February 10, 2016

POP CULTURE, POLITICS AND PERCEPTION | Unalienable Rights

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While the writing paused, the world of politics and violence continued uninhibited by deadlines and winter breaks. So, what have we missed? Iran’s sanctions were lifted, Iran received new sanctions, Istanbul and Kabul suffered bombings, France is starting business in Iran, the Americas are being terrified by the Zika virus and Canada had a school shooting. So, which one of these are we going to talk about? None. Instead, I would like to take a broader look at the climate of terrorism and how we strike a balance between safe communities and civil liberties.

It was Benjamin Franklin that said, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” Of course, he didn’t live in the age of massive international terrorist attacks, but he did experience war on American soil. Surely feeling unsafe is not a modern creation. As technology and terror develop new ways to make world citizens feel insecure, governments and civilians scramble to redefine what is acceptable in the name of security. For the most part, we take the stance that almost anything is tolerated as long as we don’t know about it.

Although we may hate the Colonel in A Few Good Men, we can’t help but see some logic in what he says. When he arrogantly sneers and tells the courtroom and audience that he is required “on that wall,” he represents the ambiguous space between what is necessary and what is right. He is intolerable because he breaks the contract between the public and the protectors: the agreement of ignorance, where anything is acceptable as long as we don’t know the dirty details. For while some may commend Snowden for blowing the whistle, we don’t want everyone to be whistle blowers; the majority of the time we want silence. However, sometimes we are forced to play a part in the decisions that keep us safe or violate the rights of others.

In the face of a cultural attack, we tend to do two things: think with our hearts, not our heads, and create arbitrary divisions in an attempt to put a face to our enemy.

When Congress met after the 9/11 attacks, it is hard to imagine they were thinking clearly. The greatest act of terrorism on American soil had just taken place, thousands were dead and all we had was a man on a television screen condemning our way of life. Regardless, they met to decide major policy that would come to define America. Americans began creating huge and lasting divides between the victims and the perpetrators – a divide that condemned a geographical region, a particular physical appearance and an entire religion.

Barbara Lee (D-CA) was the one voice that opposed the Congressional vote that gave President Bush a blank check to wage war on terrorism. A proud American, she decided to search for a better way to create a “safer” future. However, how can one voice compare with the untapped fear of a nameless threat? Americans couldn’t handle it. So we created a villain, an evil out to kill us at all cost. The word “us” creates a clear picture; it means you, your family, your neighbors, the guy that smiles at you in Starbucks. “Them” is ambiguous, a shadowy face in a foreign land; they don’t even seem real, they are ephemeral, a flicker on a TV screen. Then it becomes easy to sacrifice “them” for the sake of “us.”

After the first real taste of mass fear on American soil, Americans asked, What should we do to keep us safe? The answer was anything. Years of faceless war and we have created an ultra-violent “state” and have presided over an increasingly destabilized Middle East. Now as we try to define our role in Syria, France has been addressing how to deal with the loss of this same peace of mind. Still in a state of emergency, the French government is also moving towards extremes. Recently the French Minister of Justice, Christiane Taubira, resigned over a controversial plan, which would take French citizenship from those who are convicted of terrorism. She said, “I believe that we mustn’t grant [terrorism] any victory, neither military, nor diplomatic, nor political, nor symbolic.” She is a leftist politician who has presented an increasingly dissenting voice towards the socialist government of France. For her, the legislation is a symbolic act, one aimed at minority groups with dual citizenships. She believes this will only widen the rift between “pure” French citizens and dual citizens.

There is a tradition of ethnic profiling that is tolerated by many societies, which perceive on some level that it is necessary to keep them safe. America and France have both made allowances in times of great fear. Most of these allowances are made in order to return to a state of comfortable ignorance. However, by not addressing how far we are willing to go, the decisions made in times of terror come to define our policies. Whether the decisions we make are concrete or symbolic, we have to start defining the difference between necessary and acceptable. Finally, we need to start using fear to band together instead of having it tear us apart. The Western world is bursting at the seams over questions of who’s to blame and how to hold them accountable. The political, social and literal walls we build are symbols of terror’s victories, which will only increase in number and power unless we abandon the “us” versus “them” dichotomy and adopt the concept that we are all humans.

Sarah Palmer is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Her spirit animal is President William Henry Harrison, reminding her that even the biggest success can be dampened by the wrong outfit choice. She spends far too much time watching old movies, listening to jazz and trying not to do anything. Pop Culture, Politics and Perception appears on alternate Wednesdays this semester. She can be reached at ssp222@cornell.edu.

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