“Just Asking” — David Foster Wallace’s 9/11 Thought Experiment

Here’s David Foster Wallace’s “Just Asking,” from the November, 2007 issue of The Atlantic

Are some things still worth dying for? Is the American idea* one such thing? Are you up for a thought experiment? 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? And, thus, that ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our democratic way of life—sacrifices not just of our soldiers and money but of our personal safety and comfort?

In still other words, what if we chose to accept the fact that every few years, despite all reasonable precautions, some hundreds or thousands of us may die in the sort of ghastly terrorist attack that a democratic republic cannot 100-percent protect itself from without subverting the very principles that make it worth protecting?

Is this thought experiment monstrous? Would it be monstrous to refer to the 40,000-plus domestic highway deaths we accept each year because the mobility and autonomy of the car are evidently worth that high price? Is monstrousness why no serious public figure now will speak of the delusory trade-off of liberty for safety that Ben Franklin warned about more than 200 years ago? What exactly has changed between Franklin’s time and ours? Why now can we not have a serious national conversation about sacrifice, the inevitability of sacrifice—either of (a) some portion of safety or (b) some portion of the rights and protections that make the American idea so incalculably precious?

In the absence of such a conversation, can we trust our elected leaders to value and protect the American idea as they act to secure the homeland? What are the effects on the American idea of Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, Patriot Acts I and II, warrantless surveillance, Executive Order 13233, corporate contractors performing military functions, the Military Commissions Act, NSPD 51, etc., etc.? Assume for a moment that some of these measures really have helped make our persons and property safer—are they worth it? Where and when was the public debate on whether they’re worth it? Was there no such debate because we’re not capable of having or demanding one? Why not? Have we actually become so selfish and scared that we don’t even want to consider whether some things trump safety? What kind of future does that augur?

1. Given the strict Gramm-Rudmanewque space limit here, let’s just please all agree that we generally know what this term connotes—an open society, consent of the governed, enumerated powers, Federalist 10, pluralism, due process, transparency … the whole democratic roil.

2. (This phrase is Lincoln’s, more or less)

1 thought on ““Just Asking” — David Foster Wallace’s 9/11 Thought Experiment”

  1. […] Originally Posted by gmatov What kind of buffoons are we breeding, here? Fidia, "Yes, and I would waterboard the shit of the prisoners held there for information to keep you and I safe." Cuda, "It's been a success from it's inception keeping us safe. " You two, and probably lots of others are sounding like pussies who need their hands held when they cross the street. "Keep us safe." What did that "old guy", like you call me, say, about 1790? "He who gives up Liberty for Safety deserves neither." You are pussies. You have been kept safe from ghosts. No Osama was going to come get you, BUT, you bent over and spread your cheeks, just BECAUSE Bush-Cheney made tons of money on the security machinery. You STILL bend over and spread your cheeks every time you fly, and, today, the paper says that Shumer wants a "no ride" list for rail. The US is so full of pussies I am ashamed of it. We are not the country we once were, and going to Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya does not make us such a world power as we like to think we are. I got out of the military 45 years ago. You OBEYED, PERIOD. I would like to know if the new "ALL VOLUNTEER" military has different rules. They are paid more than we are, on average, so you COULD call them "Mercenaries", since we do not have a "Draft" anymore. They obviously do not train in firearms, from the news, where the US troops "spray and prey". Just what DO they do, besides eat up a trillion bucks a year. Obama said that every soldier sent to Afghanistan would cost 1 million bucks per year. Do we WANT to keep paying that for NOTHING? Cheers, George I find it interesting that the greatest threat to the US is our own financial system yet there is no clamor to waterboard those guys to keep us safe. I guess that's not quite true… Driving kills a hell of a lot of us, keep us safe from that. Bankruptcy due to major illness destroys lives every day… keep us safe from that. There is a real question to be raised here…it asked much more eloquently here. “Just Asking” — David Foster Wallace’s 9/11 Thought Experiment | biblioklept […]


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