A Generation Without Chests

Sunday’s New York Times reports what a long accumulation of evidence has already established: the policy of the United States is to kill rather than capture terrorist suspects.  One reason, predictably, is that drone strikes are safer to U.S. troops than surgical capture operations.  One assumes this is true, and the reason is compelling.  It ought to be factored into prudential judgments alongside considerations of liberty and diplomacy, among others.

But it also put me in mind of a classroom conversation in which students made the same claim: namely, that drones were safer to U.S. troops and drones were therefore not only morally defensible but morally imperative.  To this they added the fact that the risk of killing the wrong person or innocent bystanders was incident to the risk of them killing larger numbers of Americans.  Significantly, in their mind, this concluded the argument in absolute terms, which is to say that any claim of danger to U.S. troops or citizens was itself a showstopper.

Welcome to the generation of what I have come to call “securitarians.”  No more calculation of risk, they.  Risk itself is conclusive.  They are the products of a post-9/11 mentality in which the practice of prudential judgment did not merely atrophy.  It collapsed.  A new rhetorical form emerged, a sort of reductio ad absurdum in reverse—a reductio ad extremis—epitomized by the warning that deliberation over the war in Iraq was risky since the smoking gun might be a mushroom cloud.  In this era, risk has been escalated in such a way as not merely to reconfigure but to obliterate judgment.

But life is risk, something adults know, or purport to, right up until they take oaths of office and become answerable to other people who know the same thing right up until they enter the anonymous realm of politics and begin blaming other people for adverse events whether they control them or not—which is to say the problem is us, and our (literally) juvenile attitude toward risk.  We want it eliminated, and our governors predictably give us what we want.  What we want—Gallup confirms it—are drones.

This mentality has infected our entire society.  My children’s school district has recently endured a funding crisis—long story; don’t ask—that has left the schools rationing paper in such a way that, to cite but one example, the children in orchestra class trade which days they will get to look at sheet music.  But the local police chief recently made a presentation to parents on school security that outlined an array of threats ranging from a Newtown-style shooting to a chemical spill on the railroad tracks running behind the elementary school.

A variety of remedial measures will be considered, doubtless costly.  They ought to be taken into account.  But you heard it here first: They will not be taken “into account.”  There will be no judgment.  Having been warned of risk, the community will move to eradicate risk.  One can reasonably bet each security measure will be funded before another ream of paper will be.

This is going to continue until we grow up.  And what begins at home extends to Washington.  This is to say our anti-terrorism policies are not going to change until we tell politicians that we accept the largeness and fearsomeness of the world and the possibility that bad things beyond our control will happen—that we expect them to do what is reasonably within our control, but that there are also costs, whether financial or constitutional, that are excessive and even silly next to the risk.  Placing armed guards in every school is one such excessive measure; an unmitigated, unchecked power to assassinate people, including U.S. citizens, anywhere in the world with drones is another.  The punchline of this message is: We accept that something bad might happen, and we won’t hold you accountable.  In other words, we are going to have to surrender one of Democratic Man’s favorite pastimes: blame.  Until then, we had best get in the habit of blaming ourselves.