David Brooks, the columnist I love to hate, wrote on New Years Day about the failed bomb attack on the Northwest Air jet:
…we seem to expect perfection from government and then throw temper tantrums when it is not achieved. We seem to be in the position of young adolescents — who believe mommy and daddy can take care of everything, and then grow angry and cynical when it becomes clear they can’t.
… But, of course, the system is bound to fail sometimes. Reality is unpredictable, and no amount of computer technology is going to change that. Bureaucracies are always blind because they convert the rich flow of personalities and events into crude notations that can be filed and collated. Human institutions are always going to miss crucial clues because the information in the universe is infinite and events do not conform to algorithmic regularity. [link]
I happen to agree with him on this, and I think our social conceptions of risk are way off. I don’t think, however, that this case is a good example of that. A decent system should have caught that guy. Oh well, easy for me to say in hindsight, right? Absolutely.
I think Brooks’ column is barking up the wrong tree. It is so hard to make a large organization function well, and to allow the full power of individual human intelligence to be brought to bear on problems. Organizations that handle information, quickly become, as you move up the chain, detached and mechanical in their procedures. How can they not? There’s all that paper, all those calls, all those lists to go through!! Has it always been so? Did Assyrian bureaucrats miss vital clues on food supply and impending invasions? Did they loose their heads because of it, literally that is?
But Brooks is wrong because he doesn’t say why it is so hard to do right. He just seems to accept it as a fact of nature – the odds are stacked against the system. It’s hard because it goes against such entrenched political interests. Turf wars, egos, prestige, the usual culprits. He seems to have the attitude that, in principal, the systems are being reformed correctly, and that that their failure is an inevitable “wastage” that we must expect. I doubt that the efforts have even scratched the surface of what should be done, and I haven’t the foggiest notion of what should be done to change it. So maybe we agree after all?
Today is the first night of Hanukkah, that minor historical commemoration that American Jews have transformed into a non-Christian Xmas, just to get into the holiday spirit. David Brooks, the muddle-headed conservative columnist I used to love to hate (I stopped reading him, so now I don’t care what he writes.) actually had a decent column about the history of the day – maybe his niche is really popular historical writing. Anything but present-day affairs.
Just a remembrance of a revolt of religious fanatics, Jewish ones (fundamentalists?) against those lovable, rational, cultured, Hellenizers who were ruling Judea at the time. Lots of Jew-honchos thought the way to go was to get with the Greco-civilization program, but Judas Maccabeus disagreed. He and his terrorist crew decided to kill off the collaborators and make things hot for the Greeks. Well, that’s my reading of it, and I tend to side with the moderates.
Miracles and God, and candles burning on despite the lack of oil, that was all embroidered on later.
In many letters to editors, I have heard this sentiment expressed in defense of GWB’s miserable record as president: “No terrorists have attacked us…he kept us safe.” Well, 9/11 did occur when he was president. Here is a small gallery of momentos of our safety with W.
Our fearless leader keeps cool, and keeps reading “My Pet Goat” as the attack plays out. What decisiveness!
Our great leader was brilliant during the phony energy crisis manufactured by Enron (remember them?) that nearly bankrupted California.
Once again, Numero Uno was on the ball when Katrina hit, and his valiant lieutenant, Brownie, did a “helluva job.” Oh well, it was an act of God…
WMD? WMD? Did somebody say something about weapons of mass destruction..? Well, he kept us all safe, right?
Well, Bush isn’t the only great leader and visionary we had to guide us these last years. Now we see the results. I bet he and his friends kept their money really safe!
As readers of my drivel know, I have a fondness for extreme political rhetoric, the more apocalyptic the better. There is also a bizarre frisson to be had from the prose of political “theorists” who stare down the abyss of terrorism, and find it good. Maximilien Robespierre is one of the best (emphasis mine):
The two opposing spirits that have been represented in a struggle to rule nature might be said to be fighting in this great period of human history to fix irrevocably the world’s destinies, and France is the scene of this fearful combat. Without, all the tyrants encircle you; within, all tyranny’s friends conspire; they will conspire until hope is wrested from crime. We must smother the internal and external enemies of the Republic or perish with it; now in this situation, the first maxim of your policy ought to be to lead the people by reason and the people’s enemies by terror.
If the spring of popular government in time of peace is virtue, the springs of popular government in revolution are at once virtue and terror: virtue, without which terror is fatal; terror, without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue; it is not so much a special principle as it is a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to our country’s most urgent needs.
There you have it. The Last Days are upon us, and the battle between good and evil will be resolved. Enemies are everywhere – anyone could be a traitor. There is a need for merciless terror, but it is virtuous. With such axioms and logic, almost anything can be justified.
