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America Has Always Run on Terror

From bomb drills to COVID lockdowns, protective rituals based on irrational fear are a mainstay of American culture.

A masked TSA agent at Bradley International Airport, CT. (By Eric K. Warncke/Shutterstock)

With the 19th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks looming like a hangover it is worth asking the price we pay for fear itself. Barack Obama said at his convention you must vote Democrat out of fear for our democracy. Don Jr. said pretty much the same a week later, just reversing the names and the politics. Everyone wants you to be afraid of anarchy, either the white or black version. The message from all sides is fear. It sounds so 2020 but it is as old as the modern era.

America’s fear in my childhood was that we were going to die at school when the Russians nuked America. We hid under our desks during drills, we huddled away from the windows with our coats over our heads and waited to die. For an elementary student raised to believe what he was taught, it was a nightmare. My third grade teacher even identified Ground Zero as the cinder parking lot next to the school, and for some reason told us it would happen in the morning.

Americans were taught to be afraid even as we were the apex predator on the planet with the world’s only atomic bomb. We dutifully rewarded president after president for maintaining the most massive national security state ever known, but we never felt safe. We spent the best years of the American Century huddled like shelter dogs. We never saw that it was all a trick, like conjuring a pandemic out of a virus which doesn’t even cause symptoms in many of its hosts and unlike almost anything else, like cancer or heart attacks, has a fatality rate well below a single percent (so we count cases, not fatalities—to generate fear). As with terrorism, diabetes and ladder falls harm more American lives than the Russians.

In the face of COVID, living in daily fear of terrorism seems almost nostalgic. For me, our first family plane trip after 9/11 started at a Japanese airport where security seemed about the same as before. But when we transferred to a U.S. domestic flight the world changed.

The newly-erect TSA tore into us. After shouting at my lack of preparedness to present various documents quickly enough, they pulled my pre-teen daughter away and impounded a nail clipper and some sort of medieval-looking eyebrow curling device. She started to cry, and when I tried to go to her I was held back. A security incident was underway I was told. The TSA agent said harshly to her “I’m trying to keep you from dying on that airplane!” My little one started to say something, but I shouted to her to be quiet. I’d learned at some eastern European border checkpoint long ago the only answer. Submit and board the plane. Submit and we can see grandma tonight at our destination.

Later, as a federal whistleblower, I was placed on some sort of list. I could fly, but my trips through the airport would be met with a firm “Sir, I need you to step over here.” The protocols created to protect me from terrorists had been twisted to turn me into one. Every time I was told I had been randomly selected, wonderfully Orwellian in how the TSA workers at least seemed to believe it.

I of course could refuse to hand over my electronics, but TSA would just confiscate them, so why resist? Of course I could speak to a supervisor, but I’d miss my flight. My old computer took minutes to cold boot and that angered the TSA agents and prolonged my searches. So I bought a fast Chromebook to make my surveillance more convenient.

In a perfect melding of fears the 9/11 Memorial Museum showed us how much of this is farce. After being closed since March to protect us from COVID they will reopen to the general public on September 12. A symbolic day for sure but one with no science behind it. Why not September 3 or 24? Because it doesn’t matter, the danger was never very real. And the museum, with its cavernous interiors (it is built into the basements of the old Twin Towers) is allowed to host only 25 percent of its capacity. Same for every other museum in NYC, 25 percent whether they have state-of-the-art HVAC systems and thousands of square feet or are contained within early 19th century parlors. It doesn’t matter because it doesn’t matter; there’s no science behind it because there is no serious threat behind it.

In New York we are told it will be the death of us to reopen restaurants for a quick meal, but from day one of the virus we have been welcome to sit in poorly ventilated subway cars. We can’t have more than a handful of customers inside a store, but we can spend six hours inside an airplane cabin. Ten people gathered for a party is a death trap but 300 massed for a BLM protest isn’t. The less it makes sense the more it makes sense to just submit and go along, because thinking is hard.

So it is no surprise I wear a mask outside. I alone seem to remember enough from biology class to question how a soggy piece of cloth, or a dust mask with an air escape valve on the side (i.e., your virus-laden exhaled breath goes out) is unlikely to do much, like hanging garlic to ward off vampires. But I am allowed to buy milk at the store with a mask. I am allowed to be part of society. I can avoid being scolded by the self-appointed mask Jugend. I can have a socially distanced conversation with my Democrat neighbor who believes she will literally risk her life to vote in-person, saving democracy itself after Trump supposedly gutted the post office. Like many, she has an Old Testament view of the virus; it is both punishment for electing Trump and the way of delivering us from him.

Those irrational fears from the Cold War and post-9/11 are nothing compared to today; imagine the McCarthy Red Scare powered by social media. Every week it has been something new that will destroy us—war with North Korea and Iran, Boogaloo Bois, Trump the Manchurian Candidate, not enough beds, and not enough ventilators. We’re worried a fascist government is taking away free speech and we’re worried the government isn’t doing enough to suppress free speech to stop hate. There are too many guns for us to be safe and not enough guns to protect us.

After a decade of terrorists everywhere (when they were actually nowhere) we transition to live in terror of the virus. People not only support the restrictions and lockdowns, they want more to feel safer, much like Americans demanded more nukes thinking they’d sleep better during the Cold War. The enemy is those who oppose more retrictions.

It’s not to say people do not die from the virus or there aren’t reasons to take prudent action. It’s to say what we are doing in response does not keep many more alive for the price we are paying. Same story as with terrorism, the Cold War, whatever noise makes you jump in the dark. The bark outweighed the bite.

Fear as a policy has yielded a nuclear arms race which nearly destroyed the world, the lost decade of freedoms sacrificed to protection from terrorism, and the hundreds of thousands dead in pointless revenge wars. Now comes the wasted spring, summer, and autumns of COVID overreaction, destroying the economy and breaking the spirit of people. The goal of conditioning through fear is always the same.

Because submission scales. Decades-long nuclear arms race? OK. Support a war in Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria and Libya and Yemen and Somalia? Patriot Act, torture, prison camps, drone assassinations? Yes is always the easiest way to imagine you can allay fear forever until the next scary thing is revealed. Yale welcomes students back to campus with all sorts of restrictions then warns them they will see death in their dorms. So in 2020, already conditioned to accept being humiliated barefoot before every flight, it is easy to accept losing jobs, or to lock down whole cities, or close off state borders. It was easy for people to accept being denied saying goodbye to a terminally ill loved one, or to be blocked from attending church or their child’s birth, by the government.

Fear is very powerful, and learned helplessness a dangerous thing. So forgive my dry heart when I am not sure I should fear for our democracy even as I fear for our sanity. And don’t be surprised at how quickly the virus clears away once the election is over. And don’t be surprised when it is replaced by a new thing to fear.

Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent.

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