I posted yesterday about my fear that the wrong man would end up “full of bullets on the subway floor.” It turns out that it had already happened: the London police killed the wrong man, a Brazilian unconnected to any terrorism at all.
One hopes that the NYPD is taking note. And at least this shooting is big news and an international incident, with the Brazilian foreign minister, Celso Amorim, is on his way to London demand an explanation from his counterpart, Jack Straw. Still, how different is this kind of shooting at the wrong man from the overzealous roundups that filled our prisons in Guantanamo, Bagram, Baghdad and elsewhere? The American people have mostly turned a blind eye to these human rights violations abroad, but one wonders whether, by accommodating ourselves to the reality of Guantanamo, we have made it easier to accommodate ourselves to something similar at home. When the first wrong man is cut down in America, will we shrug it off as the price of liberty?
It occurs to me that our response to 9/11 has not been all that different from our response to Pearl Harbor, if you leave out the part where we participated successfully in the major wars that were already underway across Eurasia and North Africa. The glory and cameraderie of that endevor have perhaps helped us to see the internment of the Japanese as a minor incident in a larger drama. And the immediacy of the war delayed the seizure of paranoia that arrived after the victory, when Red purges racked our country and our social politics devolved into a panicked loyalty to a clenched-teeth domesticity.
The analogy is of course limited. You can’t just write off World War II and its impact on America that easily. But there is a pattern in American history of shocks followed by hyperreactive violence: Harper’s Ferry exploding into the Civil War, the explosion of the Maine leading to the conquest of Cuba and the Philippines, the sinking of the Lusitania throwing us into the bloodiest war in history. And too often, these violent periods have been eras of repression at home.
Although, as a friend pointed out recently, this is an unusual convulsion of militarism, in that the young are not, in fact, joining up.