The present is weird.
The present is always weird, of course – because every age is a product of a thousand strange and complicated forces, and they twist our societies into truly odd shapes. And people always seem to forget it, every time, because “normal” is … normal, to us. Even if it might take years of study for an outsider to understand our particular period in history. If you were an outsider.
Anyway, this is on my mind because I was reading some reviews of the classic sci-fi short story The Cold Equations. I won’t spoil it, if you haven’t read it – although it’s a pretty straightforward piece, especially now, when the twist feels less twisty because we’re not in the same cultural context it was written in. (Good, though, in my opinion.)
The story opens with a conventional-ish rocket being launched on a vital supply mission from a Hyperspace cruiser dropped briefly into realspace. The lone pilot in this stripped-down little ship – which has distinctly limited fuel – discovers a stowaway hiding in the cupboard …
… and about half of the reviews I’ve seen begin complaining that this is completely impossible.
Now, you can quibble over whether the cupboard is clearly far to large for a supposedly bare-bones mission – whatever, it’s part of the conceit, who died and made you in charge of worldbuilding? The author says the cupboards on a mission like this are big enough, just go with it. But the biggest sticking point seems to be the simple idea of stowing away on something.
After all, why didn’t they have tighter security? Someone could have put a bomb in there, or something! What were they thinking?
Modern terrorism is really quite interesting. Yeah, I know, I’m on a watchlist now. But it is.
I’m Irish, so perhaps I have a slightly unusual relationship with terrorism. It wasn’t so long ago that being literally blown up by terrorists was an actual, ever-present threat in parts of Ireland. That, and the fact that every flight I’ve ever been on had holes in their security you could drive a truck though (I know, watchlist) makes the whole “war on terror” thing seem … a little silly?
And it is silly, I should make that clear. Not because I’m Irish; the same sort of overreaction happens all the time and everywhere, now. It’s not a national thing, it’s a cultural thing.
(Hmm, how long ago would that sentence have been an oxymoron, because “cultures” and “nations” were the same thing?)
Some kid goes into his highschool and shoots the place up. Now, there are genuine questions why this happens (it doesn’t, here in Ireland.) But still.
There is an immediate national, even international crisis. Is is because gun laws aren’t tight enough? Is it because our modern media glorifies violence? Is it because of videogames, or mental illness, or are we not reaching out to kids enough? Is it … across the country, across the goddamn world, debates rage and untested new policies are implemented … because of, perhaps, at worst, maybe two dozen people died.
In a world of seven billion people. In a world where, by my back-of-an-envelope calculations, your child is about five hundred times more at risk crossing the street. This is such a miniscule risk the human brain is literally incapable of comprehending how small it is; it is so small you physically can’t take it into account without overcompensating by several orders of magnitude.
It’s a small flipping risk, is what I’m trying to say.
But it’s a news story. So it’s available.
And people rail at Republicans for wanting to play with their guns at the expense of children’s lives – won’t somebody please think of the children! – even when, as far as I can tell, the best available (terrible, unreliable) evidence suggests that guns in the US save more than they kill. Even when, according to this random internet article I just googled up for a handy talking point, the GOP preventing people from getting “Obamacare” cost maybe 10,000 lives in 2014.
But yes, I’m sure fifteen, twenty people a year dying from something you have no actual evidence is causally connected to Republican policies is just as important, maybe more so.
(Not that conservatives are exactly off the hook, since “videogames/rock music/D&D are corrupting our kids!” codes conservative, and the anti-videogame thing has been almost exclusively founded on the idea that they somehow caused school shootings.)
Why do we do this? Why do we panic about school shootings and terrorist plots, and pass stupid laws to “stop” them? Why do we freak out about illusionary plagues and This New Sex Thing kids these days are totally doing and crime waves that are absolutely sweeping the nation, we swear, look here are three similar news stories (one of which is fake and one of which is out of context)?
Well, duh, it’s the media.
