Future Tense: A Path Out of the Nightmare of 9/11

Don Hazen, AlterNet
December 17, 2001

Viewed on December 19, 2001


The Old is dying and yet the New cannot be born; in this interregnum, a variety of morbid symptoms appear. -- Antonio Gramsci

Recently I approached the tollbooth on the Bay Bridge in Oakland, headed toward San Francisco. To pay the $2 toll, I handed a dollar's worth of change and a dollar bill to the attendant. Immediately, he ordered me to "Open up the dollar bill!" At that befuddled instant, I looked at my hand and saw that the note was slightly crumpled along with my change. And then it dawned on me...this guy thinks there's a deadly dose of anthrax hidden in the folds in my bill.

Every time someone pulls up to the both, this toll collector worries it might be the last car he ever sees. I guess there is a chance I could be armed with a batch of anthrax from a secret Berkeley lab, as part of my dastardly plot to eliminate all toll-takers, but really? It was hard to keep from screaming, "What are you doing to us? Don't let them do this to you!"

We've all had similar encounters and experiences -- locked doors at the public TV station; searched trunks at the movie theater parking lot; long lines of cars and trucks as security stops traffic. Personal behavior of all kinds has been altered by countless expressions of fear and concern, not to mention the nightmare at the airports.

We've all read the endless stories of planes diverted and airports shut down, of thousands of people evacuated and millions inconvenienced. A plug is accidentally pulled on an X-ray machine in Seattle, and thousands of people get yanked off of already-boarded planes. During that incident, passengers on more than 50 flights already in the air were searched a second time, after their flight landed. Some airports were completely evacuated.

Many cases of racial profiling have been reported in which planes did not fly because there were passengers who looked Arab. Airports across the country have become security-hysterical armed camps. This despite the fact that there's no reason to believe anything is likely to happen at the huge majority of locales, and despite the fact that before 9/11 the last successful air highjacking was more than 10 years ago. Although trashed and scapegoated by practically everyone, airlines safety records -- as opposed to their service to passengers -- have not actually been that bad. Remember, the highjackers took over the four planes apparently with material that was permitted on board.

Welcome to Paranoia USA, a country where many seemed to have abandoned common sense and critical thinking, where there is zero tolerance for scenarios with a million-to-one odds, where fear and insecurity pervade too many aspects of daily life. Paranoia is a normal response under severe threat. It arises out of a focus on danger and our need for self-protection. But when the fear is more imagined than real, when the fear becomes indiscriminate -- as in, "There are terrorists in every city ready to set off bombs at any moment!" -- then it creates an environment where people are eager give up their rights and give unconditional support to their leaders, no questions asked.

People become paranoid when they feel threatened. When we are afraid, we seek comfort by trying to pin the blame on a perceived aggressor, and we rationalize any behavior that makes us feel safer. Paranoid people feel justified in their cruelty. In a paranoid vision there exists no moral wrong, protection justifies all other acts, no matter how violent or prejudice. It is in this environment that racism and zero-tolerance mentalities thrive.

The present environment of overcompensation on security precautions undermines our ability to differentiate real vulnerability from overblown fear. When people start to see danger everywhere, every dark-skinned person is a potential suicide bomber, the man in a bow tie is a spy, any airplane could go down, the Golden Gate Bridge could blow up any day and there could be anthrax in a rumpled dollar bill.

Clearly we want our security apparatus to do a good job, protecting us against serious threats. But that does not mean that every one of us should be treated like a potential terrorist. Leaders should focus on the fundamentals of security by protecting nuclear power sites, electric grids and border crossings. They should concentrate on practical tools like reinforced cockpit doors in airplanes, or scrutinizing the travel itineraries and histories of travelers from suspect countries.

Instead, with Bush's approval ratings close to 90 percent in January of 2002, conservatives have moved aggressively to take advantage of national jitters to push for their agenda: massive tax breaks for corporations, drilling in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, invading Iraq, funding Star Wars, restricting immigration and strengthening police powers.

