September 19, 2001


A Clutch of Nettles
By Virginia Dare


Editor's note

If it is permissible to find delight in anything these days, then I must confess my delight at the arrival of Virginia Dare in this forum. Subscribers to the old print version of The Last Ditch have long lamented the absence of her distinctive voice, asking me where in the world our Website's "page 3" was. Here it is!

— Nicholas Strakon

It's September 2001;
do you know where your security is?


The madness has started. Last night, on a major cable news network that will remain nameless, a lady newsreader confided to the anchorwoman that she could remember the first time she smiled since the events of Tuesday, September 11. It was Friday the 14th, and it lasted only a few seconds. She hoped that, before long, she would smile a second time. It's in parlous times like these that I'm inclined to rate the remote control as one of the greatest boons known to civilized man.

A reader poll on CNN's Website asks, "Would you accept more government involvement in your life if it meant more security against terrorism?" It's an interesting question, because it ignores the core principle that government involvement in your life is  terrorism. So far, 176,000 people have responded, and 70 percent of them have said yes. That's 123,000 witless sheep, O Best Beloved. Granted, 123,000 out of 285 million Americans isn't a lot, but chances are that some of them are people within our circles of influence — people who, under ordinary circumstances, we work with, stand in supermarket lines with, but not, please God! have to rely on in a crisis.

I work in an awfully PC place, and our Human Resources staff has inundated us for days with soothing e-bytes. My favorite was the one telling us that if we were experiencing signs of stress, such as sleep disturbances or anxiety about personal safety, we could use our company's mental-health counseling service at no charge.

Living as I do in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., ever since September 11 I have been awakened — at semi-hourly intervals — by the drone of F-16s flying over our suburb. It was unusual because the fighters were the only aircraft buzzing through my slumber once air traffic was deeply curtailed, and before September 11 I was able to sleep through nearly any outside noise. The F-16s have scared me bolt upright in a muck sweat with regularity because of what they represent — the watchful eye of a rigid, regimented state that sooner or later, as it did for the European village in the classic Bill Mauldin cartoon, is going to "liberate the Hell out of us." I can only imagine what sort of claxons would go off in our personnel office if I were to tell the nice counselors that I don't worry nearly so much about what Afghani kamikaze pilots might do to me as I do about our own government's airborne benevolence.

I spent a couple of weeks in India this summer and was struck (not literally, thank God) by the huge numbers of police and soldiers, armed with fierce scowls and semi-automatic weapons, who postured in railway stations, airports, public thoroughfares, and national monuments, swaggering drunk with their own menace and power. They were semi-literate and arrogant as only the now-elevated but formerly powerless can be. The menace of a totalitarian military is one of the glories of a Third World country, and don't you forget it for a moment. Their brothers under the skin are now patrolling the streets of Washington in Humvees and battle dress. They're activated National Guardsmen who (to overestimate substantially) have had minimal training in crowd protection or public-safety measures. But they've been through swagger-and-posture training, by golly. If I was any safer, I'd just pass out from the joy of it all.

There is no way I'm going to light a candle or wear a lapel ribbon or emulate Kate Smith, at the risk of being mistaken for one of the baa-ing, fleecy-minded "patriots" who mistake "safeguards" for safety. If I knowingly encountered one of the 123,000 polled naifs in favor of allowing airport security guards to search my carry-on luggage for clandestine nail clippers, I'm not sure how I'd react, but it would be, um, picturesque.

Twenty-five years ago, a friend of mine, an economics professor at a local university, bought a house in a shiny new subdivision, not far from where I live now. It was an upscale enclave of 25 lovely houses, and Bud and his wife had a wonderful time selecting custom flooring, spiffy appliances, and all the trimmings of their dream home. Then the builder conducted a poll of the prospective residents to determine whether they wanted gas or electric heating. By something like 24 to 1, they all wanted clean, safe electric heating. Bud was the sole holdout for the far cheaper and more reliable natural gas option, and he was stunned. Outraged. Appalled. And, uncharacteristically, almost incoherent as he told me the story over a double bourbon. "Not only am I footing a bill that will turn out, over time, to be unimaginably higher than it might have been," he wailed, "but I'm going to be living in the midst of idiots!" 

And so I look at the results of the CNN poll and remind myself that this benighted sampling could mean that 70 percent of my fellow citizens are willing to have their precious freedoms curtailed — and don't think for a minute that it's only temporary, for the duration of the crisis. A freedom curtailed is history, O Best Beloved. And history is full of 'em, but don't get me started on that.

Down through the years, I hear Bud's plaintive wail, and I lift my voice with his. We are living with idiots. Watch your back.

© 2001 by WTM Enterprises. All rights reserved.

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