Resilience In The Face Of ‘Terror’ Is Not Just For New Yorkers

Yesterday morning, an incompetent wanna-be suicide bomber almost blew himself up in an underground passageway connecting New York City’s Port Authority and Times Square subway stations.  His crude home-made pipe bomb did little damage; indeed, it failed to even kill the would-be kamikaze; it did, however, cause some understandable, instantaneous panic among the many commuters heading to work. Later, once police and explosives experts had cleared the scene, business returned to ‘normal’ and after the usual chatter online on their social media pages, New Yorkers went back to work. Or school, or home. They ate meals, talked to friends, picked up children from school.

In so doing, they did what the residents of any other city do these days when attacked by unknown assailants: they went back to doing what they do on a day like any other. They are, in this regard, not unique or particularly distinctive; they do what all humans do in the face of incipient trauma, seek a return to normalcy as quickly as possible. Nevertheless, this was occasion for more self-congratulatory noise about how New Yorkers, of all folks, are particularly unfazed by catastrophe. (Yes, this compliment is directed at me, and yes, I’m declining it.)

I have made note here on this blog, before, how we valorize these kinds of everyday responses when they are displayed by folks who are of some relevance or importance to us; we are far less inclined to make such attributions to distant folks. Those failures of attribution result in a failure of humanity; we fail to notice that carrying on in the face of disaster is what we humans do in order to survive and carry on; all human beings do this. There is nothing special about French, English, American resilience in the face of disaster; just like there is nothing special or particularly stoic about Asian or African equanimity in the face of massive political or ecological disruption. We should be sensitive to trauma induced by such catastrophes but we should not be surprised by the human capacity to recover, to endure, to even thrive and flourish. This capacity of ours is what makes us into survivors; it is how we are able to take on the good with the bad and live.

By persistently only paying attention to the resiliency of those like us, who look like us, who live near to us, we fail to establish a broader bond of empathetic experience and suffering; we fail to notice that we are united by how well we are all able to take on board that which the world puts on our plates. The misfortunes which presently serve as occasion for us to point how strong we are, how distinctive, how unique, should serve instead to make note of how, in our responses, we are like human beings everywhere, confronted with the basic facts of our existence: that life goes on, even as lives and worlds do not. It is a lesson every grieving person learns; it is one of the clearest reminders of our humanity.

Uncomfortable Conversations: Children And The Bad News

On Friday morning, I finally faced the kind of problem I had heard many other parents make note of: how do you talk about the horrifying in the presence of children? On Thursday night, I had gone to sleep after reading the news reports on the murders in Nice, and on waking up, wanted to discuss them with my wife (who had gone to bed earlier than I had, tired and worn out after a long day’s work and then, an exhausting putting-to-bed session with our daughter.) But mornings are occupied with preparing our daughter to get ready for ‘camp’; and I did not want to initiate conversation about Nice with my wife with my daughter listening.

There was, after all, no way to sanitize the descriptions of what had just happened in Nice. I would have to say something like “someone ran over people in France in a truck, killing men, women, and children.” My daughter has given enough indications, recently, of understanding what ‘killing’ means–bizarrely enough, children’s story books involving animals and hunters have introduced her to this concept. She has also been introduced to notion of someone ‘dying’–via a pair of recent conversations about safety on the roads and the death of a beloved pet belonging to my brother’s family. She probably would not be able to figure out the full horror of the killings in Nice from my quick description of it to my wife, but I was still nervous that enough would get through to confuse her severely just before she left for the day.

Besides, I did not want to just stop at informing my wife of the news: I want to fulminate, to agonize, to express shock and anxiety at what seemed to be yet another installment in an insanity slowly building to a world-wide crescendo–and none of that was going to be ‘suitable’ for my child. Over and above the cuss words, my daughter would hear the fear and worry in our voices–and perhaps even sense it in our bodies from the expressions on our faces and our body language–and be driven to anxiousness and insecurity herself. And so I waited till she was gone, artfully avoiding a moment of confrontation that will not be postponed too long.

