There was a boy in our class in school, right little daredevil. Reckless and allergic to authority, pathologically obsessed with impressing the rest of the group with the panache with which he would walk that fine line between bravery and stupidity. He played with matches, he ran with scissors, he jumped in the pool after lunch, he cheekily talked back to teachers, he did the lot; and we all rewarded him with our prepubescent admiration. One day, in an effort to wow his audience, he sneaked fireworks in his backpack and bought them to school. He lit them all up at once during recess and the whole class watched in horror as the silly little prank went awry and our class hero was rushed to hospital with second degree burns. Thankfully, Nick suffered no long term injuries and today he is alive and well with his wife, two kids and a spaniel in his cottage in the lovely village of St. Mary Mead, but the effect that day had on all of us endures to this day.
20 years have passed, yet even as adults, we all still remember that harrowing moment when the fireworks exploded on Nick’s hands. That image is still so vivid, almost like it was yesterday, and not one of us will ever let our own kids anywhere near this pyrotechnic menace. In fact, some of us would even like to see them banned completely. Or at the very least, make sure that only trained and qualified individuals are allowed to handle them.
Remember, it is explosive substances we’re talking about after all, so it would probably be prudent to take some reasonable precautions to protect ourselves. There are a lot of irresponsible, reckless or just plain stupid people out there, and we can’t possibly trust them with handling what is, in essence, an incendiary device. We, as rational and mature citizens, would surely appreciate to see steps taken to put some sensible limits on the private use and abuse of these consumer-grade explosives.
For example, it might be good idea to create a register of fireworks owners, to require permits to buy and use them and to track and verify each sale. Surely, a special government agency could easily be put in place to control and monitor the fireworks market, to distribute licences and to keep records of fireworks-related transactions. Authorised distributors would have to pay a relatively small amount for the right to sell them to private individuals, potential buyers would also have to pay a symbolic sum to acquire their licenses for private use, and of course, the fireworks themselves would be sold at a slightly higher price, given how dangerous and harmful they could conceivably be; a tiny little hidden tax would only ensure that the government would have enough money to deal with the consequences in case of future fireworks-related accidents. Naturally, illegal purchases would be prosecuted and unlicensed use would carry a heavy mandatory sentence. It should include actual prison time too: To protect our kids, no punishment is too cruel or too unusual. For that purpose, the authorities should also be granted the right to sneak peak into bank accounts, just to make sure that all potentially suspicious transactions are above board. They would also be allowed to snoop into phone conversations, in order to track the criminal activities of all those unscrupulous fireworks smugglers. We, the people, would embrace these common sense policies; it is, after all, for our own good. We’d understand that, ultimately, the war on fireworks is our only hope against the evil masterminds that would certainly seek to weaponise ordinary looking firecrackers to blow up our schools. They would, of course they would. They hate us for our freedom, everybody knows that.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions
Fear is a wondrously powerful thing. It makes sheep out of wolves, it makes toddlers out of adults and it makes fascists-by-consent out of freedom loving, open minded, educated citizens. Authoritarianism of any sort, of any political tinge or historical context always feeds on this primitive emotion, it thrives in this cesspool of suspicion and perceived vulnerability and, while we’re all busy taking turns looking out for the boogeyman, well, it quietly grows leviathan. Eventually, we come to recognise the monster that we, ourselves, created. After having already signed over our liberties to what appeared at the time as a benevolent saviour, we finally notice all the hidden charges in small print and we realise what we sacrificed in the process. But by then, it’s usually way too late: We have already given up our right to protest and to object and we are implicitly complicit in the sealing of our fate.
Sure, it’s hard to make rational, well weighted and calmly calculated decisions when we are under siege. When a threat is imminent, personal and existential, it’s tricky to think straight. Knee-jerk reactions, panicky short sightedness and emotion-induced cognitive blindness are the order of the day when fireworks, or more pertinently, bombs go off where and when they shouldn’t. Our initial response is usually as sophisticated and as nuanced as the civil society equivalent of a stampede: Run away from the bang and lets all go jump off a cliff together instead.
