So Many Badguys, So Little Time

Thoughts on the World Trade Center and Pentagon Attacks

by Bob Stein,, 17 September 2001

(This is the G-rated version.  You could guess what word I used instead of badguy in the PG version.)

I don't feel patriotic about the New York and DC disasters and I finally understand why. To react patriotically is to play the terrorists' game. It's to think on their terms. To me they aren't Muslims. I don't care who they are. They aren't fighting oppression or bad US policy. I don't care what they want. And they didn't attack America, I don't care what all the news graphics call it.

They're just a few badguys who killed a whole bunch of people and ruined a whole bunch of other people's work.

I don't care who they are or what they want, I just want them to disappear, fast. I want anyone who half-knowingly contributed to what they did to disappear too. And I don't want to spend a lot of time and energy on it either. Bombing starving Afghani's wouldn't make me feel safer even if it didn't cost me my tax cut.

Let's get this over with on the cheap. Much work remains to be done. The world has a long line of badguys waiting.

I feel the same way about people who abuse their spouses and children. I just want them to disappear. I feel the same way about people who get rich by making others a whole lot poorer. I want fewer of them on my planet. It's got nothing to do with sex or money or politics, it's much simpler: stop it or get lost.

What's with all the flags? I don't feel sexy hating a child molester. I don't feel greedy hating a robber baron. I don't feel patriotic hating a terrorist. I just feel disgusted.

Listen, this is the only sentient species I know of. We're going to have to get a lot better at getting rid of our badguys. Too many get away with it. Too many prosper too often.

We've had millions of years to practice saying no to badguys on a village scale. Like everything else that works with a hundred people, we're having to figure out the hard way how to make it work with billions.

: : :

Does anyone else see the irony of a policy of punishing whichever country turns out to have been giving terrorists safe harbor? It appears the terrorists du jour have been living for the last year, in complete safety, in the United States. Does this underscore the futility of universal safety? The futility of civil rights? The futility of victory over terrorism? Boy, I hope none of the above.

It would be easier if this were a problem of Judeo-Christian civilization versus Islamic civilization.  That's the kind of problem we've been training to fight for centuries, particularly in the history of Europe, which has been riddled with waves invasion and occupation since the time of the Romans and probably for much longer.

It would be easier if this were a problem of U.S. versus Arab, of rich bloated apathy versus poor ignorant desperation, of Moslem versus Jew versus Christian versus etc. But it's none of those. Any solution expressed in those terms is going to fail us. None of that talk is serious about preventing future recurrence. Terrorism is simply a few people making a whole lot of people miserable. It was inevitable. The next one could be an Islamic fundamentalist, it could be a woman scorned, it could be a nerd.

The indignation that wells up in my breast over this disaster served to repel the kinds of threats we've seen for the last hundred generations.  It's ill-suited for the threats to our generation.

Hasn't Timothy McVeigh taught us anything? What does he have in common with Osama bin Laden? Nothing at all. Nothing, for sure, that we can use to detect the next lunatic and forestall his designs. (Ok, they're both men, big surprise. It's still no help.)

Does it matter why? Of course, a terrorist wants us to know why, knows we'll find out. Notice how the biggest terrorists never even announce who they are, let alone their reasons or message? They deny it in fact! They know we'll find out anyway. So what if they hated America? Maybe that does make the angel on my right shoulder love America a little more, or the angel on my left shoulder want to fix America a little better, but neither come close to the extent to which I just want these badguys gone.

If it were a challenge of U.S. versus T.H.E.M. maybe then it would make sense to talk about America the Beautiful or America the Imperialist. Maybe it would make sense to wave red, white and blue flags on the streets of lower Manhattan, or red, white, green and black flags on the streets of East Jerusalem. But I think we face a challenge along far more difficult and unfamiliar lines.

The problem we now face is the power of the information age unleashed destructively. In this coming age the age we're about to find out if we can hack what one person does can affect billions. This unprecedented leverage is increasing every year. We've been experimenting for centuries with the power of authors, and for decades with the power of actors, musicians and entrepreneurs.

Now we're discovering how someone can be a badguy on a global scale. How a few of us can make a whole lot of us suffer. How in the world do we protect ourselves from that?

How can we prevent a jilted lover from detonating a thermonuclear device? Three drunk guys from shooting up a mosque? An angry science club from nerve gassing their school? Isn't the most surprising thing of all that it's taken so long for some sociopath to show up with imagination and persistence?

Terrorism is just being a badguy on a global scale.

So what do we do about it? What really needs to change? Perhaps something already changed, in fact, before the fourth plane fell. Can you imagine four guys hijacking a plane now? Could they keep a plane full of adults docile with one box cutter held to a flight attendant's neck? Say the fifth team got their dates wrong and deployed this coming Tuesday. Will it take several phone calls for three passengers to decide to do something about it? No. Before anyone has time to dial, thirty passengers will have torn the perpetrators to shreds.

But of course, that's not the answer. Even if hijacking is now obsolete, there are many other ways to perpetrate mass horror. If we're really lucky the best governments of the world have thought of half of them.

We all recognize that this a whole different game starting now. Terrorism, as we've come to define it today, is utterly new. It's the prime challenge of the information age.

Here's the way I see things headed: governments inventing better security against the whole world inventing better technology and better badguys. Oh My God. We don't stand a chance. The badguys are already winning. Badguy budget: nineteen suicidals, four flying lessons, four box cutters, nineteen plane tickets. Government budget: $40,000,000,000 down payment.

Here's the only hope I can come up with. Badguys are made, not born. So there must be ways we could figure out how to make fewer. For those that crop up anyway, almost everyone who comes into contact with them knows who they are. So maybe we could make them disappear faster. I don't think any other lines of work are going to help.

2001 Bob Stein