Saturday, July 09, 2005

Panic, paranoia, vengeance: America's response to terrorism

Two impassioned posts by Mary at Pacific Views (which recently added The Reaction to its blogroll) address how the British (and Londoners in particular) are responding to the London terrorist attacks and how British leaders like London Mayor Ken Livingstone are "calling out the best and bravest part of the people" -- see here and here. She contrasts this lofty combination of sobriety, stoicism, and courage to what happened in America post-9/11. Here are the key passages from her two posts:

Listening to the BBC news tonight, I heard another commentator talking about how Londoners have faced awful attacks before and they have always reacted in a courageous and thoughtful manner to these attacks. And, yes, since the great Blitz, the British have been told that they react with courage and rationality when faced with harrowing attacks. After all of these messages, I would be surprised to see the British let hysteria and panic rule their reactions. Some could act that way, but the picture the British have of themselves is they are brave survivors and they will make it through difficult times.

Compare that with the story we Americans are told about ourselves. Since 9/11, Americans have been told that we are right to be traumatized. Starting very soon after 9/11, there were stories about how many Americans, even those far, far away from New York or Washington DC, were experiencing the symptoms of Post-traumatic Stress Syndrome. This was followed very soon by the frenzy of fear that gripped the nation (especially the east coast) when the anthrax attacks cleared the Senators' offices and closed down the postal centers. And who could forget the advice of the government for Americans to stock up on plastic and duct tape so we could build our own shelters in the event of a chemical or biological attack? Or the idea that we should create a nation of spies to report on the suspicious behavior of our neighbors? Or the number of times the government raised terrorist alerts that told Americans that we should be afraid -- very, very afraid?...

Like Pavlov's dogs, Americans have been primed to be not just frightened, but also paranoid, and impulsively ready to strike out. Because as our government and our media told us again and again, the attack on American soil was had been so horrific that it was right for Americans to take the war to Iraq because Saddam was a frightening man and he would get us if we didn't stop him first...

So, I'd like to ask, where would we have been if genuine leaders who reinforced courage rather than fear, rational thought rather than blind vengeance, had been in charge on 9/11? And then I'd like to ask, what can we do to help our fellow Americans come to understand that we can be better than what we've been led to believe we are? And that we can and will overcome these adverse times with courage and dignity even while respecting the humanity of even those who are crazed with their ideology. We are better than that America that the radical right believes we are and we are capable of searching for real solutions rather than just vengeance...

So my question is, what would we see in the US if we had another terrorist attack? I believe that one of the worst things about our current government and the nasty, divisive manner in which they operate is that they pander to the worst elements in human nature. They use divisive and destructive language to marginalize a significant portion of the country. They treat the ordinary citizen as little children who should leave worrying about anything important to the "leaders". After 9/11, people were told that it was patriotic to shop. And just recently, we were told to "support the troops" by adopting a family, but never would we be asked to sacrifice for the cause by having to forego something such as an increase in income taxes to pay for the war, or rationing how many gallons of gasoline we purchase or how many BTUs we use in our houses. And rather than asking people to show courage in the face of frightening times, this administration uses the terror threats to frighten and stampede people into giving up more rights and any rational assessments of the problem. This is an administration that encourages irrational thought and hysteria.

So do you thing that Americans will be proud of how they react if another attack happens on our soil? Do you think that they will use the occasion to pull together and to encourage rational and effective responses to the incidents? Or is it more likely that those who believe "the ends justify the means" will think that a future attack would be an ideal time to attack the traitorist liberals and Democrats and to use the incident in order to consolidate power by calling to the most base and destructive part of human nature? Well, what has been this administration's track record? If (or more likely when) America has another terrorist attack on our soil, I fear our disfunctional administration will take a bad situation and most assuredly make it worse.

I agree with much of Mary's assessment. However, one thing I must stress, because it is perhaps not explicit enough in her posts, is that there is a difference between America and the "current government". Having lived down in the U.S. for a long time, having many American friends and family, and having what I think is a deep understanding of and a profound respect for the American soul, I do believe that Americans are a truly virtuous people who are capable of the highest expressions of humanity. That may not always come across here at The Reaction, given how critical I am of Bush and the Republicans who control Congress, but I would argue that Bush and those Republicans have waged a "war on terror" by manipulating their own people and by bringing (or trying to bring) out the worst elements of the American soul. While the British seem to be responding to the London attacks with "courage and rationality," Bush has fueled an atmosphere of panic, paranoia, and lust for vengeance as a means to secure his political fortunes. How else did he prod America into a devastatingly ill-conceived war in Iraq? How else did he win last year's tight presidential race when everything was pointing to a Kerry victory?

