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Opinion: History Happens

Poli Psy


Published June 20, 2007 at 4:00 a.m.


Some years ago, I clipped a newspaper item about a Vermont girl who was struck by lightning while playing baseball. Her parents sued the Little League. The coach, they alleged, had failed to take the kids off the field in a timely fashion, and thus had not averted a preventable accident.

This lawsuit struck me as an example of monumental — and typically American — chutzpah. After all, if ever there was an act of God, a lightning strike was it. And yet the parents believed that their child could have been protected, and since she was not, someone had to be held accountable — preferably via a large sum of money. Although I can’t track the story down now, I recall the father saying he hoped the penalty would move the ball club to implement more prudent guidelines for declaring games rained out. Other families, said he civic-mindedly, could be saved the pain his own had suffered.

September 11 should have put to rest the American delusion that bad things don’t happen to good people (“us”). What happens, instead, is history, whose ways are far more complicated than the Manichean fantasies of a geographically isolated semi-theocracy. Yet the practical response to that delusion — bureaucratic and technological measures to prevent bad things from happening —has only intensified. Endless investigations of the vulnerabilities in skyscraper construction and airport security have resulted in new protocols and procedures: rewritten building codes, fingerprinting of foreign tourists, plastic-bagging of carry-on toiletries. Among deluded attempts at prevention you could even count Bush’s pre-emptive war on Iraq — a strategy predicated on the idea that history and politics can be avoided if only your bombs are smart enough.

The prevention principle has been on display big-time these last months.

In response to the Virginia Tech shootings, voices rose to permit more involuntary commitment of mental patients.

Homeland Security is building a $49-billion, 700-mile fence along the Mexican border.

The feds are readying implementation of the Adam Walsh Child Protection Act, which will establish, among other things, a national searchable Internet sex-offender registry including parolees as young as 14.

And two weeks ago, four men were arrested on charges of plotting to blow up New York’s JFK Airport.

How effective are these measures?

Not very. Short of locking people up forever, there’s no way to police psychological treatment. A sociopath whose demons are bent on destruction is likely to succeed, sooner or later.

Sublegal-wage immigrant labor is a supporting truss of the U.S. economy. Barbed wire will only make crossing the border more expensive and dangerous for foreign workers.

Sex-offender registries, no matter how high-tech, do nothing to protect children from those most likely to abuse them: their own families. And what about the stepped-up surveillance and arrest of “terrorists” who’ve done little more than talk? The feds declared that in apprehending the JFK plotters they had forestalled “unfathomable damage, deaths and destruction.” Yet the following day, The New York Times reported that the prosecution’s criminal filings suggested a “terror plan . . . longer on evil intent than on operational capability.” The defendants’ “satellite photos” of the airport were Google Earth downloads, their “escape routes” local roads and highways. The conspirators seemed unaware that fuel pipelines, the incendiary device at the center of their plan, don’t explode or carry ribbons of fire from end to end. Even their lawyer implied that his clients resembled “the gang that couldn’t shoot straight.”

So what do these measures accomplish? They create an illusion of safety — and of the measures’ own necessity for fending off danger. Few Americans oppose these practices because they fit fortuitously with those twin national illusions: our insulation from harm, and our ability to fix things. Nothing bad happens to us, because we are good. So if something bad happens, the cause must be a temporary malfunction in the machinery, or an incompetent operator.

When the Democrats condemned the Bush administration for failing to prevent 9/11, the assumption was that a less-klutzy executive could have prevented it. In the end, this argument only strengthens the hand of the security state. Remember, only one Senator (not Vermont’s) and 66 Representatives (including Vermont’s) voted against the Patriot Act of 2001. We look back on those yea votes as capitulation to extreme political pressure. I think Congress believed the Patriot Act would work.


I admit, I go for prevention too: gun laws, traffic lights, low-fat diets. I am a child of the 20th century, whose grand ideas, from communism to modernist architecture to psychotherapy, were built on the notion that we can redefine history — and redesign ourselves. I’ve only grudgingly accepted the entropic worldview of postmodernism, and I reject the now-dominant explanation of most human feeling and behavior as written in our genes. To me, that sounds suspiciously like our fates are written by God. To both of these, I prefer modernism’s fantasy, which is also America’s: We are in control.

But sometimes, as the bumper sticker says, shit happens. If you’re a true American, you sue. If you’re me, all isms fly out the window and you are thrown back to the cave, watching the sky for portents. Last month, I skipped writing my column because I was rendered temporarily insane by the belief — fanned by a “highly suspicious” mammogram, an alarming doctor’s visit and two weeks of Internet research — that I had breast cancer. One in nine American women gets the disease; I personally know plenty, including three who died. All of them, like me, ate broccoli and practiced yoga and refrained from smoking. Why should I be spared?

Being American, my first instinct was to blame a breakdown in the machinery — in my case, the incompetent-operator theory. I hadn’t had a mammogram in more years than I want to advertise. Ergo, the probability of illness increased. On the other hand, my friends conscientiously went for mammograms, and got sick anyway.

I was forced to realize that there’s prevention . . . and there’s luck. And mine was looking bad. When I found out my breast was healthy, I could thank only kismet.

Luck —the atheist’s version of God — plays a role in history, too. History (America’s Israel policy, the rise of fundamentalism, etc.) moved the Islamic jihadists to attack the World Trade Center. But the attackers enjoyed colossally good (and their victims colossally bad) luck when the buildings collapsed to dust. History took its cue: The extremeness of the U.S.’ response, both international and domestic, was proportionate to the shock of that image.


This nation cannot prevent history. And we are not always lucky. History may rank second only to bolts from heaven as a force beyond our control. And, pace the Little Leaguer’s parents and the 9/11 Compensation Fund, no sum of money can cure history or rewrite bad luck as good.

So should we default to apathy, or play the lottery? Neither. We have no choice but to try to influence history. When shit happens, though, Americans might learn humility. That may be the best preventive of all.