The “ticking time-bomb” is what we often use to justify pre-emptive law-enforcement (or lawlessness) — what we fail to realize is that that is more useful as a metaphor than a hypothetical.
We think of the ticking bomb as a danger unrecognized until too late; there was a time when we might more likely have thought of it as consequences come to fruition. Speaking of urban unrest and misordered social priorities, Martin Luther King said that “the bombs that drop in Vietnam explode at home”; we can think of both appeasement of Hitler by Britain and the installation of the Shah by America as long fuses lit.
Those sentiments, of course, came from a time when we thought of ourselves as members of a nation, not a collection of isolated individuals. Westerners in general, and Americans in particular, of course seek individual fulfillment, even recognition, but in America once, as in Europe still, this is conceived of in a consensual context of opportunity. With no guaranteed financial (or even existential) future, under the example of rogue capitalists crashing the country and unitary executives bombing as they please, each American is a country of one.
Members of groups, including well-functioning capitalist cultures, think in terms of what collective context will maintain the well-being of the individual; solitary personalities contextualize everything that might affect others in terms of how it will affect them. So, nations and their leaders used to think about blowback, at least nominally, before they acted (not torturing so that our soldiers wouldn’t get tortured; slaughtering Iraqis but not thinking we could take over their country; taking care, per a government regulation, not to kill more than 10 percent of any nation’s people so as to avoid society-wide psychological damage and blowback). People with no sense of nationhood (which Americans are now; if the essence of “America” is to be left alone, then there is nothing to cohere a real country), people with such an outlook don’t ask themselves “what am I doing?”, they wonder “what could happen to me?” — so the ticking time-bomb is always something someone else has set, or could be starting to.
Our answer to bombs, of course, is guns — we must be armed so that the government we fear can never come for us, but that government should also be armed, to protect us from foreign agents who wish us harm — the only function of government, in the audible right’s view. But the danger that is building up is always in our minds. Not imaginary, I mean; shaped by our thoughts, or our thoughtlessness.
The bomb that goes off, the trigger that is pulled, is on the apprehensions we have accumulated. Within minutes of the San Bernardino shootings, CBS’s Twitter account had one comment calling the shooting site “an Obamacare facility” and blaming “the terrorist GOP,” and another right below it blaming “Islam” and “our idiot president” — both swiftly deleted, but indicative of the hair-trigger assumptions simmering in our divided citizenry. We have points to make and we try to win the last war with the certainty only retrospect offers. To believe a standard rule can predict tragic behavior is to feel that we could have seen tragedies coming. Hence our adoption as individuals of our leaders’ post-Reagan tendency to put conclusions before examples — immigrants make you uncomfortable, so they’re what caused the Paris attacks; you’d rather not live near African-Americans, so when one white cop is killed by a black assailant, that invalidates anything you have to listen to about an unending wave of unarmed innocents being on the other end of the barrel; radical Republicans’ words are ugly, so they must also be deadly.
These resentments mount, and they look for release, and madmen’s bullets lance the boil. It justifies our conflicts rather than furthering any resolutions. In a time of national division more severe than anything since the undeclared civil wars of the late 1960s/early ’70s, as some rush toward the fire — the brave cops at the Colorado Planned Parenthood massacre; the ordinary people pulling victims to safety in France — many more of us run from each other. We don’t have time to think…but time is the only thing we can, in fact, make. The silence of death around us can be matched by a stillness of thought — those who conduct slaughters plan them coolly and carefully. We must be ready to listen and learn, not be armed — worse even than physically — with prepared assumptions.
I drive into and out of the city nearest me, and one lone police officer is standing there, sometimes not even with a visible weapon, at the entrance to a tunnel or bridge crossed by thousands each day. What can this one person do, if a horde of combat-ready monsters appears? Or even a handful. Maybe, even as many of his kind act like an uncontrolled paramilitary themselves, this guy has it right. He’s in a position of protection, not retaliation. Perhaps just serving as a symbol of it. Not an isolated individual, but one literally taking a stand. A vulnerable image which makes any human want to come to his side. A reminder that individuals — who are precious — are what gets lost when we fight without thinking. That one human face reminds us who we are.
Those who advocate for no restraints on physical guns have a figurative one to the country’s head. But we can perhaps finally overwhelm them with a language they can’t understand, by dropping the weapons we’re aiming from within.