Thursday, February 27, 2003

Thomas Friedman, in his recent column, wonders, quite understandably, whether by "overreacting to 9/11" with excessive precautions against terrorism, we may ultimately "drive ourselves crazy long before Osama bin Laden ever does". Some of his complaints about security measures--those that are pointlessly ineffective, for instance, or protect against ludicrously tiny risks, or merely increase anxiety without improving safety at all--are perfectly valid. (Gregg Easterbrook argues, in a similar vein, that the nuclear or "dirty bomb" threat is far more serious than the much-hyped specter of a chemical- or biological-weapons attack, and offers some reasonable-sounding preparedness advice.)

But the end of Friedman's column makes a much more dubious suggestion: "Leave the cave-dwelling to Osama"--i.e., ignore the threats and enjoy life. He brags that "the only survival purchase [he's] made since Code Orange is a new set of Ben Hogan Apex irons", and encourages others to create a "survival kits" stocked with "a movie guide, a concert schedule, Rollerblades, a bicycle".

I have a sneaking suspicion that if Friedman really did perceive a danger to himself or his family--if he lived in Israel, for example--then he might not be so nonchalant about it. In fact, he ridicules "pseudo security, like when you go to Washington Wizards basketball games and they demand you open your purse or bag"--presumably knowing that in Israel, such bag-checkers have managed to greatly reduce the casualty tolls of several suicide bombings, by preventing the attackers from entering crowded shopping malls.

But the real purpose of Friedman's show of insouciance is clearly social rather than practical. The golf clubs are a tip-off; he would never have been so quick to sound off had his only purchase since the "code orange" alert been something a little more downscale--say, a new bowling ball. His display of bravado is thus obviously meant to convey a cosmopolitan, somewhat aristocratic spirit, reminding his readers of his swashbuckling, globetrotting journalist persona. Constant fear for one's security is the mark of the lower classes, after all; the wealthy and powerful, having been raised in a state of invulnerability, are expected to see themselves as above petty worries about personal safety. (I speak here specifically of threats of violence; Friedman would no doubt be far more solicitous towards more effete sensitivities--say, to pesticides or other chemicals in food, or industrial residues in the air or water. Chicken Little was middle-class; the Princess who detected a pea under her mattress most certainly was not.)

There are, we should note, thousands of American men and women about to put their lives at serious risk in combat against a dangerous enemy possessed of infinite ruthlessness and truly horrifying weaponry. Few of them, I suspect, are pompous enough to boast cavalierly about their willingness to place duty to country above personal safety. But placing golf above personal safety--now there's a courage noble enough for a fellow to trumpet to the world, and cockily challenge his readers to emulate.

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