This is part 2 of a 2-part sequence on different aspects of how American society deals with risk. It is related — but only tangentially so — to a post from a year ago regarding why America’s traditional attitude toward risk might be different than the attitudes of other cultures.
Part 1 (Trade-Offs and Value Judgements) is here.
27 May 2020
Over the Thanksgiving weekend a few years ago, I lost yet another pocketknife to the American security state. Because I travel frequently, I have lost several knives to the TSA in the years since 9/11, arriving at the security gate having forgotten that they were in my pocket, with my luggage already checked and making its way to the plane and with insufficient margin in my schedule to return them to the car in the parking lot. This time, I lost it not to the TSA but to the Smithsonian’s Office of Protective Services, guardians of public order at the door of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.
I suppose I could have kept the knife and skipped the museum – that was an option, just as it is always an option at the airport to keep the knife and miss your flight. But in neither case a realistic one. My family and I had made a special trek to DC to take in its cultural and historical ambiance; and I had probably already shelled out more just for the family’s trip into the city center on the Metro than the knife, with its well-worn and notched blade, chipped cover, and broken tip, was worth. It’s likely I would have replaced the knife soon, anyway. In the panoply of life’s indignities, this was a relatively minor example that I might have avoided entirely if I had been paying better attention.
But it was, nonetheless, an indignity, not merely an inconvenience. And it is an indignity representative, in its small way, of a cultural – and, as a consequence, political – abyss that currently divides Americans in much larger and more profound ways.
Anyone who has ever lost a pocketknife to the TSA or to the security check at a place like the Smithsonian knows that the indignity is not merely in the loss of a possession but in the accusatory attitude that accompanies the loss. If you are found to have a knife, the enforcers of security all too often act as if they are also enforcers of public morals. They treat you not as someone forgetful or misinformed, not as a typically distracted human being, but as some kind of imbecile incapable of understanding or adhering to the basic rules of civilized conduct; or, worse, they treat you as a kind of misanthropic renegade, intent on sneaking some menace past their guard so you can rain destruction down upon their defenseless flock.
That is, they act as if carrying a pocketknife is a kind of aberrant and anti-social behavior different only in scope, not in kind, from carrying and threatening use of a bazooka or a bomb, behavior properly considered the realm of deviants and sociopaths incapable of feeling the shame they owe to society, behavior appropriately and virtuously viewed by that society with suspicion, fear, hostility, and revulsion.
To be fair, it is well-known and well-publicized that the TSA does not allow pocketknives onto airplanes any more. And, although the policies of museums toward such things has not been similarly and widely publicized, there was a sign outside the museum proclaiming its prohibition on “weapons”, illustrated with pictures of a handgun and of a mean-looking, hunting-style knife with a well-defined quillon and a long blade clearly designed for penetrating and carving animal flesh. And, the last time I attended a concert at an outdoor pavilion, I had to turn around at the entrance and walk my knife back to my car before they would let me in. So, I ought, I suppose, to know better than to arrive at an airport security station or a museum’s front door with a pocketknife.
Or, perhaps not. We forget that these kinds of restrictions are relatively new. For the nearly nine decades between the invention of passenger air travel and the 9/11 attacks, people, myself included, routinely carried pocketknives and all manner of other useful, but now prohibited, items onto airplanes. The first few times I visited Washington, DC, there was no noticeable security at all at the various museums and historical attractions. That recent concert was the first time I had ever had such a restriction applied at a cultural venue and, given that it hasn’t happened again since then, it still seems to be a relatively rare constraint.
Yet, despite the absence of such heightened levels of security, airplane flights and museums and concerts of the pre-9/11 era were not notorious for their excessive levels of violence, or even for any particular sense of tension. They were, in fact, nearly universally peaceful places. People carried pocketknives and nail clippers and knitting needles and walking sticks and other odd items that we seem now to consider scary and anti-social – and probably carried other, more dangerous items that no one ever saw because they were not brandished and no one was looking for them – but they did not use them to create mayhem. They did not use them to threaten or attack each other.
