Monday, September 11, 2006

Neither Liberty Nor Safety

So, five years ago, a group of Middle Eastern Muslim men successfully pulled off a creative and devastating terrorist attack in which airplanes crashed into buildings of national significance—the Pentagon, the World Trade Towers—and eventually caused the towers to collapse, killing thousands, crippling lower Manhattan, crippling me for a long time (I know I don't count in any real way, but I *am* the one writing the blog), and inspiring an intensive program of control, fear, and surveillance on the part of the U.S. government. About a month ago, a number of Muslim men of varying ethnic heritage were arrested in England for plotting, unsuccessfully, to blow up a number of transatlantic flights using everyday products that could be combined using everyday objects to create potent explosives. In Indiana a few days ago, a Muslim storekeeper was murdered in what police are assuming was a hate crime inspired by today's anniversary.

Tyromaven sent me this. To summarize, though you should read the article, an Iraqi activist living in America was removed from a domestic flight at the request of other passengers because he wore a T-shirt with Arabic lettering. Airline officials demanded that he remove the T-shirt or be removed from the flight. Those Arabic letters read "We will not be silent."

I told this story to one of my co-workers, and she responded that she had "a better one": a woman was removed from a plane, again at the request of other passengers, for wearing a T-shirt that read "Meet the Fuckers" and pictured Bush and Cheney.

That's not actually a better one. Sorry, Pat. Not that either situation is promising, but at least the complainants in the latter situation had some idea of the offending shirt's content.

Any decent liberal human being, and any person who loves people of a race other than her own, condemns racial profiling. And so I do, but I don't want to do it only offhandedly, and only viscerally. I owe the problem more consideration than that, because it *could* be my best friends; it *could* be their families; it *could* be my students. And as much as anything five years later, it is part of what I, as a white American, have become, both on my own and by force.

It's logical. That's the first thing we have to acknowledge about racial profiling. We on the left try to fight that fact, and we can't. Right now, the vast majority of those engaged in guerrilla combat (or plotting said combat) against the United States and its allies are Muslims, many to most Muslims are of Middle Eastern descent, and it stands to reason that those engaged in make sense to look at those groups more closely. Yes, Timothy McVeigh existed and so will any number of white terrorists in the future, particularly if the legal trend of prosecuting actual or potential school shooters as terrorists continues, but that's not where the meat of the argument lies. It makes sense, by means of pure logic without ethical or broader philosophical dimensions, that we would move to protect ourselves from what has in our perception become the greatest threat, and for terrorism against American citizens in the last decade that threat has been fundamentalist Islamic extremists. The vast majority of Americans exist in a world far enough from Islam that the distinction between the fundamentalist sects and the more mainstream is virtually meaningless, and therefore that majority perceives Islam as the threat. Most of the Muslims of whom this majority is aware are speakers of Arabic; hence, Arabic is a threat.

All I mean to clarify above is that it's likely the passengers on Raed Jarrar's flight were not acting out of malice per se—I consider it far more likely that the passengers on the plane Pat mentioned were. The part of the problem that is malice, we cannot control (a theorem I intend to prove as this post goes on). The part of the problem that is ignorance, or lack of empathy, or lack of depth, perhaps we can. Perhaps not. But Jarrar's fellow passengers, as far as it's acceptable to consider them his fellows, honestly believed they were acting in their own best interests, out of self-protection.

What are we protecting by means of racial profiling? Do we intend to keep ourselves safe? Who are "we"? "We" are the most often white, always relatively or more-than-relatively financially privileged Americans who somehow believe that protecting our position—not simply ourselves, but our surroundings and our privileges and our current state—is possible. I remember September 11 far more vividly and viscerally than anyone requesting that Raed Jarrar be removed from that plane, I guarantee it and am comfortable playing that card. And it's going to fucking well happen again, because the world is boiling over with that much anger. The facts are that simple and that real. Safety exists, but as Tyromaven and I have elucidated in conversation after conversation, it is at its best elusive and is impossible to manufacture. Time and time again we're shocked to see that fact proven. Yet, is it indeed a fact? Time and time again, as I said, we're shocked that It Can Happen Here, be it in America, in the small towns of Mormon Utah, in the suburbs away from the criminal activity and ferocity of the city, in our home with an alarm system and a panic room, in this day-care center, this high school, this demographic and religion and nation. Of course it can happen here. Yet the terrorists who penetrated our panic room have not yet managed to compromise our means of building a new one. Can they, will they? They can kill us; can they kill our privilege? Are terrorists fighting harder and better than we are because they have less to lose? Octavia Butler, in Parable of the Talents (which Biblical story itself is an interesting meditation on the concept of privilege), capitalizes on this distinction. Everyone can suffer loss under a tyrant, and the tyrant will himself eventually suffer loss of his leadership as well. But unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have in abundance; but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath. It is, it remains, much, much easier to make those who are already suffering suffer more. It Can Happen Here, but I honestly don't know how hard you have to work to take away what we have in abundance. I assume there is a way, because I assume it's coming, but I don't know if terrorism is the way it will arrive.

