Ten years on, America is at war with itself

It was said that 9/11 would bring Americans together. Instead it sowed fear, paranoia and political rifts.

Wendy Kaminer

Topics Politics

I write this under surveillance, or so it’s safe to assume. We are all suspects now; we all read, write, talk on the phone and travel under surveillance, or the threat of it.

A shadowy national security state has access to our emails, phone calls and web-surfing habits; government agents monitor our political activities and collect reports about our suspicious activities – photographing bridges for scrapbooks or art projects or attending political protests. Corporate and government security cameras record our movements in city streets, offices, airports (of course) and malls. Security guards are everywhere on patrol; they take our pictures and copy our licences before admitting us to office buildings. Federal agencies compile extensive, notoriously inaccurate blacklists that have denied innocent, unsuspecting Americans access to credit, jobs and housing, as well as the right to fly. Federal prosecutors employ an expansive, elastic federal penal code against people targeted for bad reasons instead of bad behaviour; and like other law enforcement and national security agents, they are rarely held accountable for abusing their power or the laws they swore to uphold.

None of this is news, and none of it generates significant public outrage. Civil libertarians persist in cataloguing the abuses of our repressive, unaccountable shadow government, undeterred by the futility of their laments about surveillance, illegal searches, summary detentions, torture or the routine invocation of a state-secrets doctrine to immunise the government from liability for illegal or grossly incompetent conduct. Sign up for the Bill of Rights Defense Committee newsletter and you’ll be barraged by articles exposing the escalating bi-partisan assault on liberty. Almost everything about post-9/11 abuses that can be said has been said, and almost every civil libertarian has said it. Their persistence may be less a triumph of hope over experience than a habit, an irresistible impulse, or an act of self-respect. Civil libertarians have little influence in Congress, no influence in the White House, and hardly any sway over public opinion, but at least we can decline to suffer the new security state in silence.

The creation of a national security state in the aftermath of 9/11 was predictable, and its steady expansion under Republican and Democratic administrations reflects the predictable, corrupting effects of power, especially the unprecedented surveillance power offered by new technologies. Public complacency about the loss of liberty is a more complicated phenomenon. Of course it partly reflects fear of terrorism, nurtured by government and private sector actors with ideological, temperamental and financial interests in the security state. It is, however, greatly exacerbated by general disregard for privacy in an exhibitionist digital age and, even more, by an economic crisis that has dramatic, immediate, practical effects on daily life. Financial woes and worries about the future are unavoidable for millions of people, but surveillance and illegal searches are often invisible (besides, many imagine, ‘if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear’); blacklists are often employed in secret; unlawful detentions directly affect a small minority of Americans, and a smaller minority of voters; legal debates about the state-secrets doctrine or laws and executive orders authorising torture are relatively arcane. It’s safe to assume that many Americans know more about Jennifer Aniston’s love life than extraordinary rendition or the state-secrets doctrine.

The attacks on 9/11 did not usher in the new era of seriousness that many commentators predicted. Instead of withering, the tabloid culture has flourished along with the security state. This is not surprising: both rely on the devaluation and diminution of privacy. Both are also, in part, forms of escapism: the security state offers the illusion of freedom from fear – the same fear the security state engenders; tabloid culture offers easily accessible, and for some, all-consuming distractions from economic and existential anxieties about a greatly diminished America.

‘Make Us Great Again’, ‘Restore Our Future’, fundraising arms for Republican presidential candidates Texas governor Rick Perry and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney demand. Bravado about TEAM USA and what Romney calls ‘the greatest nation in the history of the Earth’ does little to alleviate desperation about the nation’s decline. While the loss of liberty is obscured, ignored or rationalised, the loss of power pierces, with fearful clarity.

For many Americans in our post-9/11 world, facing the facts has rarely been more depressing, so many have retreated to fantasy land, led by politicians for whom facts are fictions and policies mere partisan postures. Congresswoman and presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann boldly claims that the Founders ended slavery. (Never mind that slavery was abolished during the Civil War, some 50 years after Jefferson and Madison died; fantasies about the nation’s Founders abound in the Tea Party.) Republicans who once favoured cuts in payroll taxes oppose them when they’re favoured by President Obama, and Congress seems generally incapable of entertaining a rational, empirical debate about economic policy. What a Bush administration official once derisively described as the reality-based community has rarely been less influential.

Logic as well as facts are anachronisms in our post-9/11 fantasy land. Obama administration talking points about the 9/11 anniversary advise celebrating our ‘resilience’, as if the nation weren’t ruled instead by fear. Right-wing extremists who dominate the news, and seem poised to take back Congress and the White House, rail against the big government they seek to rule, while, with a few exceptions, they ignore or support the security state, jealously guard their own entitlements to Social Security and Medicare, and demand a Christian government for this supposedly Christian country that outlaws abortions, gay unions, the teaching of evolution, and stem-cell research, among other heretical practices.

An increasingly public pro-Christian nationalism complements anti-Muslim biases generated by 9/11. The self-proclaimed freedom-fighting Tea Party is primarily a collection of religious, social-issue conservatives – white Protestant evangelicals who want to ‘put God back in government’. Mitt Romney, who faces opposition from evangelicals partly because he’s a Mormon, promises to govern prayerfully and to make decisions ‘on my knees’. Rick Perry, currently leading President Obama in one poll, promotes prayer as a policy initiative: while Texas was suffering a devastating drought earlier this year, he issued a gubernatorial proclamation designating a three-day period of prayer for rain. Just last month, as governor, he famously presided over a mass Christian prayer rally to heal the nation’s ills, declaring that his love of country was second only to his love of the living Christ. How does the presumptively patriotic Perry define liberty? His website proposal for restoring liberty focuses on repealing Obama’s healthcare legislation (‘the greatest intrusion on individual freedom in a generation’) and lowering taxes, among other vaguely described economic reforms, and ‘protecting the unborn’. It offers no comment on the national security state, much less a commitment to limiting it. For the ascendant, post-9/11, populist right-wing, freedom is just another word for low taxes and an invasive, religiously correct authoritarianism.

The sectarian culture war over individual freedom, which appeared to be subsiding before 9/11, has been reinvigorated; while for atheists and humanists, the faith-based 9/11 attack exemplified the potential viciousness of all religions, for committed sectarians it brought home the dangers of adhering to the wrong religions and the urgency of empowering the right ones. So, today, the culture war rages, and it’s an apt measure of our fractured, unhappy union. 9/11 was supposed to ‘bring us together’, And putting aside the extended, summary detentions of immigrants in its wake, the attack may have engendered some empathy and short-lived solidarity. Throughout the fall of 2001, the New York Times ran one- or two-paragraph obituaries of Americans killed on 9/11. I read them tearfully every morning, not knowing whether I was crying for myself or for thousands of strangers: my father was dying. For me and, I suspect, many others, private griefs flowed into a river of public mourning.

But if grief unites groups of people, it also isolates individuals: sometimes grief surrounds you, like a moat. Fear, too, both unites and divides. People seek out affinity groups for solace and solidarity; and fierce adherence to their own communities can engender fierce opposition to the communities of others. In other words, tribalism reigns. Interactions between once collegial members of Congress is now ‘more like gang behaviour’, one long-serving moderate Democrat remarked in the New York Times. ‘Members walk into the chamber full of hatred.’ At least in part, their enmity reflects the enmity of their respective constituents. These days, across political, cultural and religious divides, we don’t seem to like each other very much. Ten years after 9/11, America is at war with itself.

Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer, writer and free speech activist. Her latest book is Worst Instincts: Cowardice, Conformity, and the ACLU. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

Topics Politics


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