Radical Ambiguity and the Default to Decency
“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” Rahm Emanuel, then– chief of staff to Barack Obama explained in urging financial reform after the 2008 economic collapse. His boss’s predecessor, George W. Bush, understood the principle and used 9/11 as his crisis not to waste—advancing the shock doctrine (Naomi Klein’s term)1 on the world’s economic and military fronts. I had called it differently as I watched the towers fall, misreading the catastrophe as clear evidence of the world’s interdependence. Everyone had to be given a sense of dignity and belonging to a common community. I wasn’t alone, but it was certainly not a consensus.
The debate continues as to whether our aggressive moves abroad (and, on occasion, at home as well) have made the United States safer or only increased its exposure. The case for repression has taken various forms, with the Middle East wars being the massive catastrophic response. At the heart of the ferocious real politick is belief that if we capture, torture, or kill innocents, we will eventually get at the bad guy. Those who survive our wrath will learn the lesson and be less likely to help such people in the future. Anybody thinking of attacking us will respect our power and capacity to get even—more than even. To make this happen, we will go anywhere and do what it takes: the war on terror.
I know no real way to refute such a claim for the wisdom of bellicosity with utter certainty. But surely those who would oppose how I think have at least a modicum of uncertainty for their position—or certainly should have. Put bluntly and at the extreme, I am proposing that when youdon’t know what you are doing, the best approach is the more directly humane one. What will, from the standpoint of basic human empathy and generosity, enhance people’s well-being? There should be some