Benjamin Franklin, more of an iconoclast than we're wont to give him credit for, said "Them that will give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty or safety." If safety cannot exist in any permanent or binding way, can liberty? For this, I must return again to Myron from Louis Sachar's Wayside School Is Falling Down. A bird named Oddly visits the windowsill beside Myron's desk in Mrs. Jewls's class, and Myron is envious of his freedom. He feels stuck in his desk, thinking of it as a cage. Instead of returning to their thirtieth-story classroom with the rest of his class, Myron goes down to the basement of Wayside School, feeling his way through the complete darkness and throwing his shoe at the noises he hears behind him. A light comes on and a bald man with an attaché case and two men with mustaches appear, holding his shoe.

"I just wanted to be free," chirped Myron. "Please don't hurt me. If you let me go back to Mrs. Jewls's room, I'll never come down here again."

"Well, do you want to be free, or do you want to be safe?" asked the bald man.

"Huh?" asked Myron.

"You can't have it both ways," said the bald man.

"Do you want to be safe?" asked one of the men with a mustache. "Do you want to sit in the same chair every day, and go up and down the stairs every time the bell rings?"

"You'll have to go to school five days a week," said the other man with a mustache. "And you'll have to go to bed at the same time every day."

"But first you'll have to brush your teeth," said the other man with a mustache.

"And you won't be allowed to watch TV until you finish your homework," said the other man with a mustache.

"You'll have to go inside when it rains," said the other man with a mustache.

"But first you'll have to wipe your feet," said the other man with a mustache.

"Or you can be free," said the bald man.

The man took a pencil and a piece of paper out of his attaché case. "So do you want to be safe, or do you want to be free?"

Myron looked at the three men. "I want to be free," he said bravely.

The man with the attaché case wrote something on the piece of paper and gave it to Myron. "Sign here," he said.


When we're safe—which as the United States defines it means exactly, and only, what Sachar's above description implies— the risks remain present. We can go to bed at the same time every night, brushing our teeth first, and while no one will be able to catch us awake at an hour we're unaccustomed to and are therefore unaware of its possible dangers, and still a car could crash through the window of our bedroom, on purpose or accidentally, the second we've turned out the light. Fuck, a car could plow through the picture window in the living room. And to think, we didn't know it was even *possible* for cars to leave the road, much less move at that speed! When we're free, at the very least, we know that cars can move at that speed. We're no further from the possibilities—in some ways, we may even be a little closer for a while—but it's the knowledge, and the freedom to have the knowledge, that can allow us to prepare for the possibilities and make choices about them. There's no explanation of freedom in Sachar's chapter, because there's no one thing that freedom automatically is. It's the freedom to make it something.

I want to extend the car metaphor here, but I don't think I can. Racial profiling isn't a belief that since several houses have been hit by blue cars only blue cars will hit you; it's not a matter of keeping cars of specific colors or shapes on the road. It genuinely is more complicated than that. The question in racial profiling is about pulling the lens back. Are Muslims of Middle Eastern descent more likely to commit terrorist acts against the United States than people who are neither Muslims nor of Middle Eastern descent? As we're defining terrorism now, yes. Is profiling them actually going to prevent terrorist attacks? Particular ones, perhaps, but attacks are going to happen, and they're going to get worse, because that is the nature of safety. But racial profiling is mostly-white Americans raging against that fact, and allowing our prejudice, our logical anxiety, to become the illusion of action. Terrorism, itself, is never going to end, because a few people are always going to be that angry and that desperate and that forceful. If the supposed war on terror genuinely aims to eradicate, it cannot be won. Terrorism can be decreased, but that involves more long-term, more thorough and considered change and growth. Racial profiling changes nothing on a larger scale. Is it ethically wrong simply because it changes nothing? When it's a distraction, yes. When we are channeling energies into racial profiling that could be used elsewhere and to better ends, yes. When racial profiling is actively damaging to some and completely useless to others, yes, absolutely. And in "completely useless" I include "makes them/us feel safe." Franklin's statement is redundant; there exists no safety that isn't temporary. Liberty that isn't temporary can be made. It isn't being made now.

