Crystallizing the Moment

Posted: February 2, 2009 in Culture, Politics

Former President George W. Bush (what a pleasure to be able that say that) has both taken and been given a lot of credit for keeping us safe in the post-9/11 years of his administration. It’s a spurious claim, considering there is no way to verify what didn’t happen owing to precautionary actions, many of them illegal. More importantly, perhaps, Bush is also given credit for crystallizing the moment in the weeks after 9/11, meaning that he purportedly recognized the threat that terrorism represents (in the relative absence of any other major threat following the breakup of the Soviet Union) and embarked on a program of reorganizing government and military operations to meet the new, stateless threat. And he made the U.S. the world’s bully with two preemptive wars that continue today without any clear objective accomplished. This chronology of major terrorist attacks against the U.S., most on foreign soil, in the air, or in international waters, is notable for its lack of post-9/11 events, whereas this chronology shows that attacks haven’t abated at all.

Whether Bush assessed threat levels accurately is unproven, but it’s undeniable that the U.S. government has turned its attention to the so-called War Against Terror with the rubbernecked irrationality of children. And for eight years, the citizenry has been subjected to the indignities of being variously surveilled, inspected, frisked, and searched in office buildings, sports arenas, airports, and political rallies for fear that terrorists may be embedded amongst us. Never mind that such “security theater” does little or nothing to stop a determined criminal or terrorist, who would be foolish to attempt to enter through the front door anyway. (The argument could be made that it’s only foolish precisely because we do in fact guard the front door.) The irony of all this wasted effort is that, unlike the war cry “What Price Freedom?” from the Revolutionary Era, when men and women understood implicitly they might be called upon to purchase their freedom with their blood, we’re now in the awkward position of being forced to protect our freedoms by routinely relinquishing them.

A similar moment of crystallization occurred in U.S. history at the close of WWII. With the Axis Powers defeated, the U.S. military intelligentsia (oxymoron alert), again in the absence of a real threat, irrationally perceived the Russians (Russkies!) in particular and Communists (Reds!) in general as a new threat and reorganized government and military operations. It was the dawn of the Nuclear Age and the Cold War at once, and it was uncharted territory, just as with the War Against Terror. It also launched the very thing Pres. Eisenhower warned against in his farewell presidential address: the military-industrial complex. (In the 21st century, add -corporate to the mix.) In crystallizing the new threat (I’m not convinced the Red ever were coming for us, nor that Communism wasn’t a failed ideology waiting to founder on utilitarian shoals), we propagandized and mobilized to protect ourselves and most of the rest of the world at a tremendous cost in lost lives, economic burden, and wasted effort.

Less than eight years since 9/11, we now face a new series of threats even more urgent than terrorism, though in fact these have been gathering for years. Yet like some weird Pyrrhic tragedy, we’re ill-equipped to recognize where lies the true threat. Which man-made mischief is it? Economic collapse? The population bomb? Ecocide? Climate change? Peak oil? Or merely the perennial conflict of man against man over injustice and/or religious fervor? I’m not optimistic that we have the right leadership to crystallize the moment accurately because although these threats require urgent action, the full effects are perhaps decades away yet, well beyond election cycles and public attention span, guaranteeing that we won’t address the threats until it’s too late.

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