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Economist / Shell Writing Prize 2002

Milksop Nation

By Jack Gordon

I like thunderstorms. My dog does not.

I never feel so impressed by planet Earth, nor so satisfied to inhabit it, as when a proper
thunderstorm is in progress. I like the rumbling approach of the great cumulus cloud, the booms
and flashes, the way you can actually feel the air pressure drop in the moments just before the
first wallop of wind arrives. I like storms even though one tried to kill me a few years ago, late at
night on a 36-foot sloop with its full mainsail still stupidly up, 20 miles from the nearest shore of
Lake Superior.

No thunderstorm ever offered my dog any harm, but they terrify her just the same. She
whimpers and shivers. She hides in the bathroom. She crawls into people’s laps. She makes an
insufferable nuisance of herself, and no reassurance can calm her. Call Roxie neurotic, but she
just doesn’t feel safe.

Then again, if “neurotic” refers to behaviour dictated by a fear that is unreasonable by prevailing
social norms, then perhaps the word no longer applies. When the TV weather people in
Minnesota, where we both live, interrupt their regularly scheduled programming to issue
panicky bulletins concerning a thunderstorm detected (by Doppler radar) somewhere within
150 miles (but headed this way!), they always speak as if addressing viewers no better able than
Roxie to assess the odds against being eaten by thunder or struck by lightning.

Blowing threats out of proportion is, of course, the stock in trade of TV news, whether the
menace in question is a summer rainstorm or the distressing stains revealed when an
investigative reporter shines ultraviolet light on a freshly laundered bed sheet at an upscale
hotel. But television reflects its viewers’ attitudes as well as shaping them, and clearly there
exists a very large audience receptive to the never-ending theme: Life is meant, ever and always,
to be safe—and you’re not safe.

Enter Osama bin Laden.

Twelve hours hadn’t passed since the first airliner struck the World Trade Centre on
September 11th 2001 before the talking heads on CNN turned their attention to the subject of
how much freedom Americans would be willing to give up in order to feel more secure. I
evidently missed the explanation of how they came to see this as the first and most obvious
question written in the flames still rising from the rubble in lower Manhattan. As suddenly as the
planes that had slammed into the twin towers that morning, the issue simply materialized in the
vestments of the story’s anointed spin.

At the time, it seemed bizarre. I had spent most of the day watching the footage of those same
flames, and not once had it occurred to me that a logical response to the horror might be to
sacrifice my freedom.
Sure enough, though, the newsies had it right. It was as if the USA Patriot Act signed into law by
President Bush six weeks later (and denounced by the American Civil Liberties Union as “based
on the faulty assumption that safety must come at the expense of civil liberties”) were already
drafted and ready on the morning of September 11th, awaiting only one final push from the
lobbyists at al Qaeda.

In retrospect, it’s hardly startling that the pundits—and the Congress—pounced so quickly on
the idea of trading freedom for safety. Nor should it come as any surprise that the American
public (80% of it, according to this summer’s opinion polls) would so readily accept the
exchange as a sensible one, even when the freedoms to be surrendered are unspecified and
when the explanations of why eliminating them will guarantee anyone’s security are not
forthcoming. The TV weather people have us pegged. What Americans demand above all from
their government, from their weather—from life itself—is that they be made to feel safe.

For two decades and counting, we citizens of the land of the free and the home of the brave
have happily traded freedom for every scrap of bogus safety dangled before us. Indeed, we have
devoted prodigious energy to inventing threats that demand the sacrifice of liberty, privacy and
even basic human dignity.

It hardly takes an international cabal of murderous fanatics to frighten us into making the trade.
This is a country in which millions of working people submit routinely to random inspections of
their own urine. Why? So that someone, somewhere, can feel falsely assured that no insurance
claim is processed and no forklift in the nation is driven down a warehouse aisle by a weekend
marijuana smoker. The act of contributing the sample must be observed by monitors to prevent
the wondrous crime of urine fraud—a transgression unimaginable before the 1980s, when we
obliged Ronald and Nancy Reagan by opening our bladders to public scrutiny in the name of
workplace safety.

From the other end of the political spectrum come the pusillanimous speech codes on our
college campuses. These restrict permissible discussion so that tomorrow’s thought leaders may
feel safe. Safe from what? From chance encounters with thoughts that might disturb their

We know perfectly well—television tells us so—that half of humanity lives in appalling poverty
and that common pastimes on three continents include fleeing marauding bandit-armies and
wondering where one’s next meal will come from. Yet here in America, the threat du jour—our
own pet idea of a deadly menace to our health and welfare—is secondhand smoke. We’re not
only able but eager to take this seriously, ordinances and all. In the entire state of California
there is no saloon with a clientele so reckless and depraved that the law will avert its eyes and
permit them to take the insane risk of drinking a beer in a building occupied by a person who
might smoke a cigarette.