This essay still isn't good enough. But "If you see something, say something," say advertisements on public transit encouraging the report of suspicious packages and suspicious characters—an encouragement that no doubt played a role in Jarrar's ousting. What I see, then, is an America paralyzed by delusions coddled in logic. And if we—"we" this time being the people who don't want to remain paralyzed—are to change it, we must be part of pulling the lens back further. And that's not an easy task.

11 Comments:

At 10:45 AM, Anonymous Annie said...

Damn. Them's some nice metaphors. Them's some nice essay. Why don't I feel better? (seriously!)

I think the fundamental problem (which I was grasping at yesterday, but not coherently) is that most people really don't like freedom anymore. This is going to sound rotten and harsh no matter how I put it...but there aren't many Myrons floating around.

Actual freedom, which includes the responsibility for much of your own safety, not to mention self-determination, is quite terrifying. Meanwhile, our relative prosperity has crafted a society in which we're not responsible for our own protection, and no really obliged to achieve self- determination either--we can just choose a pre-constructed self off a menu of commercial identities. All our choices are safe ones. We do not have to consider the out- of-control car veering through the night. That the car remains, whether or not we think about it, is immaterial. What matters is that veneer of ignorant bliss.

And I don't know how you talk someone into choosing freedom when they've been doped up on faux-security (and Faux News, too!) for so long.

 
At 11:32 AM, Blogger Ammegg said...

It's also true that Myron isn't a revolutionary—i.e. he doesn't try to convert anyone else or help anyone else to realize the state they're in, he just wants his own freedom. And really, there isn't all that much anybody can do about that. But yes, there aren't all that many who want it either.

Do we want to talk them into it? Or is there a third option floating around here somewhere?

 
At 8:28 AM, Anonymous tyromaven said...

not everyone knows, and I didn't learn this from Muslim family members:

the vast majority of the world's muslims are indonesian.

 
At 8:50 AM, Anonymous tyromaven said...

Racial profiling is unethical for the same reasons that segregation is unethical: separate treatment is not equal, and under our legal system, until you can establish someone's intent or action toward malice sufficient to achieve a warrant, then you have no right to treat that person differently than any other.

Suspicion is not evidence, and that is the kernel truth of "innocent until proven guilty". We have become so afraid of the magnitude of the evidence we may find that we have resorted to parsing on suspicion. Our fears, when we have them, should motivate us to find better evidence and better methods for pre-empting malice. They should not motivate us to carpet-bomb, to round-up and lock-up.

Another point of clarification:
Raed Jarrar was pulled aside by security officers, not voted off the plane by his fellow passengers. Others, including two gentlemen of Asian descent who were speaking something that passengers on a British Airways flight thought was Arabic, have been forcibly removed from their flights at the protest of passengers. In another case, a woman with her daughter asked for the dark-haired, bearded man next to her to be removed from the plane.

Let me tell say something else: I didn't have any idea what it was to be black in America until after Sept 11, and not just black but what gets called "mixed". Because I get taken for a lot of ethnicities that aren't my own--and it gives the lie to any attempt to racially profile. Race, ethnicity, and religion, aren't legible enough to read people based on them. The people who use racial profiling don't even have enough knowledge to do it effectively.

And that's all she wrote for now.

 
At 2:31 PM, Blogger Connor said...

I should write something more substantial because I empathise with Gemma's argument about racial profiling, while also finding it somewhat too lenient. I'll try to say something this weekend.

I do know, however, that it's not true that more than half the world's muslims are from Indonesia, since ~230 million people live in Indonesia, and there are 1.3 billion muslims.

Indonesia is, however, the largest muslim majority nation population in the world, which is probably what the figure was driving at. Also; more than half of the world's muslims are not arab, which is significant.

But, um, that's all I can do for now.

 
At 8:13 PM, Blogger Connor said...

(Too lenient towards racial profiling, not too lenient toward profilees. An important distinction.)

 
At 12:07 AM, Anonymous tyromaven said...

good catch connor, thank you.

 
At 9:52 AM, Blogger Ammegg said...

