Terror and the Crisis of Faith

Where do you place your trust? In Cipro? In surgical strikes? In our Commander-In-Chief? From news anchors and presidents to workers in factories, stores, and emergency services Americans now seek to reaffirm a sense of closure and control. Implicit in many public displays is a desire to return to the good old days, when America's political might and technological prowess seemed to assure a stable social and natural order. Yet what if the good old days were not as orderly as we imagine? And what if the very quest for a totally ordered world may paradoxically occasion ever-growing disorder? Perhaps we would be better off acknowledging that all our military and technological fixes leave some unwanted remainders. Providing political space to redress grievances and respond to unexpected consequences may be the surest medicine.

Anthrax is mysterious and often lethal. Nonetheless, why is there no crash program to eliminate environmental carcinogens and polluted air? These act in poorly understood ways to take vastly more of us each year than Anthrax has thus far claimed. Anthrax anxiety and our relative indifference to more "established" risks can be read in the light of a longstanding American romance with technology and an insistent quest to still doubts about its darker sides

Anthrax expresses and symbolizes the darker sides our latest technological revolution, biotechnology. On some level, we now suspect that the biological revolution that gives us designer drugs will inevitably yield designer pathogens, the future course of which appears utterly unpredictable. These pathogens observe no institutional or architectural borders. Their existence adds to growing concerns about the permeability of our political borders. Anthrax and its perpetrators must be eradicated not merely to save lives but to reassure us that both our technological and political futures are secure.

Nuclear energy provides timely lessons about the consequences of an insistent faith in new technology. During the Eisenhower era fall-out from weapons tests led to widespread popular fear. In part as rejoinder to this fear, government fashioned a "civilian" offshoot of nuclear weapons. "Atoms for Peace" was to provide electricity that would be both "too cheap to meter" and a source of power for the world economic development needed to counter the appeal of Communism. Today, nuclear plants around the world are both sources of ongoing environmental risk and potential terrorist targets.

Yet we continue to introduce new products and technologies with unqualified promise of unprecedented human freedom, control, and predictability. Talk of risk is brushed aside as ideological, anti-technology, "Luddite," and parochial. As if to reflect, but also to sustain such faith, little attempt is made to assess unintended consequences. When deaths are charged, these are often denied or extenuating circumstances cited. Numbers are challenged and downplayed. When tragedy is undeniable, it is acknowledged only in the context of promises that newer versions of the technology have eliminated the problem. Yes, our (vaccines, cell phones, tires.) once killed, but that was the old version. As technologies manage to survives over a generation, their inescapable downsides are domesticated not merely by familiarity but also through the continued reassurance that risks are rare, now fully quantified, declining, and but a small price to pay for necessary forms of progress.

Cipro is being asked not merely to cure a disease but to serve as therapy for a culture. "In Cipro we trust," Tom Brokaw's memorable line, encapsulates the quasi-religious faith in technology. Nonetheless, the self-mocking play on religious rhetoric may also reveal some well-founded inner doubts. Consumption of prophylactic Cipro by millions could itself occasion a new public health crisis. Marc Siegel, a physician at New York University, points out that prolonged use of this drug, without a reasonable treatment target, may cause diarrhea, colitis, gastrointestinal bleeding and insomnia in many citizens. In addition, its indiscriminate use, like the widespread practice of administering antibiotics to sustain industrial livestock culture, will exacerbate the already significant but underreported phenomenon of drug resistance.

It may be a utopian fantasy to expect political strategies to address the demonization, millennial hopes, and real and imagined grievances that underlie terrorism. Yet is there no fantasy in the notion that our police, our perfectly targeted bombs, our medical technologies can seal us off from unpredictable harm? Protection from terrorists today must involve not merely our mail service and nuclear power plants but our water systems, food supplies, sporting arenas, and energy supply pipelines both here and abroad. Whether we even have the knowledge base, the economic capacity, and the psychological resources for such an indefinite battle is open to question.

National and international law should be enforced, and reasonable legal and medical precautions taken. As for me, however, I will place at least equal faith in a perspective that questions both unlimited faith in technology and the confidence that our political economy represents the epitome of human progress. I assume the possibility of widespread technological failure and ask for vigilance in acknowledging, measuring, and allowing for it. We become less vulnerable not only to terrorists but to natural disaster as well with decentralized and renewable energy systems, more local self-sufficiency in food, and more adequate provisioning of our whole public health networks. But our most important sources of security are political. These lie in defending and extending multiple political venues perpetually to create and amend a framework of law. In the process we allow continual opportunities to assuage and address the critics and victims of our progress.

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