“Sometimes in human history, especially in a mass democracy that considers itself to be based on equality and justice, tax cuts for the rich, trickle-down economics, and laissez-faire doctrines simply will not suffice. That is, they will not suffice unless one does not consider oneself part of a society, a nation, a community, or if one is satisfied to seek retreat and protection behind the walls of one’s gated community guarded all about by a well-paid, highly trained, and powerfully armed private army.”
—Gary Hart, The Courage of Our Convictions: A Manifesto for Democrats
Mr. A and I used to watch this TV show calledIt Takes A Thief, in which ex-cons broke into people’s houses to show them their security weaknesses, and then they’d give the people they’d just robbed a free security system. We had to stop watching it because I couldn’t quit yelling at the TV.
Every time. Every single goddamned time they’d bust some middle-class couple in a well-kept suburb, the dumbasses would say, “But I thought we were safe,” or “I thought this was a good neighborhood” or “I didn’t think it could happen to me.” The undercurrent usually (but not always) being, “But I’mwhite” or “I’mrich” or some variation of the same theme that some (any) privilege protects you from harm.
It enraged me because my years as a reporter taught me nothing if not the randomness of bad fortune. The stories about the young couple that had just got married, and the next week a drunk driver pasted the wife all over the freeway, or the guy who went out for a coffee and wound up with fourteen bullet holes in him, or the school that caught on fire and killed a bunch of kids, or this one really shitty day when 3,000 people went to work and never came home because planes flew into their offices and the buildings collapsed on them … Not a single one of those people got up in the morning and thought, well, it’s just a matter of time before I die today. Every single one of those people thought, nothing bad could happen to me. And yet it happened.
Part of it’s just human nature, that if you really sit and think about all the ways somebody could burn your house down or rob or beat or rape or kill or blow you up, you’d never get out of bed. Internalize that, take that into your head the next time you read a story about the Promising High Schooler So Full of Hope whose idiot brother got high and plowed them both into a tree. If you’ve got teenage kids, you’ve got to read that story and think, “Could never happen tomy kid, I’ve done things to make sure it won’t.” You read that story and think of all the ways in whichyour kid is different from that kid. And maybe you’re right. Maybe it won’t be a car accident that gets your kids. Maybe it’ll be a school shooting. Or a lightning strike. Or cancer. Or suicide.
You see what I’m saying? I’m not making a joke, I’m saying it’s a survival mechanism, thinking we can do something that will protect us from everything. And I’m not nave. I live in the city, I’m a big girl, I lock my doors. I stick to well-lit streets at night. I’m not very careful about not going places with strangers, because Going Places With Strangers is going to be the title of my autobiography. It’s how I’ve had every unadulteratedly awesome experience of my life, and every time I ask some random dude for directions I’m astounded by the human capacity for kindness, but I’m not out there going, “La la la, who wants to drive me home!” on Rush Street at 4 a.m. I’m not suggesting anybody be an idiot.
But I am suggesting that self-interest, at best (and self-delusion at worst), is a shitty basis for security policy. What good ol’ Gary Hart, whose book is good if a little general for my taste, is talking about up there is how we determine safety, and from whence our sense of safety derives. Does mine derive from the fact that there’s a cop through my alley every 15 minutes, a big cop I’m pretty sure is armed very well? Or does it derive from the fact that I have a network of neighbors and friends who, if my house were to burn down or be robbed, would take me in and feed me?
Reverse that, look outward: Does my sense of nationalinsecurity derive from the fact that Osama bin Laden is out there threatening us and North Korea’s making nasty noises and Iran is led by a lunatic? Or does it derive from the fact that my president can’t find his ass with both hands, needs a posse to locate a coherent sentence and a searchlight to figure out where he left his pajamas?
I can’t separate the two. And I don’t think I should.
Because if our concept of safety, from our house to our nation, is based solely on how many locks we’ve got, is based solely on what we can keepout instead of what we can bring in, can we ever really have as many locks as we need? And will locks keep out everything there is to fear? I’d bring the FDR here, and also the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle here about the pastoral countryside and the horrors its beauty hides to illustrate the idea that bad shit can happen to you anywhere, but you get the idea, don’t you?
Right now we do, very much, think of security in terms of protecting ourselves against all others. As Gary Hart says, as “I’m gonna get mine, and the devil take the hindmost.” In allocating to ourselves responsibility only for holding off harm to the point of a specific radius around us and the people we’ve chosen to extend that circle to encompass. Anybody outside that space is … outside it, and fuck ’em, anyway, we take care of our own.
And the response, the alternative, is an echo of Barack Obama two years ago, the speech that lit everybody up, because he did what Gary Hart up there is telling us to do. He connected it, the idea that we are all of us safe, or none of us. That though I don’t have children, I am well-served by having good schools. That though I’ve not yet needed social programs or other government assistance, I am well-served by living in a community that values the same, because if I am not surrounded by want, I am safer than I would be, even with a hundred locks, a thousand guns.
Turn it around, look outward: that national security, true national security, doesn’t mean a world in which no one can hurt us. It means a world in which no one wants to.
It means a world in which no one can blame us for the death of their children. It means a world in which the calls of radical fundamentalists to hate us for our privilege fall on deaf ears, because our only privilege is the limitlessness of our generosity and our compassion. It means a world in which we truly are the country even the worst of us, deep down, know we can be: light to the world, hope to the hopeless, give me your tired, give me your poor. It means a world in which that ideal is so undeniably our goal that those who would turn their desperate against us find no audience, find no one to believe. America, America, God shed its grace on all.
And we achieve that world by reversing that, looking inward. Some of the most inane commentary after Sept. 11, and I mean the stuff that made me call my husband and say, “Turn down the volume on your phone because I’m going to scream for a while,” was about how America had to learn to live daily with fear. Much of America needed no such crash course. Much of America lives with fear daily. I would give the last five bucks in my pocket for any commentator who talks about a post-Sept. 11, fear-filled world, to stand outside my house and walk straight east, ten or so blocks, and tell me there are places in America that need some kind of crash course in coping with the randomness of fate.
We achieve the country that is the ideal, not the envy, of the world by devouring our own darkness, by truly making our nation secure. Secure, as in, can sleep at night, knowing our needs are met, knowing that even if we want, there is a place we can turn, there are voices that will be raised up for us, that we are not alone. A nation secure not in the notion of its own greatness, but in the actual fact. Barack:
If there is a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child. If there is a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for their prescription drugs, and having to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandparent. If there’s an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties.
For the past six years, it’s been one maneuver after another designed to make us safe. We’re not safe. We’re never safe, so long as we’re only focused on building the walls around ourselves, on building them high enough and buying enough guns. There’s only one wall so high no thief, no rapist, no terrorist, no murderer can climb, and that is our care for one another. There’s nothing stronger than that, and its the one weapon in our arsenal we have not thought to use.
We can’t protect ourselves. We can only protect each other. We are all of us safe, or none of us. There aren’t enough locks, enough gates, enough fences and farmland to put adequate barriers between us and the problems of this world. There’s no wall of money thick enough to protect me if someone else is poor.
We have to think together. We’ve got no other choice. That photo of Scout’s from New Orleans: “Our fate is your fate.” We can only protect each other. It’s all we truly have.