Attacks like his are disconcerting to some white Americans for a seldom acknowledged reason. Since 9/11, many Americans have conflated terrorism with Muslims; and having done so, they’ve tolerated or supported counterterrorism policies safe in the presumption that people unlike them would bear their brunt. (If Mayor Bloomberg and the NYPD sent officers beyond the boundaries of New York City to secretly spy on evangelical Christian students or Israeli students or students who own handguns the national backlash would be swift, brutal, and decisive. The revelation of secret spying on Muslim American students was mostly defended or ignored.) In the name of counterterrorism, many Americans have given their assent to indefinite detention, the criminalization of gifts to certain charities, the extrajudicial assassination of American citizens, and a sprawling, opaque homeland security bureaucracy; many have also advocated policies like torture or racial profiling that are not presently part of official anti-terror policy.
What if white Americans were as likely as Muslims to be victimized by those policies? What if the sprawling national security bureaucracy we’ve created starts directing attention not just to Muslims and their schools and charities, but to right-wing militias and left-wing environmental groups (or folks falsely accused of being in those groups because they seem like the sort who would be)? There are already dossiers on non-Muslim extremist groups. In a post-9/11 world, Islamic terrorism has nevertheless been the overwhelming priority for law enforcement, and insofar as innocents have suffered, Muslims have been affected far more than any other identifiable group, because the bulk of the paradigm shift in law enforcement hasn’t spread beyond them. Would that still be true if the next terrorist attack on American soil looks like Oklahoma City? How would President Obama or President Romney wield their unprecedented executive power in the aftermath of such an attack? Who would find that they’d been put on no fly lists? Whose cell phone conversations and email exchanges would be monitored without their ever knowing about it? It ought to be self-evident that non-Muslims perpetrate terrorist attacks, and that a vanishingly small percentage of Muslims are terrorists, but those two truths aren’t widely appreciated in America.
[Friedersdorf quotes the famous scene from A Man for All Seasons]:
William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!
Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
William Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ‘round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!
In the August issue of GQ, Sean Flynn has a feature on the Anders Behring Breivik massacre in Norway, in which Breivik killed 77 people, most of them in a shooting rampage on a small island.
Flynn describes meeting a police officer, Håkon Hval, who helped deal with the immediate aftermath of the violence. He concludes with a horrifically modern detail: the unanswered ringing of the phones of the dead and escaped.
When the sun went down, Håkon was in a boat not far from shore. Divers were in the lake, searching the depths for bodies that might have been drowned, and Håkon was providing security. It was very quiet. Håkon could hear waves licking at the sides of the boat, and then, from the island, he could hear something else: a chorus of chirping and buzzing and snippets of pop songs. In the darkness, he saw tiny lights flickering on, then off, then on again, like fireflies. There were hundreds of them, scattered along the Lovers’ Trail and on the lawn below the cafeteria and in the tent field and where the bodies lay. Mobile phones lighting and ringing and nobody answering.
“There was nothing you could do,” Håkon said. “You just had to wait until they ran out of electricity.”
It is, as Matt Pearce pointed out, an almost unbelievably haunting end to an already haunting story.
I write this as a novelist and story-writer: I am sensitive to the power of narratives. When Jason Russell, narrator of the Kony 2012 video, showed his cheerful blonde toddler a photo of Joseph Kony as the embodiment of evil (a glowering dark man), and of his friend Jacob as the representative of helplessness (a sweet-faced African), I wondered how Russell’s little boy would develop a nuanced sense of the lives of others, particularly others of a different race from his own. How would that little boy come to understand that others have autonomy; that their right to life is not exclusive of a right to self-respect? In a different context, John Berger once wrote, “A singer may be innocent; never the song.”
One song we hear too often is the one in which Africa serves as a backdrop for white fantasies of conquest and heroism. From the colonial project to Out of Africa to The Constant Gardener and Kony 2012, Africa has provided a space onto which white egos can conveniently be projected. It is a liberated space in which the usual rules do not apply: a nobody from America or Europe can go to Africa and become a godlike savior or, at the very least, have his or her emotional needs satisfied. Many have done it under the banner of “making a difference.”
In Digital Willpower World, the problem of fragmented selves doesn’t appear to be an issue. After all, inhabitants are constantly plugged in to willpower-enhancing devices. They no longer toggle between enhanced and unenhanced lives. Bracketing the question of what would happen to such folks if the support systems crashed—as that issue applies to so many things—the problem of inauthenticity, a staple of the neuroethics debates, might arise. People might start asking themselves: Has the problem of fragmentation gone away only because devices are choreographing our behavior so powerfully that we are no longer in touch with our so-called real selves — the selves who used to exist before Digital Willpower World was formed? Consider a contemporary analogue to this problem. Right now, people can use an app that automatically sends happy birthday wishes to Facebook friends. Although this service bypasses the problem of forgetfulness, its use raises questions about sincerity and thoughtfulness.
Infantalized subjects are morally lazy, quick to have others take responsibility for their welfare. They do not view the capacity to assume personal responsibility for selecting means and ends as a fundamental life goal that validates the effort required to remain committed to the ongoing project of maintaining willpower and self-control. Even positive reviews of Freedom are tinged with elements of concern over self-infantalization and the loss of resolute choosing.
"The cloud is a powerful thing. And the revolution that’s taking place in computing overall — the computer as an object giving way to the computer as a service — is changing our approach to content consumption, as well. As more and more of our stuff moves to the cloud, and as the mechanism of stuff-storage shifts from the download to the stream, the membership-driven library seems more and more feasible. And more and more sensible. And more and more exciting." - Megan Garber, The Atlantic