Lingering issues, personal frailty, rivers of blood... these have been some images in this series thus far. You can see that I always have such thoughts, and so the events in Manhattan in September have little effect on me beyond the experience of hearing about them. It is unfortunate when people die prematurely, and it can be a personal tragedy for those family and friends who survive them, but it is a personal tragedy into which I feel no right intruding. It would be selfish to claim it as my tragedy, yet that demand is there, made by others who have already appropriated it for themselves. Moreover, one need not look back far in time for a larger tragedy: In Gujarat this year, more than three times as many people were killed in an earthquake, and more than a million homes were damaged or destroyed. These are things which happen in the world, and they happen with some regularity. Most are not met with billions of dollars in financial support either. The people involved must pick themselves up, and go on as best they can. That is part of what life is about, and always has been.
I do not want to feel safe, and have said as much before (as pertaining to economics). I will say it again: I do not want to feel safe. It is a stupid feeling, intoxicating with arrogance. It is a feeling which makes doing anything worthwhile impossible, both because it is a lie and because it yields complacency. So, yes, I said before that one can choose to participate in life, or alternately that one can choose otherwise, stay detached from everything, and consequently have safety. That is fine; there is always safety in nothing, but one cannot participate "halfway" or any such nonsense. Besides all this, the people most concerned with safety tend to be the people most attached to the trinkets and vanities of their lives. It was already a daily demand here, one spearheaded by the local TV news (an institution so asinine that one who has not experienced it cannot possibly imagine): Everyone must be completely safe, and anything which undermines that safety, even slightly for an instant, should be expunged from our society. This was true even before the events, creatively entitled elsewhere "America Freaks Out," started to unfold.
The indignation of spoiled rich people is a sight to behold. I mean it is nearly tangible, hanging in the air. The mere thought that anything could happen to them... my oh my. In a completely different context, a casual acquaintance suggested that, since most significant dangers (starvation, plague, etc.) were non-factors here, it was legitimate and appropriate for people to worry over (and take precautions for) prospective dangers with miniscule chances of occurring. This does seem to happen, but where does one draw the line? At what percent likelihood is the cure worse than the disease? Obviously, I feel differently about this than many people. In fact, in today's paranoid climate, I could get in trouble for saying some of these things. But I already said worse to start this series, so there I am, and any possible trepidation is gone before it begins. I am not afraid of terrorists. What a crazy thought... pure lunacy. Not only have fewer people died from terrorism than from car crashes (and not by a small number), but what can possibly be gained from worrying about terrorism? Nothing at all. These events are an amazing illustration of exactly what the terrorists claim regarding the shallowness of American society. Well, I am sure that there are many people who feel more as I do, but of course they do not run around screaming. The latter is what you see & hear, though. Our news media, who should probably be charged with helping to create terror per se, insist upon it. They advance their careers this way.
Such a situation always holds, where the most conspicuous people are not necessarily representative. Most people know this... at least the ones not caught up in being conspicuous do. Is any of this unexpected? Certainly not by me, and so when I say these purportedly life-changing events do not affect my thinking, I say it in the most matter-of-fact way. How can I have ever thought differently than I do now? I have never been so blind. Notice how readily "it cannot happen here" turns into hysteria. One extreme is substituted for another. One might hope that people will become less shallow as a result. Some say it will do so to them personally. We shall see. Does any of this make me feel good? Of course not, not only for the carnage of it, but because people's thoughts are not truly aligning with my own. In some sense they are, in terms of realizing things about the world and their place in it, but far more than that, people feel as though they have been through an ordeal (even, especially, those who have been through nothing more grueling than watching TV). I have been through nothing; I am not fazed, so I am met with more condescension than ever from the majority of people who have always felt that they knew better what was important. I am that much more childlike in their eyes.
In fairness, it is a mutual feeling. I boggle at TV advertising and consumerism, and the ridiculous toys that people will aspire to own as a result... at the sorts of images which inspire them. "Never grow up!" is the rallying cry of a generation of advertising executives, and chronological adults embrace the concept of hoarding toys. I have heard seemingly rational adults admit that they lack the willpower to stop watching repetitive violent imagery on TV. They are controlled, just as children are. So I am alternately too stodgy or too childish to understand the real significance of events. I am no fun and I am disrespectful. I do not want to feel safe! Well, what does bother me? Being directly threatened is one obvious thing, and I am not a pacifist. Violence is inherent to the nature of humanity, and I go so far as to insist that attempting to suppress it utterly is bad for the psyche. As the old anarchist saw goes, though, what people do before their fist collides with my nose is basically their own business. Such confrontational situations are certainly rare, and my main concern is with doing the right thing. Any failure to do my best for everyone involved bothers me, at least for a time, at least long enough to attempt to correct any misguided impulse. If I do the right thing, I can always accept the result.
The result is not always good, of course. Bad things do happen, which is what I told my children nonchalantly. It is, after all, a trivial fact, and not one over which to obsess. Nearly everyone has known personal tragedy; I have had family and friends die suddenly, some due to violence. I have not lost a child, which would be more painful. Of course, there is no guarantee I will always do the right thing either, but as Confucius said, it does seem to become easier with practice. Getting back to the idea of worrying about small things when there are no big things... human nature apparently demands some conservation of worry. I believe that many people are relieved to have something more concrete about which to worry. It helps them to feel alive, and I am not so sure they truly want to feel safe, their protestations aside. There is no such thing as complete safety, and worrying about things outside of one's control is pointless. The impulse to worry, however, may help to explain the ubiquity of professional sports fans. The "threat" of losing something completely unimportant feeds their emotions without real consequences. One can draw an analogy with the tension & release of standard musical forms. We might even enjoy seeing certain styles of music as threats. The funny thing, if I may call it that, is that those arguments sometimes turn violent too.
To be continued....
Administrivia: Next column in three weeks.
To TMM Editorial index.Todd M. McComb