Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Them and Us   posted by David Boxenhorn @ 9/06/2005 12:07:00 AM

I have read a quite a few commentaries around the web, and in the MSM, comparing Katrina to 9/11. One thing I haven't seen commented on: On 9/11, the enemy was them, with Katrina, it is us. There is a world of difference between the two, even when the objective danger is comparable.

Living in Israel, I often have non-Israelis wondering that I live in such a "dangerous place". I usually reply that the chance of violent death in Israel is not higher than in the US, and is in fact much lower than, say, West Philadelphia, where I lived for four years without anyone wondering about the illogic of it. (West Philadelphia is not the most dangerous part of the city, by the way. That honor goes to North Philadelphia.) In fact, the experiential reality of living in Israel is that it's much safer than the US. The reason: In Israel, the danger comes from them, in the US it is from us. Violent crime in Israel is almost unknown, and when it does happen it's almost always a crime of passion. Israelis may think they are anxious about personal security, but few of them are in a position to personally compare their anxiety to that of Americans. I have lived significant amounts of time in both places, and I think I can say with confidence that in comparison to the US, Israelis feel safe.

Part of the reason is undoubtedly rational: Israel's personal security problem is much easier to live with than the US's. I don't worry about my kids being kidnapped. Women don't worry about walking around at night. When someone yells at you from a car, you don't fear for your safety. All this adds a significant intangible to the quality of life. But I also think that a big part of the difference is purely psychological. We humans are simply better equipped to deal with external threats than internal ones: a threat from one of us provokes far more anxiety than a threat from one of them. In fact, an external threat can have the paradoxical result of reducing rates of anxiety. I have lived through a few crises (examples: here, here) and can attest that the resulting cohesiveness of society can almost make it worth it (especially in the second case, when there really wasn't any significant danger).

New York on 9/11 was a clean fight against them. It is the kind of tale that makes heroes. Anyone doing their best and fighting hard will come off looking good. In contrast, New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina is a dirty fight against us. The ambiguousness of the fight makes no-one look good. Compare firemen and policemen: Firemen are heroes. Policemen... well it depends who you ask.


Addendum: I think that much of the attraction of groups like al-Qaa`idah (القاعدة) is the strong cohesiveness generated by making everyone else into them, the enemy.

(Crossed-posted on Rishon Rishon.)

Update from Razib: I deleted all the comments. We can start afresh, I didn't have the inclination to sift through all that stuff.