There is little I can do to protect my daughter–my most precious ‘possession’–from the world she is preparing to enter. I agonized over the decision to have a child in the first place, an unsurprising reaction to the prospect of bringing up innocents in a world apparently going to hell in a handbasket. Days like yesterday introduce a severe cognitive dissonance then: what have I done? Perhaps the only consolation I can offer myself is that last week I took my daughter up to the Atlantic coast in Maine, where she saw sights  that will hopefully retain their vividness as she grows up, providing an acute counterpoint of natural beauty to the ugly man-made horrors  that will continue to force themselves into her consciousness. At those moments of remembrance of the pleasures of childhood, I hope she will forgive me for exposing her to all else this world holds in store for her.

The Intimacies Of Mass Killings

There is an added dimension of the gruesome, the visceral, in reading reports about mass killings where the immediacy and intimacy of the deaths involved becomes apparent. Tales of bombings of distant lands are remote, colorless, obscure, and abstracted; there is a distant plume of smoke, perhaps a spectacular pillar of flame, a mound of rubble; we are told dozens died, but we see no bodies. There are, in the end, only numbers. We cannot even imagine the violence unless we see the mangled and charred remains of the bodies of the dead. Bombs and missiles do their work relatively anonymously, thus ensuring vital cover and protection for their perpetrators and for those who would employ them in their political policies.

Matters change with shootings.  A gun connects the shooter, the killer, with his or her victim; it establishes an intimate bond between them. The killer can see the victims’ expressions of fear and resignation, hear their pleas for mercy, and finally, see bullets do their deadly work, their impact immediately visible and manifest. This final, fatal, scene can be easily imagined; it may come to haunt our waking and sleeping hours as we mentally place ourselves in a similar situation. Watching videos of the street outside the Bataclan Theater in Paris where ISIS’ killers struck last November, you can hear the sound of gunshots as the assassins went about their work; you can conjure up horrible visions of what lay beyond the closed doors of the entertainment venue turned slaughterhouse. You pray for quick bullets and easy death, for no extended bleedings to death, for no charades involving the begging for, and the denial of, mercy.

And there is the horror of what happened last night in Nice where a killer drove a truck for over a mile through a crowd of human beings–men, women, and children. Heavy vehicles driven at speed do terrible damage to a human body; they are heavy, they possess momentum, they destroy bone and tissue and vital organ function effortlessly. Moreover, the truck’s entry into the crowd would have created a stampede of sorts; many of victims would have been run over and crushed after they had been knocked down by someone else fleeing to get away from the vehicle of death. The shock and horror of what happened is, sadly, all too imaginable; the screams of the scared and the wounded would have rent the night; the horror of the crushed and mangled bodies would have been starkly visible; the killer would have felt the bumps of the bodies as he drove over them, seen the terror of those he drove towards.

In a terrible irony of sorts, the massacre last night took place during Bastille Day celebrations–a commemoration of the singular revolutionary event that set France on the long road to becoming a post-monarchical republic. Yesterday’s act was a counterrevolutionary act; it threatens to hand over France–and possibly even the US–to the forces of reaction, to those who will heed its dangerous call to escalate a war against the wrong enemies.

Self-Policing In Response To Pervasive Surveillance

On Thursday night, in the course of conversation with some of my Brooklyn College colleagues, I confessed to having internalized a peculiar sort of ‘chilling effect’ induced by a heightened sensitivity to our modern surveillance state. To wit, I said something along the lines of “I would love to travel to Iran and Pakistan, but I’m a little apprehensive about the increased scrutiny that would result.” When pressed to clarify by my companions, I made some rambling remarks that roughly amounted to the following. Travel to Iran and Pakistan–Islamic nations highly implicated in various foreign policy imbroglios with the US and often accused of supporting terrorism–is highly monitored by national law enforcement and intelligence agencies (the FBI, CIA, NSA); I expected to encounter some uncomfortable moments on my arrival back in the US thanks to questioning by customs and immigration officers (with a first name like mine–which is not Arabic in origin but is in point of fact, a very common and popular name in the Middle East–I would expect nothing less). Moreover, given the data point that my wife is Muslim, I would expect such attention to be heightened (data mining algorithms would establish a ‘networked’ connection between us and given my wife’s own problems when flying, I would expect such a connection to possibly be more ‘suspicious’) ; thereafter, I could expect increased scrutiny every time I traveled (and perhaps in other walks of life, given the extent of data sharing between various governmental agencies).

