Calling LBC to Debate Our Response To Terrorism

What a hideous few days for terrorist attacks in Europe.  First, a spate of incidents in Germany: an axe attack; a shooting that killed nine people; someone with machete; and most recently a suicide bomber that injured 15 people. 

And then on Tuesday, the despicable murder of Fr Jacques Hamel at his church in Rouen, France. It’s less than a month since the Nice attacks, when a man in a truck deliberately ran over hundreds of people celebrating Bastille Day.

The regularity of these attacks only adds to the fear that the terrorists seek to sow.  There is a sense that Europe is a battleground, that things are falling apart.  The Far Right will seek to exploit this fear to their advantage.

We need to remember that these incidents are still extremely rare.  After the Nice attacks, the author Tom Pollock wrote a post on the likelihood of someone being hurt by a terrorist:

In France, in the last two years, there have been 8 attacks for which responsibility was claimed by Islamic Extremist Terrorists, killing a total of 247 people. There are 66,000,000 people in France. At the current level of activity, their odds of being killed in a terrorist attack in a given year are less than two ten-thousandths of one per cent. That’s 27 times lower than their odds of dying in a car accident. …

In Iraq, by contrast, the chances are much higher.

We would do well to remember this… but of course it’s not the whole story. Being told that they are extremely unlucky is no comfort to the victims or their families. And even though the chances of you or me being caught up in a terrorist attack are vanishingly small, we still do not want to live in a country or on a continent where this happens so frequently.  There is a psychological impact on everyone. 

Yesterday, I heard the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy on the radio, suggesting that everyone now needs to alter their mental state. We must, he said, become far more cautious and suspicious in public spaces. He offered Israel as an example of the permenant state of alert that Europe needs to adopt.

I think that would be sad and wrong. The Israelis perpetual expectation of attack is one reason given for the continued occupation of the West Bank.  It’s an attitude that leads to soldiers shooting at children throwing stones.

But Something Must Be Done, right?

Perhaps not. What seems clear from the recent attacks is that the level of co-ordination with the leaders of Islamic State / Daesh is minimal and perhaps non-existent. There may not be any networks to infiltrate or many conversations on which to eavesdrop. The security services are surely already doing all they can, but there is no easy way to prevent so-called ‘lone wolves’ using everyday objects to hurt ordinary people, as happened in Rouen and Nice.  

At least, no way that would preserve civil liberties and the open society that we value, and which the terrorists loathe. Security guards outside churches, really?  It’s a problem that can only be solved with long term social policies, not quick-fix increase in the security presence.

On Monday, I called into the Breakfast Show on the talk radio channel LBC. During the programme, plenty of callers had been discussing the latest terror attacks.  Some people advocated racial and religious profiling, and The host, Nick Ferrari, seemed to be imply that the terrorism was essentially the fault of asylum and immigration policy.

I called in to say two things.  The first was to point out that (pace Tom Pollock, above) terrorists kill a tiny, tiny proportion of the population of Europe.

My second point was that we should not introduce any new policies, such as banning Muslims or ignoring refugees, that would compromise our values.  Such policies are exactly what the terrorists want because they ‘sharpen the contradictions‘. Demonising Muslims and turning away refugees will only boost recruitment to ISIS.  I am shocked that there are still people in this country and around Europe who do not understand this.

At the end of my impromptu contribution to Nick Ferrari’s show, I tried to introduce the idea that we should accept that some people will die from terrorism, in the same way that people die from cancer, in wars or car accidents. In this, I had in mind the short article ‘Just Asking‘ by David Foster Wallace, written for Atlantic magazine in 2007.

What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, “sacrifices on the altar of freedom”? In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea?

If we must change our way of thinking, let us internalise this: We cannot live in a state of total security.  Some crime and even terrorism is always likely to be with us. This idea is something that liberal people, who support human rights and a free society, often try to avoid talking about.  I have written before on the need for campaigners and those who advocate for civil rights to be honest about the negative consequences of advocating freedom. We need to better explain why the freedoms and rights that we hold are worth preserving, even if bad people can do bad things with those freedoms. 