It all starts with good intentions. We simply seek to feel safe, to protect ourselves and our loved ones. In these “interesting” times that we live in, there is nothing more sensible than trying to satisfy this basic human need. This kind of risk-aversion, in its natural and unadulterated state, is a useful survival mechanism; one could even call it an evolutionary advantage. It does, however, have the potential to go terribly wrong: through the regular and often strategic exposure to the toxic influence of our news sources and information bubbles, our good intentions gradually turn rogue. Graphic images, shock-and-awe footage, over-sensationalized reports and the-end-is-nigh narratives, cause our anxiety levels to surge violently, and our automatic responses to escalate from appropriate and proportional to mass hysteria. In a sheer blind panic, we readily merge into a group-thinking mob, eager and grateful to be herded into a safe shelter, away from all the booming and banging things.
Much like the cold -war-era film cliché of a desperate man selling off all his belongings to get a place for his kids in the last bunker before the nuclear apocalypse, we too rush to trade off whatever is at hand, to sacrifice all we hold dear, and to give up whatever it takes, just to guarantee our own place in that bunker.
Security or privacy, a false binary dilemma
After the horrific attack in Brussels, the latest in a series of brutal strikes at the heart of Europe, the conversation continues to revolve elliptically around these two cores: security and privacy. It is always presented as a zero sum situation, as though these two are the only possible – and mutually exclusive- options we have before us. The ultimate question every citizen is expected to answer has been practically boiled down to: “how many and which specific liberties do you want to exchange for your place in the bunker?”. Bunker tickets are limited while fear is not, and so the auction begins.
We consider and we debate the security vs privacy conundrum, as framed, and we quickly find ourselves lost in circular thinking traps, stuck in infinite logical loops. We struggle with what seems to be an impossible dilemma, without bothering to examine the validity of its premises. However, instead of answering the question, the truth perhaps lies in questioning the question.
For example, when did our right to feel safe become a regulated commodity, that can only be bought using the rest of our civil rights as the sole acceptable currency? Why do we so readily accept that the monopoly on selling bunker tickets lies with our respective governments? And, last but not least, why do we automatically assume that life in the bunker is safer than outside?
Reality just keeps contradicting these imposed premises. “National security”, as is its catchy brand name, even as a commodity sold to us by the state, is simply a bad product. It’s falsely and misleadingly advertised and it just doesn’t do what it says on the tin. We make concessions and we pay for it with our right to privacy and the government in turn uses the information it collects to guarantee our safety; that was the deal. Only they don’t hold up their end of it. Threat levels are still pin-balling from yellow to orange to red and back again, the frequency and severity of attacks increase and we feel anything but safe on our commute to work every day. And then we find out what they were really using our data for, thanks to whistle-blowers and leaks, but we are so cynical and jaded by then, that the revelations don’t even manage to surprise us. Intelligence community overreach, privacy infringements and violations, warrantless snooping, none of that was part of the deal. And yet, we feel like we have already traded away our right to complain, let alone to challenge the offenders. Or even worse, we see no point in even trying. We respond with weary shoulder-shrugging and fatalistic what-can-you-dos. Feeling helpless and powerless to question the terms and conditions of our own citizenship, we accept what we believe we can’t change and we feel even more vulnerable to external threats. We agree to outsource the responsibility for our own safety and we simply renew the contract with our lord protectors, conceding even more rights and surrendering even more of our liberties.
Critical thinking is really the only weapon with sufficient stopping power to put an end to this vicious cycle: fear leading to dependency and helplessness, leading to more fear. Just taking a moment to examine the premises and the fine print in the next deal we’re offered, that’s all it takes. Taking a closer look at the track record and the motives of the benevolent saviour, analysing the nature and the origins of the potential threat, no matter how it is presented. The next “extinction level event” is probably just around the corner, another “imminent and existential threat” is most likely already in the pipeline. How we react to it, can determine how many and which specific liberties we actually deserve to keep.