Twelve Years Later, Have We Gotten Control of Our Fear?

Reading an article today I came across a reference to the Dixie Chicks and their fall from grace, which happened ten years ago. It was shocking enough at the time, but today it seems beyond absurd, that a musical group could be all but blacklisted out of the American entertainment industry because they expressed opposition to the Iraq War and joked about being ashamed that George W. Bush was from their home state of Texas. Even then, a year and a half after the September 11 attacks, just expressing reservations about a foreign military adventure was enough to put them on the receiving end of a torrent of hate and fear, to the point where radio stations refused to play their songs and concert venues wouldn't book them.

But today, we can say with some pride that our level of national terror has been significantly reduced. The situation in Syria and the Iraq War are obviously different in many important ways, but don't forget that despite the ridiculousness of the Bush administration's case for war (which some of us saw plainly at the time), they were quite successful in getting Americans to sign on. At the time of the invasion, around two-thirds of the public thought it was a good idea. And that was a full-scale war. Today, Barack Obama can barely get half that number to support lobbing some cruise missiles into Syria.

As I said, the situations were different in many ways. But what made Bush's persuasion project possible was the fact that Americans were afraid. When the administration started conjuring visions of mushroom clouds and waving around vials of non-dairy creamer at them, they reacted instinctively. Twelve years after 9/11, maybe we can finally say we aren't afraid anymore. Yes, every once in a while someone tries to commit some kind of act of terrorism, and a few times they've even succeeded on a small scale. But people get now that Americans are literally more likely to be struck by lightning than killed by terrorists. So when an American president tries to make them fear something going on in the Middle East (half-heartedly, to be sure; while Obama has talked about Syria as a threat to Americans, it has none of the we're-all-gonna-die verve that Bush brought to it), they're able to say that no, whatever other merits your case has, we're not afraid.

That doesn't mean we aren't still living with the consequences of our earlier fear. Our government worked with vision and alacrity to institutionalize that fear in a whole new security state, and even though Edward Snowden's revelations renewed a debate about its proper limits, you may have noticed that nothing about that security state changed as a result, or looks likely to. The NSA is still logging your phone calls and saving your emails, you're still taking off your shoes at the airport, and the federal government still employs over 100,000 people whose job is spying, in no small part on their own citizens. There are still lots of people for whom fear is very, very good business.

Perhaps some day we'll reach a point where we can dial back all that we built out of our fear of terrorism. Twelve years later, we haven't been able to. But at least we've changed how we think about it. That's a start.

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