When I made this point on my LBC, Nick Ferrari accused me of being “sanguine” about terrorist deaths! I cannot decide whether he was right on that point: perhaps in the moment my argument was poorly put. Or conversely, perhaps accusing rights defenders of such things is a standard tactic deployed by those of a more authoritarian tendency?

Incredibly, the audio from the show does not appear to be readily available online, so you cannot judge for yourselves. 

Two Americas – Infinite Jest and The Wire

(This post contains mild spoilers).

A double loss – It has been a couple of weeks since I finished reading the brick-like Infinite Jest, which I was reading as part of the Infinite Summer project.  And now I’ve just finished watching the last ever episode of The Wire, the Great American Novel of TV shows.  I am now feeling the loss of two sets of characters.  I have been removed from Boston and Baltimore simultaneously.

The two pieces are obviously very different in style.  The Wire is brutal realism (if not totally real), whereas Infinite Jest is satire, fable, comedy, with a little magical realism thrown in.  At least, I think it is.

Nevertheless, the two have a fair few similarities.  The first is the theme of interconnectedness, which any piece of fin du millénaire art must include. Infinite Jest painstakingly introduces us to the back-stories of a dozen or more  minor characters, justifying the route that each addict takes to the door of the Ennet half-way house (the first, when Ken Erdeddy awaits the delivery of his dope, is one of my favourite sequences in the novel).  Meanwhile, The Wire presents hundreds of co-incidences and minor tragedies that culminate in all the best-laid plans going awry.  Many of these involve the bald and simple Herc, one of the low level officers in the Serious Crimes Unit, who is too stupid to realise the negative effect his indiscreetness has on the investigations of those around him.  Instead, he feels under-appreciated and hard-done-by, which makes him one of the most dislikable characters in the series.

A strong parallel is of course in the theme of drugs and addiction, which both Infinite Jest and The Wire have by the kilo.  At the end of series 4, street-junkie Bubbles (who tried and failed to get clean in earlier episodes) inadvertently causes the death of his young charge Sherrod, and tries in vain to hang himself.  When we meet him again in series 5 he is at NA meetings and on the road to redemption.  Sherrod’s death is clearly the “cliff” that David Foster Wallace describes so eloquently in Infinite Jest, the point-of-no return.  Bubbles fails to eliminate his own map for good.  He has hit the very rock bottom, which provides his motivation to get clean, however demeaning that might be.  Bubbles’ NA ‘sponsor’, the biker Walon, is a giant of a man, who doesn’t know big fancy words, but has the wisdom of one who has transcended his addiction.  He could be Infinite Jest’s Don Gately (if Don let his hair grow out).

Bubbles at an NA meeting (Series 5, The Wire)
Bubbles at an NA meeting (Series 5, The Wire)

I never had faith that Bubbles would survive.  Of all the characters we met in series 1, he was the least likely to make it through to the final credits intact.  I expected the writers to find a way for him to die senselessly and tragically (at the whim of some low-level dealer, perhaps?) that would shock the audience.  But Bubbles is a good character, with a sense of justice, and he deserves to beat his addiction, and the tribute of the newspaper article, late in series 5.

Bubbles success is a triumph of sincerity over cynicism, which is, as Matthew Baldwin has been arguing this week, a major theme in Infinite Jest.  In the book, the sincerity is for the most part internalised:  Hal Incandenza and Don Gately talking to themselves.  But Don’s AA meetings teach the value of openness with others (most hilariously, in Ken Erdeddy’s meeting with Big Tony on page 505).  Hal’s brother Mario, slightly warped both physically and mentally, is the embodiment of sincerity, while their Mother – “The Moms” – is ruined by her inability to communicate honestly with anyone else in her family.