I agree that it's too lenient, reading over it, and there are some reasons for it. Longer comment coming later today or tomorrow morning, but in travel want to acknowledge that.

 
At 7:33 PM, Anonymous tyromaven said...

Gems, I understand that part of the project of this space is to get inside of things that are unthinkable for most leftists, but I can't go where you're going on this one.

I was re-reading your post because I wanted to see how I could respond directly to the possible rationale you offer for why racial profiling seems like a compelling and logical tactic for preventing terrorist attacks.

There's this from your post:
Are Muslims of Middle Eastern descent more likely to commit terrorist acts against the United States than people who are neither Muslims nor of Middle Eastern descent? As we're defining terrorism now, yes.

Even if I'm going to give every room in the house for the post's argument to make itself at home, I won't grant this. Each Muslim is not more likely to commit a terrorist act; although there are groups with violent agendas whose members are primarily but not exclusively, of Middle Eastern descent, and who have come to identify their cause as an Islamic one (it's more complicated than that does not make a good rallying cry, I know. Too bad). I'm not trying to split straws: I think that part of the failure in logic of racial profiling is semantic. In the crudest terms, and ones I'll never use again: Muslims are not more likely to be terrorists, but those engaged in terrorists acts against the United States as a part of organized groups in the Middle East are more likely to call themselves Muslims. We should be prepared to address terrorists as Muslims/Arabs/ Colombianos; not preparing to address Muslims and Arabs (and colombianos) as terrorists.

I'd like to point out here that there have been enough violent acts in the past perpetrated by commissioned mercenaries on behalf of organized violence that also invalidates the tactic of racial profiling. At the most brute level of hawkish, realist political strategy--it doesn't work.

We're also not talking about "people over there". We're talking about American citizens, the ones we're supposed to be protecting. Or do only the people who think of themselves as white (including the Irish, the Jewish, the Italians, the Polish, and all the others who eventually counted as white) desire to be protected? Racial profiling is safety for the person with the biggest stick; it isn''t safety for a nation--it's safety for a class/race covergence. I know I'm baiting here, and this kind of forceful language is meant more as a counter to a position on racial profiling that I don't think has as much depth as you're trying to give it possibility for.

Being caught in an airport and found guilty of the charge of being Arab, Muslim, or vaguely swarthy is no different than being caught on the street corner and found guilty of being Black. All you get is a whole generation and color code who are disaffected, imprisoned, and ghettoized--and a whole generation and color code that has so effectively segregated itself that their life skills are rigid and incapable of adapting to a new game.

Of course, that last only matters if there is the possibility of creating a world outside that game in which arguments about racial profiling make sense.

Since I've already made a blasted long comment, I throw this out for logic: Logical, brilliant, elegant ideas for the solutions of problems have brought us public housing ghettos and genocide, because they conveniently edit crucial aspects of reality. Logic based on bad information isn't.

Tired, loving, going to feed the bunny and go for a run,
TM

p.s. Rock the Mom Fantastic!

 
At 7:27 AM, Blogger Ammegg said...

One of the central mistakes I made here, which is abundantly evident in my error with Jarrar's aggressors, is that there exists a difference between institutionalized profiling, such as is done by airline officials, and the non-institutionalized profiling done by the passengers/the public. I intended to make that distinction by focusing only on the latter—that is to say, I deliberately ignored all legal dimensions, from "innocent until proven guilty" on up. On that front, as far as I can see, it's clearly illegal and it's clearly going to happen anyway, but my perhaps-misguided-but still-useful faith in the Constitution makes it not my major concern. As with segregation, I've faith that the airline officials
will eventually be caught in their own traps, that any institutionalized profiling will eventually be cleared, and while I recognize any number of horrible incidents the legal arena is not, in the end, where the real struggle is going to be. I have faith that the legal route will soon enough be an indication of what's right, because really that's what law is for.

I have no faith whatsoever that it will be an indication of what's done. And on that front, I see the casual profilers as a much greater danger and as the group that needs to be looked at more closely and, yes, to really take a step out of the ravine we're headed into, more sympathetically. It was for that that I was aiming in the post. Eventually, we (and by "we" here I mean everyone who's against racial profiling) *are* going to have to engage with the casual, the everyday profilers, because quite frankly, we're already doing it and not talking about it. Segregation *is* over, in the official sense and the vast majority of casual legal senses. But we've never been able to really engage with its social roots. Because we don't want to go there, and that's become incredibly damaging. It's not the only thing that's damaging--racism *is* racism, however we end up glossing it--but pushing things back below the surface because they make us angry and we know they're wrong doesn't work. We've seen that already.

