Who’s Decimating Whom? (a holiday story to be told)

Leftovers are the world’s way of saying things should continue. Life may get better or worse, but it should go on.

Thanksgiving is America’s best holiday, if only for its leftovers. Figgy pudding is no good warmed over. The November Halloween stash lacks all our favorite candy choices. Easter peeps will last forever, so what’s the rush? But turkey and stuffing, with cranberry condiment, just keeps on giving.

Even today, the day after Thanksgiving, feels like a glorious leftover. The red-letter day is over, but the weekend hasn’t begun. Unless you’re a shopping maven, it’s an unscripted day, not work, not play. It’s a holiday from the holiday. Like any good leftover, it invites improvisation.

Holidays also include storytelling, but here leftovers serve us poorly.

We love to tell stories. It’s human nature. Our media culture gives us a steady supply of prepackaged stories, ready to be popped into a verbal microwave and served fresh and hot, at a moment’s notice.

Airport security seems all people want to talk about this week. But know this. Almost none of the people are talking about their own experience — not the news anchors, not the politicians, not the bloggers, not the columnists, and not your relatives. Only a tiny percentage will endure the “enhanced pat-down” that airport security recently added to their repertoire.

That won’t keep us from retelling the stories we’ve been told. We heard about the shirtless 8-year-old getting groped. We saw the “don’t touch my junk” youtube video. We’ve followed the rolling imbroglio on our favorite talk radio or cable news channel.

Story becomes myth when it contains an unanswered (sometimes unanswerable) question. “Happily ever after” never answers the question “until when?” Today’s story asks but doesn’t answer what it will take for us to feel safe again on an airplane.

Myths are built from stories. And stories are built with words. So let me tell you a different, but not unrelated, story.

Pop quiz! What are we aiming to do to our enemies in Afghanistan?
A. Annihilate them.
B. Eradicate them.
C. Decimate them.
D. All of the above.

The answer is not D, because each answer is different. Words matter.

Annihilation requires overwhelming force. Eradication pinpoints the attacks, hoping to avoid collateral damage. Carpet bombing or targeted drone attacks? Maximum force or the minimum to do the job? “Shock and awe” versus “shock and aw-shucks.” We came into Afghanistan to annihilate our enemy, but now we’re trying to eradicate them.

We haven’t tried decimation. We’ve forgotten the meaning of the word and the “ten percent” military strategy it describes. Al-Qaeda hasn’t.

During the conquests of the Roman Empire, military commanders felt the burden of what we call “nation-building.” Their annihilation tactics killed all the men who were qualified to be leaders of the conquered village. So they developed a new strategy against mutinous militias and popular rebellions. Their aim was “winning hearts and minds.” It wasn’t pretty.

Rather than kill all the men, they would capture them. Military strategists then would torture and kill every tenth prisoner, randomly chosen, in full view of the others. Once convinced that resistance to Rome would be futile (and painful), the survivors were returned to their villages.

They told stories to their villagers, spreading fear and compliance. The storytellers became leaders in submission, glad to have escaped the fate of the tenth prisoner and happy to pay whatever taxes the empire required. They wanted only to feel safe.

Have you ever wondered why al-Qaeda sent two planes into the World Trade Center? The first focused our attention, so the storytellers were ready when the second one hit. Our enemy is using our storytelling against us, exacting ever higher humiliations from us. We imagine the worst, then seek security to address our helplessness. How much is enough? There is no answer.

Republican Rep. John Mica of Florida, the ranking Republican on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has proposed outsourcing TSA’s security duties. If efficiency is what we’re after, we may as well pay Al-Qaeda directly to do the job of decimating the American psyche.

How many Americans will travel through airport terminals in the next month? According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, last December had 57.4 million enplanements. Figuring most of those were traveling round trip, that’s about ten percent of us.
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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a weekly column for The Register-Guard and blogs.