Politics of Risk

Scholars call it the "risk society." Advanced by German sociologist Ulrich Beck and others, the theory implies that for millions of ordinary people, the best choice is simply the safest choice. The ideal that always seems to elude our risk society – especially after Sept. 11, 2001 – is that of total safety. We yearn for a kind of utopia in which cocoons of absolute security will envelop our fragile bodies, our precious families and enterprises.

Nowhere is the effect of this contemporary mindset more apparent than in the 2004 presidential election. In a risk society – especially one scarred by the trauma of a recent major terrorist attack – the act of voting for a president becomes an exercise in risk assessment. In a fear-driven climate shaped by a barrage of terror warnings and the obsessive media coverage of every possible threat to our security, most voters are looking to choose not the best leader, but the least risky one.

It was already clear in the Democratic primaries that the election would be about the ideal of safety rather than ideals themselves. The nebulous factor called "electability" carried Kerry to the nomination over the more vocal Howard Dean, who was framed by the media as riskier for opposing the Patriot Act and the Iraq War. By choosing Kerry – who supported both – Democratic voters signaled that the election would be essentially a referendum on security issues.

Over the past months, George W. Bush and Kerry have continually vowed to make the nation "safer," each claiming to be the better warrior. The Republican and Democratic conventions were designed to push the same message. Kerry, while calling for a "more sensitive" approach, is careful never to question the basic assumptions that underlie the war on terrorism or the Iraq War. During the primaries, Kerry spoke about "replacing" the Patriot Act because of the dangers it posed to our civil liberties; these days, he speaks merely of "improving" the legislation.

The only real difference between Kerry and Bush is that the senator wants to democratize risk; his message is that more multilateral collaboration and grassroots participation in managing risk will keep us safe. He calls for more diplomacy abroad to ensure multinational cooperation against terror, and neighborhood patrols to guard against an attack at home.

President Bush, of course, specializes in the politics of risk. His administration likes to tout itself as a conclave of hard-nosed risk managers. Recently, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld spoke to an audience in Chicago about the array of new threats faced by the United States, including "improvised explosive devices" such as suicide bombs, package bombs and truck bombs, and the challenge of "balancing risks" to meet these emerging threats. The subtext: Do you really want to change leaders when terrorists are coming soon to a city near you?

This isn't to say that this preoccupation with risk is entirely new. The Slovene philosopher Slavoj Zizek points to the Hollywood films of the '70s and '80s, which reflected the fear of nuclear war – the hero racing against time to stop nukes from raining down apocalypse on Moscow and Washington D.C. In the post-9/11 era, John Poindexter's much-discussed and ultimately abandoned plan for a Total Information Awareness program at the Pentagon can best be understood as a new version of this fantasy – not as a sinister Orwellian plot but a naïve attempt to create data sets that will "crack the code" of "terrorist chatter" and miraculously thwart attack after attack.

The reality, however, is that there are no databases, computer software, surveillance technologies or weaponry that can definitively end the threat of a terrorist attack. The notion of any "endgame" for terrorism is illusory. President Bush came near to conceding that with his "you can"t win it" statement about the terror war that he later retracted. Politics aside, threat levels from catastrophic attacks – nuclear or terrorist – will always fluctuate, even as they did in the days when phrases like "Def-Con 4" or "Orange Alerts" were not part of our national consciousness.

More importantly, effective risk assessment entails prioritization – what threats are greater or more pressing than others – which in turn requires reliable information about the risks we face. In a democracy, it is ideally the role of the media to present the risks faced by their audiences in a sensible hierarchy. U.S. residents instead are treated to wall-to-wall coverage of terror alerts and political stage-shows designed to capitalize on the 9/11 attacks. Our political campaigns and media outlets have become little more than messaging machines that lazily reach for the most spectacular risks (like terrorism) in order to attract the largest possible audience, across class, ethnic and geographic lines.

The result is that people remain ignorant of more pressing risks to their well-being, such as declining household incomes, unemployment, lack of health insurance and the pervasiveness of HIV infection.

But in the end it is our civic duty to do an end-run around the mainstream media to inform ourselves of the real dangers we confront both in our everyday lives and as a nation. It is up to the voters to decide what they should be most afraid of.

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