Just last November, the arch-conservative Senator John Ashcroft proved so out of touch with Midwestern voters that they preferred to vote for a dead man. Missouri voters chose Ashcroft's opponent, who was killed in a plane crash before election day. Yet this rejected man, whose views represent a small minority of the population at best, has risen to a level of enormous influence. Ashcroft shapes the daily emotional climate in the U.S., in essence establishing the level of fear in which we all must live.

Ashcroft has rounded up and jailed hundreds of "suspects" for months, with no formal charges and secret charges. Most of those arrested have nothing to do with terrorism. They have been jailed for minor visa violations that normally would be ignored. The government has thrown out a dragnet to question more than 5,000 visiting Arabs and Muslims, with not a scintilla of evidence that they are in any way connected to the horrors of Sept. 11.

The notion that some people will be "inconvenienced " by this racial profiling may seem a small price to pay for safety, at first glance. But how accurate is our profile, especially considering that according to the Arab American Institute in Washington, D.C., just 23 percent of the United States's 3 million Arab Americans are Muslim? The vast majority are Christian, a religion often persecuted in the Muslim world.

Racial profiling, while seemingly a strategy for public safety, comes from fear and confusion, and can lead to a distortion of public perception that can thrive for years. It creates an environment antithetical to the values of American justice, which is supposed to set us apart form the countries we are attacking.

Addressing the Fear

What's the antidote to fear? What do we do when polls show that a majority of Americans are happy to give up their liberties for more perceived security? (Of course, we know those polls are not asking many important questions nor probing very deeply, but the results do seem to represent many people's current positions.)

The best antidote to paranoia is discussion and realistic assessment of the potential of danger. Many of our country's institutions -- houses of worship, civic groups, town meetings -- are forums for just such discussion. Much of the initial response to the crisis of 9/11 -- the cooperation, generosity and community that were evident -- provides a foundation for a sane world and gives people strength in the face of fear. However, the government's response, months after the terrorist attack, continues to exacerbate fears.

With regular but vague warnings of danger, the government has kept anxiety levels high. At the same time, they exhort us to shop patriotically and go "back to normal." Meanwhile, the healing and community-building that people crave is undermined, and many remain glued to their TVs.

Our leaders are indulging the public in the fantasy that we can be truly safe. With trite exaggerations and simplistic emotional rhetoric they infantilize the public, as if we were all incapable of nuanced thought. We're stuck with security thinking based on the lowest common denominator, the one-in-a-million worst case scenario. Ashcroft has justified his agenda by reminding us that the worst case scenario has already happened, as if his security policies were therefore the only options.

We need a debate in our society about appropriate risk, about the true balance between freedom and security. With smart policies, terrorism can be contained, but it is impossible to eliminate a behavior, to "eliminate terrorism as we know it."

When we choose the path of freedom, just as when we get behind the wheel of a car, we accept a certain level of responsibility and risk. Were we to choose a police state, were we all to drive tanks, we might in fact be safer. But we can never completely eliminate risk. And there has been no opportunity to express what we as individuals and as a society are willing to accept about the vicissitudes of life.

This is not an easy discussion. It is a PR challenge of the highest order to urge people to accept their own mortality. But that is, in effect, part of the antidote to the fear-mongering. We cannot cheat death. If we continue to up the ante on the trappings of preparation -- by opting for more X-ray machines, more security personnel, longer lines, flattened dollar bills -- then we are buying into a manufactured sense of security. If we conclude that by eroding constitutional rights -- more spying, secret arrests, military tribunals, racial profiling -- we make ourselves safe, then we are kidding ourselves.

Moving Forward

How then, can we emerge out of the despair? How can we soothe the psyche of a nation terrified by the crushing attacks of Sept. 11? Can we imagine social progress and change any time in the near future? The answers require a huge dose of optimism and a long view. They require hope, understanding, public discourse and a great deal of patience.

None of this will be easy. For those who serve as watchdogs to protect the environment, human rights and economic fairness, this is a difficult time. "In addition to suffering the same emotional impacts as other Americans, progressive advocates have been hurt on three fronts," explains Michael Shellenberger, director of the West Coast office of the progressive PR firm Fenton Communications. "Progressive issue campaigns unrelated to terrorism have been sidelined by the media and policymakers, progressives have been marginalized in the debate over ways to fight terrorism, and progressive nonprofits have taken an economic hit due to the recession and the charitable focus on disaster relief."

