Hold Onto Your Underwear
This Is Not a National Emergency
By Tom Engelhardt
Let me put American life in the Age of Terror into some kind of context, and then tell me you’re not ready to get on the nearest plane heading anywhere, even toward Yemen.
In 2008, 14,180 Americans were murdered, according to the FBI. In that year, there were 34,017 fatal vehicle crashes in the U.S. and, so the U.S. Fire Administration tells us, 3,320 deaths by fire. More than 11,000 Americans died of the swine flu between April and mid-December 2009, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; on average, a staggering 443,600 Americans die yearly of illnesses related to tobacco use, reports the American Cancer Society; 5,000 Americans die annually from food-borne diseases; an estimated 1,760 children died from abuse or neglect in 2007; and the next year, 560 Americans died of weather-related conditions, according to the National Weather Service, including 126 from tornadoes, 67 from rip tides, 58 from flash floods, 27 from lightning, 27 from avalanches, and 1 from a dust devil.
As for airplane fatalities, no American died in a crash of a U.S. carrier in either 2007 or 2008, despite 1.5 billion passengers transported. In 2009, planes certainly went down and people died. In June, for instance, a French flight on its way from Rio de Janeiro to Paris disappeared in bad weather over the Atlantic, killing 226. Continental Connection Flight 3407, a regional commuter flight, crashed into a house near Buffalo, New York, that February killing 50, the first fatal crash of a U.S. commercial flight since August 2006. And in January 2009, US Airways Flight 1549, assaulted by a flock of birds, managed a brilliant landing in New York’s Hudson River when disaster might have ensued. In none of these years did an airplane go down anywhere due to terrorism, though in 2007 two terrorists smashed a Jeep Cherokee loaded with propane tanks into the terminal of Glasgow International Airport. (No one was killed.)
The now-infamous Northwest Airlines Flight 253, carrying Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and his bomb-laden underwear toward Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, had 290 passengers and crew, all of whom survived. Had the inept Abdulmutallab actually succeeded, the death toll would not have equaled the 324 traffic fatalities in Nevada in 2008; while the destruction of four Flight 253s from terrorism would not have equaled New York State’s 2008 traffic death toll of 1,231, 341 of whom, or 51 more than those on Flight 253, were classified as “alcohol-impaired fatalities.”
Had the 23-year-old Nigerian set off his bomb, it would have been a nightmare for the people on board, and a tragedy for those who knew them. It would certainly have represented a safety and security issue that needed to be dealt with. But it would not have been a national emergency, nor a national-security crisis. It would have been nothing more than a single plane knocked out of the sky, something that happens from time to time without the intervention of terrorists.
And yet here’s the strange thing: thanks to what didn’t happen on Flight 253, the media essentially went mad, 24/7. Newspaper coverage of the failed plot and its ramifications actually grew for two full weeks after the incident until it had achieved something like full-spectrum dominance, according to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. In the days after Christmas, more than half the news links in blogs related to Flight 253. At the same time, the Republican criticism machine (and the media universe that goes with it) ramped up on the subject of the Obama administration’s terror wimpiness; the global air transport system plunked down millions of dollars on new technology which will not find underwear bombs; the homeland security-industrial-complex had a field day; and fear, that adrenaline rush from hell, was further embedded in the American way of life.
Under the circumstances, you would never know that Americans living in the United States were in vanishingly little danger from terrorism, but in significant danger driving to the mall; or that alcohol, tobacco, E. coli bacteria, fire, domestic abuse, murder, and the weather present the sort of potentially fatal problems that might be worth worrying about, or even changing your behavior over, or perhaps investing some money in. Terrorism, not so much.
The few Americans who, since 2001, have died from anything that could be called a terror attack in the U.S. — whether the 13 killed at Fort Hood or the soldier murdered outside an army recruiting office in Little Rock, Arkansas — were far outnumbered by the 32 dead in a 2007 mass killing at Virginia Tech, not to speak of the relatively regular moments when workers or former workers “go postal.” Since September 11th, terror in the U.S. has rated above fatalities from shark attacks and not much else. Since the economic meltdown of 2008, it has, in fact, been left in the shade by violent deaths that stem from reactions to job loss, foreclosure, inability to pay the rent, and so on.
