If someone close to you died in the 9/11 terror attacks this isn’t intended for you. For you, this is a day of legitimate mourning and real grief, and this is about phony mourning and simulated grief.
Phony mourning and simulated grief is what politicians all over America are indulging in today, as they mark the seventh anniversary of the terrorist attack.
With the benefit of seven years of hindsight and subsequent experience, it’s become clear that a Cult of 9/11 has been built up around the events of that day. The Cult of 9/11 is based on a fundamental principle: that the 9/11 attacks marked the beginning of a new historical era, a so-called “new normal” in which Americans were shaken from their post-Cold War complacency by the realization that we faced an existential threat from Islamic terrorism.
That is false. It was (understandably) difficult to see that the fundamental principle of the Cult of 9/11 was false in the days and weeks immediately after the attacks. The attacks were, among other things, a spectacularly successful manipulation of the contemporary media: the 9/11 terrorists succeeded in hijacking not just four airliners, but the entire news and entertainment complex of the United States.
For days and weeks, we lived in a world in which, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, we were bombarded with words and most of all images that drove home the supposed truth that we were now all under living under an existential threat — that the very survival of our nation hung in the balance.
“9/11” in short, became a kind of national horror film, except it was “real,” and (most important) it played on a continuous loop on our televisions and on the Internet and in our newspapers and on our radios and in our magazines until the dread of terror was everywhere.
In other words, our government and media did the main work of the terrorists for them. The primary goal of the terrorists wasn’t to damage America directly – as terrible as the attacks were, they could never do more than comparatively trivial damage to a nation as rich and powerful and secure as ours – but rather to wreck havoc by creating the illusion that they had the power to hurt us. And in this they succeeded beyond Osama bin Laden’s wildest dreams.
The logic of the horror film is this: it takes something that actually exists – for example, serial killers – and then it creates an atmosphere of pervasive dread, by constructing a world in which the audience’s perception of reality is warped to the point where the dread of serial killers becomes the dominant emotion – an emotion that colors our perception of everything in that world.
Consider a film like The Silence of the Lambs. Very few people are killed in the film – more people die, on average, in the opening sequence of a James Bond film than the entire body count in The Silence of the Lambs – but the effectiveness of the movie has nothing to do with “real” risk. Instead, it’s built around creating a pervasive atmosphere of dread, by presenting a world in which Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill — sociopathic killers obsessed with bizarre fetishes that involve desecrating the corpses of their victims – seem, in the mind of the audience, to be lurking on every wooded trail and in every quaint old house, and indeed everywhere.
There’s a great sequence near the beginning of the film, in which Clarice, the young female FBI trainee played by Jodie Foster, gets into an elevator full of (male) FBI agents. This is set at the FBI training center in Quantico Virginia. From a rational perspective, it’s about the safest spot on the planet if you’re worried about being kidnapped and murdered by a serial killer. Yet at that moment, in the mind of the audience, every man in the elevator is perceived to be a real and significant threat to Clarice’s safety, bodily integrity, and life.
There’s nothing “rational” about that perception, but that doesn’t make it less real – as a perception of risk, as opposed to an actual, real-world risk.
The Cult of 9/11 is built up around similarly distorted perceptions. The Cult of 9/11 isn’t about real risk, but rather about creating and maintaining a pervasive cultural atmosphere of dread. It’s a kind of national horror film – one which goes on and on, even as the events of that terrible day fade in both memory and emotional impact.
Here are some basic truths, truths so basic that arguing for them is an insult to the reader’s intelligence:
*Terrorism, Islamic or otherwise, doesn’t pose anything like an existential threat to the United States of America.
*There isn’t a trace of an indigenous Islamic terror threat anywhere in America, or indeed a significant terror threat of any kind.
*With some notable exceptions – if for example you happen to be a poor, and/ or if you don’t have health insurance, and/or if you belong to a demographic that makes up much of the world’s largest prison population – contemporary America is about as low-risk a society as has ever existed on the face of the earth. In particular the contemporary American suburb, although full of often-terrified people, represents as close to a risk-free environment as human ingenuity has yet constructed.
*We’re all going to die one day, but the odds that any particular American will die in a terrorist attack can be estimated as essentially zero.
*The money being spent, and the nations being invaded, and the suspects being tortured, and the laws being broken, in the name of fighting the so-called global war on terror, represent a fantastically out of proportion response to the threat that terrorism actually poses to our nation.
Consider that for every American murdered by terrorists on September 11, 2001, fifty have been murdered by ordinary everyday made-in-America violence in the seven years since.
Consider that for every American murdered by terrorists, somewhere between 200 and 600 Iraqis have died as a direct consequence of our invasion of that country: a country which had nothing to do with 9/11, although perhaps 100 million Americans still don’t understand this — a fact which itself is a direct and intended consequence of the Bush administration’s calculated lies.
Consider that the money spent, so far, on the invasion of a country that had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks would be more than enough to pay off the entire mortgage of every foreclosed home in the United States.
You will hear nothing like this from any national politician today, because the Cult of 9/11 considers any criticism of its central principle to be a horrible heresy.
Instead we will get phony mourning and simulated grief, from our leaders and our media, as they continue to pretend that the events of that terrible day justify the money, and the invasions, and the torture, and the lawbreaking, and all the other very real transformations of our national life that have been undertaken in the name of our dread of a threat that, in all truth, might as well be as imaginary as the killer in a horror film.