While it won't be easy, however, it's important to recognize that 9/11 also presents new opportunities. According to Nation magazine editor Katrina vanden Heuvel and economist Joel Rogers, 9/11 presents the opportunity of a lifetime. "War raises the stakes in politics and invites consideration of wider goals," they write in the Los Angeles Times. "[It] also heightens social solidarity, while underscoring the need for government and other social institutions that transcend or replace the market."

In the aftermath of 9/11 many voices of conscience have demonstrated thoughtful maturity in the face of terrorist violence aimed at innocent civilians. Out of this historical moment, a principled patriotism has emerged. This patriotism grapples with what we are up against, while it keeps an eye on the long-term consequences of our actions. Patriotism, as SF Weekly writer Matt Smith notes, "has long been given a bad name by conservatives who associate it with lock step obsequiousness to authority. But it is fundamentally a terrific concept. The idea that we are all members of a national community, obliged to actively look out for each other's welfare can be a powerful force for good."

Many of the values that have emerged from this crisis -- generosity, community, self-reliance, free expression and liberty -- are bedrock American values. Many people are comfortable embracing them, and they form the key elements of this principled patriotism. We may even discover a newfound solidarity. Enormous uncertainty has bulldozed into all of our lives. Not since the Kennedy assassination, or perhaps even World War II, have so many people together experienced such powerful feelings in common, leaving us all -- regardless of class, race, gender and ideology -- in the same boat.

That new cohesion at home may also help us look outward. "The hope is that our newfound sense of vulnerability will lead to a kind of international empathy and solidarity," writes Ted Lewis, human rights director of Global Exchange. "Such empathy could be the cornerstone of a new spirit of international cooperation -- a cooperation that provides the only way to ensure global security."

For decades, U.S. culture has thrived on and enjoyed most of the world's riches, without much thought to the rest of the globe's people. Our media have colluded with this "ignorance is bliss" lifestyle. Coverage of foreign affairs has shrunk, journalism has been degraded and infotainment has reigned. The foreign news blackout means that the rest of the world knows far more about the U.S. than we know about ourselves, never mind what we know about the world outside our borders.

An experience as frightening as the attacks of 9/11 represents a rude awakening for the United States. But now, as corporate media companies expand international budgets to provide much broader coverage than before, people are tuning in. Best-seller lists include books about Islam, the Middle East and Foreign Policy, Israel and Palestine, as well as terrorism.

A great post 9/11 conversation continues in America, but not the one reported in the top-down media. Many key elements for change are already present, embedded in the current mess. The notion of a permanent war against terrorism, and all that it implies, is causing increasing unease. Below the surface, in thousands of conversations among millions of Americans, there is an urge to turn the heat down and get to work on what will truly make us safe. Only by tapping into those conversations, by listening to and respecting what people are experiencing, can a political vision that has broad appeal be articulated. Effective work for change can find a broad base in the fundamental values that make our society strong.

10 Steps Toward a Safer World

In contrast to the manufactured safety of looking in car trunks and hand-searching millions of bags at airports, a true effort at building a safe country requires we understand that our vulnerability comes from far more complex factors. Many policies that make us unsafe are tied into the very fabric of our economy and aggressively protected by a range of corporate interests.

From drug patents to global arms sales -- we are, by far, the world's most prolific purveyor of arms -- what is required is a thorough rethinking of America's vulnerability without the double standard that ignores the unsafe factors because they represent financial interests. Without such a hard-nosed inventory, we are fooling ourselves into thinking that spying and building larger and more powerful armaments will bring us a safer world.

A Cooperative Country would join with many nations of the world not only in fighting terrorism but in supporting humane treaties and agreements designed to improve conditions for billions of people.

Containing terrorism must be a high priority and requires massive teamwork across the globe. Let's extend that knowledge and teamwork to the International Criminal Court and the Kyoto Protocol. Let's join the large majority of countries of the world, in supporting the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Land Mines agreement, among others.