But seriously, this is massively skewing our society’s perception of the world and it’s risks. Why do you think we don’t let children play on the street anymore? Why do you think we have fad diets, and health scares, and Cancer Cured In Mice Using Lingonberries?
There’s no War On Heart Disease, or War On Malaria, or even a War On Cars.
Gosh, but terrorism is really popular among … well, even in the “western” world, honestly. Makes you long for the days when wars were fought by armies lining up in neat lines, doesn’t it?
(Yes, it does. The Geneva Convention is founded on the premise that combatants won’t attack civilians or use unnecessarily inhumane weapons, on the understanding that enemy combatants will do the same. Asymmetrical warfare breaks that essential symmetry.)
So … why?
Personally, I blame Western Imperialism. But not for the reasons you think.
See, The West(tm) has a significant tech advantage in warfare. But more importantly, they have a significant money advantage, and and industrial complex backing them.
In the Bad Old Days, this meant you went and found someone who didn’t have those things and told them you were in charge now, Or Else. (And then you shot a few, just to be clear on that Else was.) These days, this generally considered uncouth and in any case too hard, so we just roll in when someone’s doing something we don’t like for *ahem* incredibly subtle strategic reasons. Same difference. You show up with an army, to a place without much of one.
When the other side has tanks, and air support, and more troops, and is usually armed with better weapons, and they have some fancy new toys they’re dying to try out … well, it’s a tricky strategic problem, to put it lightly. The Roman Legions couldn’t have done it, for all that they toppled nations and steamrollered vast armies. Historically, quite a few civilizations have essentially (to simplify a bit) been wiped out for having much lower military disparities with their enemies. If this was an episode of Star Trek, it would be beyond Kobayashi Maru – it would be somewhere between the Borg, and one of those space-god races from TOS that you tried very carefully not to offend in case they squished you.
How do you fight a war against an enemy that’s more powerful on almost every conceivable dimension?
Well, a solution was found, of course. It’s obvious to any modern tactician.
That solution was that you find one of those big, powerful military installations; or, better still, a bit of the huge civilization backing them; and you blow it the fuck up. And then you disappear, and you do it again and again, and again …
… it’s actually kind of a terrible strategy, in a way. You pretty much have to use isolated cells, because otherwise you’re too easy to find; which means it’s impossible to call off the attack or make any kind of coherent demands. It’s pretty much impossible for you to take down a civilization that way, and it’s close to impossible to take down much in the way of serious military infrastructure that way. You’re now engaging in the aforementioned asymmetric warfare, which means you’ll be treated somewhat worse than most societies have traditionally treated spies and traitors and criminals. You’re massively, massively pissing off the enemy, which means your “side” will suffer atrocities.
In fact, there’s a serious case to be made that terrorism has never worked – and I say this as a citizen of a state that was literally founded by terrorists, as a result of a lengthy terrorist campaign. The only way terrorists ever win is when both sides are so tired of fighting they both give in to each other at once; and even then, it’s a leaderless cell structure, so all the worst bits of your “organization” will cheerfully keep on going until they’re all dead or they find something better or even more illegal to do.
Even the silliest organization tends to realize that negotiating with blackmail is a bad idea, so you don’t even have that. You just … fight.
But it’s the only weapon that works against the imperial war machine. You can see yourself, your movement, is making a difference, making the enemy hurt some fraction of the hurt they’ve caused. And the effect is magnified, compounded, in the funhouse mirror that is modern media; until your little campaign becomes, reflected, a vast host marching beneath a glorious banner, rising up to overthrow the Empire …
It’s all smoke and mirrors, of course, even if the smoke is coming from the barrel of a gun. But in a world where things are just right, when the panopticon sees enough to be afraid but not enough to catch you, when you’re vastly outclassed but can still improvise large-scale devastation on a short timescale, when every attack that fails is forgotten while every attack that succeeds is written in fire in the minds of nations … it can work. For a while.
It doesn’t work for anyone, of course. But it works, just the same. For a moment, when things line up just right.
For the present.