It is true that the 9/11 hijackers used simple boxcutters to take over the airplanes they then flew into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But, as has been pointed out by many people since, their real weapon was not knives but surprise: the only reason simple box-cutters were so effective was because the planeloads of passengers they threatened believed cooperating, rather than resisting, was the surest path to safety. No passengers now would make the same mistake; and no hijacker would depend on being able to assure cooperation by issuing so ineffective a threat.
To me, and to many people like me, a pocketknife is a tool, a tool that you use every day and in almost uncountable ways. More than that: a pocketknife is so much a part of daily life as to be almost invisible and easily forgotten. I have carried and used a pocketknife as a matter of routine for over fifty years, since I was 7 years old. Almost anyone who grew up where I did, or in some similar place, could say the same. Wherever I go, I generally assume that most of the people around me are probably carrying pocketknives. That has never been a source of any concern, either for me or for them. Carrying a pocketknife is like carrying your wallet or your keys or a handkerchief, or like wearing a belt. It is simply an unremarkable and unremarked part of your kit, out of sight and out of mind unless and until you have a need for it.
Yes, I saw the sign at the Smithsonian telling me I couldn’t bring “weapons” into the museum. It simply never occurred to me to connect that word with the contents of my pockets because I don’t arm myself before venturing out into the world. The issue, for me and for many people like me, is not that I see a problem, in this age of terrorism, with prohibiting the carrying of dangerously potent weapons onto an airplane or into a concert where large numbers of people are effectively held hostage by the limited means for either egress or cover. The issue is that it would never occur to me to consider a pocketknife to be a weapon, never mind a particularly dangerous or potent one; and it would not generally occur to me that others should or would do so.
A pocketknife could, of course, serve as a weapon, though a rather clumsy one. As anyone might recall from the game of Clue, so could a rope or a wrench or a candlestick, and probably to better effect. So could a walking stick or a knitting needle, or a screwdriver, or a hammer. So could a fork or a butter knife. So could a key or a belt or a shoelace. So could a ballpoint pen. So, for that matter, could your fist or your foot or your elbow. The world is full of things that could, at need, be used as makeshift weapons. But, nearly all of them never will be.
Which suggests a fundamental question that goes to the heart of the issue: why is such a significant fraction of the American populace so utterly terrified of their fellow citizens? Why do they consider every stranger in the crowd a potential attacker and view every pointy or blunt object as a sword or a club in disguise?
There are certainly legitimate reasons for some level of anxiety. Reports of mayhem in schools and in nightclubs and in the streets are far too common for comfort and, notwithstanding statistical evidence to the contrary, are made to seem downright epidemic by the degree to which instantaneous communication compresses the perception of geographic distance and by which repetition amplifies the perception of prevalence in our media-mad age. Mavis Bliss, an associate professor of philosophy at Loyola University, noted, in a recent New York Times OpEd regarding the erosion of social trust, that,
“People walk in the midst of a crowd without having to be prepared to defend themselves. Precisely because they take it on trust that strangers have no more intention of inflicting a wound on others than they themselves have, they are able to walk at ease with an unguarded attitude…
“…When I observe my own everyday life in the wake of mass shootings, bombings and vehicle attacks, I find that basic element of trust absent. I walk ill at ease.”
It is true: there are a very few individuals, either evil or demented or both, who hurt people in spasms of solipsistic or doctrinaire mass violence. And it is true: there is a larger number of individuals, either evil or demented or both, who hurt people in small and personalized acts of avarice or malice or retribution. American culture is seemingly more violent than many others that make claim to wearing the mantle of civilization; it has been so for a very long time; and the level of violence – and the enormous degree to which that violence is both observable and observed in ways unimaginable to our forebears – can cause us to despair, can erode our trust in each other and in the safety of our public spaces.
But, even so, it isn’t as though there has ever been a plague of people in the streets – and at workplaces and in shopping malls and in other places with less robust security than what you would find at an airport or a museum – stabbing each other with pocketknives and knitting needles and screwdrivers and butter knives or beating each other with walking sticks and hammers. When was the last time you heard of anything like that? American culture may have a well-deserved reputation as more violence-prone than the cultures of other nominally civilized countries, but things like that are simply not part of anyone’s common experience. Notwithstanding our well-documented cultural tendencies toward violence, we simply don’t behave that way. Why, then, are we so afraid?