Back in Baltimore, “high-functioning alcoholic” Jimmy McNulty is at his happiest when he is true to himself: twirling a baton out on the streets at the end of series 3, and celebrating with his ex-colleagues after finally, spectacularly crashing out of Baltimore PD.  And the little montage which closes The Wire, beginning and ending with Jimmy looking out over the city, shows us that those who have made a stand for something other than themselves, seem most happiest:  Gus Haynes, the Baltimore Sun‘s City Editor, is content at his desk; Bubbles finally gets to eat dinner with his sister; and Cedric Daniels is smiling in a cheap lawyer’s suit, having dumped his police career on a point of principle.  Meanwhile, poor Duquan, who waits until the final episode to tell his first lie, is seen shooting-up by the junk-yard fire; and ex-Kingpin Marlo, in a suit and trying to be something he is not, looks disorientated and confused on a street corner.  Tommy Carcetti wins the State House, but he seem troubled, his idealism in tatters, after a series of compromises made in the pursuit of power.

There are plenty of cynical characters in The Wire, and the power-bureaucracy it describes is depressing.  Nevertheless, the message that emerges is positive and noble.  None of the dramatic moments, in any of the five series, would be possible, if it wasn’t for the abundance of good characters – on both sides of the law – trying to do good things.  It is an uplifting, optimistic TV series, despite all the blood.

Sadly, I think the reverse is true of the country David Foster Wallace has created in Infinite Jest.  This is odd, because of the two, the book is a much funnier creation.  I don’t think that the America of The Wire and the America of Infinite Jest can be the same place (and this is not just because, in the book, the USA has annexed Canada and Mexico!)  While Foster Wallace is clearly a sincere and honest writer, the darkness in his America seems more malevolent.  The corruption is psychic, psychological.  It erodes the minds of the citizens like a cancer, and “The Entertainment” – a mysterious film that kills viewers – is just an manifestation of this.

The decline of Foster Wallce’s America is terminal.  This is not so in The Wire, where we have had a stolen glimpse of a better way.  Baltimore could be saved, perhaps.  Boston, I fear, is already lost.

MIT, Boston, 31 May '07. Photo by vincent-b
MIT, Boston, 31 May ’07. Photo by vincent-b

Big Geeky American Novels

Over at Infinite Summer, there’s an interesting and personal post by Kathleen Fitzpatrick, who knew David Foster Wallace and now teaches a course on his work.  She also taught Infinite Jest as past of another course called ‘The Big Novel’.

I’d taught Infinite Jest twice before, as part of a course called The Big Novel. In that one, we read Gravity’s Rainbow, Underworld, Infinite Jest, and Cryptonomicon, attempting to think through the impulse of a subset of recent authors toward producing such encyclopedic novels, and what they have to do with the state of U.S. culture after World War II.

I’m glad to see Infinite Jest mentioned alongside Cryptonomicon, because there are some obvious similarities.  There are plenty of time-line shifts and digressions in Cryptonomicon, of which the reader must keep abreast, although Stephenson doesn’t lose himself in cross-refencing and footnotes as Foster Wallace does.  Both authors have a penchant for describing and revelling in technological advances, both real and extrapolated, in a little more depth than your average novellist would be comfortable with.

There is also an undeniably lustre of geekyness to the prose of both, I find.  Is geekyness the right word?  To elaborate: both texts are centred around the doings and thinkings of earnest and high functioning American males, fin du millénaire.  And although both novels have a third-person narrator, there is the sense that we are nevertheless hearing the story from the direct p.o.v. of the protagonists (this is something that Stephenson excels at, the skill more evident in the Baroque Cycle trilogy and Anathem, where the characters’ language, and therefore the narrators, is much further removed from twentieth century North American norms).  Both text are peppered with the idioms and slang that mark them as the work of someone comfortable and practised in the ways of modern technology, and the associated culture.

Neal Stephenson, by Flickr user jeanbaptisteparis
Neal Stephenson, by Flickr user jeanbaptisteparis