There can be no doubt that our government promoted and played to fear with their color-coded terror alerts. There can be no doubt that our government wanted us to be afraid so that we would not question their wars or their betrayal of human rights and civil liberties. They wanted us to grant them unlimited powers to carry out an imperial foreign policy they had already planned.
By most accounts, they succeeded spectacularly in transforming the politics of fear into eight years of catastrophic rule, a reign of terror that weakened our international standing and nearly destroyed our economy.
But I remember those days better than I’d like to and it wasn’t fear that motivated the people behind the drumbeat for war and more war. It wasn’t fear that led the masses to accuse anyone who disagreed with our government of treason. I saw the look in their eyes and heard the venom in their voices.
“Since 9/11 US foreign policy…has been driven by fear.”
- Richard Engel, Foreign Correspondent
“People wanted revenge, and the policymakers seized the opportunity to use U.S. military power.”
- Robert Jensen, Professor of Journalism
If you lived in Manhattan or the nation’s capital, the fear was real and palpable. Our leaders never tired of reminding us that there were people out there who wanted to harm us and were willing to do anything to extract as much pain, suffering, death and destruction as possible.
If you lived in New York or Washington, the politics of fear was unnecessary. They were told to go shopping and carry on as if nothing had changed. But everything had changed on a gut level. They had witnessed a crime on a massive scale that shattered their sense of security and they wanted nothing more than to bring those responsible for this horrendous act to justice.
Justice would be a long time waiting.
For those of us in the rest of the country the prevailing mood was quite different. There was fear. Among the politically informed, the fear was not so much that the terrorists would strike again. There was rather a fear of how our government would react. We were afraid that the Neocon brain trust that dominated the oval office would use this tragedy to establish a military stronghold in the oil-rich region of the Middle East. We were afraid that our government would strip away our right to speak out and to organize in protest. We were afraid that anyone who spoke out against government policies would be attacked as traitors, subjected to unwarranted violations of the right to privacy, and in some cases imprisoned, tortured or killed.
Ten years later, the fears of another terrorist attack, though they remain in the shadows of our collective consciousness, have abated, while the fears of our government’s reaction were fully realized.
Our government did not act out of fear. It acted out of greed and want of power. We did not strike at those who planned and carried out this act of terror in Afghanistan. We declared war on the entire nation and we’re still there. We did not seek justice in Iraq. We were not afraid of Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction. We wanted a military base in the heart of the world’s most bountiful oil fields and we’re still there.
The American people did not go along with our government’s actions out of fear but out of anger and the need for revenge it spawned.
As we witness the commemoration of the tragedy of September 11, 2001, it would be a shame to confine our sorrows and regrets to the victims of that criminal act. If we are to advance as a nation, we should also reflect on how we reacted.
Americans do not want to hear it. Not today or any other day. But just as the terrorists brought shame and ruin to their cause and organization, our reaction brought shame and destruction to us.
We have lost our standing as a beacon of justice and liberty. By spending trillions on unnecessary and unjust wars, we have crippled our economy and our ability to respond to the pressing needs of our people and the crises of the times in which we live. As we enter an age of austerity and watch the American dream recede beyond our reach, we are compelled to turn our backs as our people suffer and the ravages of global climate change are projected almost daily on our television screens.
Beyond the emotionally charged remembrances of the victims and heroes of that tragic day, we need to remember the tragedies of our own making that followed.
Ten years after, let the healing go beyond the tragedies in New York, Washington and a field in Pennsylvania. Let us remember the better nature of the American character. Let it go to the heart. Let us always remember who we are and what we represent. Let us always reflect before we act and let us always act in accordance with our principles.