The attacks on the World Trade Center didn't just kill thousands but left behind a kind of slow-motion time-bomb, one that's still exploding. It's target was what David Foster-Wallace calls "the American idea"—"an open society, consent of the governed, enumerated powers, Federalist 10, pluralism, due process, transparency … the whole democratic roil."
How powerful is the bomb? It's still not clear, and even though the impact on civil liberties could have been worse, clearly we've moved into the kind of futuristic surveillance world Philip K. Dick and Aldous Huxley might have dreamed up if they ever spent a weekend together in the woods. We're good at equivocating and railing against the system. But how much are we thinking hard about the negotiation we make between our values and our defense? Foster-Wallace wrote a brief 2007 essay about this, starting with this thought experiment:
what if we chose to accept the fact that every few years, despite all reasonable precautions, some hundreds or thousands of us may die in the sort of ghastly terrorist attack that a democratic republic cannot 100-percent protect itself from without subverting the very principles that make it worth protecting?
Is this thought experiment monstrous? Would it be monstrous to refer to the 40,000-plus domestic highway deaths we accept each year because the mobility and autonomy of the car are evidently worth that high price? Is monstrousness why no serious public figure now will speak of the delusory trade-off of liberty for safety that Ben Franklin warned about more than 200 years ago? What exactly has changed between Franklin's time and ours? Why now can we not have a serious national conversation about sacrifice, the inevitability of sacrifice—either of (a) some portion of safety or (b) some portion of the rights and protections that make the American idea so incalculably precious?
In the absence of such a conversation, can we trust our elected leaders to value and protect the American idea as they act to secure the homeland? What are the effects on the American idea of Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, PATRIOT Acts I and II, warrantless surveillance, Executive Order 13233, corporate contractors performing military functions, the Military Commissions Act, NSPD 51, etc., etc.? Assume for a moment that some of these measures really have helped make our persons and property safer—are they worth it? Where and when was the public debate on whether they're worth it? Was there no such debate because we're not capable of having or demanding one? Why not? Have we actually become so selfish and scared that we don't even want to consider whether some things trump safety? What kind of future does that augur?
In 2003, he spoke to German TV network ZDF about the post-9/11 world.