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Don't Tell William Langewiesche to "Have a Safe Flight" (and Other Ways to Avoid Self-Destruction in the War on Terror)

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The very first reader of my previous HuffPost piece interpreted some quotes I used so differently than I'd intended that I worried I'd been criminally clumsy in the way I'd framed another person's words.

Three facts made my worry more sickening:

1) The person I'd quoted is a writer I've admired for years: William Langewiesche of Vanity Fair.

2) The point of my piece -- that President-elect Obama could fortify America immeasurably by talking to us like grownups about terrorism -- means so much to me. I hated to think I might have bungled the job.

3) That very first reader of my piece was my wife. We were about to go to lunch. Together. So I didn't have the luxury of shrugging off my possible screwup. What's more, my wife loved Langewiesche's writing before I did -- especially his reporting from the wreckage of the World Trade Center. So she wasn't predisposed to think of him as naive. Which is what she was doing.

Here's the quote that messed up my lunch. Langewiesche spoke the words in 2007 during a speech about his book on the spread of nuclear weapons:

"Wouldn't it be wonderful to live in a world where the United States would do the completely unrealistic and say in advance, 'If you hit us, we will take the hit. We don't want to be hit. But we'll take it and we'll not complain. We will not overdo our reaction. So we will diminish the effect of what you want to do to us. We will mourn our dead. And there will be possibly several hundred thousand. We will rebuild the city as quickly as we can and we will accept whatever level of radiation poisoning without complaint. So go to hell.'"

My wife read that quote and thought it was tantamount to advising a battered wife to just sit back, take the beatings, and hope her husband eventually would get bored and disappear from her life. Langewiesche's phrase "radiation poisioning without complaint" particularly bothered her.

I defended Langewiesche's position. I argued that he'd surely want America to hunt al Qaeda -- not just literally sit back and accept a massacre. But my defense made it more and more clear that I was guessing at the details of what Langewiesche believed. This was no good.

Two days later -- after a kick in the butt from my newspaper-editor aunt who reminded me that journalists ask questions instead of guessing at details -- I got Langewiesche on the phone.

"Of course, bin Laden should be pursued," he said Friday in answer to my first question. "In the Middle East, which is an area I know well, you definitely don't turn the other cheek. That's seen as a weakness."

It's about calibrating our response, he said. Get al Qaeda? Yes. Use 9/11 as a pretext for going off on a tangent and invading Iraq? No.

Now, if my interview with Langewiesche had merely settled a misunderstanding in my marriage, I wouldn't be writing this post. Langewiesche did more. Much more. He guided me to a trailhead.

Yes, he's pessimistic. Yes, he thinks we Americans would punish Obama or any other leader who dares to talk to us like grownups about terrorism. But he pointed to a spot on the map where a president could start to steer us away from our default reactions to terrorism: shock, panic, and a lust for scattershot vengeance.

That spot on the map is marked "safety."

Our problem, according to Langewiesche, is that we have "embraced safety as the highest value." He said you can see this in everything from the laws passed after 9/11 to the words we use to see each other off at the airport:

"'Have a safe trip. Have a safe flight.' It's deeply embedded in our culture right now. If that's our highest value or one of our highest values, then we are doomed to self-destruct ... after a terrorist attack."

Langewiesche argued there's a direct link between our indulgence in "huge public displays of grief" and the "famous massive failure of the American press" in the months before the Iraq War.

America is not supposed to act like this. Langewiesche noted that America only rose to its spot in the world's hierarchy by embracing risk -- in everything from economics to everyday life.

As he spoke, I thought of the American Revolution, of the fact that our country only exists because our forefathers stuck a thumb in the eye of the most powerful empire on Earth.

Not safe.

I thought of the reason my own unique DNA even exists: A Polish teenager left her family, made her way to Antwerp, boarded a ship, crossed an ocean in steerage, disembarked, and tried to make a life for herself in a country where she couldn't even speak the language.

Not safe.

A risk.

A risk that allowed the Polish girl to meet my great-grandfather. A risk that, in turn, led to the birth of my grandmother, to the birth of my father, to the moment my father met my mother, to their marriage, to my own birth.

Risk, when you reflect on it, is so obviously how we got to where we are as a people, as a country. It's depressing that safety has elbowed risk aside to such an extent. For all our bluster, so many of us are so scared.

Langewiesche thinks we are probably too scared for a president to reason with us -- about terrorism, about our self-defeating wish for total safety: "The fault is with us that our politicians can't speak honestly about this even if they want to."

I'm not so sure. I'm still intoxicated enough by the election results to believe that Americans are ready to hear the truth. But the truth needs to be delivered carefully and it needs to be delivered before the next terrorist attack. Langewiesche and I do agree on that.

"That's correct," he said. "It has to be done in advance. It really does."

So what could Obama do if he took the political risk of talking to us like grownups about terrorism, about fear, about safety?

"Let's talk about safety," Langewiesche said. "We know how to construct a very safe society. Basically, it's what dictatorships do."

With that bleak truth in mind, Obama could ask us the key question: Do we want to live in a society organized around what Langewiesche termed "the pursuit of safety at any cost"?

As it turns out, this is a question I've thought about a lot. Back in June, I gave my own answer to the question in a piece called "Live Tyrannized and Die Anyways." As I wrote then, "We can risk being murdered before our next birthday as proud citizens of a country that stands for something. Or we can slog into inconsequential old age as cowering, hunted inhabitants of some putrid corpse of what America once was."

Americans need to come up with their own answers. I think Obama can be the one to get us to think hard about what kind of a country we want to call home.

"Of course, Obama is capable of it," Langewiesche acknowledged.

He just doesn't think it will happen. He doesn't think we, as a people, are up to the conversation.

I'd love to prove him wrong. I suspect he'd love to see us prove him wrong. That's my guess, at least.

But I've already fouled up one lunch date by guessing at what Langewiesche thinks. So scratch that.

Whatever Langewiesche thinks or doesn't think, let's be grownups about this. Let's reject "the pursuit of safety at any cost." Let's take the risk of protecting America, its founding values, and the quality of our own lives.

It's a risk well worth taking. We could do it. With brave leadership at the top and a new notion of patriotism all through our society.