01 February 2007

Outsourcing Terrorism to the Victims

Osama bin Laden can retire now; he's worked himself out of a job. We don't need actual attacks to keep us in a state of terror anymore. All we need is Lite-Brite pictures of cartoon characters.

Yesterday, Boston was paralyzed by a terror alert arising from a Cartoon Network guerilla advertising campaign gone wrong. If you believe the Boston Herald, the Boston Police Department spent a million dollars on the incident, and it probably created much larger costs by tying up the city's roads and bridges all day. Those expenses may be only the beginning - Boston will spend an enormous amount of money on lawyers if the city follows through on its promise to throw the book at Turner Broadcasting and at the two artists who created the campaign.

Federal, state, county, and city officials have all been quoted emphasizing the seriousness of the situation. Tom Menino, Boston's mayor, explicitly tied it all back to 9/11, saying "It is outrageous, in a post 9/11 world, that a company would use this irresponsible marketing scheme".

Menino suggests an interesting and important question: what, exactly, is "irresponsible" in this post-9/11 age?

The attitude of terror - that everything unfamiliar is dangerous, and that any time you see something that's not completely familiar, you should stop what you're doing, panic, and run and hide - is not responsible. Osama bin Laden wants you to assume the attitude of terror. He wants you to freak out and call the police every time you see a little pile of white powder, even though the probability is zero that it's anything more dangerous than sugar, salt, or coffee creamer.

The attitude of helplessness - that the world is so dangerous there's nothing you can do to protect yourself except to surrender your judgment, your rights, and your defense to government experts - is also not responsible. George W. Bush wants you to assume the attitude of helplessness. He wants you to leave the war on terror to him, after you let him suspend habeas corpus, the accused's right to counsel, and the requirement for judicial warrants to authorize wiretaps.

These attitudes are irresponsible, because if we adopt them, our fears drive us to attack ourselves. We spend money responding to imaginary threats. We lock ourselves in our homes and suspect everyone and everything. We turn toys into weapons, strangers into enemies, and jokes into crimes. We put cameras in every room and policemen on every corner. When we've done all these things, the terrorists don't need bombs, airplanes, and anthrax anymore; they've outsourced terrorism to the victims, and we'll finish the job ourselves.

If we don't want to become bin Laden's subcontractors, what is responsible? Simple: thinking clearly - thinking for yourself - about risks and precautions is responsible. As I've already noted, Sam Hughes explained it best.

If Boston takes millions of dollars of public money which could be used to investigate and prosecute real terrorist threats, and spends those millions instead on persecuting a couple of cartoon marketers who have (possibly completely accidentally) embarrassed the Boston Police, that won't be responsible. And it won't be popular, either. Enough Americans can still tell the difference between real enemies and phantoms. Some folks who recognize a phantom when they see one are already selling the t-shirt.

Update: Bruce has an excellent entry on this too.