I had a bad "we" in the post; I'd much rather take myself as solely connected to the "we" I'm using now. Unfortunately, it was easy for me to slip into the collective head of that "we" and even to make some of the errors it makes, as you've pointed out. As such, I'm still going to have to acknowledge the connection. Where there was stupidity in the writing, and I can see that there was some, some of it came from my connection to that head.

You're right on with the semantics. That was careless of me, and I retract the statement. But there is something true in the reversal, in that I included "as we're defining terrorism now." The way we're defining terrorism now is wrong, is a stupid way to define terrorism. I know that and thought I made it clear in the post. That's another reason why racial profiling doesn't work. That institutional definition of terrorism is either going to give, or it's going to go the way of every "terrorism/freedom fighter" dichotomy that has existed in the language of the powerful preceding any number of revolutions. Actually, I have no idea what it's going to do, but it's certainly not going to last in this form. Its casual social roots, however, will, and however casual the roots, the consequences, again as with segregation, will in some ways get bigger.

Safety's *always* for yourself, whoever you may be. Safety is always a self-protective desire, and limited to that. The desire to be safe is almost always a little desperate and a little stupid. And yes, the only Americans to whom racial profiling offers even the illusion of safety are those at the class/race convergence you mentioned. Everyone wants it, and from each form of racial profiling one group of people doesn't get it, and the people at that one class/race convergence are always in control.

I did not intend to tout or to honor the logic that brings us genocide and ghettoization. But like courage, or like creativity as I mentioned at the beginning of the post, logic is morally neutral. Logic based on bad information actually is. It's not good, and it's not complete, and I don't believe I said it was. But it's logic. It's people taking the information they have and creating the best reasoning they can muster. If the information they have is extremely limited, it's bad logic and easily contradicted. Then our job is to provide more and better information in the best way we can. Thus we expose the inferiority of the logic is bad. But we've always got to assume our enemies, and even the people we don't understand, as rational actors unless they prove themselves otherwise. It's frankly much more dangerous not to. We know it's wrong, and we can start from the assumption that it's wrong. I went in one direction from that assumption.

The logic of racial profiling is a very, very watered-down version of the logic of terrorism. That, too, is still logic. Again, it's not good. It's a ridiculously convoluted form of self-protection, being unable to make sense of a risk situation and assessing everything in an incredibly ethically skewed way based on the limited information and understanding they're capable of having. I've been working to understand the logic of torture for ages, and I think there's a good reason for that.

We've seen negotiation fail to bring us solutions and we've seen revolution fail to bring us solutions. I'm not going to make a claim to easy, or guaranteed, answers here. What I meant to do in this essay, which I can no longer claim to have achieved, was to take as a postulate that racial profiling is wrong, that it's illegal, and that it's happening. With those as postulates, I'd say our jobs are to believe in and find the reason behind it, to debunk and/or trump that reasoning, and see what we're going to do to make that trump actionable.

 
At 8:41 PM, Anonymous tyromaven said...

Gem:
Thanks for making such a generous and careful and thoughtful response to my heated comments that were attempting to still be humane. Thanks also for not giving a whole lot of ground.

This is one fruit of that:
The logic of racial profiling is a very, very watered-down version of the logic of terrorism...It's a ridiculously convoluted form of self-protection, being unable to make sense of a risk situation and assessing everything in an incredibly ethically skewed way based on the limited information and understanding they're capable of having.

I'd like to see you write more about this in another post (or here in the comments ;). I can see the opportunity to balance these off each other bringing some light to the irrational coping mechanisms that people feel that have been brought to and as a result, are choosing.

I agree: it's neither revolutions or just talking pretty that's going to get us to the other side. All this makes me wish we hadn't killed all those brilliant civil rights leaders, sending all the living ones into a state of silence, retreat, or hidden lives. We need teachers, or at least examples to compare. Where did that generation of grown-ups go that weren't assassinated, that didn't die in Vietnam, that didn't expatriate into oblivion, that didn't hide in the suburbs or objectify their own histories by becoming professors?

This is a question I ask myself a lot. Let's keep having the conversation you started. I think you comment trumps your post. Bully.
love, R

p.s. Nolan is much less nervous around me now that I am the source of all things crunchy and sweet. It really does ache that I can't pick him up and snuggle like a kitten.

 

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