Home of the free and the brave. Live free or die. Shoot first; ask questions later. Kill 'em all, let God sort 'em out. These were the mottos of a brash, impetuous, audacious-to-a-fault nation.
That nation is dead.
Once we Americas did brave things: We sat on boats, crossing the English Channel, knowing that most of us would die on the beach in Normandy. We sat at the lunch counter in the Deep South, waiting for white goons to beat us up. We also did brave things that were stupid: When the president sent us to Vietnam, some of us went, risking death. Others went to Canada, sacrificing everything for principle. We bungee jumped. We tried New Coke. Bravery can be dumb.
But it's still brave.
Then came 9/11/01. It was the defining event of the decade that ends today, a fin-de-siècle moment for a previously proud nation's once glorious history.
The Fear Decade had begun.
Bin Laden wanted the destruction of the World Trade Center to smack oblivious Americans' upside their collective heads, to draw their attention to their nation's toxic foreign policy (especially in the Middle East), maybe even to demand that the U.S. stop propping up dictators. It didn't work.
Rather than prompt them to reassess their government's behavior, Americans got angry. Anger, as any shrink will tell you, comes from fear. And fear makes you do stupid things.
Fear of future attacks. Fear of Muslims. Of anyone wearing a turban.
Foreigners. The next thing we knew, the paranoid delusionals leading us convinced us that fearful people and things were everywhere. Mail full of anthrax. Gas stations stalked by snipers. Threat levels: orange, red, etc. (but it's always orange). Avian flu. Eeek! Stop these things! Do whatever it takes!
Throwing innocent Muslim men in prison? It was worth it to (possibly, probably not) prevent one attack. Torture? We couldn't take any chances--what if the victim knew that a bomb was about to go off? Because one lunatic tried to blow up his joke of a shoe bomb on a flight from Paris to Miami, America's 800 million air travelers are ordered to take off their 1.6 billion shoes every year. Because a half-dozen Brits thought about trying to blow up planes using hair peroxide and Tang (yes, really), millions of nursing mothers were told to dump bottles containing thousands of gallons of breast milk into trashcans at airport security checkpoints. Never mind the scientists who said such plots couldn't work. And now, the most fearsome fear of all: the Paris-to-Detroit underwear bomber. Airport security is about to turn really ugly.
Governments act stupid and mean. That's normal. What the Fear Decade made different was us. It made us let the government do whatever it wanted.
Fear is irrational. As I pointed out at the time, Iraq's longest-range missiles couldn't reach Europe, much less the United States. In other words, it didn't matter if Saddam had had WMDs. It didn't matter to us, anyway. Yet we destroyed our economy and murdered two million people to invade Iraq.
I watched a legless vet, humiliated and detained by a TSA agent as he repeatedly explained why the metal detector kept going off: his body was full of titanium, courtesy of the Iraqi insurgency. I watched. So did other passengers. We said nothing.
We were afraid.
Not just at the airport. We were afraid at work. Unions were deader than dead, the government was in the hands of gangster capitalists, and the economy started tanking the instant Bill Clinton began packing his bags. We were overleveraged, maxed out and one paycheck away from losing everything. Ask for a raise? Demand longer vacations? Are you crazy, brother? Like Jews assembled in the freezing courtyard of a concentration camp, we stared straight ahead, terrified, hoping not to be noticed, to live to see the next "selection."
Fear everywhere! National Guardskids, all of 20 years old and decked out in their best Kevlar, brandishing automatic weapons taller than they are at women and children as they came out of commuter rail stations. Annoying, sure--but what if...what if...what if something happened? We heard that the government was listening to our phone calls and reading our email but instead of summoning up outrage at this brazen and illegal violation of privacy we took cold comfort in that hoary chestnut: "If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear."
But we were afraid. We all were. We still are.
Then we elected Barack Obama. We didn't vote for him because he was accomplished. He wasn't. Or because we liked his ideas. He hardly had any. We voted for him because he seemed so calm.
But he was afraid too. More than that, he wanted us to keep being scared--of the same exact stuff Bush had had us so frightened of! Lions and tigers and Muslims, oh my! The Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, even though the Pentagon said there were fewer than 100 Al Qaeda guys in the whole country! Iraq, still, although he couldn't quite explain why, and the bad guys who didn't do anything wrong at Guantánamo, just in case.
Now it's all fear, all the time. Fear of diseases (H1N1). Fear of evil banks (feed them or they'll go away, which would somehow be worse). We were arrogant once, loud and silly and funny and crazy as hell, and we were Americans.
Now we're timid and pissy and pissed off, and I don't recognize, much less like, what we've become.
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