How much are you willing to give up in a futile quest to control things that cannot be controlled? Everything?
This past weekend, a man planted a bomb in New York City. It appears that he did it because he was angry over our nation’s foreign policy, though it is also possible for someone to plant a bomb because they are angry about any number of other things, or because they want to cover something up, or just for kicks.
People angry about politics and other things have been planting small bombs in America for many decades. But since 9/11, we have started reacting in a different way. Some say that we are reacting in a “tougher” way, or taking these crimes “more seriously.” In fact, our national fear has made us irrational. We have lovingly constructed the idea of Terror lurking in the shadows, and we embrace all of the panic that this Terror fills us with.
In our country it is now considered prudent and reasonable to ask how the policies of leading presidential candidates might have prevented one angry man from leaving a bomb in a suitcase on a New York Street. We now have a term for people like this: a “lone wolf.” This terminology appears to denote a category, something that can be boxed in and cut off and destroyed. A more accurate term would be “human being.”
Any sufficiently large group of people will produce a certain number of individuals who will do just about anything you can think of. Get millions of people together and you will find geniuses and idiots and gay people and straight people and nice people and mean people and, primarily, a lot of average people, who possess all of the complications that the human personality entails. You will find some people who are great athletes and some people who can ride unicycles. You will find some people prone to sadness and some people prone to anger. And you will find a certain number of people who, given certain combinations of genetics and culture and upbringing and environmental factors and unpredictable occurrences, will plant bombs on a street in New York.
Hillary Clinton promises to “set up an early-warning system, community by community.” Donald Trump promises to ban vast swaths of people from our country altogether. It would be just as effective for them to promise to call upon an enchanted genie to prevent bad things from happening. It would be just as effective for them to offer soothing opium to the public, so that we may forget the Terror that haunts us. There is such a thing as reasonable thinking, and there is such a thing as magical thinking. It is reasonable to take steps to direct law enforcement resources towards real, identifiable, imminent threats. It is magical thinking to imagine that elected officials can stop an unknown person with an unknown motivation from doing an unknown thing at an unknown date in the future.
The promise of absolute security is a trick. We can persecute group after group and give up our civil liberties one by one and close ourselves off from each other and the world at large more and more and still we will find perfect safety to be an illusion. We can build walls and build weapons and build prisons but we cannot change the fundamental fact that life is to a certain extent unpredictable, propelled by random events that we cannot foresee and can only react to. After we have killed all strangers and locked ourselves in a hidden bunker, the ceiling can still collapse on our head. We would have been better off spending all of that time outside, enjoying the mild weather. It will be winter soon enough. Some time later, the earth will be swallowed by the sun.
Does this mean that we should “do nothing” about the fact that a man put a bomb on a New York street? No. It means that we should do reasonable things. We should find him and prosecute him. We should attempt to take preventative measures in the future to the extent that such measures can be demonstrated to work without imposing side effects—like the loss of our freedom or the persecution of innocent people—that are worse than what we are trying to prevent. We should make rational choices. We should not panic. In the end, you will probably be killed not by a bomb, but by heart disease.
Risk is a feature of life. Things will break. Cars will crash. Lightning will strike. And humans will do things that are cruel, dangerous, and, above all, unpredictable. We can stop seeking the omnipotent strongman who will change this feature of life. He does not exist. The search for the absolute end of risk and unpredictability ends in totalitarianism and secret police. That is the Terror we create for ourselves. Fortunately, all it takes to avoid that fate is the calm acceptance of reality.