Or, rather, why are those who make security policy, and the large number of people who cheer them on in the media and vote for them on election days, so afraid? Because it isn’t true that we are all afraid. For the most part, the people I know would feel no threat at all in knowing that the people around them – even on an airplane or in a museum or in a concert hall – were carrying tools that happen to have points and sharp edges and heavy blunt surfaces. In fact, many of them would feel no particular threat in knowing that people around them were carrying actual weapons, like hunting knives, or even pistols. Nearly all would rate prohibitions on the carrying of less threatening items as somewhere on the spectrum between merely annoying and downright stupid, utterly ineffective as a means for making anyone all that much safer. Security expert and author Bruce Schneier coined the term “security theater” to describe what happens at TSA checkpoints. Many people in my social network have less gentle terms for it.
And, yet, we have all endured it for the last 19 years and there is no reasonable expectation that it is going away any time soon. Why? Because it seems that government policy – and social convention, and cultural aspiration, and the tyranny of public opinion expressed through social media mobs – is now all too often fashioned by a destructively self-reinforcing partnership between those, on the one hand, who have lost all trust in their fellow citizens and who want so badly to be protected from risk, and even from discomfort, that they will trade away almost any freedom for a promise of a bit more security; and those, on the other hand, whose innate and fervent proclivity is to tell everyone else, with great piety and self-assurance, how to organize and operate their lives.
I want to clearly acknowledge and declare at this point, before the whole discussion plunges into a partisan abyss, that the urge to order peoples’ lives for them in ways that suit your own cultural and political preferences is not a monopoly behavior either of the political and cultural Right or of the political and cultural Left. Nor does the desire of the so-called “snowflakes” to stifle free speech on college campuses and in the popular media in the name of “tolerance” differ all that much, either in emotion or in principle, from the desire of pious conservatives to stifle free speech in the arts and in popular culture that they find “obscene” or “blasphemous” or “sinful”. Both the hunger for security and the thirst for a comfortably congenial social order are universal human appetites that cut across political boundaries. And far too many of us, on all sides of our political and cultural divides, have forgotten – or never actually learned – the lessons of The Enlightenment regarding the perils of delegating too much authority to those who are all too eager to rule us.
We are where we are through bipartisan effort, though that hardly seems possible given how riven our political ethos has become. It isn’t that Right and Left agree on policy – on nearly any policy – that imposes regulation in the name of some form of guarantee for physical or emotional security. Rather, it is that their disagreement stems not from a hostility to such regulation, in principle, but from a disagreement about whose vision of security, and of properly secure behavior, those regulations should reflect. That is, they disagree about whether it is “my” preference or “yours” that ends up being enforced upon everyone. Enforcing my enlightened standard of behavior upon you is, after all, sensible, reasonable, practical, and, above all, beneficial; whereas, having your dogmatic standard of behavior enforced upon me is, quite to the contrary, self-evidently extreme and destructive and nothing short of tyranny.
Although I framed my argument in terms of policies regarding actual physical security, the craving for security reflects a much broader modern conception: that the purpose of nearly all human activity – and, most consequentially, the proper purpose of government – is and ought to be the elimination of as much risk as possible from our lives.
The American Declaration of Independence asserts a narrow purpose for government: “…to secure these rights…” to (among others) “…life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…”. That is, it stipulates that the reason to form and support a government is to secure the specifically political right to be free of coercion – by invaders and by criminals and by mobs – as you pursue your own vision for well-being.
In the modern view, the list of things for which we hold government responsible appears to have expanded dramatically. Government is now presumed, by various subsets of its citizens, to have a primary responsibility not merely to protect us from coercion but to “secure” us from the vagaries of life: from grass in a neighbor’s yard that is too tall or paint on a neighbor’s house that is too garish; from being offended and, more generally, from any and all emotional distress; from ideas that are “dangerous”; specifically from “sin” and, more generally, from any and all expressions of immorality; but, also, from any socially-enforced notions of morality; from cultural infiltration, on the one hand, and from cultural insularity, on the other; from cultural and social disapprobation; from “intolerance” and “hate”; from diseases, not merely the contagious but the self-inflicted, and more generally from poor health and the ravages of age; from economic hardship; from “inequality” and “unfairness”; from suffering the adverse consequences of our own folly; and from falling into folly in the first place.