It seems clear in the big picture, as the writer Nicolas Abbey argues, that "the world needs a new international security strategy that redefines security as more than military power: as economic security, sustainable development, social justice and real human rights." Such a strategy would help countries like Afghanistan and would eliminate much of the breeding ground for terrorism.

A Fair Country would ensure that sacrifices are shared, and that economic tactics designed to spur the economy are spread around within our borders. When President Bush makes an appeal for patriotic support for all of us to pull together, the costs and the protections should be fairly distributed.

Instead, we read of corporate tax breaks, sweatheart deals, corporate bailouts. A half a million people have lost their jobs, and the airlines get bailed out to the tune of $15 million, but not the workers A more generous country would be more supportive of working people and less in hock to the interests which funded campaigns.

A Generous Country would support efforts to reduce poverty around the globe, allocating resources in effective ways and adjusting policies that will help poor countries improve their economic state. Trade policies the U.S. government have been pushing through the World Trade Organization aren't improving living standards for most of the world's people. The world's wealthiest nations should tie trade and aid to policies that raise the standard of living of the poor, protect human rights, protect the environment and promote democracy.

Unconditional debt cancellation would also prove our commitment to real justice. Thousands of people in Africa are dying of AIDS every day because their countries, suffering under massive debt burdens, can't afford the drugs or the medical services to treat them. Canceling third world debt and showing that we care about such suffering would win us many new friends.

A Healthy Country would better protect its citizens from the potential of bioterrorism by improving our healthcare infrastructure. How vulnerable is a country where 40 million people don't have health insurance and where the emergency healthcare apparatus doesn't have the necessary basic equipment?

A Mature Country would move to end the war on drugs. According to Harvey Silverglate, writing in the Boston Phoenix, ending the war on drugs (while leaving in place laws that regulate prescription drugs) would accomplish three things: One, the price of currently illegal narcotics and hallucinogens, which have financed terrorist efforts around the world, would plummet. Two, much of the pressure on citizens' constitutional rights in recent decades would evaporate. And three, needed resources deployed to eliminate drug use could be redirected to the war on terrorism. The war on drugs has been enormously costly and self-destructive. "The terrorist assault on our homeland should, at long last, focus our attention and our resources on the things that really count," writes Silverglate.

An Educated Country acknowledges that a healthy democracy is achieved by encouraging debate, comprehensive coverage of a range of points of view and easy access to reliable information.

In times of crisis, dissent and debate are often pushed aside, seen as unpatriotic. Focus narrows to a few priorities, and the media, to a significant degree, become cheerleaders. The media should stimulate discussion and civic engagement. They should help educate people on the history, the context and the complexities of the issues at stake. Debate is patriotic.

The lack of diversity and civic voices, in contrast to the overwhelming number of former generals and military experts, is one symptom of the "media problem" -- the concentration of media ownership in a handful of companies, and the failure to support and protect the independence of public media.

A Self-reliant Country would reduce dependence on foreign oil and become more environmentally sustainable. Seymour Hersch's revelations in the New Yorker that the Saudi elites have been funding radical fundamentalist sects, including those that fund terrorists, demonstrate that every time Americans go to the gas pump they are potentially supporting terrorism. A lot of Americans have been feeling guilty about their SUVs. Now folks can be given new reason to trade their Land Rover in for a Toyota Prius: it's patriotic.

A Diverse Country would work to include a wide range of voices in its own leadership. The war effort has been led almost entirely by men, and despite Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell, the administration is still dominated by white men. In the media, too many of the voices we hear are white and male. If we are going to make sure that we consider the widest possible range of options as we move forward, then we must hear from the widest possible range of voices.

A Principled Country would understand the need for a responsive government to balance the activities of the market economy.

The need for true security, health care, foreign aid and international treaties expose the "Big Government Bad, Little Government Good" mantra for the lie it is. The budget slashing that began under Reagan has left us with an infrastructure unprepared to deal with the kind of devastation the terrorists would love to create. A smart government, which addresses the needs and safety of all people, is a patriotic government.

Don Hazen is executive editor of AlterNet.org and executive director of the Independent Media Institute.


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