By Ian McDonald
The world is terror-stricken. A condition of advanced paranoia is spreading everywhere.
The fastest growing business in country after country is the security business. If you travel at all frequently you get a hint of this as at proliferating check-points you are made to cast off belts and shoes and no doubt explosive water bottles and colognes and anything suspiciously sharp-edged while increasingly invasive machines seek to discover the contents of your luggage and examine the secrets of your person if not yet quite your soul, though no doubt that too will come. The big brothers watching us are getting bigger.
Democracy used to be associated with freedom from the rigours of security checks and the oppressive demands of powerful and pervasive investigative bureaucracies. No longer so.
The democracies of the world are rapidly succumbing to the paranoia that once was associated with dictatorships and iron-clad authoritarian regimes. The apparatuses of preemptive surveillance and interdiction are being institutionalized in even the most hallowed halls of freedom.
This hugely dangerous malaise is spreading frighteningly fast in America. The lights of that shining city on a hill are dimming towards darkness.
There restrictions on freedom and suspicion of the foreigner insidiously grow because of obsessive fear of being attacked by that ultimate bogeyman institution, al Qaeda, now increasingly equated by millions of Americans with all of the Muslim faith instead of being dismissed as a small and fanatic bunch of extremists.
It is astonishing how easily a gang of brutal fanatics knocked America off balance. An initial and great mistake was made by comparing and even equating the attack on the Twin Towers in New York in 2001 with the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. The massive attack on Pearl Harbor involved a very formidable, economically powerful and well-armed nation rising in the world starting a full-scale campaign for domination of the Pacific and Asia; 9/11 was a raid by 19 religious fanatics which caused a great deal of mayhem. Pearl Harbor necessitated a mighty war; the Twin Towers atrocity deserved no more than a massive manhunt. How America, followed by Britain and the rest of the West, can have mixed up the two is beyond comprehension. A pinprick which drew some blood was mistaken for a deadly thrust at the heart. The consequences have been hugely detrimental to the peace of the world.
It is time for a complete reversal of approach. I recommend that the philosophy of the Stoics be adopted and translated into actions which release the generality of citizens from the threats and burdens of the over-mighty Security State’s tightening hold on our lives. An attitude more like that of the Duke of Wellington and Lord Uxbridge at Waterloo is advisable. They are standing together on the field of battle. A bouncing cannon-ball knocks off Lord Uxbridge’s leg. After a short pause, Wellington says, “My God, Uxbridge, you’ve lost your leg!” At which Uxbridge, looking down, agrees,” My God, so I have!” They frowned upon over-reaction. Wellington won the battle. Uxbridge survived.
Though far from possessing the personal capacity to emulate them, I think I admire the Stoics most of all the philosophers. Probably we would all like to be able to approach disaster, illness, bereavement and eventually death with the unflinching restraint of the Stoics. Certainly it must be very rare for any man or woman not to need the strength of a Stoic sometimes in a life since, the truth be told, we really have about as much control of what is going to happen to us hour by hour, day by day, one of the Stoics remarked, “as a dog tied to the tail of a cart – he can run a little from side to side, and bark loudly, but if he tries to stand still his lead will strangle him since he has no power over the driver of the cart.” It is not an easy philosophy to live up to in practice, but it is very useful in terrible times.
The Stoics took catastrophe, and the threat of catastrophe, in their stride. They believed that to be virtuous involved being unaffected by pain, pleasure, desire or fear which were emotions belonging to a lower level of existence. To them the ends most men pursue so eagerly – wealth, power, success, comfort – have no importance. The revered Stoic Emperor of Rome, Marcus Aurelius, in his Meditations wrote that it was man’s duty to forgive injuries, regard all men as brothers and await death with equanimity.
That does not sound very similar to what Americans regard as an acceptable approach to life. Yet one nation which, I believe, is going to have to adopt the Stoic philosophy as quickly as possible is America. Basically, Stoics think and act on the basis of “what will be will be.” Americans are going to have to learn that philosophy or spend their lives in desperate daily trepidation worrying constantly about what might be going to happen, taking over-elaborate, stifling and costly precautions against the ten million to one chance of a bin Laden strike affecting any individual American, sensing danger in every shadow that passed unseen before, changing life styles in ways that contradict their culture, undermine their economy and threaten their freedoms, existing permanently on anxious tenterhooks.
Living as if you are about to be struck by lightning at any time is absurd and is anyway unlikely to divert the lightning strike. Paranoia in a nation spells much greater trouble than what cause the trouble in the first place.
Far better, like the Stoics, to shrug off the fear of awful Fate, rise above anticipated pain and look upon the prospect of suffering with indifference if not disdain. But are Americans, with no experience in living memory of the dreadful brutalities of war on their soil and accustomed to thinking of comfort and plenty and safety as a right, likely to adopt a philosophy so foreign both to their experience and their ambitions? It hardly seems likely. But at least they better get used to living with threats and the suggestions of threats without being paralysed by nervousness.
This war against al Qaeda is not going to be easy to control, limit and reduce to high-tech skirmishes against evil in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is a war which the American leaders claim to understand will last for years. However, it is not at all certain that the vast majority of Americans really appreciate the implications of such a contest. The Americans have overwhelming military superiority, of course, but their shadowy opponents have a tremendous psychological advantage. This advantage is summed up in the confusion and fear and clumsy fluster which a simple sentence broadcast from a primitive hideout once brought about “Muslims amidst the infidels are warned not to ride in aeroplanes or go into high buildings.” The overreaction to such a simply produced threat is symptomatic of what is happening.
Are they going to jump high every time a shadow voice murmurs boo? Even without the capacity to implement, it will be easy for al Qaeda spokesmen to express any threat they can think up – suitcase nuclear bombs, small pox bacilli in air-conditioning ducts, nerve gas in the subways, overturned chemical trucks in the long tunnels, poison in the water supply and so on and on – and life, business, daily routines and the ordinary sense of personal security of hundreds of millions will be disrupted and every neighbourhood psyche made fragile as an eggshell.
And just a few actual incidents, even though on a far smaller scale than the strikes against the World Trade Centre on 9/11, will create disproportionate terror, dislocation and rage. This in turn will increase the danger of America lashing out indiscriminately. And this will then hugely escalate the danger of that “clash of civilizations” which everyone, well nearly everyone, fears and which lunatics like bin Laden desire with all their heart and soul.
It is not that Americans should return to normality. Pre-September 11 normality is lost in America, and on this earth, for the foreseeable future.
But a great effort must be made to calm down, regain balance and proportion, pick up the threads of life and weave them again into ordinary patterns of love and work and play in freedom without nameless dread burrowing into the heart of everything they think and do and hideous suspicions spoiling how they treat strangers and even friends. To lead in the world America must set the example of breathing easier again.
Jonathan Franzen, the novelist, has said that the problem of this new time “will be to reassert the ordinary, the trivial, and even the ridiculous in the face of instability and dread: to mourn the dead and then try to awaken to our small humanities and our pleasurable nothing-much.” The Stoics would have agreed.