It is quite possible that all of the above sounds extremely paranoid and misinformed, and my worries a little silly, but I do not think there are no glimmers of truth in there. The technical details are not too wildly off the mark; the increased scrutiny after travel is a common occurrence for many travelers deemed ‘suspicious’ for unknown reasons; and so on. The net result is a curious sort of self-policing on my part: as I look to make travel plans for the future I will, with varying degrees of self-awareness about my motivations, prefer other destinations and locales. I will have allowed myself to be subject to an invisible set of constraints not actually experienced (except indirectly, in part, as in my wife’s experiences when flying.)

This sort of ‘indirect control’ might be pervasive surveillance’s most pernicious effect.

Note: My desire to travel to Iran and Pakistan is grounded in some fairly straightforward desires: Iran is a fascinating and complex country, host to an age-old civilization, with a rich culture and a thriving intellectual and academic scene; Pakistan is of obvious interest to someone born in India, but even more so to someone whose ethnic background is Punjabi, for part of the partitioned Punjab is now in Pakistan (as I noted in an earlier post about my ‘passing for Pakistani,’ “my father’s side of the family hails from a little village–now a middling town–called Dilawar Cheema, now in Pakistan, in Gujranwala District, Tehsil Wazirabad, in the former West Punjab.”)

ISIS, US Policy, And Feeding The Bogeyman

In ‘The Unbearable Lightness of America’s War Against the Islamic StateStephen Walt supplies us the following pull-quote:

What is needed is not a single presidential speech, but rather a sustained, all-out effort by top U.S. officials to remind their fellow citizens how safe they actually are. One often hears that fear is inherently irrational and that such a campaign would never work, but how do we know until someone tries? By refusing to tell the truth about the actual (very low) level of risk, presidents and other officials cede the ground to threat-mongers and guarantee that the public will overreact to the rare but dramatic events that do occur.

We are used by now to those statistics that make note of how many deaths are caused by causes other than terrorism: drunk driving, falling off a ladder, snakebite etc. As Walt notes, “the odds that an American will be killed by a terrorist are about one in 4 million each year.” Numbers though, have always had little effect in assuaging irrational fears–as generations of scared flyers will attest. (Perhaps an even better example is parents anxious about their children being abducted, an extremely rare and improbable event. They really should be far more concerned about their children getting run over by a reckless driver while crossing a street.) So what will work?

The ‘sustained, all-out’ part of Walt’s prescription is crucial, of course. It is not enough to offer assurances of safety after a deadly incident of some kind; the overwhelming likelihood that the average American citizen will not meet a violent death at the hands of terrorists bears repetition ad nauseam (via a variety of modalities.) After all, if similar repetition can enhance the truth value of a lie, then why not that of a truth?

So why are such reassurances not made more often, more emphatically?

‘Top US officials’ are ‘threat-mongers.’ The latter are not just unhinged presidential candidates–Republican ones–looking to cash in on panicked voters. ‘Top US officials’ are not modest types unwilling to talk up their success in containing ‘terror threats’–rather, when they do slay a dragon or two, they make sure to tell us just how dangerous it was, and just how difficult it was to bring it down. Homeland Security folk, Pentagon top brass, the Secretary of Defense–these ‘top US officials’ are all too happy, when it suits them, to cycle through the rainbow of threat alerts, to speak knowingly of dangerous matters that cannot be disclosed, of lurking menace somewhere out there, waiting only for our guard to slip so that they may sneak across our threshold and slit our throats while we sleep. Budgets and jobs–as Walt notes–depend on such alarmist rhetoric. Well, two–if not the entire Republican candidate field–can play at that game.

The bogeyman of the external threat is not an easily contained genie. This one, having been fed and nurtured for so long, has brought forth its own benighted, coiffed spawn.

