The Real Job

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Memo to the American People: YOU ARE NOT ENTITLED TO SAFETY.

Since Memorial Day is generally a day when we, as a nation, give lip service to something we spend the rest of the year taking for granted, I thought I'd spend this Memorial Day challenging another tenet that we've taken for granted for a very long time - a tenet that sounds good when you hear it, but is in fact at the heart of most of the national security problems we're stuck with right now. And bringing you that tenet is none other than Barack Obama, in his speech last week, where he said this. ACTUAL QUOTE TIME!

"In the midst of all these challenges, however, my single most important responsibility as President is to keep the American people safe. It's the first thing that I think about when I wake up in the morning. It's the last thing that I think about when I go to sleep at night."

Really? I hope not. I hope this is just a line of bullshit to make people feel better, because it's wrong. It was wrong when Bush said it, it's wrong when Obama says it, and frankly, even if they don't mean it, it's wrong for the American people to hear it. Because the most important responsibility of the American president, the Congress, or the rest of the government is not to keep the American people safe. It's to keep the American society safe.

And that's a very different thing. People are inherently selfish. American people, generally, run a bit more selfish than the global average. And when the American people hear that their president is waking up each morning thinking about how to keep the American people safe, they don't think of it in the abstract. They assume that Obama is pondering how, exactly, to keep Jimmy H. Pudfucker alive through another day, and specifically, how to keep Mr. Pudfucker from being blowed up by a foreigner.

Because Obama never says he wakes up each morning wondering how to keep you safe from salmonella. He never goes to bed each night wondering how to keep you safe from a predatory lender. No, this construction is always used in the context of national security. And since 9/11, "national security" has developed a subtext almost exclusively related to keeping any other big buildings from falling over when people are in them.

The idea that the individual safety of every American from terrorism is the most important job on the President's plate is fucking ridiculous, and it's why we're even having a debate about torture and illegal "preventive detainment". Because it's easy to see how either of those things could, conceivably, be used to keep a few thousand Americans safe. And in fact, the idea that this has ALREADY kept a few thousand Americans safe is central to the premise of that lying, war-criminal fuck Dick Cheney's media blitz.

It's a hell of a lot harder, however, to concoct a rationale by which systematic torture and preventative detention keeps American society safe. Blowing up American society would take more bombs that any terrorists, and most nations, actually possess. Yeah, they could, under the right circumstances, kill a whole shitload of us. By some standards, they already have*. But they don't have the tools to unmake America. That power rests solely in the hands of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches.

What we really need in this country are more people, and more leaders, willing to say out loud that no, we shouldn't be waterboarding terrorists EVEN IF they have a ticking time bomb in my basement. Don't get me wrong. I love living. I want to keep living as long as possible. But I also understand that what's best for me personally isn't necessarily good policy for the country. That we all have to make sacrifices in order to keep American society going, and that the sacrifices I personally make are small enough without demanding we abandon our laws and ethics just to keep me breathing and shitting for a little while longer.

But that won't happen. One of the questions that we asked after 9/11 was, "did the government do everything it could to prevent it?" And no, they didn't. But that was the wrong question. The right question was, did they do everything IN ITS POWER to prevent it? Because the answer to that was also "no", and that question doesn't set up the false impression that government should do everything it CAN to prevent terrorist attacks. Because government can do, and has done, some pretty fucking horrible things given a reason and an excuse. And when we benefit from those fucking horrible things, that doesn't make us patriots. It makes us accomplices.

*Not my standards. Three or four thousand once a decade is no great shakes in the grand scheme of things, and as I've said in the past, the seven-plus years we've spent fetishizing those deaths really isn't healthy.