Set aside that this list of things government is presumed to be protecting us from is, in many ways, self-contradictory. It is also, in many ways, fundamentally incompatible with the goal of protecting individual liberty. Liberty is discomfiting. Liberty is dangerous. The freedom to make choices necessarily implies the freedom to make bad choices. The freedom to behave in ways that others might find objectionable means others are free to behave in ways that you will object to; and the freedom to judge others’ behavior means they are free to judge yours. The freedom to succeed cannot be entirely decoupled from the freedom to fail. Free people will sometimes make bad choices. Free people will sometimes behave badly and offer judgement on what they consider the bad behavior of others. Free people will sometimes fail. The only way to prevent that is to take away their freedom.
Notwithstanding their narrow conception of the proper role of government, the American founders certainly understood that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” was not an exclusive and exhaustive list of all the inalienable rights of man. They certainly understood that the idea of “public goods” might, also, be the province of government. And, certainly, some of the modern extensions of governmental responsibility fall into one or both of those categories. Our understanding about the nature of contagion is vastly more sophisticated than what was available 250 years ago, and our understanding of what public health measures are necessary and justified to forestall a contagion – which is arguably, after all, a form of coercion imposed upon you by someone else who passes that contagion to you – are similarly more sophisticated.
But much of the risk abatement we now demand of government is not so obviously tied either to an inalienable right or to an identifiable and unambiguous public good. The list of things we expect the government to protect us from long ago departed the realm of public goods and political responsibility; and the assertion that “the personal is the political” has become a self-fulfilling prophecy as we insist on dragging politics ever more firmly into our interpersonal relationships and our personal lives.
Nor is such risk abatement obviously a worthwhile endeavor given the inevitable costs. It is still, and always, worth asking how much risk and uncertainty – and how much actual disruption – are a fair price to pay for preserving our fundamental liberties. Many have sacrificed their lives to that cause. Some lesser costs might, in the light of their sacrifices, seem not overly high.
More to the point, the level of risk tolerance that many seem to advocate – zero, or as close to it as unbounded sacrifice can achieve – is simply unachievable in a world outside of utopian fantasy. As with nearly everything circumscribed by the unforgiving constraints of physics and biology and psychology and economics, the law of diminishing returns applies to risk abatement: at some point the cost and difficulty of reducing risk increases faster than risk, itself, decreases. Beyond that point, the lower you go, the more it costs and the harder it is to go lower, still. As a culture and as a political society, our tolerance for risk has arguably become skewed toward intolerance nearly to the point of irrationality.
Consider the recent Covid-19 epidemic. There are no reasonable grounds for disputing that, had they approached it without ideological and political blinders, the various American governments could and should have done better than they did – probably much better – at slowing the spread of the disease. But what would it have taken, really, to achieve the near-zero level of disease and death that so many people seem to feel was their due and the governments’ charge? An immediate, total, and enduring shutdown of all human activity everywhere at the first hint of any possible danger? PPE and ventilator and vaccine factories sitting idle, but fully ready for production, so they could spring into action within days of being called upon to provide what we needed to handle the crisis? Mass stockpiles of unused supplies and hospitals with floors of fully-equipped but persistently empty wards waiting patiently for the wave of patients that might come in the first surge of a pandemic? Are we really prepared to pay for that, in both money and liberty, over the decades that pass between those emergencies? How many false alarms and near misses are we willing to sit out in our homes, unemployed and locked down, in order to avoid the one that was the real thing, and for how long at a time? How much extra are we willing to pay for all the goods and services we use every day in order to maintain spare production, supply, and service capacity that we might need once in every five or six generations? How many of us are that disciplined? And, when it comes down to it, should we even aspire to be?
I have, I admit, been unfair and unjustifiably dismissive toward those who I have characterized as “fearing their fellow citizens.” They are, in truth, not necessarily more fearful than others who do not share that peculiar anxiety. In most cases, their fears are merely different, not more extreme. And those fears are not wholly unwarranted.