Contemporary vacationers will be scandalized to learn that in Frank Sinatra’s heyday, diving
boards were standard equipment at the swimming pools of the glittering hotels on the Las Vegas
Strip. Even three-metre-high boards! The curse was lifted, thanks to a well-grounded fear of
personal-injury lawyers, and the Strip today is proudly board-free. After all, someone might get
hurt. Against that prospect, who would argue for the freedom to attempt a back flip in the
gambling capital of the world?

We’d sacrifice the right to choose what foods to put in our mouths if only the dieticians would
settle long enough on which ones are safest for the bills to be pushed through our state
legislatures. Sugar or Saccharine? Margarine or butter? Wine or abstinence? Meat or no? There
are germs on our kitchen counters that appear under ultraviolet light!
Something we’re ingesting is bound to prevent us from dragging out our worried lives for a full
90 years. Please, God, won’t the food scientists tell us once and for all what it is?

Small wonder if Osama bin Laden expected the entire American edifice to collapse along with
the New York towers the moment he showed us something genuinely scary. We gave him
every reason to believe it would.

How much freedom would Americans surrender to ease their fear? All of it. Take it! We’re
afraid of it anyway.

It is fashionable to remark that America “lost its innocence” on September 11th. This is
balderdash. Our innocence is too deep and intractable for that. The thing we’ve really lost
doesn’t even deserve the name of bravery. We’ve lost the ability to come to grips with the
simple fact that life is not a safe proposition—that life will kill us all by and by, regardless. And as
a society, we’ve just about lost the sense that until life does kill us, there are values aside from
brute longevity that can shape the way we choose to live.

The modern American attitude toward risk was captured perfectly 16 years ago in the aftermath
of the Challenger space shuttle debacle. On January 28th 1986, a New Hampshire
schoolteacher, Christa McAuliffe, and six other crew members were vaporised when Challenger
exploded 74 seconds after lift-off from Cape Canaveral. The commentary leading up to the
launch had been full of admiration for the death-defying heroism of “the first average American
in space” and her comrades. But the national mourning period that followed the blast was
characterised far less by grief than by astonishment and recrimination. Commentators and
citizens alike were shocked—shocked—to learn that the bold adventure was, in fact, unsafe.
Who was responsible for this outrage? Who made the faulty O-ring? Who killed Christa?

It was as if the entire nation saw the fireball but nobody had so much as glanced at the space
shuttle itself. The thing was then, and is now, a Rube Goldberg contraption of breathtaking
audacity. It’s an airplane clamped onto the side of a highly explosive booster rocket, as if with a
rubber band. What did we think the talk of bravery had been about? The shuttle is—or should
be—a visceral reminder of a time when the term “American” was likely to describe a person
who crossed the Atlantic in a leaky wooden boat, then climbed into a rickety wagon and drove
it west across 2,000 miles or so of hostile and unforgiving ground until he either died or found a
place to drop a plough. And who did all this even though, from a safety standpoint, the whole
enterprise should have been illegal.

The 1986-model American turned out to be a naïf rattled to his core by the discovery that an
apparatus sponsored by his government, no matter how jury-rigged its appearance or how
daring its avowed purpose, might be genuinely dangerous. By 2001, we’d had another 15 years
to practice the arts of denial. The commentators and the portents all agreed that sooner or
later, foreign terrorists would strike dramatically on American soil. But who could have guessed
they might actually bring it off? Something clearly must be done, and if the first suggestion is to
surrender to the nearest authorities any certificates of freedom that might be required—well,
we’ve had plenty of practice at that, too.

Safety is a fine thing, but as an obsession it rots the soul. If I should live to be 90, and I am called
upon to attest to the other nursing-home residents that my life was about something racier
than guessing right on the butter-v-margarine conundrum, I will speak of that thunderstorm on
Lake Superior. I’ll describe the touch-and-go struggle to keep the boat pointed just enough off
the wind to maintain headway, and the jackhammer pounding of a madly luffing mainsail trying to
spill a 75-knot gale. I’ll talk about the way we huddled in the cockpit with our eyes rigidly
forward because looking aft would mean another lightning-illuminated glimpse of the dinghy we
towed, risen completely out of the water and twirling like a propeller on the end of its line.

Pleasant though many of them were, with the cheese and crackers and such, I doubt I’ll have
much to say about the hours I spent on Superior with the sails furled, motoring in perfect safety
through flat water and dead air.

Copyright © 2003 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All rights reserved.

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