by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
March 7, 2002
THE ILLUSION OF SAFETY
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Why does American culture spend so much of its vast energy and emotional and economic capital on creating and sustaining two illusions worthy of professional magicians: that the world can be made safe, and that life can be made pain-free?
Think about it. Mandatory seat belt laws. No smoking in restaurants and offices. No cigarette and alcohol sales to minors (as if that stops them from smoking or drinking). Displacing wolves, bears and other predators from their natural habitats. Creating and supporting fast foodchains to take all the surprise and discovery out of dining.
Anti-depression drugs. Public service announcements where overpaid television stars tell us to be better parents. We won't even let a pregnant woman drink a glass of wine without making our disapproval known. The list is endless.
And now, of course, post-Sept. 11, we have to deal with the mindless madness of airline security. Talk about slamming the barn door shut after the horse!
On a trip to Florida last month, after the security guard looked into my shoes, she went through my purse and confiscated my cuticle clippers. She actually said, "These are sharp; you can hurt somebody." (Yes, I could stab my finger; it might bleed. Arrest me.) Then she took my cheapo nail clipper, extended a little flap of metal on it that I didn'tknow was there, broke it off, and handed the rest of the gizmo back to me.She had the grace to look ashamed.
Safety is an illusion; you would have thought that if nothing else,Sept. 11 taught us that. But it didn't, really. Since then, we've been in a paroxysm of American denial. We seem to be thinking that if we just think ofeverything that can possibly hurt us or go wrong, and stop it or make it goaway, then we'll be safe. No matter what the cost.
The strongest lesson that we can learn from recent murder of journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan is that no one is really "safe," and certainly not journalists.
"We used to cherish the idea that, because we were impartial, we were also somehow cloaked in a kind of immunity, almost invulnerability, that allowed us to move through conflict zones reporting -- fairly, we felt-- about all sides," John Kifner said recently in The New York Times. After Pearl died, I looked up Pakistan in Robert Young Pelton's book, "The World's Most Dangerous Places."
In 2000 he wrote, "There are a lot of guns in Pakistan with a lot of people who use them on a regular basis. Tourists are kidnapped for ransom... Your health is definitely at risk... Much of the country is not under the control of the government but ruled by tribes. Professional bandits prey on poor and rich alike."
I can only hope that the Wall Street Journal had Pearl on hazardous duty pay.
The feeling that you're not connected a place became you're not from that place, or because you're an American and above it all, is not only endemic to journalists. In fact, I used to feel that way myself. Once I left the U.S., however, my feeling of omnipotence was quickly dispelled.
It took only a day after I landed in Guayaquil, Ecuador, for me to blunder into the middle a minor revolution. Suddenly bullets were flying over my head, and I was saved only because a brave man ran up behind me, flung me to the ground and threw his body on top of mine until the shooting stopped. That was the day I learned that having an American passport in my back pocket did not mean that I was exempt from experiencing the world. Later, after a few robberies, earthquakes, illnesses and a shipwreck, the idea became permanently reinforced.
Maybe I was dumb, but I've always been grateful that I didn't run back home to safety and to Mama America. Instead, I finally felt alive; I felt like my own movie had finally begun. I may not have been safe, but I had wonderful times and fascinating (if dangerous) adventures. I wouldn'thave missed it for the world.
So why are Americans so concerned with safety? Are we naive? Are we a nation of cowards? After all, Justice Antonin Scalia recently said that the safest places in the world are totalitarian dictatorships. Is that what we want? I think Americans' frantic need for the illusion of security, our denial of danger, comes partly from the fact that we live so much of our lives vicariously, through television and movie screens. Volcanoes can erupt, ships can sink, wars can happen, but we feel and experience it all second-hand -- we have become passive viewers of the pain of the world.
Also, the same passivity may have made us victims of our own entertainment industry. We may be starting to believe what we see on the screen, those illusions on which enormous amounts of money are spent. Maybe people really think that Hong Kong action stars can fly up the side of a building. In skirts.
This point is well-illustrated by a story I read about a family on vacation in Yellowstone National Park. They wanted to take a picture of their daughter with a bear that had just ambled by. So they stood the girl next to the animal, poured a jar of honey over her hand to attract the bear, moved away, and through the viewfinder they got to watch the bear maul the child.
I puzzled over that story for a long. Were they a family of imbeciles? Now I think that maybe, having seen bears in endless cartoons on television, and having received many so lectures about wildfires from Smokey, they really thought that bears were friendly. Hey Boo Boo!
Also, we Americans have now become masters of the ersatz universe.We can easily control our indoor environment. We can use plastic surgery to redesign our bodies. We can divert rivers and streams. We can actually move mountains.
We don't have to go to Europe, where we might make fools ofourselves because we don't speak the language. We have the Epcot Center and Las Vegas, where the experience of foreigness is feigned for our enjoyment. Americans who have lived outside the country have a specialappreciation for the fact that American culture is only one of manycultures, and that many other people have equally reasonable responses tothe world's stimuli.
They also have a better understand that we're all traveling on one planet, that we're all in it together.
Sometimes I wish that we could mandate cross-cultural experience for everyone in America. It might make the world a better - and safer - place.
Joyce Marcel is a freelance journalist who writesabout culture, politics, economics and travel.