There is no evidence that allowing people to carry pocketknives and other innocuous tools into public spaces will result in any significant increment in carnage. But “significance” is a subjective measure and it is certainly possible that such prohibitions might prevent an occasional act of malice or of rage. As noted before, there are, indeed, predators and berserkers among us and American culture does, indeed, seem to be more violence-prone than many others. The distribution of violence is highly uneven across geography, population density, economic and social class, and other variables, so a few of us are at a distinctly higher risk than most; and the exceptional degree of interconnectedness created by the ease of long-distance travel and communications, and the ubiquity of reporting on violence by 24-hour news coverage and through social media, makes violence seem both more frequent and more proximate than the actual statistics would imply. Nonetheless, there is some small reason for anxiety.
Moreover, some people cannot be trusted to avoid imposing lesser mayhems upon society. We see that in the vehement insolence toward basic contagion control measures, like wearing masks, during an undeniable period of high viral risk. But we also see it in smaller things: in the number of people who commonly treat the public roadways and other people’s yards as their own personal trash cans; in the eagerness of some few others to turn nearly any public strife or protest into an excuse for a bit of personal pillage; in the uncivil and inescapable diffusion of discomfiting language and practices, like casual profanity and overt sexuality, into shared public spaces; in the dearth of common decency and empathy evident in so many online postings; in the incessant flow of scams and hacks into our mailboxes and answering machines; in the deplorable profit-over-decency treatment we experience too often from ‘legitimate’ business; in the rule-bound indifference we receive from too many “public servants”, and in the officious arrogance displayed by too many others; in the seeming pervasiveness of “I’ve got mine!” attitudes toward economics and politics; but, also, in the seeming equal pervasiveness of “What’s yours is mine!” attitudes toward the same.
Can we trust each other? Despite all that, the answer is, “Mostly, yes.” But it is also, “All too often, no!” The few do, indeed, ruin it for the many: a conspicuous minority of people cannot be trusted; and, hence, the rest of us frequently end up having to live with a culture and a society and a government that they deserve.
Such anti-social behavior has always been part of human societies. America, in particular, is a nation descended largely from people who chose to escape the cultural and social and economic constraints of their old worlds in pursuit of a better, individually-determined life in this new one. Thus, some extraordinary yearning for individuality and autonomy are at the root of our cultural character.
Even so, we are arguably now more driven by ego, and more socially fragmented, than at nearly any other time in our history. Our culture has, indeed, become in many ways narcissistic to the point of dysfunction and we have, as a natural response, come to rely ever more heavily on the regulatory power of government to reign in our propensities to individual excess.
Worse, the more we have come to – and the more we have been taught to – rely on government to regulate the behavior of others, the less we have come to rely on – and the less we have been taught or practiced – the virtue of regulating ourselves. The more success the solipsistic fringe – economic more than cultural on the “right”, cultural more than economic on the “left” – has had in attacking and emasculating the economic and religious and social and cultural mores that historically disciplined such self-control, the less able we are to count on self-regulation and the more pressure there is to empower government to impose yet more external regulation upon us. So, the cycle continues. And so, the cycle is amplified and hastened when our anxiety waxes even as our tolerance for risk wanes.
We all have things we fear. And we all think government should be arranged, to some reasonable extent, in ways that allay those fears. Fear, and its cousin, anger, flow from the twin springs of threat and powerlessness. We don’t fear that which seems unlikely to harm us; and we don’t fear that which we feel is within our ability to control. We fear the Jungle that surrounds us – that murky realm of lurking predators and veiled toxins, of unexpected precipices and raging torrents and mysterious fogs. We gather ourselves into Tribes as a defense against the Jungle, as a means to wield the collective strength of numbers against the individual terrors that strike at us from its cloaking shadows.
But the sense of security we take from the Tribe arises out of a fundamental premise: that the Tribe’s interest aligns with our own. The Tribe protects us because we belong to it, because we are in sync with its collectively acknowledged, if often only implicit, goals, priorities, and norms.
What, though, if we are not? What if our own interest diverges from that of the Tribe? Or, what if the Tribe views its own security and welfare as paramount and ours, by contrast, as expendable? How much, then, can we – and ought we – commit and entrust our own security to the imperatives of its communal intent? In the long term, what is good for the Tribe is often also what is good for the bulk of its members. But that is not always so; and it is often, in the short term, a source of harm for any given individual.
Moreover, the Jungle doesn’t just offer individual terrors. It also conceals other Tribes. Even if your own Tribe protects you, those others may view you as prey when you find yourself alone and unprotected beyond the bounds of the village.
