government will never, as a common sense matter, become omniscient. It will not prevent every possible incident; there may be, are likely to be, as many attacks as if we retained our freedom. Its an overworked truism, but Franklin was right when he said that if you give up liberty for security, you have neither.

Immanuel Kant noticed that we can think of other people as means or ends. I translate that into my own vernacular by saying we are either Players or Tools. Virtually every human on earth through-out history is born thinking himself a Player, of course. The philosophy of both ISIS and our homegrown mass shooters is to translate every one within range into a Tool, a means of expressing a personal, monstrous and sadistic message to the world.

I detest anyone who thinks he is a higher life form than anybody else. But ISIS is not the only force in the world attempting to Toolify us. The mortgage crisis was visited upon us by Wall Street Players, who turned millions of American homeowners into Tools. Our own government is trying to do exactly that, turn us into Tools, by alarming us so greatly about the chances of terrorism that we will obediently agree to give up liberties.