Chasing Infinity

Wednesday, April 24th, 2013

In the new security state, not even garbage will have privacy.

“Terrorism,” the Chicago Sun-Times informed us last week, “has created a new market in Chicago and other big cities for a company that started out making bear resistant garbage containers about 14 years ago.”

Clear plastic trash bins are coming! They cost up to $900 apiece. “Monday’s deadly bombings at the Boston Marathon demonstrate a need for the bins at events like the Bank of America Chicago Marathon,” a company salesman said, and I marveled at the security minutiae that is now called news. We are kept informed of everything except what matters.

Ho hum, we’re in mortal danger every second of the day, terrorists might strike at any moment, but we’ve got surveillance cameras and metal detectors, body scans, the USA Patriot Act and now, see-through trash bins, though maybe we also need see-through backpacks . . .

And I started to think, we’re chasing infinity here. We’re ceding ever more ground to the Watching Authority but aren’t the least bit safer than we were a decade or a half-century ago. Every high-profile act of violence is followed by some new security procedure and market opportunity, which of course embeds the procedure into our way of life and subtly, imperceptibly increases the fear, suspicion and social alienation that characterizes American society, meanwhile leaving the causes of violence — whatever those might be — unaddressed. And the war goes on.

In mainstream media and culture, indeed, there’s no such thing as “causes.” The concept is just too complicated, unless “illegal immigration” is a cause, or “Al Qaeda” is a cause. Or opaque garbage cans are a cause.

In other words, the only “causes” of violence our society is capable of looking at are external projections. The perpetrators are either bad foreigners or quasi-foreigners (Muslims) taking orders from a central cabal of America-hating fanatics, or they are lone-nut types (mostly whites or Asians) who kill in response to some dark internal disturbance. The only thing we can do is protect ourselves from them with ever-increasing security measures, which of course is impossible.

What we can’t do — no way, give me a break! — is understand them. We’re a sinister mystery to one another, and that’s the way it’s going to stay. As Brian Jenkins, a terrorism expert at the Rand Corp., told the Los Angeles Times, “There is no X-ray that looks into a man’s soul.”

Not yet, anyway.

The agenda here, dutifully honored by the media, is the endless fissuring of humanity into incomprehensible fragments of “other.” Only in a state of separation and pretend objectivity do we scrutinize the motives of headline-grabbing social rejects.

Thus the Tsarnaev brothers “appear to fit the biographical pattern of those involved in domestic terror plots since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks,” according to the LA Times article. As Jenkins pointed out, they are “young, male, disaffected consumers of radical Internet propaganda.”

When I read that, I wondered if he was referring to, oh, America’s Army, a videogame site maintained by the U.S. Army, which sanitizes and romanticizes war for kids aged 13 and up. It’s a recruitment tool — one of the most effective the Army has — with 8 million members. Like all violent videogames, it reduces war and violence to a glorious, consequence-free adventure, with the goal of convincing adolescents to surrender their futures to the military bureaucracy.

Violent potential runs like a subterranean river through the human race. Nationalism is a means of diverting that potential to approved causes. Terrorism, which is the tactic of the politically powerless, taps into that same subterranean river for non-approved causes.

“People resort to violence out of ambition or grievance, and the more powerful they are, the more violence they seem to commit,” Juan Cole writes at Common Dreams. Thus, he notes, while American racists scream that Muslims are inherently violent, it’s the Christian West that slaughtered as many as 100 million people in the 20th century, in two world wars and decades of colonial repression.

“This massive carnage did not occur because European Christians are worse than or different from other human beings,” Cole writes, “but because they were the first to industrialize war and pursue a national model.”

The fact of the human predilection for violence ought to be the central issue when we ruminate about security. Instead, we “chase infinity” by attempting to circumvent every possible form that non-approved violence, a.k.a., terrorism, might take, even as we devote more than half our national budget to the pursuit of the good violence that serves the ruling interests.

I’m not even suggesting that we repress or condemn this universal tendency toward violence, simply that we acknowledge it, then ask how we can reorganize ourselves around a principle such as, for instance, the Golden Rule. Maybe it can’t be done, but I know this much. Any discussion of security that ignores it is a bitter farce.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at, visit his website at or listen to him at Voices of Peace radio.