I have not posted much for a while, partly because of a cold/flu that has hung on longer than I’d like, but partly due to the shootings at San Bernardino, California. The event was deeply dispiriting in so many ways.
To begin with, of course, there was the savagery of the attack. So many lives cut short by a violence made even more macabre by the identity of the perpetrators: a young husband and wife with a baby they seemed ready to abandon, along with their own lives—for what? What anger and frustration ran so deep? What long days, growing up in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and in the United States, led the two of them to embrace such nihilistic dreams? For the victims of these attacks and for their families, death must have seemed to rain down from some random and cruel celestial lottery, the product of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. An act so senseless mocks the daily care, devotion and hard work that goes into building lives around families, careers and a future sustained by—it seems almost pompous to say this—civilization. That is, sustained by the structures of an orderly civil society that both encourages dreams and, more simply, allows life to go on in predictable ways.
Terror is the weapon of the weak. It has an outsized effect in proportion to the power of those wielding it. I remember being asked by an interviewer from the Wall Street Journal for a historical analogy that came to mind after the events of 9/11. Pearl Harbor had been much talked about, for 9/11 was the first such major attack on American soil since 1941. True enough, but for me what came to mind was Tet, the Vietcong attack on American forces during Vietnamese New Year in 1968. In the wake of the Tet offensive, General Westmoreland complained bitterly that the media had not made clear how much the United States had repulsed the attacks and how dearly the North Vietnamese and Vietcong had paid for their assault. Technically he was correct, but in the end it was Tet’s psychological shock that most mattered. We had been told for so long that the light was at the end of the tunnel, that the Vietcong was on its last legs. And these attacks, including a breach of the the U.S. embassy walls in Saigon, shocked Americans. The war was not nearly over, despite half a million troops sent there. And we were not really winning it.
The shock of San Bernardino has reverberated beyond the personal tragedies of the victims and their families. Like Tet, it has jolted and frightened the nation. The prospect of a war of random attacks by frustrated individuals, inspired by terrorist propaganda over the web, and carried out using weapons all too easy to obtain in a nation that is more gun-obsessed than most—the prospect of a wave of such attacks is immensely dismaying. Because no easy solution presents itself.
After the Wall Street bombing, September 1920
Terror is the weapon of the weak. It seeks to turn the strength of its much larger opponent against itself, by frightening, inflaming passions, inciting violence, turning Americans against themselves. Tearing down the fabric of a civil society in a rush to stand tall, demonstrate strength, threaten more, bomb more, do something. Similar hysterias have swept the United States before: the Red Scare of 1919, the McCarthyite hunt for Communists said to be skulking in high places and low. In the past, the structures of our civil society have been strong enough that, over time, such fevers have passed. One hopes this may be the case again.
But today’s world is so interconnected that it is harder to wall off the instabilities and passions of the wider world. Isolationism is no longer a solution. Walling out, in an attempt to remain pure, has never been successful. What is called for is a disciplined approach abroad, inspired not by panic and fear but resolve. And at home, the conviction that ultimate safety is not rendered by arming every citizen and weaponizing our world. Our vision of the ideal life in the end is not derived from the lone individualism of the Western, a guy holed up with a six-shooter in some box canyon, tending his ranch and fighting off evil intruders. We live in a civil society of millions and we have to work to keep it safe through civil measures, calm determination and a democratic rule of law.
But the guns continue to fly off store shelves. Fear is instinctive and terror an effective weapon, even of the weak.
James West Davidson
Occasional thoughts on history, teaching, paddling and the outdoors