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The Fear Factor

09.12.2006 | POLITICS

The word "security" is as fraught with anxiety as any in the English language. We apply it to what we most seek to transcend, like money concerns. As an adjunct to financial security, we now prize Internet security. But, even beyond salting away that cool quarter mil considered the absolute minimum to retire on, what we yearn for most is assurance that we and our loved ones won't meet a violent end.

Like most Americans, our police and armed forces, command structures aside, as well as our intelligence agencies, take their jobs seriously. Yet security is not only more elusive than ever for Americans, it's little more than an illusion. As 9/11 made clear, the fatherland--er, homeland--is more vulnerable to attack than at any time since the War of 1812.

Furthermore, we have a gnawing suspicion that not only are we more likely than ever to be killed, but with a gruesomeness beyond imagining. Of course, like after World War II, when the American government made up the Red Menace out of whole cloth, this is just where the current administration wants us. As it plays the score from "Psycho" on our heartstrings, we become pushovers for NSA phone-spying and maybe even a little strike on Iran.

Not only have Bush & Co. fanned the flames of our fears, they've taken a bellows to those waxing bellicose against us and fired them up as well. Thus have we all become hostage to the administration's deluded conviction that the only way to make those dreams of security come true is by first realizing our worst fears.

To expedite its vision, the administration has made non-state actors (such an innocuous term) and Evil states (formerly "Rogue") our designated enemies. In addition, it's doing its darndest to re-antagonize China and Russia and restore them to their previous status of Red Menace, or some latter-day version thereof.

Because of its isolated land mass, not to mention friendly neighbors, the US is safe from invasion. But that's backfired on us. If a state can't attack by land, sea, or air, its only recourse is missiles -- and what's a missile without a nuclear warhead?

Meanwhile, until non-state actors like al Qaeda master the magical mubtakkar -- a germ warfare dispersion device described by Ron Suskind in "The One Percent Doctrine" -- the method to their madness is also explosives.

Among the conventional is the technique in which victims are served up a medley of nails, screws, and bolts, which your better suicide bomber drizzles with anticoagulant medication to keep the blood flow refreshed . When not instant, this kind of death can stake a claim on that overused adjective "horrific."

Meanwhile, the anticipation wreaks havoc with our psyches, especially if we use commuter hubs. But death by suicide bombing is almost merciful compared to the second scenario.

Consciously or not, many who fly come to terms with the possibility of a plane crash. After all, those of us who drive have made some kind of peace with the prospect of a fatal car crash. But, when it comes to horrific, death by crushing or exploding doesn't hold a candle to a bomb exploding on a plane.

What could be worse than getting sucked out of a hole a bomb has blown in the side of the plane? Unless it's being blown sky high. To appreciate the horror of surviving the blast, if only for a couple of seconds, think World Trade Center jumpers.

Now the other explosive -- nuclear. According to nuclear anti-terrorism expert Graham Allison, nuclear suitcase bomb parts and enriched uranium can be hidden in bales of marijuana, and we all know how easy that it to smuggle. (Hope that uranium doesn't leach into the pot. Otherwise the market for reefer laced with angel dust or crack will go up in smoke.)

If you're just outside the blast range, you may be spared a fate as a charred corpse, but the humiliation you are about to experience will be complete. You'll lose face -- literally: your face will slide off -- in front of your co-workers. If you don't die from your injuries, you'll die of embarrassment. Who wants to melt to death in front of our peers?

Our security then is vulnerable to breaching by not only two separate forces, but two types of threats. For that we owe a debt of thanks to Bush & Co., who, as is common knowledge by now, thought 9/11 gave them carte blanche to make the world safe for free markets (free, that is, to run rampant over local economies).

But reading "House of War" by James Carroll (Houghton Mifflin, 2006) reminds us that the current administration may have brought us to a precipice, but it didn't lead us down the path to the cliff's edge. President Harry Truman, in exaggerating the Soviet threat like the current administration does fanatical Islam, was nearly as literal-minded as Bush. Also, authorizing not only two atomic bomb strikes, but the development of the exponentially more destructive hydrogen bomb, he bears much responsibility for nuclear proliferation in the ensuing years.

We also helped create non-state actors hostile to us by funding the mujahadeen fighting the Russian occupation of Afghanistan, which has been called Russia's Vietnam. In the interim, Iraq became an encore presentation of America's Vietnam while Iran looms as a rerun of Cambodia. Also, when arming them, we failed to foresee that today's mujahadeen, viewing the US through the same lens as Russia, would become tomorrow's jihadi.

Meanwhile, it's embarrassing how many progressive commentators don't understand that the argument "Our policies are creating more terrorists than the Sorcerer's Apprentice does brooms" makes absolutely no impression on the administration and the hard right. Fretting about making enemies is for liberal-left wusses.

Now that the blame has been divvied up, can we have our teddy bears and security blankets back? Sure, just suck that thumb a little longer while we define security, which we'll do by pointing out what it's not first.

ISecurity is not prohibiting airline passengers from boarding with water bottles. Nor is it turning young mothers into taste testers for explosive liquids. When compared to how spotty port security has been, this kind of hyper-vigilance can't help but come off as OCD-ish.

Second, security is not taking credit for terrorists' failure to attack us in the last five years. The real reason might be that they just haven't moved all their chess pieces into position to pull off their next big checkmate.

Third, security does not consist of attacking countries before they have nuclear weapons. Non-nuclear states can't help but conclude that the only sure way to avoid an attack by the US is to acquire or develop nuclear weapons.

If we -- government and public alike -- believe risking the lives of a million of our own is acceptable, provided we can take out ten million of theirs, we might as well sign up for assisted suicide now. A defense doctrine that channels the likes of the late Herman Kahn is little more than living death.

What security is is talking the likes of Kim Jong-il and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad off the ledge and luring them back inside with enticements. Won't that just encourage other world leaders to rattle their sabers until they fly off the handle? Perhaps, but, once again we have only ourselves to blame.

It was an American president, Richard Nixon, who redefined the madman theory of national leadership. When Hanoi wouldn't budge at the 1969 Paris peace talks, he ordered B-52s loaded with thermonuclear bombs to circle the north polar cap in hopes that a cowed Soviet Union would nudge North Vietnam to cooperate with us.

Security is also accepting that invasion and occupation are not credible foreign policy at a time of, in John Robb's words, open-source warfare (drawing from a large pool of co-developers). Time to keep it simple: Get out, stay out, and stop backing dictatorships.

Just like progressives have trouble focusing on politics when a Democrat occupies the White House, chances are jihadis will lose their edge in the absence of infidels tramping around their homelands and holy cities.

In time, perhaps, we can stop worrying about death by fragmentation as well as an Apocalypse with the power to make the Revelations look like a children's book in comparison. Who knows? Maybe one day the results of a poll on the greatest threats to our well-being will find terrorism a distant second to Internet security.

About the Author
Russ Wellen is an editor at Freezerbox who specializes in foreign affairs and nuclear deproliferation.
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