Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Fear holiday

Patriot Day is a dishonest holiday because it is supposed to be an opportunity to remember the losses on September 11, 2001, perhaps to grieve. However, America, over the past ten years, has been characterized not by grief but by fear. There is nothing wrong with simply being afraid (unless one does not wish to feel this way), but it’s best to address fear if fear is what one mostly feels. Sadness is not the only appropriate feeling.

When I learned that September 11 is called Patriot Day, I winced, I think, because of the symbol that 9/11 has become and how the word “patriot” means, instead of “lover of country”, “lover of state”. Any commemoration of 9/11, any call to “remember” or “never forget”, is political because 9/11 has repeatedly been invoked to enforce consent to war, rejection of human rights, and stupid things, as if people who resist any action of the government are “unpatriotic” and disrespectful towards the lives lost on 9/11.

The terror caused by the attacks on 9/11 was used to invent a War on Terror. This war wound up happening a lot in Iraq, although no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, nor was there any connection found between the Iraqi government and al Qaeda, nor were any of the actual 9/11 attackers from Iraqi. Perhaps the United States had gotten too calm since the Cold War ended and 9/11 was an apt reminder to be wary of terrorism in general. It’s more likely that the terror the terrorists generated was seized as an opportunity to go to war; at 2:40 PM on 9/11, Donald Rumsfeld dictated to one of his aides, “Judge whether hit SH [Saddam Hussein] at the same time. Not only UBL [Usama bin Laden].” (Image of note) Within six hours of the attacks, Rumsfeld had managed to emotionally process through the “denial” stage of grief and had moved on to “anger”; he lingered there for a while.

Thirty times as many civilians have died in the Iraq war as died in the 9/11 attacks.

The terror cultivated by 9/11 has been used to excuse many abuses of human rights. 9/11 has been used by the United States government to justify torture, detention without due process, racial profiling, and warrantless surveillance; American citizens have suffered due to each of these. (Related: ACLU Report: A Call to Courage) The New York Police Department, with the aid of the CIA, is spying on Muslim communities without probable cause.

The PATRIOT Act and similar increases of “counterterrorist” activity have resulted in actions by the FBI that are stupid. They put a tracking device on the car of Yasir Afifi, a native US citizen, without a warrant or even probable cause other than Afifi being half-Egyptian; when he found the device, they asked for it back. FBI agents often sit in parked cars to keep an eye on Scott Crow, a spindly nonviolent vegan anarchist. In a report, they noted an object on his lawn, “It had a large number of multi-colored blocks, with figures and/or lettering…may be a sign that is to be used in an upcoming protest.” “It was a quilt,” he said, “for a kids’ after-school program.”

Law enforcement, from the FBI to state and local law enforcement, to private security in office buildings, started doing more stupid things as a result of 9/11. Many police and local homeland security departments encourage reporting of “suspicious activities” including, [being] “over dressed for the weather”, “individuals who carry on long conversations on pay or cellular telephones”, and “joggers who stand and stretch for an inordinate amount of time”.

Stupid suspicion and security theater are wasteful of time and money, but they have a worse consequence. Needless and unhelpful security measures do harm because security theater tells a story about how afraid people should be. When people take off their shoes at the security line, that’s a ritual that was invented as a reaction to the Shoe Bomber. Liquids go in 3 ounce bottles in 1 quart zip-lock bags, a reminder of the Liquid Bomb Plot. The TSA was created, and the convoluted screening process it uses in airports was instituted as a reaction to the 9/11 attacks. These do not make people safer, these policies make people more afraid.

My grandpa died one Sunday. I was 18. His funeral was the next Saturday. My parents asked me if I wanted to spend the night at their house and go to church with them the next day. I decided not to. I drove back to campus that night, and then went to a church I’d never been to where no one would know about my grandpa’s death. I was sad that my grandpa died, and it was important to be with my family as we grieved. I’m sure that other people at my church were sad for my family, and I’m thankful for their sympathy, that they cared about my family, but I didn’t want to deal with them telling me repeatedly how sad it is that my grandpa died. They didn’t know him.

After the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, many college students changed their Facebook profile pictures to the Virginia Tech logo and joined Facebook groups with names like, “We are all Hokies”. This was crass. Virginia Tech students are Virginia Tech students, and other college students are other college students. The Virginia Tech shooting was sad, but it was particularly salient to other college students. College students everywhere were afraid because people like them got shot; this made it easy for them to imagine dying in a similar fashion. Saying that one is a Hokie when one is not is an attempt to borrow someone else’s sadness as a cover for one’s own fear.

The deaths of the people on 9/11 are notable because of the scale of the hateful attack that killed them. They were striking because other Americans could not help but imagine being victims of a similar attack. They continue to be remembered, not just out of sadness, but as symbol they have served; they had no choice about what their deaths would come to mean, how this event would be used to further political aims.

Many people who lost close friends or family members on 9/11 are still mourning; this is appropriate. To me, though, and to most Americans, the victims on 9/11 were strangers; all we have in common with them is our Americanness. It’s wonderful to have the empathy to be sad on someone else’s behalf. It’s harmful to expect one’s self to have sadness equal to that of the victim. Grief is not a competition.

