Columns » Boomer with Attitude

They won: 9/11 and the American fear factor



The tenth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks is coming up, and according to some members of the media, we're all supposed to be excited about commemorating it. Maybe it's just me, but that seems an odd thing to do, kind of like if Poland threw a big party on the anniversary of being invaded by Nazi Germany. I can understand a one-time solemn remembrance of those who died in the attacks; that seems fitting, maybe even necessary. Somehow, though, I don't think that's what the makers of the 9/11 T-shirts I've seen around town have in mind. Hey, it's America, where even a national trauma can be a reason for making a quick buck.

If anyone wanted to know, in a nutshell, how the aftermath of 9/11 has affected America, all he or she had to do was read the news from Vermont last week. In the wake of Hurricane Irene's massive damage to the state, the Burlington Free Press reported that the state's National Guard had to borrow eight helicopters from Illinois to help stricken citizens, because all of the Vermont Guard's choppers are in Iraq. That's as good an emblem of post-9/11 America as we're going to find: a country so needlessly overextended militarily that our domestic welfare goes begging.

A lot of people will say very sincere things this weekend about remembering the victims of 9/11, staying vigilant, and remaining true to our core national values. Those first two things sound good; let's do those. But as far as that "national values" thing, well, that ship sailed about 10 years ago, on a choppy sea of fear.

There are at least a thousand ways to describe America's reaction to 9/11, among them resolve, watchfulness and renewed dedication. Also on the list, and unfortunately overwhelming our better impulses, are enormous reserves of fear, resentment and xenophobia — but mostly fear, often stoked by Americans' well-documented ignorance of the rest of the world. For a few years, it seemed the U.S. was having a nervous breakdown. Does anyone remember the poor tourist schmuck who was arrested Uptown for taking home videos of Charlotte's tall buildings? Hard to believe that all the red-blooded guys with their "Power of Pride" bumper stickers were ever that wuss-y, huh?

It didn't help, of course, that the administration in power at the time of the attacks repeatedly used and manipulated Americans' fears to further its own political ends. Think of the fear-slinging from Bush and Co. whenever an election rolled around. Or the unprecedented growth in domestic surveillance and citizens' loss of privacy. And don't get me started on the maddening rigmarole the government has made of boarding an airplane.

The big problem is that the whole purpose of terrorism as a tactic is to have a country's population walking around in fear every day. It seems obvious that al-Qaeda won that round, and way too easily.

Of course, Bush & Co.'s riffs on the fear theme reflected their own reactions, namely panic, snooping on their own citizens, and flailing around for a way forward. Unable — or unaware that they needed to — come up with an innovative, flexible plan to deal with the terrorism problem they had willfully ignored right up to the day before the attacks, administration leaders fell back on their neo-conservative ideas of world domination and related Cold War-era military strategies. The result, as we know, was the financially, politically and morally disastrous war on a country that had nothing whatever to do with the 9/11 attacks.

When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, those of us who believed the man's election rhetoric thought we'd see a turnaround from the fear, the irrational policies, and the kneejerk militarism that preceded him. Silly us. Even though the war is ostensibly over, we are apparently never actually leaving Iraq. Nor will we really end the now 10-year-old folly in Afghanistan. The billions will keep on flowing overseas to corrupt dictators and equally corrupt mercenaries — er, "military contractors" — who do a lot of our government's dirty work overseas.

Within 24 hours of 9/11, news networks' on-air banners blared: "America Attacked," "The Threat To America," "America At War," etc. Shortly thereafter, the Daily Show had its own take on the nation's media mindset: "America Freaks Out!" If we're looking for stories of where we were and how we reacted on and after 9/11, Jon Stewart's guys pretty much summed it up.

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