This is seldom highlighted in a country perversely convulsed by, and that can’t seem to get enough of, fantasies about being besieged by terrorists.
Institutionalizing Fear Inc.
The attacks of September 11, 2001, which had the look of the apocalyptic, brought the fear of terrorism into the American bedroom via the TV screen. That fear was used with remarkable effectiveness by the Bush administration, which color-coded terror for its own ends. A domestic version of shock-and-awe — Americans were indeed shocked and awed by 9/11 — helped drive the country into two disastrous wars and occupations, each still ongoing, and into George W. Bush’s Global War on Terror, a term now persona non grata in Washington, even if the “war “ itself goes on and on.
Today, any possible or actual terror attack, any threat no matter how far-fetched, amateurish, poorly executed, or ineffective, raises a national alarm, always seeming to add to the power of the imperial presidency and threatening to open new “fronts” in the now-unnamed global war. The latest is, of course, in Yemen, thanks in part to that young Nigerian who was evidently armed with explosives by a home-grown organization of a few hundred men that goes by the name al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
The fear of terrorism has, by now, been institutionalized in our society — quite literally so — even if the thing we’re afraid of has, on the scale of human problems, something of the will o’ the wisp about it. For those who remember their Cold War fiction, it’s more specter than SPECTRE.
That fear has been embedded in what once was an un-American word, more easily associated with Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany: “homeland.” It has replaced “country,” “land,” and “nation” in the language of the terror-mongers. “The homeland” is the place which terrorism, and nothing but terrorism, can violate. In 2002, that terror-embedded word got its own official government agency: the Department of Homeland Security, our second “defense” department, which has a 2010 budget of $39.4 billion (while overall “homeland security” spending in the 2010 budget reached $70.2 billion). Around it has grown up a little-attended-to homeland-security complex with its own interests, businesses, associations, and lobbyists (including jostling crowds of ex-politicians and ex-government bureaucrats).
As a result, more than eight years after 9/11, an amorphous state of mind has manifested itself in the actual state as a kind of Fear Inc. A number of factors have clearly gone into the creation of Fear Inc. and now insure that fear is the drug constantly shot into the American body politic. These would include:
The imperial presidency: The Bush administration used fear not only to promote its wars and its Global War on Terror, but also to unchain the commander-in-chief of an already imperial presidency from a host of restraints. The dangers of terror and of al-Qaeda, which became the global bogeyman, and the various proposed responses to it, including kidnapping (“extraordinary rendition”), secret imprisonment, and torture, turned out to be the royal road to the American unconscious and so to a presidency determined, as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and others liked to say, to take the gloves off. It remains so and, as a result, under Barack Obama, the imperial presidency only seems to gain ground. Recently, for instance, we learned that, under the pressure of the Flight 253 incident, the Obama administration has adopted the Bush administration position that a president, under certain circumstances, has the authority to order the assassination of an American citizen abroad. (In this case, New Mexico-born Islamic cleric Anwar Aulaqi, who has been linked to the 9/11 plotters, the Fort Hood killer, and Abdulmutallab.) The Bush administration opened the door to this possibility and now, it seems, a Democratic president may be stepping through.
The 24/7 media moment: 24/7 blitz coverage was once reserved for the deaths of presidents (as in the assassination of John F. Kennedy) and public events of agreed-upon import. In 1994, however, it became the coin of the media realm for any event bizarre enough, sensational enough, celebrity-based enough to glue eyeballs. That June, O.J. Simpson engaged in his infamous low-speed car “chase” through Orange County followed by more than 20 news helicopters while 95 million viewers tuned in and thousands more gathered at highway overpasses to watch. No one’s ever looked back. Of course, in a traditional media world that’s shedding foreign and domestic bureaus and axing hordes of reporters, radically downsizing news rooms and shrinking papers to next to nothing, the advantages of focusing reportorial energies on just one thing at a time are obvious. Those 24/7 energies are now regularly focused on the fear of terrorism and events which contribute to it, like the plot to down Flight 253.
