I wrote this a year ago. “Just Asking” is still one of the best essays I’ve read reflecting on Sept. 11 and not a whole lot of the bad things that I mentioned last year have gotten better, frankly. So, I’m reposting it today, touched up to reflect the new date.
With today marking the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and tomorrow marking the third anniversary of David Foster Wallace’s tragic death, it seems appropriate to share Wallace’s short, 2007 Atlantic essay “Just Asking.” In it, Wallace asks whether the “American idea” (in short, “open society, consent of the governed, enumerated powers, Federalist 10, pluralism, due process, transparency … the whole democratic roil”) is worth dying for or whether the values we hold dear are worth giving up in order to make ourselves safe.
Are some things still worth dying for? Is the American idea* one such thing? Are you up for a thought experiment? What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, “sacrifices on the altar of freedom”?* In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea? And, thus, that ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our democratic way of life—sacrifices not just of our soldiers and money but of our personal safety and comfort?
In still other words, what if we chose to accept the fact that every few years, despite all reasonable precautions, some hundreds or thousands of us may die in the sort of ghastly terrorist attack that a democratic republic cannot 100-percent protect itself from without subverting the very principles that make it worth protecting?
Since 9/11, our supposed defense of the American idea has led us into two wars and cost many thousands of human lives (not to mention over $1 trillion). It has stripped us of any remote semblance of personal privacy. It has nearly cost us the right to ask questions. And of course, that ironically perverse defense of the American idea hasn’t done much to stop terrorism, hasn’t made us more prosperous, and has, in fact, gotten in the way of improving our country.
As our national dialogue continues to devolve into polarized shouting matches it is valuable, as Wallace implores us to do, to step back, take stock, and think about the necessary balance of freedom, safety, and sacrifice.