Patriot Day is supposed to be a day of remembrance and grief, but grief is not the only appropriate emotion when considering 9/11. Fear has dominated American political behavior since 9/11, so honestly expressing fear is appropriate, too. Masking fear with shows of grief mocks the grief felt deeply by the families and friends of the victims. Remembering 9/11 without careful consideration grows fear.

If safety from terrorism is still under-addressed, more fear is not what Americans need; Americans need more perspective. Airport security is an example of the repeated loss of perspective to fear. The 9/11 attackers used airplanes as missiles, so the TSA took over airports. Then, Richard Reid tried to blow up his shoes on an airplane, so now we have to take off our shoes when we go through TSA security. Then, there was a plot to attack airplanes with bombs made of, among other things, hydrogen peroxide, disposable cameras, and Tang, and so the TSA and other agencies around the world banned a phase of matter. In each of these cases, the changes in security policy were in response to a previous attack, not in anticipation of a future attack. It’s myopic to consider commercial passenger air travel as a particularly significant terrorist attack vector when there are cargo planes, private planes, trains, cars, motorcycles, boats, horses, canals, and Segways, and threats that have nothing to do with transportation. Fear drives this decision making. Fear inhibits creativity and forces people to revisit their pain, to remain subject to it.

If Americans are concerned about safety from terrorists, they need to ask, What will al Qaeda do next? and, Who else, besides al Qaeda, wants Americans to be afraid?

In Refuse to be Terrorized, Bruce Schneier writes,

I’d like everyone to take a deep breath and listen for a minute.

The point of terrorism is to cause terror, sometimes to further a political goal and sometimes out of sheer hatred. The people terrorists kill are not the targets; they are collateral damage. And blowing up planes, trains, markets or buses is not the goal; those are just tactics.

The real targets of terrorism are the rest of us: the billions of us who are not killed but are terrorized because of the killing. The real point of terrorism is not the act itself, but our reaction to the act. And we’re doing exactly what the terrorists want.

Our politicians help the terrorists every time they use fear as a campaign tactic. The press helps every time it writes scare stories about the plot and the threat. And if we’re terrified, and we share that fear, we help. All of these actions intensify and repeat the terrorists’ actions, and increase the effects of their terror.

(I am not saying that the politicians and press are terrorists, or that they share any of the blame for terrorist attacks. I’m not that stupid. But the subject of terrorism is more complex than it appears, and understanding its various causes and effects are vital for understanding how to best deal with it.)

Everyone has experienced pain, and everyone has fear that it will recur. To continue to be identified by pain is to continue to be manipulated by it. It’s important, for example, to recognize the harm that slavery caused, but to see an African American primarily as a descendant of slaves, instead of a parent or math teacher or golf player, is to continue the identification imposed upon their ancestors instead of the identity that they themselves generate; this is small compared to the wrong of slavery and institutionalized discrimination, but it is unnecessary and painful. Forgetting, in a careful way, is necessary.

The War on Terror was misnamed because it isn’t actually a war against the feelings of terror that people have, it’s a war on terrorists or a war on people that are accused of being terrorists. What if there had been a war on terror—the feeling? More than Patriot Day, a day for grief, Americans need an opportunity to admit their fears, discuss them, and find ways to overcome them. People can cultivate courage. Maintaining good health, doing good work, and loving and being loved all help develop courage. These are things are already worthwhile.

There is no end to violence. Terrorist attacks are inevitable. When threatened by attacks in the future, America will perpetuate violence unless it becomes less fearful.


  1. I'm not so sure about your interpretation of "We are all Hokies". I always thought it was intended as a way of demonstrating empathy, being sad on their behalf, and to show solidarity, that they are not alone in the world, that others care. I don't think the "We are all Hokies" people would have said that they were competing to be more sad or even just as sad as actual Hokies, but it was the popular way of expressing that, on some level, people felt the grief too, even if it was less. I think they meant it honestly and earnestly, and accusing them of a grief competition comes across as pretty mean.

  2. Tim, for people who are genuinely sad and showing empathy, it's not necessarily that bad to say, "We are all Hokies." The problem is that I think that the reaction to the Virginia Tech massacre, the way students at other colleges reacted, was based in fear more than sadness.

  3. To me, 9/11 and the resulting wars have always seemed like a reactionary mistake. Like one sibling teasing another. The reaction from an immature child would be to punch, or lash out at the other. The reaction of a mature child would be to sit back and think through to an appropriate response.

    I'm not an expert (or even moderately well educated) when it comes to the middle east, but the two driving factors I see are poverty and a lack of education, with most of the schools being paid for and run by drug trade/Al-Qaeda. So while it would have been appropriate to track down and capture Osama, it would have probably been cheaper to build and fund schools for Afghanistan than to launch a war with the goal of destroying Al-Qaeda.

    Of course, now that we've started the wars I see it as our responsibility to establish a relative stability in the region before we can leave. I reflect on Sept. 11th as a day of sadness, more over how our country responded and the number of people that have died as a result than over the initial attack, and I too think of "Patriot Day" as a poor choice. Good essay.

  4. Whit, I think those are great examples of alternative responses that could have led to peace. Thanks.