On the morning of September 11, 2001, I got a phone call from my son. He told me to turn on the TV, and I saw the World Trade Center towers burning. Ash, some of it human ash, drifted over from Lower Manhattan to Brooklyn. Some of it, I realized, was falling on the hospital in Brooklyn Heights where I had been born.
I was stunned and a bit crazy about this, like everyone else. Not quite everyone; the Bush administration made sure that a plane with Saudi embassy personnel got out of the country the next day, when all other commercial flights were banned. Fifteen of the nineteen hijackers who had attacked New York and Washington were Saudis.
We’ve never had a public accounting of the Saudi involvement in 9/11. That wasn’t going to happen under George W. Bush, who was joined at the hip with the Saudis through the family’s oil interests. It hasn’t happened under Barack (never look back) Obama either. Obama never met a secret he didn’t want to keep, at least from you and me, and this was the biggest hush of all. Conspiracy theories flourished in the silence, which added to the national paranoia, which in turn was perfectly okay with those who found fear a useful commodity.
Terrorists hit the jackpot with 9/11, but so did the Security State, already well ensconced but now given license to erect a surveillance regime of totalitarian dimensions. There was a brief struggle with the Constitution; the Constitution lost. Liberty bit the dust, and it’s been gagging ever since.
After 9/11, America went into cringe mode at home, but lashed out overseas. The Saudis were off limits, but Afghanistan made a good whipping-boy. Osama Bin Laden, who claimed bragging rights for 9/11, was hiding out there; Al Qaeda had training bases on the ground; the fundamentalist Taliban were made to play the part of the terrorist state actor. Never mind, of course, that the Taliban themselves were largely the creation of Pakistan’s security apparatus, the ISI. We needed a target: Afghanistan fit the specs. No target, no war. And the Bush regime had declared a war on terror.
If you’ve noticed, we fight wars all the time, all over the globe. The only ones we actually declare, though, are for publicity purposes. Fear is (always) the common denominator. Once upon a time, the medical-industrial complex declared a “war” on cancer. Many decades and many, many billions of dollars later, cancer is still around, as of course it always will be. Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs, and the result of that was to quadruple the American prison population, to make war zones of large tracts of Central and South America, and to create instant millionaires both in and out of government. How’s it going otherwise, by the way? The heroin epidemic in the State of Maine is so bad now that the governor recently threatened to call out the National Guard to cope with it.
The War on Terror is faring no better, so, naturally, we double down on it. It’s not supposed to go better, of course; the idea is not to win the war but to prolong it indefinitely. We wac’ed the mole of Al Qaeda (though it’s still happily in business, thank you), but, never to fear, hatched its successor, ISIS, in our Iraqi prisons. ISIS has had a good run lately, climaxing in the attacks in Paris last month, though the so-called caliphate is really a loose franchise operation with a home base that consists of a bank network, a Twitter account, and a lot of sand.
Paris is our glamour capital; even the Nazis left it unscathed, and so, first when Charlie Hebdo was hit in January and now with the far deadlier and more sophisticated November attacks, we’ve got the wind up again. It hasn’t helped that the attacks have coincided with the Republican primaries, an audition for demagogues with a national megaphone. Donald Trump, having started out as a tin-pot Mussolini, has graduated since Paris into full Hitler mode, and his rhetoric drives the rest of the crowd. Continental walls to keep out unwanted immigrants, and detention centers to keep them while they’re rounded up for deportation? No problem. Torture à la carte for suspected terrorists? Sure. And, Guantanamo forever. If we run out of space there, let’s just take over the rest of Cuba as a prison island.
It takes very little to bring out the worst in us. 9/11 was more than sufficient, and Paris has been good enough, especially with the issue of admitting Syrian refugees on the burner. The atmosphere is now more poisonous than at any time since 9/11, and it is likely to result in fresh wind for the Permanent War syndrome that is the default option of American politics. It won’t be just another turn of the wheel, either. We have become so inured to the routine of terror—the colored alerts, the habitual presence of men in fatigues with machine guns in public places, the constant injunction to see something and say something—that it takes little to stimulate our fear reflex, and our compliance to command. Meanwhile, there is the reinforcing effect of Paris itself, where we see the reflection of our own 9/11 hysteria in that of the French and their feckless president, François Hollande, whose immediate response to attack was a bomb’s-away strategy without rhyme or reason. We are ready to accept tyranny even before it is imposed on us; indeed, to embrace it with a sigh of relief. At last, we will say, we have been able to do worse to ourselves than our enemies ever could. Maybe now someone will make us safe?
There is, though, another option. We could start by recognizing that we face, in fact, not an “enemy” but a ragtag troop of barbarians spouting a nihilist jargon supposedly cribbed from a holy book. It is nonsense to describe the measures to deal with it as somehow involving what Samuel Huntington called a “clash of civilizations.” What we should call ourselves at this juncture is perhaps an open question, but ISIS represents, literally, nothing at all. It commits crimes and atrocities and acts of vandalism on historical monuments; it is a public menace. We need to understand where it came from and what fuels it, but it is, as Al Qaeda was after 9/11, essentially a police problem. We have been mistaking ourselves for a long time by militarizing our response to it, even if now and then military force may be a useful tool.
We need, above all, a sense of proportion. Since 9/11, exactly three lives have been lost to terrorism on American soil. This isn’t World War II, which cost the lives of 2.6% of the world’s population. It isn’t London under the blitz, or Baghdad today, where a trip to the market can cost you your life. Terrorism is, finally, a symptom of social malaise and political injustice, cynically manipulated and opportunistically exploited. We have exploited it ourselves, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and scores of other places. We object to it not in itself—state terrorism is the commonest form of terror—but when it is turned against us. If we really want to get rid of it, we should stop practicing it ourselves, or fostering the conditions under which it flourishes. In the meantime, we can cope, without losing our cool or tossing our liberties into the nearest trash bin.
The first modern terrorist was François Ravaillac, a Catholic zealot who assassinated King Henry IV of France in 1610. In the late nineteenth century, acts of terrorism were so frequent in Europe that, after a bomb had been thrown into the French National Assembly in the 1890s, its Speaker calmly dusted himself off and said, “Now, where were we?”
The French could use a little of that sangfroid now. So could we.