Perfect Security

A while back, I was at a little cove with our dog, Ripley. Ripley loves being in the water. He especially likes trolling around like Gollum, watching for any movement on the water surface – little sticks, or bugs, or bubbles. And often, when he spies a likely target, he lunges at it and tries to bite it. This sudden movement in the water invariably sends up a spray of droplets. And when those droplets plunge back down into the water again, they make a little splash. Ripley sees that splash and, thinking it could be another deserving target, he lunges again. And again. And again.

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Arnold Wolfers was an old-school scholar of international relations. He wrote a bunch of great stuff, but many of the young academics being churned out by grad schools these days wouldn’t even know he existed. And if they did, many would turn up their noses and dismiss him as “just another realist.” Well, one of the things he wrote about is the ambiguous nature of national security. He argued that some states will establish forward bases and security zones in an attempt to secure their values and interests. After a very short while, those bases themselves become interests that need to be protected. And so the state extends another ring of bases and security measures to protect them. And again. And again. As Wolfers phrases it, “Pushed to its logical conclusion, such spatial extension of the range of values does not stop short of world domination.”

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Kafka wrote an amazing short story about a burrowing creature. This creature is afraid of potential enemies, both those who might find his hidden entrance and invade his warren from the surface, as well as those subterranean foes who might burrow their way into his lair. In order to keep himself safe from these predators, the creature has hollowed out an elaborate and complex series of tunnels and chambers. While he would like to relax more, and perhaps spend more time resting and munching on tasty morsels from his vast store of food, he is unable to unwind. He has started to hear noises whistling and echoing off the walls of his tunnels. He convinces himself that the noises are caused by the breathing and digging of his enemies as they invade his home and hunt for him. He concocts new plans and sets about digging new tunnels. Ultimately, the creature becomes trapped by his own angst and paranoia. The menacing noises of his approaching enemies are really just the echoing sounds of his own frantic digging and the rush of blood in his head from his sustained physical exertions. The pattern repeats itself. Again. And again.

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In an age of terror, we have raised up a vast and sprawling architecture of surveillance and police power and military might. And we like to think that these forces are harnessed to ensure our security. But their very operation creates new enemies where there were none. And their focus, inevitably it seems, eventually boomerangs to settle on a domestic target, looking for quislings and fifth columnists in our midst.

Perfect security is a myth. But more than that, the effort to achieve perfect security plays a counterintuitive trick on us and leaves us broken and vulnerable. The more we set about trying to insulate ourselves from all threats, the more insecure we become.

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