When I have the opportunity to teach a senior seminar – intended to be a capstone to the major, a "big picture" course – I assign a reading list that frames what I believe will be the defining Big Questions of the next half-century or more. One: How will the state respond to the possibility than in the future, improvements in productivity and technology will result in an economy unable to produce enough jobs to sustain our current market-oriented system? In other words, how (if at all) will governments adapt when there is no longer a need for labor as we currently understand it. This is essentially the Player Piano scenario. To undergraduates about to head out into the world in search of employment this question resonates.
The second: How much are individuals willing to change their way of life and the current understanding of individual rights to combat non-state actors? In other words, terrorism is essentially impossible to stop by any conventional means. One man can rent a truck and drive it into a crowd and the Good Guys combating terrorism will never have had the slightest chance to intervene. One person can walk into a crowded place with a gun, no prior planning or terror-networking involved, and fire away. The only way to prevent this type of terrorism is by giving up our concept of privacy on a scale that is currently unimaginable. Theoretically, if The Government read every person's online activity and monitored every phone conversation on Earth in real time it might be possible to intervene against Lone Wolf or decentralized terrorist network attacks. You could in theory find every person who visits an ISIS propaganda website and send the police crashing through their door moments later. You could even have smartphone technology that records and transcribes every conversation in range. You could even, if future technology advances at the rate we have seen in the last 50 years, have the ability to record and transcribe our thoughts. Don't laugh – research on how to replace user interfaces (mice, keyboards, tapping the screen) with technology that reads our thoughts is in progress. Are we there yet? No. Might we get there? Sure.
Whenever I see something like the apparent terror attack in Manchester on Monday evening I become more convinced that this second question is going to make or (probably) break western democracies in the coming decades. With enough of these attacks over a long enough timeframe individuals will gradually grow fearful of everything – flying, public transit, sport events, concerts, malls, any public gathering of more than a handful of people, tourist destinations…you name it. People will find that no amount of resources allocated by the state can stop terrorism of this type because it requires only motivation and the amount of planning a dullard could complete in 20 minutes. The goal of people like Osama bin Laden was and is to bring about the collapse of Western societies by exploiting their weakest points. It is a long game, aimed at making us slowly lose our collective sanity and resort to increasingly undemocratic rule and concentration of power and wealth in the state until it collapses from within. It's working so far. Give the US and France and the UK twenty more years of random, periodic carnage and it is likely to produce some results that seem far-fetched now.
We will have to choose as societies whether we will live with a persistent low level of danger (You're still incredibly unlikely to die from terrorism compared to just about anything else, but the fear it causes is disproportionate) from insidious elements that wish to do us harm or whether we will subvert a handful of the core, defining principles of 20th Century Western democracy in exchange for greater security, real or perceived.
We know which the Boomers choose, but in twenty years none of them will be left. Today's young adults ultimately will be the ones who have to pull the trigger. It will be a historic decision; once the path toward a surveillance state and "clash of civilizations" policies toward Muslims is chosen, the consequences for our nations and the world will reverberate for the next century.