What's The Worst That Could Happen?

I, too, apologize for today's dearth of posts. The Munz household spent most of the day consumed with Passover-Related Program Activities, and between the four questions and the thing with dipping your pinky in the wine ten times, I didn't have time to make it to the keyboard.

As a parting shot, I want to direct everyone's attention to this characteristically fabulous Slate piece by Dahlia Lithwick, concerning the fate of one Zacarias Moussaoui:

What's truly distressing about this turn of events is that Moussaoui
may just have decided to accept the bizarre government position in this
case: that he should be executed for being a poster boy for al-Qaida.
Whether he now hopes to become a martyr, or to fast-track his case to
the Supreme Court, or whether he's finally been beaten down by everyone
else's unremitting craziness, remains to be seen.

I'm trying to muster some cogent legal commentary here, but I think Dahlia just about covers that. Instead, I want to offer a brief observation-slash-bleg-for-comments: The kind of prosecution Dahlia's chronicling here - overzealous and result-oriented - stems ostensibly from the idea that any level of terrorist threat posed by an individual is serious enough to substantially abrogate his legal rights. It is, literally, a take-no-chances policy. This, in turn, seems to require a belief that a terrorist attack is The Worst Thing That Could Happen.

Call me un-American, but I just don't see it. For those who don't know, I live in New York City. On 9/11, I saw the second tower falling from the third-story window of my high school. My aunt was scheduled to be in the Marriott immediately adjacent to the WTC; had she not been home tending to my uncle's minor heart attack, she would likely have been seriously hurt, if not killed. As it is, 3000 of my fellow Americans and fellow NYCitizens were killed, in a violent and terrifying way. But, all that said, I've never been able to muster a sustainable sense of violence or visceral hatred towards the jihadist attackers or their sympathizers. Sure, I'm saddened by their actions, and I grieve for their victims. And I wish like anything that the kind of hatred they had just didn't exist on earth. But, at the end of the day, I just can't muster up an all-consuming hatred of them. I know we have enemies, but I don't feel personally violent towards them. Mostly, I feel a deep sense of sorrow at their existence, and a vague sense that life will mostly be okay anyway. Maybe that's just a coping mechanism, and I'm missing something. Maybe I know, somewhere in the back of my mind, that resisting a sense of hatred or violence is all that keeps Us from being Them. Whatever the reason, I can't bring myself to hate the people who, from the looks of things, hate me pretty deeply.

I don't, incidentally, think I'm the only one. The areas most likely to be targetted by terrorists - NYC, California, DC - went for Kerry by the standard huge margins. And Kerry, whatever his level of competence in fighting terrorism, clearly didn't feel personally violent towards terrorists. I picture George W. Bush waking up every morning, his decision-making process fueled largely by the anger he felt on 9/11; I don't see Kerry ever doing the same. I remember when Peter Beinart first wrote his (in)famous "Fighting Faith" column; he received so many responses along the lines of "sure, but terrorism isn't as big a problem as Communism" that he was forced to write a follow-up dealing specifically with that point.

To give a more personal anecdote, one of my favorite things about 9/11 (I know, but follow me here) was reading the man-on-the-street reactions to it from Average Noo Yawkers. The first week after 9/11, the responses were what you'd expect: Terrible tragedy, time of loss, grief for our nation, etc. But after that, you started to see more and more comments alluding to how the WTC weren't really that attractive, and maybe now the city would put something nice up. New Yorkers instantly became pragmatic. They realized that if you were one of the people unfortunate enough to actually be threatened by terrorism, the only way to go on living was to see the event in broader perspective. You don't really have the luxury of blustering, therapeutic rage; if you dont laugh, there's nothing else to do but cry.

What I'm getting at here is that we always say that 9/11 Changed Everything - and maybe from a foreign policy perspective, it did - but for me, and I think for a lot of people, it didn't change much at all. In fact, more than anything, what 9/11 did was throw into sharp relief the importance of not changing. For those Americans who live in the shadow of Actual Terrorism, fear isn't a hypothetical that can be evoked by a Bush/Cheney '04 ad and then switched off. For them fear is real, and it doesn't have an off switch; if you let it consume you, you may as well just take a header off the Chrysler Building, because you're doing Bin Laden's work without the man having to lift another deranged finger.

That's what kills me about L'Affaire Moussaoui: I can't afford to be permanently afraid, and that seems like the stance my government is taking. I won't use the phrase "the terrorists win," because I hate it, but as someone who just can't muster a visceral fear/hatred of Moussaoui the way some people can, it should be pretty clear why this whole lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the-jurisprudence approach has me pretty spooked.

I see Bush/Cheney supporters sometimes, seething with rage at nearly a continent of people, and I want to get it. I want to feel the hatred; I feel like if I don't, I'm not taking defending America seriously. But then, part of me thinks that those people are the ones using a legitimate tragedy as an excuse to vent, and that the only way to really take 9/11 seriously - to appreciate the challenge it presented to the American psyche - is to just ignore it and go on worrying about school, parents, getting a job, and all the other mundane shit that keeps most people way too engaged in life to ever be afraid of it.

So, commenters, as my Final Question of the weekend, I ask: Is death really the worst thing that could happen?

Thanks for having me.

- Daniel A. Munz