Commonly described as heir to various great American and European writers (Joyce, Pynchon, DeLillo), and compared with writers from Gerald Manley Hopkins to Dostoevsky, David Foster Wallace died earlier this month, apparently at his own hand. By chance, I had just bought a book of his essays, and I was looking forward to reading his review of Tracy Austin's "autobiography", and his report on McCain's 2000 campaign. [See my post US Election 2008: Sincerity versus Authenticity]
Last year Wallace wrote a short polemic in the Atlantic about terrorism and counter-terrorism, called Just Asking, in which he suggested the following thought-experiment: that instead of reducing American liberty for the sake of security against terrorism, America could decide to keep its liberties and accept a certain level of terrorism. The victims of these acts would be democratic martyrs, sacrificial witnesses to the eternal values of American liberty.
Is this a monstrous idea, he asks? Then why do we not also regard it as monstrous to sacrifice 40,000 Americans every year to the liberties of the motor car?
Two hundred years ago, Benjamin Franklin warned of the false trade-off between safety and liberty. Now it seems to be impossible to have a serious political debate about this, either in America or in Europe. We apparently have no choice - the decisions are made on our behalf by elected politicians - or worse, by stupid functionaries.
And Wallace ends with two rhetorical questions: "Have we actually become so selfish and scared that we don’t even want to consider whether some things trump safety? What kind of future does that augur?"