I'm writing this in an airport terminal, having just gone through security. The tone of this morning's line was good-natured irritability -- everyone joking and griping about this nonsense imposed on them by their worrywart government, like well-cared-for kids whining about vegetables and bedtime. I remembered only as I took off my shoes that 1) a ladyfriend had painted my toenails emerald green in San Francisco and 2) I was in Texas. I was singled out for a "hand swipe" (it's not clear whether this was related to my suspect toe color), and as a security officer and I waited for a computer to show us the results she sighed to herself, "Dear God." For a moment I imagined she was actually reflecting on what this country had come to, but she explained, "I need coffee, sir." I turned out not to be a terrorist at all and she and I had a funny, human conversation about the feasibility of rigging up IV drips of coffee -- or, better yet, martinis. Even though she'd executed the hand swipe with perfunctory, clinical professionalism, it was still, like drawing blood or palm reading, oddly intimate. I'd been asked to hold out my hands, palms upward as if in supplication, to receive a quick gentle swab with a soft, moist circular pad. It had the feel of an ablution. Or an absolution.
Whether these security procedures have deterred anyone from smuggling weapons aboard an airplane we can't, of course, know; if they have been successful it means we'll never find out about it. So far their main beneficiaries appear to have been security contractors and foot fetishists. The precautions are so elaborate and so futile -- always scrambling to prevent the last threat instead of anticipating the next -- that I suspect the real purpose they serve is so primitive and superstitious that we can't own up to it in daylight. They are a religious rite, a form of preventive magic, like crossing yourself to ward off the evil eye or purifying yourself through ritual bathing. We navigate those winding cordoned lanes like pilgrims following the labyrinths on cathedral floors, all of us nervously hoping to prove ourselves innocent and worthy of transport. We divest ourselves of our belongings and outer garments and finally remove our shoes, as on entering a mosque. We step into a chamber where we stand alone in a posture of supplication, arms raised in surrender, while superhuman eyes look through us. Someone literally waves a wand over us: We are safe.
Sept. 11 scared this country in a way we had not been scared in living memory. Americans have lived without death for a long time now. The popular culture of the 19th century seems creepily morbid and lachrymose to us; people took portrait photos of their dead infants, laid corpses out in the living room, slaughtered their own dinners. Today death is an embarrassing medical condition best kept out of sight, like eczema, and old age seems like a really bad lifestyle choice. So seeing people who looked just like us -- not swarthy keffiyehed people in the usual war-torn regions, their mothers keening over them in unWASPy abandon, but office workers who read the Times and shopped at Whole Foods and watched Netflix -- dying in unimaginably painful and terrifying ways so scared us that we needed to do something, anything, no matter how useless, to ensure that this would not happen to us or to the people we loved.
The Bush administration ran a lot of casus belli up the flagpole for our invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and their critics have suggested several more plausible ones. But I think the reason that we as a nation accepted those excuses and let them go ahead and do it -- and I'm indicting myself here, since drawing editorial cartoons and painting signs to carry at marches isn't exactly a hunger strike or self-immolation -- goes much deeper, into places most of us don't care to look.
I believe that we collectively decided, without quite admitting it to ourselves, that somebody, somewhere in the world, had to die for 9/11, and we didn't really care whether they'd had anything to do with it or who they were, so long as they were brown-skinned and worshipped Allah and lived in the Middle East. We imagined that killing thousands of strangers on the other side of the world might somehow assuage our fear, in the same way that someone who's been assaulted might buy a gun as a security blanket, a prop to accompany his fantasies of protection and revenge. Our invasion of Iraq was an act of human sacrifice, undertaken for pretty much the same reasons the Aztecs slaughtered prisoners by the tens of thousands: to propitiate the gods. If George W. Bush had slit the throat of a single lamb on live TV it would've had much the same net effect on national security, at considerably less cost.
This charge is also a confesssion. I reacted to 9/11 the same way as a lot of my compatriots: by going completely berserk. I wanted to see those responsible nuked, their squalid theocratic shithole nation turned into a vast flat rink of Trinitite that would glow a faint green at night for the next 30,000 years to remind the world that Americans, as a people, were not to be messed with. I wanted to release one of those viruses we keep deep underground behind 37 different failproof safeguards that's capable of depopulating Indonesia in a week. I'd utterly lost it. My own temporary insanity was shorter-lived than many of my fellow Americans', but I can't pretend it didn't happen. My fear turned into rage so quickly that it was easy to forget it had ever been fear at all. Anger is just fear that feels good.
People are now publicly calling Iraq a "mistake" and a "blunder," muttering excuses about "the heat of the moment" and "misleading information." This is a genteel lie. It was an entirely foreseeable, avoidable catastrophe, which makes it something more like a crime or an atrocity. Although it feels vaguely unpatriotic to count the deaths of our enemies ("count" in the sense of valuing, as well as of tallying), a peer-reviewed study published in The Lancet in 2006 estimates almost 655,000 Iraqi deaths since the war began. I haven't seen that figure in print much, for some reason, so I'll repeat it here: 655,000. That's about 230 times as many people as died on 9/11. Picture, if it'll help, the twin towers of the World Trade Center collapsing 115 times. And that was only as of 2006.
Afghanistan and Iraq aren't the only nations we left gutted and mutilated. America is a meaner, uglier country than it was 11 years ago. The Bush administration's two wars and tax cuts -- the fiscal equivalent of buying a yacht and quitting your day job at the same time -- helped drive this country over the brink into what may yet prove to be a terminal decline. Soldiers in camouflage now stand idly around subway stations cradling machine guns, a sight we used to associate with Third World military juntas. I can remember when the idea of a public debate over torture would've seemed as obscene as a debate over the pros and cons of rape, child molestation or genocide. We numbly shrug off arrests without warrants, abductions, secret prisons, not-so-secret prisons and assassinations as the price we pay for what's euphemistically called "security."
Our hysterical, bellicose reaction to 9/11 exposed Americans as a craven and vicious people who value their own lives above anything else, willing to forfeit our birthright as citizens of a free country and the lives of countless foreigners in exchange for an illusion of safety, like 1984's Winston Smith abjectly screaming, "Do it to her!" when faced with his deepest fear. We turned our fear into national policy without a debate. The phrase "War on Terror" is embarrassingly telling; we have squandered a decade of our history, nearly $4 trillion dollars, almost 8,000 of our countrymen's lives and untold numbers of others' in a mass national effort to defeat a bad feeling. It makes me want to ask my fellow countrymen the same question I always want to ask anonymous commenters on the Internet who lash out at strangers with middle-school threats and invective: Do we feel better now?
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For more on becoming fearless, click here.