I love the formula by which he clearly demonstrates that terror is justice. I am fascinated by the tone of the piece – so elevated, alluding to the revered, shared values of the classical past. It brings to mind that wonderful piece by the ever able propagandist for the revolution, and later, for Napoleon, Jacques Louis David, The Oath of the Horatii. Can we be so virtuous? We can, we must, but we must not flinch from the use of terror!
As the history of revolution moseys along, things change a bit. Here’s V. I. Lenin:
“We will turn our hearts into steel, which we will temper in the fire of suffering and the blood of fighters for freedom. We will make our hearts cruel, hard, and immovable, so that no mercy will enter them, and so that they will not quiver at the sight of a sea of enemy blood. We will let loose the floodgates of that sea. Without mercy, without sparing, we will kill our enemies in scores of hundreds. Let them be thousands; let them drown themselves in their own blood.
Sounds so much more emotional than Robespierre. Who knew Lenin was so romantic? Almost biblical, could easily have come from the mouth of Martin Luther, mutatis mutandis. Ah, this is more like it:
“We stand for organized terror – this should be frankly admitted. Terror is an absolute necessity during times of revolution.
Here, however, Trotsky waffles a bit:
Our class enemies are in the habit of complaining about our terrorism. What they mean by this is rather unclear. They would like to label all the activities of the proletariat directed against the class enemy s interests as terrorism.
Whatever the eunuchs and pharisees of morality may say, the feeling of revenge has its rights.
If we oppose terrorist acts, it is only because individual revenge does not satisfy us. The account we have to settle with the capitalist system is too great to be presented to some functionary called a minister.
What bothers me is the drift away from aesthetically pleasing moral certitude that Robespierre states so succinctly. Lenin and Trotsky argue. Maybe they felt guilty. The ends justify the means, but all that blood! Stalin was a stronger man, but not so eloquent.
Finally, we get the degenerate prose and rhetoric of the apologists for terror of the 40s to the 60s; the supporters of Stalin and his successors who were repelled by the violence of the Soviet State, but wished to portray it as somehow necessary, or no worse than the concealed violence of the capitalist regimes. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, with his Humanism and Terror is prominent here. Why not just come out and say YES to terror? “I’ll take my terror neat, please.”
I’m not trying to knock the left here, though it might seem that way. It’s just that liberal-socialist-marxist thinkers have a professed committment to reason, so they have to argue for the goodness of killing women, children, innocent men, etc. They have to show that in the end, it’s all for the best, sort of like Pangloss proved in Candide. This perversion of rationality is what intrigues me. Except for Ayn Rand, I cannot think of people on the right who do the same. (She perverted rationality, but I don’t know that she supported terror.) When they plunk down for terror, they usually do it out of blood lust, romantic hero worship, satanic apocalyptic yearnings, or unutterably sick, evil, and convoluted workings out of their own psychological problems. Many vicious fascists, anti-semites, Nazi fellow travellers fit this bill.
Thomas Friedman, the idiot savant is at it again. Today, in the New York Times, in a column called “Intercepting Iran’s Take on America,” he has written a “satirical” column on what the leaders of Iran must be thinking about us, including:
First, 9/11 has made America afraid and therefore stupid.
It is, I believe, at least the second time he has voiced regret over the 9/11 induced “stupidity” of America’s body politic. Hmmm…interesting. As I recall, he was one of those who was rooting for the war in Iraq, saying we had to act “a little bit crazy,” etc. to root out the terrorists. When it comes to stupidity, he should speak for himself only. I won’t say he’s as bad as David Brooks who frequently sounds as if he just arrived from Mars, but he is remarkably shallow and glib. Basically a journalistic shill for the powers that be…for the moment.
What is this poor fellow so scared of? Is he traumatized by the probability (miniscule) of being brained by an asteroid (properly called a meteorite) as he strolls to his favorite banana vendor? Or he is he worried by the odds (much higher) that he will be creamed by a drunken driver as he walks or drives home? Maybe he’s worried about the obvious threat to his health and safety posed by the vicious terrorists of the world who want to do the United States harm. Well, he’d be better off watching his back as he crosses the street.
The fact is, the threat of harm from terrorism here in the USA is pretty darn trivial. There are so many other things that are more likely to bring down death and maiming on an individual that it might seem odd that people are so worked up about it. Of course, one difference is that being killed in a car accident or by falling off of a ladder is an . . . accident. The fact that there are people out there who would love to kill some of us, any of us, is deeply upsetting. Nevertheless, the odds of its actually happening are very small.
Some people, including me, think the terrorism bit is being overblown. Part of the terrorist-industrial complex, for which the vague notion of a “war on terror” is, for most, justification enough. Add that to the prison-industrial and the military-industrial complexes, and you have quite a service and construction economy going! You can read some very good arguments on this point by Prof. John Meuller of Ohio State University at this link: Six Rather Unusual Propositions on Terrorism. Meanwhile, I’m going back to worrying about something really scary – the next major meteorite impact on earth!