The Republican criticism machine and the media that go with it: Once upon a time, even successful Republican administrations didn’t have their own megaphone. That’s why, in the Vietnam era, the Nixon administration battled the New York Times so fiercely (and — my own guess — that played a part in forcing the creation of the first “op-ed” page in 1970, which allowed administration figures like Vice President Spiro Agnew and ex-Nixon speechwriter William Safire to gain a voice at the paper). By the George W. Bush era, the struggle had abated. The Times and papers like it only had to be pacified or cut out of the loop, since from TV to talk radio, publishing to publicity, the Republicans had their own megaphone ready at hand. This is, by now, a machine chock-a-block full of politicians and ex-politicians, publishers, pundits, military “experts,” journalists, shock-jocks, and the like (categories that have a tendency to blend into each other). It adds up to a seamless web of promotion, publicity, and din. It’s capable of gearing up on no notice and going on until a subject — none more popular than terrorism and Democratic spinelessness in the face of it — is temporarily flogged to death. It ensures that any failed terror attack, no matter how hopeless or pathetic, will be in the headlines and in public consciousness. It circulates constant fantasies about possible future apocalyptic terror attacks with atomic weaponry or other weapons of mass destruction. (And in all of the above, of course, it is helped by a host of tagalong pundits and experts, news shows and news reports from the more liberal side of the aisle.)
The Democrats who don’t dare: It’s remarkable that the sharpest president we’ve had in a while didn’t dare get up in front of the American people after Flight 253 landed and tell everyone to calm down. He didn’t, in fact, have a single intelligent thing to say about the event. He certainly didn’t remind Americans that, whatever happened to Flight 253, they stood in far more danger heading out of their driveways behind the wheel or pulling into a bar on the way home for a beer or two. Instead, the Obama administration essentially abjectly apologized, insisted it would focus yet more effort and money on making America safe from air terrorism, widened a new front in the Global War on Terror in Yemen (speeding extra money and U.S. advisors that way), and when the din from its critics didn’t end, “pushed back,” as Peter Baker of the New York Times wrote, by claiming “that they were handling terror suspects much as the previous administration did.” It’s striking when a Democratic administration finds safety in the claim that it’s acting like a Republican one, that it’s following the path to the imperial presidency already cleared by George W. Bush. Fear does that to you, and the fear of terror has been institutionalized at the top as well as the bottom of society.
9/11 Never Ends
Fear has a way of re-ordering human worlds. That only a relatively small number of determined fanatics with extraordinarily limited access to American soil keep Fear Inc. afloat should, by now, be obvious. What the fear machine produces is the dark underside of the charming Saul Steinberg New Yorker cover, “A View of the World from 9th Avenue,” in which Manhattan looms vast as the rest of the planet fades into near nothingness.
When you see the world “from 9th Avenue,” or from an all-al-Qaeda-all-the-time “news” channel, you see it phantasmagorically. It’s out of all realistic shape and proportion, which means you naturally make stupid decisions. You become incapable of sorting out what matters and what doesn’t, what’s primary and what’s secondary. You become, in short, manipulable.
This is our situation today.
People always wonder: What would the impact of a second 9/11-style attack be on this country? Seldom noticed, however, is that all the pin-prick terror events blown up to apocalyptic proportions add up to a second, third, fourth, fifth 9/11 when it comes to American consciousness.
So the next time a Flight 253 occurs and the Republicans go postal, the media morphs into its 24/7 national-security-disaster mode, the pundits register red on the terror-news scale, the president defends himself by reaffirming that he is doing just what the Bush administration would have done, the homeland security lobbyists begin calling for yet more funds for yet more machinery, and nothing much happens, remember those drunken drivers, arsonists, and tobacco merchants, even that single dust devil and say:
Hold onto your underpants, this is not a national emergency.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the Cold War and beyond, as well as of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing. He also edited The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), an alternative history of the mad Bush years.
[Note: The figures on the 2010 Department of Homeland Security budget and “homeland security” spending in the 2010 budget were provided by the National Priorities Project.]
Copyright 2010 Tom Engelhardt