09.11.08 at the Winningstad Theater
Photo by CaroleZoom
Time-Based Arts Festival, PICA
All Rights Reserved, 2008
Posted by Dusty Hoesly
I saw Mike Daisey’s newest monologue, If You See Something, Say Something, on September 11th, the seventh anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks. Fittingly, this show is bound up with the legacy of 9/11. It is a history of the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (a direct response to 9/11), the invention of the A-bomb and the neutron bomb, the changing debate about global security, and a personal story about Daisey’s journey to the Trinity Site (where the first atomic bomb detonated). Relying more on lecture-like exposition of American history than personal narrative, especially as compared to his earlier show MONOPOLY!, Daisey explores the individual and public psychology of what makes us afraid, how we respond to fear, and what we are willing to give up for (presumed) safety.

Using his expansive voice, veering from the whining to the apoplectic, gesturing widely with his hands and arms, dropping expletives for emphasis, worked up in a froth, Daisey keeps us doubled-over with laughter. He describes “bored men with guns” at the gates of White Sands, his “dullard civilian look” when asked if he has weapons or alcohol (always a good combination), and the irradiated hamburger he ate at the Trinity Site sandwich shop. Most of his humor lampoons the contradictions, pitfalls, and ludicrous attempts at security in our government: Tom Ridge’s terror alert color scheme, the near-hiring of a soon-to-be-felon as head of Homeland Security (Bernard Kerik), the difficulty of reading (much less understanding) the Patriot Act, the quiet boredom of a state secrets training session for new employees at Los Alamos. He has a gift for linking history, exposing the blatant stupidity of our elected leaders, and becoming the voice of common sense in a world outside the “reality-based community.”
For example, he reminds us of Benjamin Franklin’s quote that “Those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.” Then he rehashes the conservative criticism that this quote is not relevant in a post-9/11 society, that the threat of terrorists attacking us at home requires more vigilant protection and even the reduction of former freedoms. Against this critique, Daisey recalls our history: Franklin said this at a time when colonists overthrew their government, fought a war in their backyards, and struggled for the very freedoms they enshrined in our Constitution after they won the war.
Beyond Homeland Security, he narrates the intertwined lives of several atomic age revolutionaries: Sam Cohen (inventor of the neutron bomb and a sort-of hero of Daisey’s), Herman Kahn (the father of Cold War fear, mutually assured destruction, game theory, and weapons build-ups), and Ed Grothus (former lab technician, salvager of bomb materials, and peace activist). He also tells about his trip to the White Sands on the one day per year it is open to the public, the obelisk that marks the detonation site, his interactions at Trinity; two people, one mentioning Nagasaki dissentingly and one praying at the obelisk, are escorted off premises by soldiers (who are actually private security guards) who say simply, “That can’t happen here.” Daisey remarks that despite the passive vocabulary it is a harsh and inhuman prohibition.
Daisey makes several incisive points throughout the show: Security is a protocol, a serious of steps to be followed, regardless of whether we are in fact safer (airport security machines cannot detect bomb materials in our shoes, e.g.). Security is a fundamentalist mindset, where the idea becomes the reality (if we think there might be a bomb, we act as if it is really there). In our post-9/11 society, fear is the new normal. The worse they say things are, the more we want to hear about how bad it can get. If a worst case scenario is possible, then we must act like it is a certainty (this is Cheney’s 1% Doctrine, as outlined by Ron Suskind). Soldiers and their commanders, who train for war, like their jobs and will find an enemy to fight. Fear of a nuclear response is the leverage, not the weapons themselves (Kahn). If scientists make a bomb, they must drop it to see what their handiwork reaps. Government does not give up power once given it (listen to any libertarian on this point). When there is a tragedy, we often blame ourselves and then over-protect ourselves to prevent further tragedy. We all want to do the right thing, but it’s hard to discern what is right. The two undisputed best results from post-9/11 defensive thinking are reinforced cockpit doors and passenger awareness; one is common sense and the other is ordinary people taking action.
The government’s greatest fear is an informed citizenry, one that analyzes critically the messages we are fed, communicates openly about public policy, and learns the history that politicians would like to hide. What happens when we know the facts and think for ourselves? More than a mere corrective to our collective historical amnesia, Daisey offers us a funny, trenchant, and provocative performance that calls on us to make informed decisions. Will we give in to fear? How are we being manipulated? How do we navigate the false dichotomy between freedom and security? Did I lock the door tonight? Will I leave the bed to check? What does that answer say about me?
Posted by Dusty Hoesly