Security Mania and the Threat to Civic Life: Tom Brokaw, Edward Davis, and the West Stockbridge Zucchini Festival

Tom Brokaw, who in his long career has received every accolade a TV news journalist could receive, reacted on Monday to the Boston Marathon attack as follows:

Everyone has to understand tonight, however, beginning tomorrow morning early there’s going to be much tougher security considerations across the country. However exhausted we may be by them. We have to live with them and get along and go forward and not let them bring us to our knees.

Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis’s less panicky reaction was much better:

We’ve done as much as we can. Our aim is not to turn this into a police state. We have to allow commerce to occur.

It’s easy to call for more security after what happened on Monday. It’s much harder to recognize that in truth, we were already doing all that we reasonably could to thwart attacks and more.

In the last ten years, we have poured an ocean of money into terrorism prevention. Police departments around the country have been lavished with money to militarize, buy new shiny equipment, and set up more and more comprehensive systems of surveillance. But as we march more and more grimly onward, we must recognize that our effort to eliminate the risk of terrorism is already damaging civil society. Overreaction to small risks makes it impossible for us to enjoy together the benefits of ordinary civic life in a peaceful nation. I applaud Commissioner Davis for recognizing the risk of going too far.

What’s interesting about Brokaw’s comment is how reflexive it was. He had no evidence that “much tougher security considerations” would help one whit in terms of thwarting another attack. He was just saying things to make himself feel safe, but while doing it, he was arguing for his listeners to submit pre-emptively to even more assertive state power.

I’m irresistibly reminded of C. S. Lewis’s brilliant The Screwtape Letters:

We [the devils] direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger, and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to the vice we are trying to make endemic. The game is to have them all running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood […] Cruel ages are put on their guard against Sentimentality, feckless and idle ones against Respectability, lecherous ones against Puritanism; and whenever all men are really hastening to be slaves or tyrants, we make Liberalism the prime bogey.

By “Liberalism”, Lewis means, roughly, the notion that individuals have rights that the State is always bound to respect, and Brokaw, in his comment, is “hastening to be a slave”. In reality, no terrorist attack can “bring us to our knees”; but out of fear, we can easily do it to ourselves.

Davis seems to understand that there are practical and legal limits on how much you can increase security. This Boston Globe article goes into detail about the security measures taken before the attacks, and it’s hard to say that there’s anything about them that was inadequate. If anything, they were highly aggressive. However, we can see that no matter how hard they try, they can’t eliminate the threat of terrorism ahead of time.

Promises, promises. All the promises the government has made, and all of our money that they have poured into the notion that you can thwart attacks before they happen. The billions of dollars in Homeland Security grants that have wended their way to police departments across the country. In Keene, N. H., the police department even bought a Bearcat assault vehicle with DHS funds, claiming that it would help them thwart terrorism at the Keene Pumpkin Festival. In Brokaw’s world, maybe, the next step will be for SWAT teams to descend on the tenth annual West Stockbridge Zucchini Festival in August, and strip-search the Zucchini Queenie. When we went as a family to the ninth festival, nobody asked us for ID. We parked by the side of the street. There was perhaps one police officer there, for an event with hundreds of people.


How horrifying. The residents of West Stockbridge are clearly in a PRE-9/11 MINDSET and must be RE-EDUCATED so that they UNDERSTAND that NONE OF US ARE SAFE.

No, none of us are (completely) safe. But America is full of charming civic events that happen every day, and if they fell victim to our fears of terrorism, it would be a much poorer place.

We need to have a more sensible conversation about terrorism in this country, and maybe Commissioner Davis’s comments will be a good start. There’s no point in making everyday life miserable and oppressive in order to reduce the risk of an attack from 1% to 0.9%. Unless, that is, you’re Tom Brokaw, and you’re so anxious to get on your knees that you’ll do it even if nobody’s asking.

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