America's Screwed-Up Notion of Security

05/25/2011 12:00 pm ET
  • John McQuaid Author, "Tasty: The Art and Science of What We Eat"

Just to expand upon Harry Shearer's excellent post on Newt Gingrich fretting about the hypothetical - losing a city to a nuke - while New Orleans struggles on ignored, a biblical flood apparently less politically arresting than the Bomb ... What does it mean that we can - literally - "lose a city" due to government incompetence, yet most of the political world, and perhaps the country as well, seems not to notice?

I don't think it's because New Orleans a quirky place (though it is) in exceptional geographical circumstances (though it is), and thus on the margins of America's consciousness. Rather, it's because our national priorities are screwed up, and dangerously so.

Recently, a flight of mine was canceled. I was rebooked on another airline and flagged for extra security. I went through the puffer machine. I watched as my laptop set off a sensitivity alarm for explosive residue and was X-rayed twice. I was asked if I'd fired a gun recently (no). I then missed my connection, was rebooked, and flagged again. This time, my cell phone set off the alarm. We are nuts about security. But the definition of "security" is arbitrary, if not downright wacky.

The idea that bourgeois existence is constantly in peril from within and without has been a fixture of our politics and the media for decades. But the current moment has heightened it, whether it's full-bore threats such as terrorism, immigration, outsourcing, child predators - or more low-level ones such as aging, or not getting into an Ivy League school.

All these dangers are real to one degree or another, and threaten to upend our carefully engineered existences. Success and happiness somehow are equated with an absence of risk. Often it seems security measures are in place to make us feel better that, well, somebody is doing something -- not because they are effective. And in most cases the threats we focus on are exaggerated, often specious. The potentially deadliest threat, the terrorist attack, is perhaps the most ill-defined danger we face. While hardly trifling, it can't compare to the risk of complete annihilation of the Cold War. Or the threat of Nazi hegemony a few years before that. Or, looking to the future, the danger by global warming or our heavy reliance on fossil fuels.

New Orleans is now dealing with these misplaced priorities firsthand. We collectively ignored well-documented threats while a mound of risky decisions accumulated. The city will be struggling with the fallout of those decisions for decades as government agencies and businesses slowly wake from their shared illusions of security. Yet the nation's hesitancy to forge ahead, to protect the city now and into the future - insurers are pulling out, and short of a major upgrade, the refurbished levees may never make living there truly safe - is astonishing. It indicates a national return to navel-gazing, anxiety and security-as-therapy. We're at an important national pass here - but I fear we're going to see more unexpected things blow up in our faces before we squarely face the threats of 21st century.

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