The Offensive Stupidity Of The No-Fly List

Last Friday (July 31st) my wife, my daughter, and I were to fly back from Vancouver to New York City after our vacation in Canada’s Jasper and Banff National Parks. On arrival at Vancouver Airport, we began the usual check-in, got groped in security, and filled out customs forms. The US conducts all customs and passport checks in Canada itself for US-bound passengers; we waited in the line for US citizens. We were directed to a self-help kiosk, which issued a boarding pass for my wife with a black cross across it. I paid no attention to it at the time, but a few minutes later, when a US Customs and Border Protection officer directed us to follow him, I began to. We were directed to a waiting room, where I noticed a Muslim family–most probably from Indonesia or Malaysia–seated on benches. (The women wore headscarves; the man sported a beard but no moustache and wore a skull cap.)

I knew what was happening: once again, my wife had been flagged for the ‘no-fly’ list. The first time this had happened had been during our honeymoon to Spain some eleven years ago; the last time my wife had been flagged was on our return from Amsterdam four years ago. (That’s right; my wife had been allowed to fly to the US from Europe, but her entry into the US was blocked.) On each occasion, she had been questioned–in interrogatory fashion–by a brusque official, and then ‘let go.’ There was no consistency to the checks; sometimes they happened, sometimes they did not. For instance, my wife was not blocked from traveling to–or returning from–India in 2013. At the least, the security system being employed by the Department of Homeland Security was maddeningly inconsistent.

But matters did not end there. It was not clear why my wife had been placed on the ‘no-fly’ list in the first place. Was there something in her background data that matched those of a known ‘terrorist’? This seemed unlikely: she had been born in Michigan, grown up in Ohio, attended Ohio State University, gone to graduate school at the City University of New York, and then law school at Brooklyn Law School before beginning work with the National Labor Relations Board as a staff attorney. (During her college days, she had worked with a student’s group dedicated to justice in Palestine, but that seemed like slim pickings. On that basis, you could indict most Jewish students who attend four-year liberal arts colleges in the US.) But she is Muslim–or, as my wife likes to say, ‘she was born into a Muslim family’–and still retains her Muslim last name after marriage. That could certainly be a problem.

After the first instance of our being detained at an airport, we had expected no more detentions; after all, the US’ security officers would have noticed that a particular passport number, belonging to a particular American citizen, had been incorrectly flagged at a border check; they had ascertained to their satisfaction that all was well; surely, they would now remove that name and number combination from their lists and concentrate on their remaining ‘targets.’ The first check would have acted as a data refinement procedure for the learning data used by their profiling software; it would now work with a cleaner set and generate fewer ‘false positives’–like my wife. That’s how learning data systems are supposed to work; the ‘cleaner’ the learning data, the better the system works.

But that had not had happened. Over the course of the past eleven years, my wife was detained again and again, leading up to this last instance on last Friday. On each occasion, the same procedure: ‘Follow me please; sir, you stay right here.” (Mercifully, in Vancouver, perhaps noticing we had a child with us, the border officers allowed me to accompany her to their chambers.) And then, the questioning, which sought to establish her  credentials: “What’s your father’s name?” What’s your mother’s name” “Where do you work?” and so on. Finally, “Thank you, ma’am. You can go now.” But none of the information gathered in these sessions had any value whatsoever as far as the no-fly profiling system was concerned. That remained magnificently impervious to the empirical particulars of the world outside; as far it was concerned, my wife was still guilty. Sometimes.

When the interrogation of my wife had ended, I asked the border officer: “How do I get my wife off the list?” His reply: “I don’t know.” I then asked: “Do you have any idea why she was flagged today?” His reply: “She has a pretty common last name.” I stared at him, dumbfounded. When Sinn Féin was rated a quasi-terrorist organization, did the US flag every Irishman at JFK who bore the last name Adams? Could it really be possible that this profiling system was as stupid as this officer was making it out to be? But that hypothesis was not so implausible; there was nothing in my wife’s background that would indicate any reason to place her in the same class as those folks who might be potential 9/11’ers. Moreover, this profiling system remained dumb; it did not ‘learn’; its conditional probabilities stayed the same no matter what its handlers learned about its learning data.

