we're still here


I’ve still not fully come to terms with yesterday’s events. I keep surfing around, poking at CNN for more info, checking to see if any of the bloggers I’ve been following has any new information. Occasionally, I scroll down too far, and end up in a post from the 10th, describing some amusing link, some personal event of note, or no note, or a news item that would have provoked outrage a few days ago. Now, it just causes cognitive dissonance, a buzzing in my head as I try to piece together the “before” and “after” parts of my world as my jabbing finger hunts for the “Page Up” button. Periodically, I bounce over to read mail and Usenet, to read messages of hate and violence, messages of sorrow and support, calls for revenge, calls for support, and calls for somebody, anybody, to make sense of it all.

Despite my nominally being “at work”, I produced very little today. Part of my mind tells me that the best thing I can do under the circumstances, the right thing, is to carry on, to wait patiently for the investigators to determine responsibility and to assign blame, and to try to keep the additional disruptions in my life to a minimum, to prevent “them” from making any more of an impact. Most of me, however, keeps roaming the web, scanning Usenet, reading email, looking for new information, answers, resolution.

I saw a CBS news poll tonight report that 66% of the people polled would be willing to give up “some basic liberties” to prevent “this sort of attack” from happening again. Only 24% polled were “not willing”. (I guess 10% told them “fuck off, you media vultures”, or something.)

Sixty-six percent. Two thirds of us prefer safety to freedom. That’s frighteningly high, I think. My primary concern at this point isn’t catching the responsible parties, or punishing them, torturing them, sending them on the express route to hell, or even trying to understand why they’re such miserable nasty people. I’m sure that some or all of those things will happen in due course; if Americans are good at anything, it is at making sure the target of our righteous fury knows that it has been targeted.

No, my thoughts keep turning to the longer term effects that these attacks are going to have on our society, on the shape of our daily lives. I’m going to be laying awake at night worrying about the tradeoffs that we’re going to be forced to make, or bullied into choosing, or duped into believing in; tradeoffs that will reduce our personal freedoms for an illusionary and facile sense of security, a mutually agreed upon fantasy that our world isn’t really the type of place where somebody can look at a passenger airplane and think about how good of a weapon it would make and how much more frightening it would be if the plane was filled with people as well, and that as long as we carry our luggage inside the terminal instead of dropping it off at the curb, everything will be okay, and the boogeymen won’t be able to get us.

It begins, already. Today at work, at the NIH, I had to display an ID badge to get by a bored rent-a-cop before I could get on the elevator up to my floor, to my cube. According to the email that went around early this morning, the rent-a-cop was required to actually touch my badge, presumably to verify, to somehow divine that it wasn’t fake. This charade was dutifully carried out by the morning guard, but by the afternoon, a replacement guard waved me by with only a cursory glance in the general direction of my badge. My co-workers all had to run the same gauntlet, repeatedly, and I’m sure for those of Middle Eastern descent, or even those having the appearance of Middle Eastern descent, it was infinitely more uncomfortable that it was for me, a fairly typical looking white male. This will be continuing “until further notice”, which I fear is bureaucrat for “forever”.

That security guard had absolutely no effect on the probability of my building suffering a terrorist attack today. Had he been there yesterday, he would have had zero impact then as well. Tomorrow, when I again have to present my badge, it still won’t make a difference. The difference in badge check procedures between the morning and afternoon guards today? Meaningless. I think it’s a fairly safe assumption that the Pentagon, and Logan Airport, and the World Trade Center all had security guards on duty yesterday, and they weren’t able to prevent tragedy from striking. I can only infer that the sole function of that guard stationed outside the bank of elevators in my building was to make people feel better, to make them feel less worried, less like targets.

He didn’t make me feel better. He made me feel annoyed. Annoyed that I was being scrutinized, examined, because I went to my workplace. Annoyed and angry that I was being made to display a small piece of plastic with a bad picture of myself on it, in order to get access to a place that I’ve been walking into freely for over a year. Annoyed and angry and sad that because of the events of yesterday, my personal freedoms were reduced just that little bit more, another tiny sliver, whittled away. Annoyed and angry and sad and dejected, because this is a government building, a building erected by my government, the American government, which means that it was bought and paid for, and is maintained by, the taxes of the American people, and at the moment (and possibly, even probably, forever) the vast majority of those people, the owners of this building, aren’t allowed into it. Annoyed and angry and sad and dejected and bitter because the reduction in my freedom doesn’t, the reduction in your freedom doesn’t, the reduction in everybody’s freedom doesn’t make a damn bit of difference if somebody, anybody, the shadowy “they”, decide to attack us again.

After work today, walking to a pub to meet with friends from all over the globe to raise a glass to the fallen, I realized that, in retrospect, one thing I really wished I had had was an opportunity to vote for John McCain in a presidential election. The less said about that, the better, most likely.

What should we do? What is the appropriate response? I’m not sure. At the moment, my stance is reluctantly hawkish. Reason seems very unlikely to work with the perpetrators of yesterday’s attacks, so I fear that we will have to fall back on force; we will have to forcefully make the point that while it may be technically possible to do this sort of thing to Americans, on American soil, the final result is a terrible and awful retaliation. Of what sort, I do not know; how horrible must we show ourselves capable of being, to drive home the lesson that Americans are not good targets, not acceptable targets, not targets of any sort?

The part of my mind that tells me to go about my business, to strive to live my life in a normal fashion amidst the unthinkable, that part tells me that violence isn’t the answer here; that that path twists into a death spiral of increasing devastation until someone uses a weapon so terrible that our race, our planet, may be damaged beyond our ability to heal, beyond our ability to fix. I have no answers to these questions.

In the meantime, even as I revise these thoughts, life ratchets back into gear. There is fresh spam in my mailbox. There are people on the Linux lists asking about getting their video card to support hardware acceleration, about getting PPP to work, about printing. Over on the incidents list there are network admins girding themselves in preparation for DDOS attacks from one side or another. Blogs are beginning to link to items unrelated to the attacks, and it is possible to get major news sites to load without delay. People are reaching out, giving blood, giving money, starting “everybody check in” threads on smaller, more community-oriented lists, regrouping, assessing loss, reporting that they’re shaken, scared, but safe, and still here. Life will go on, is starting to go on. We’re still here, and maybe that’s the lesson – that despite the worst attack in our history, possibly in history, period, we’re still here.

picture from the Bergen County Record (www.bergen.com), via Scripting News.

I'm still here, and Genehack will resume normal operations on Friday.