Fear, courage, and the costs of misunderstanding 9/11

by Rob Tiller

This week I heard an NPR report on the U.S. Army’s recruiting station in Philadelphia called the Army Experience Center.  It offers video war games and helicopter simulators to prospective recruits, and it sounded entertaining for adolescent males.  The report suggested that it had been a great success in getting kids to sign up.  It would, of course, be unacceptable to say straight out that war is fun and give this as a reason for enlisting,  but the Experience Center has found a workaround to that dilemma.  It sends the message of fun without saying it.

There’s probably no way to persuade every teenager that war is something to avoid if at all possible.  Even with the fullest possible disclosure, it isn’t possible for a non-combatant to fully comprehend the shock and horror of battle, or to appreciate completely the resulting trauma.  Adolescents are in general both inexperienced and eager for adventure.  So an Army Experience Center devoted to the sights, sounds, and smells of exploding and dismembered comrades would probably not dissuade all potential recruits.  But that sort of full disclosure would be more appropriate, and more fair, really, to those being asked to consider sacrificing their lives.

The Army Experience Center not only exploits the desire for adrenalized fun, but also the more noble aspiration to be courageous in a righteous cause.  We all like to think we’d be willing to stand up to a fearsome enemy, and we’re all proud to confront and overcome our fears.  Few of us ever test ourselves in mortal combat, but we cultivate little bits of courage in lower risk activities.  That’s one reason people like scary movies:  it’s a safe way to experience blasts of adrenalin and demonstrate courage. Some sports do the same.

But the longing for excitement and nobility is the mother’s milk of demagogues.  Fear mongering is the time honored way to motivate choices that become policy disasters.  People love to be frightened, and to imagine a heroic solution.  This explains the most politically powerful fear narrative of the past decade, which is now known simply as 9/11.  I originally thought 9/11 just meant a horrible crime by a handful of religious fanatics, and I still think that’s what it should mean.  But the term became shorthand for an existential threat conceived of as a powerful, organized force capable of destroying the American way of life.  Despite the lack of connection to objective reality, this 9/11 idea has transformed American life.  We view ourselves as under siege by radical Islamic bombers.  There are, no question, a few such crazies about.  But our response has been massively disproportionate, at an enormous cost, in money spent and lives lost.

Last week the Washington Post reported on the vast spy bureaucracy that we have created and paid for with our tax dollars.  There are 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies that work on counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence in some 10,000 locations.  Since 2001, in the D.C. area, 33 complexes for top-secret intelligence work have been built or are under construction, with square footage almost equalling three Pentagons.  There are an estimated 854,000 people with top-secret security clearances — more people than live in Washington.  Every day the National Security Agency intercepts nearly two billion separate e-mails, phone calls, and other communications.

Never mind the lurking civil liberties concerns for the moment, and let’s just talk about money and safety, costs and benefits.  Obviously the cost of all this is huge.  So what do we get in return?  That’s classified, of course.  Based on press reports, though, it appears that we don’t get much for our money.  We hear now and again that an inept fanatic or little band of them has been arrested, but that’s about it.

According to Nicholas Kristof of the NY Times, “The war in Afghanistan will consume more money this year alone than we spent on the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican -American War, the Civil War, and the Spanish -American War — combined.”   In short, this war is stunningly expensive, and is contributing to enormous budget deficits.  It seems fair to ask whether the money and lives we’ve expended have made our country any safer, or have any prospect of doing so.  It seems reasonable to consider whether our violence is simply driving the recruitment efforts of the fanatics who hate us.  And it also seems worth reconsidering whether the 9/11 threat — that is, a threat of existential proportions that justifies a military response — actually exists.

But the 9/11 fear narrative is still very strong.  In recent weeks public support for war in Afghanistan has dropped, but there’s still a taboo against discussion of the fear mongering at the roots of the war. Confronting it would involve unsettling some cherished beliefs, which would surely result in accusations of lack of patriotism.  Fantasies of courage will not accomplish anything.  Addressing this deep problem will take real courage.