In short, while many of us fear others as individuals, many of us fear others as groups at least as much or more. The herd may provide protection. The pack as often represents peril.
Just as there are genuine reasons to fear the intemperance of individual strangers, so, too, there are genuine reasons – gleaned both from the long history of societies around the world and from today’s headlines – for fearing the intemperance of mobs – mobs in both senses of the word: as ad hoc groups, acting on spontaneous emotion and impulse to impose their collective will (“mob rule”); or as consciously structured organizations, acting logically and dispassionately in furtherance of some mutual self-interest (“the Mob”); and, in either case, employing coercion – intimidation if not outright violence – to impose its will on those who dissent from its desires.
Those who want government to regulate the behavior of individuals do so because they trust that the government is their Tribe – that they are, if not in actual control of the government, then at least in sympathy with it. They fear the government less than they fear their fellow citizens.
But others fear the exact opposite: that the government will act as a Mob, with its own agenda of power and privilege too often unrelated to our welfare, and with our actual degree of control over it much more limited than its nominally “democratic” provenance would imply; or, equally alarming, that government will act effectively as another Tribe, not our own, directed by a mob of our fellow citizens who view us less with empathy than with contempt.
And, really, is that irrational? The American founding was a rebellion specifically against a government that acted as a Mob. The new government the Founders created was structured to protect us against re-creating such a Mob of our own. And, anticipating the practical dangers of “democracy” along with its moral blessings, the new government the Founders created was also structured to protect us against a mob that would commandeer its powers. In neither case, however, have those structures been wholly effective. What are the Black Lives Matter movement and Defund the Police about if not a reaction to the depredations of a government that acts as a Mob? What are the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and of AOC about if not about attenuating the institutional barriers between the mob and the levers of government power, about allowing the many to appropriate what it will from the few in the name of “fairness” and justified by “democracy”? And, more broadly, what have nearly all recent election campaigns been focused on if not envisioning a candidate as King, on ensuring that it is my Tribe, and not yours, that gets to exercise the unbridled authority to order our lives?
The entire concept of a ‘liberal’ order – of governance by negotiation and agreement, rather than by edict, of a focus on a fair process as much as on a desirable result – is under assault and losing ground daily. Once upon a time we, as a society, believed that the best way to manage the risks associated with government was to bound its authority to coerce us. We seem, now, to have abandoned that approach in favor of a new one: ensure, at all costs and by any means, it is your own tribe, not someone else’s, that controls that authority; and then, safe in the comfort of that control, unbind it. That is, of course, a terrifying prospect for the losers. And, so, the losers are all for eviscerating that authority entirely – until, that is, they find themselves, once again, on the winning side of the ledger.
It is possible – indeed, likely – that in this, too, our risk tolerance has become skewed toward irrationality. Prudent regulation is not a mere step away from tyranny. A modest economic safety net is not a mere step away from Marxism. Just as it is not possible to utterly eliminate the risks of liberty without eliminating liberty, so, also, it is not possible to utterly eliminate the risks of government without eliminating government. In both, our obsession with eliminating all risk has driven us to extremes. And, in both, our ego-driven culture exacerbates our obsession. Why am I afraid of individuals? Because they are selfish and beyond my control! Why am I afraid of the mob or of the Mob? Because it is selfish and beyond my control! Why am I afraid? Because I cannot trust!
And that, of course, is at the bottom of it all. We can no longer negotiate and compromise – we can no longer embrace a shared process for governance rather than seeking a raw power over others – because we no longer trust each other either to have empathy or, more importantly, to act in good faith. Why are we intolerant of risk? Because we feel a lack of control. Why do we feel a lack of control? Because we don’t trust each other to do the right thing, either as individuals or as a polity. In the absence of trust, even small risks loom large.
We need to re-learn the ability to trust.
But, to do that, we first need to re-learn the virtue of being trustworthy.
Nothing short of that will save us.
 Our Broken Trust in Public Space, by Mavis Bliss, The Stone, The New York Times, 28 May 2018
 From Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly About Security in an Uncertain World, by Bruce Schneier (Copernicus, 2003)
© Copyright 2020, Augustus P. Lowell