No, Americans aren't stupid and they aren't easily manipulated. And now, as Bush's falling approval numbers indicate, they are finally beginning to show real discontent with their "current government" (even though Bush's approval rating on terrorism is still over 50%). I don't mean to sound condescending or to validate condescension here, though it is true that language such as "what can we do to help our fellow Americans come to understand that we can be better than what we've been led to believe we are" smacks of condescension.

But I would argue otherwise, and I think this is what Mary is getting at. It's not that Americans are merely pathetic dupes who can't think for themselves, it's that most Americans, all cynicism aside, spend most of their time working, taking care of their families, and otherwise living their private lives in pursuit of happiness. There is a healthy distrust of government in America, but I think that most Americans are content to leave the affairs of state to their elected representatives, and indeed to trust that their elected representatives will act in the best interests of the American people. So, no, Americans aren't dupes, but they've been duped (think intelligence "fixing" to meet certain political objectives) by those they've entrusted with the power of self-government that is naturally theirs. And this is precisely where there is ground for outrage and where Americans must call out this "current government" to account for itself.

In the end, if I may speak as an American by relation and association, "[w]e are better than that America that the radical right believes we are and we are capable of searching for real solutions rather than just vengeance". The problem is, "real solutions" require different leadership, because the "current government" has shown few signs that it knows what it's really doing.


See the the full text of Livingstone's speech here. It's definitely worth reading, but here's how it ends:
Finally, I wish to speak directly to those who came to London today to take life.

I know that you personally do not fear giving up your own life in order to take others -- that is why you are so dangerous. But I know you fear that you may fail in your long-term objective to destroy our free society and I can show you why you will fail.

In the days that follow look at our airports, look at our sea ports and look at our railway stations and, even after your cowardly attack, you will see that people from the rest of Britain, people from around the world will arrive in London to become Londoners and to fulfil their dreams and achieve their potential.

They choose to come to London, as so many have come before because they come to be free, they come to live the life they choose, they come to be able to be themselves. They flee you because you tell them how they should live. They don’t want that and nothing you do, however many of us you kill, will stop that flight to our city where freedom is strong and where people can live in harmony with one another. Whatever you do, however many you kill, you will fail.

He's absolutely right.

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  • Historically, Americans are used to being isolated from the violence that plagued Europe. So an attack on the US is much more disturbing to Americans than an attack in Europe is to Europeans. We assume that we are somehow immune from stuff like that.

    I tend to agree that Americans have reacted to 9/11 with a lot of paranoia. Part of this is, as you say, the way the government has manipulated the facts. But, I think it's a sympton of something deeper; Americans have simply become soft and risk averse. If you think about it, the chances of getting hurt in a terrorist attack in the US, especially if you don't live in a major city, is remote at best. Yet we have reacted as if there is a terrorist around every corner. I work in Washington, DC, which is obviously a potential target. But even though there is a rational basis for extra security, it's gotten ridiculous; it's as if every conceivable public building is a likely target so security is ramped up everywhere even if it makes no sense. There seems to be a feeling that the terrorists are ominipotent and without limit as to where they can strike. The government, of couse, has a lot of responsibility for this. On the other hand, let's face it, given the penchant that Americans have for requiring a scapegoat for everything, what rational government wouldn't look to cover its ass. With all the talk about how 9/11 could have been prevented, no one is willing to face the fact that it is impossible to prevent all attacks and that we need to accept this. By not accepting this fact and, at the same time, overstating the individual risk, we have created a paranoid society that, instead of taking reasonable precautions, often goes off the deepend.

    It's interesting to me that Americans see ourselves as courageous people. Yet, in a lot of ways, we are less courageous than Europeans, at least in our ability to live with ambivalence and vulnerability. We expect our lives to always be positive and not to allow the outside world to intrude upon it.

    I will say this, however, about Americans. Despite the fact that hate crimes against Muslims have increased, I think that, in general, we have not lashed out blindly against Muslims, whatever the general assumption seems to be in Europe. I think we have, for the most part, accepted the fact that these attacks are the acts of individuals, not the Muslim community as a whole.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:16 AM  

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