If there’s anything the Boomers have reliably bequeathed to succeeding generations, it’s the awareness of the fragility of life. And not life in general, the kind that’s easy to feel bad about the loss of, but your own personal copy, the one that matters to you. Growing up in the time of duck-and-cover videos, experiencing the crushing of the American dream with the assassinations of people who might have led us toward if not peace then at least less conflict, watching every new hope for the future gunned down on television, each death blamed on a lone nut with absolutely no connection to anyone in power, seeing images every night on Cronkite or Huntley/Brinkley of our soldiers slogging through tropical mud for reasons nobody understood: but most of all, being aware that the number of nuclear missiles in the world was such that were even a subset to be fired the result would be rubble, pretty much world-wide. That your physical ass was in the hands of people whacked enough to think that made sense. That your life could end in an instant, along with those of everyone you knew.
Nowadays, that end comes in a more personalized package. No longer does your entire city incinerate alongside you; now it’s just you and your coworkers, fellow restaurant- or concert-goers, or transit passengers. What we have is basically the democratization of the power of violence, which the nation-state has greedily claimed for its own from the moment of its inception. In fact that unitary right was almost its legitimization, given the incessant warring and destruction of the later Middle Ages up to the time when it became possible to forge artillery reliable enough to deploy in sieges. And with the easy availability of military-style weaponry around the world and most especially here in the US, it is inevitable not only that more San Bernadinos will happen but that worse is to come. Given the Senate’s craven refusal to prohibit watch-listed terrorists from buying guns, and the number of soldiers who have been trained in counterinsurgency techniques, it’s impossible to imagine that we’ve seen anything approaching peak terrorism.
Complicating the search for solutions is the purely gut-level response of much of the population, who as a result demand that the US do exactly what the terrorists are hoping we’ll do and as in Ted Cruz’s brilliantly creative formulation carpet-bomb them. How one might carpet-bomb a few tens of thousands of fighters amongst a population of millions, the lot spread among cities and rural areas across as many as ten countries, the good Senator and nobody else can explain because it’s a completely ridiculous concept. Yet this passes for reasoned debate in GOP circles!
In the end, though, this really is a clash of civilizations. Or perhaps more aptly it is a clash of civilization with the resistance to same. On the one side are fundamentalists everywhere, from Al-Raqqa to Alaska, for whom every interaction with anyone unlike themselves provokes the fear of learning something and is thus an excuse for violence. For such folks life is, or at least ought to be, black and white, good and evil, prescribed and forbidden. On the other side are relativists around the world, rarely concentrated enough to run a country by any system other than oligarchy, who see nuance and understand that judgments must be made rather than rules subscribed to. Civilization depends on nuance, but the human animal has evolved to promote superstition and fear. As a well-known movie Senator often said, we stand today at a crossroads… But we’ll muddle through, I imagine, much as we have over the last half-century, by daily denial of what we all know to be true: given our choices as a polis, at any moment someone might burst into the room clad in Kevlar, carrying assault weapons, and spraying bullets in our direction. And there’s very little we can do about it.