It’s tempting to call this a Kafkaesque situation and let it go at that. (And perhaps throw in a few complaints about the petty harassment this generates; the Muslim family I saw waiting with us missed their flight, and the solitary male was rudely told to move at one point.) But there is more here; this system, this ‘silver bullet’ that is supposed to keep us safe and for which we should be willing to give up our civil liberties is useless. And dangerously so. Its very strengths, to look for patterns and evidence and generate plausible hypotheses about the guilt of its subjects, are compromised by its design. I’ve speculated why my wife’s entry in the no-fly list has not been deleted and the only plausible explanation I can come up with is that whoever makes the deletion takes a very tiny risk of being wrong; there is an infinitesimal probability that the ‘innocent’ person will turn out to be guilty, and scapegoats will then be found. Perhaps that fear of being indicted as the ones who the let the Trojan Horse through stays their hand.

Whatever the rationale, the end-result is the same: a useless, dangerous, and offensive security system that on a daily basis–I’m quite sure–subjects both citizens and non-citizens of the US to expensive and humiliating delays and interrogations. And makes us safer not at all.

Kill All The Cartoonists; God Will Sort Them Out

You read or view a satirical piece or a cartoon in a newspaper or a magazine. It offends you; you are enraged; your deepest sensibilities–personal, religious–have been ravaged and injured. Unable to assuage your feelings by acknowledging the abstract free speech rights of those who have so insulted you, and still caught up in a maelstrom of rage, you fantasize about doing terrible injury to them.

For some folks, matters end right here. Revenge remains at the level of fantasy; resentment smolders but then fades away, to be replaced by some other pressing concern. Perhaps a dull smart remains, one that occasionally flares up if a similar offense is committed in the future.

But some folks resolve to teach their offenders a lesson. Perhaps by causing them material damage, perhaps by doing them injury.  And then, after being initially fueled by an inchoate rage, they act deliberately and cold-bloodedly to bring about these effects.

The gap between these two sensibilities can seem, varying upon your particular sympathies and inclinations, either very large or very small. Perhaps the former demographic can turn into the latter if injury and insult are repeated, or if social, economic, and personal circumstances change; perhaps the latter are so pathologically unsound in the intellectual and ethical dimensions that such mergers need not be feared.

I do not doubt that if a dedicated cartoonist or poison-pen wielder were to get to work, they could produce a cartoon or an essay that would eviscerate all I hold near and dear, for after all, at the fringes of humor lurk its darker precincts: humiliation and ridicule. Perhaps they could draw cruel, offensive, grotesque, hurtful, caricatures of my long-dead parents, perhaps of my beloved wife and daughter, perhaps they could write a long stand-up routine that took accurate aim at my many, many shortcomings and vulnerabilities and evoked howls of laughter from strangers who were not invested in my being protective of my sensibilities.

I wonder how I would react. I could, and would, rage and rage, and dream and fantasize about punching the crap out of the offenders, but I suspect ultimately, I would back down and slink away to smolder, hoping time and new experiences would assuage this shame. Perhaps, because I write myself, I would compose a long screed in response–trying to return fire with fire. I have often been insulted and abused in online exchanges and have sometimes retaliated, but these, if they undergo repeat iterations, very quickly tire me out and leave me feeling worse than when I started.

I wonder what, if anything, would make me seek out a violent solution to my crisis, a violent release to my angst. Perhaps if I was a psychopath or sociopath–poorly understood terms, I know–that found some dispassionate pleasure in the act of killing. Or perhaps, more plausibly,  perhaps if I could be persuaded that it would bring about a larger, more dramatic, desired change–political or economic–elsewhere; perhaps if I could be persuaded that such an action would set wheels rolling that would bring me closer to some destination much more important than a relief station for anger. Perhaps then, I might consider such an option a little more seriously. Perhaps then, I might not rest content with mere figurative retaliation.