I went to the kickoff event of the Boston Book Festival on Thursday night, Writing Terror featuring Wes Craven, Mary Louise Kelly, Jessica Stern, and Valerie Plame Wilson. It was a discussion about fear and writing about fear.
The first question the moderator, Joe Klein, asked, was what each of the panelists feared most. “Eighteen members of Congress,” quipped Wes Craven. He was referring, of course, to the eighteen House Representatives who have been at the core of the fight to shutdown the government and send us into default. That got a good laugh from the audience.
During the evening, we were treated to a frank discussion about what is scary to a group of people who really have some perspective on the issue. Craven, of course, is in the business of frightening us with his movies and has drawn on fears from his childhood to power his films. Jessica Stern has written about the unsolved sexual assault perpetrated against her sister and herself when they were adolescents. She’s also met with and interviewed self-avowed terrorists, and neo-nazi leaders. Mary Louise Kelly, a broadcaster an author has worked for NPR, reporting on the intelligence community. She told us about the time she was most frightened. She was called by her son’s school. They wanted her to come and pick him up because he was having trouble breathing. Trouble was, Kelly was six thousand miles away in a Black Hawk helicopter about to be ferried into a war zone. She lost the call before she could explain and it was twelve hours before she found out what happened to her son. (He was fine. The school contacted his father, who was six thousand miles closer.) Valerie Plame told us of the fear she experienced when her CIA cover was blown by the Bush Administration as retribution for her husband, Owen Wilson, revealing that the Administration was lying about Iraq buying yellow cake Uranium from Africa. Plame was immediately concerned for her children and the assets she’d developed around the world.
I was most impressed by Valerie Plame. I knew some of her story from press coverage at the time, but I haven’t yet found the time to read her account of what happened to her. The way she was treated fills me with outrage. She spent her time as an agent in the CIA in one of the most vulnerable positions, that of a Non-Official Cover agent. If she was discovered, the government would have simply disavowed her. During her at the CIA, she worked to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons. I wish I was able to say I’d done as much to make the world safer.
Most on the panel agreed that the greatest threat they could see was the intersection of fundamentalist terrorism and nuclear technology, and that they felt Pakistan was where that intersection was most likely going to happen. The government of Pakistan is ‘heavily infiltrated’ with extremists and barely holding together. Pakistan is also making nuclear weapons faster than any other country on Earth.
I’m not sure I agree. It would be terrible for terrorists to set off a nuclear weapon, but if they do, they will be hunted down by an outraged world. I doubt it will happen more than once and I hope it never does. It could cost millions of innocents their lives. But what we are doing to the global climate will affect everyone and has the potential to destroy our species along with most other species on the planet. In the worst case, it might destroy all life on Earth and leave our planet looking like Venus.
The use of a nuclear weapon by extremists is, so far, a horrible potential scenario. Global climate change has already started and is accelerating every day. We spend billions on fighting terrorism while trying to pretend climate change will just go away is we ignore it long enough.
Another scenario, not discussed by the panel, is the steady erosion of civil rights that is happening in the U.S. and other countries where technology makes it easier and easier for the government to spy on anyone at any time. While it might be a boon for solving crimes, the surveillance society is the dream of any potential despot. Members of Congress openly defy their constituents, confident that what really counts is the money they get from ultra-rich donors and huge corporations. They gerrymander voting districts to ensure incumbents need not worry about losing an election. Decisions by the Supreme Court have opened the flood gates, allowing almost unlimited amounts of anonymous money into the election process, turning the U.S. into a virtual plutocracy already.