Let’s start with the basics. In an era when the U.S. seemed to have no great power rivals on the horizon, its national security state was expanded to monstrous proportions and given the “right” to commit acts ranging from kidnapping to torture, surveillance of its citizenry to assassination, based on the horrific events of a single day and on a single danger: the slaughter of September 11th and the threat of terrorism. In those years, before Donald Trump even began stirring the pot, Americans were already consumed by fears of a danger that, in the United States at least, couldn’t have been more minor. In the process, we essentially terrorized ourselves into a new world.
If you want to worry about real dangers in American life, start with vehicles, not terrorists. If you’re smart, in fact, don’t give another thought to Islamic terrorism and stay off the roads. In 2015, the U.S. saw the largest percentage rise in death-by-vehicle in the last half-century: more than 38,000 people slaughtered and 4.4 million injured. And in the first half of 2016, those figures rose by another 9% with no end to the carnage in sight. Unlike our war on terror (and the seven conflicts that now go with it), no one’s likely to spend trillions of dollars dealing with such deaths, even though they add up to more than 12 times those of 9/11 annually; nor, on a more minor scale, with the deaths of Americans who simply fall out of their beds, are hit by lawnmowers, or are gunned down by toddlers. In most recent years, each of these dangers has equaled or exceeded deaths in the U.S. from Islamic terrorists (or the disturbed individuals who often masquerade as them). And yet, in case you haven’t noticed, no one is investing in a national security state apparatus to prevent them, nor is the country convulsed with worry about killer lawnmowers or armed toddlers, even as fears of being taken out by Islamic terrorists continue to grow (especially among Republicans).
By now, a way of life built and funded on this singular fear has — thank you, Osama bin Laden — transformed our national security state into an unofficial fourth branch of government. Add in one other development: a new media landscape has also been built on such relatively rare moments of terror in our world. In this year of the never-ending Trumpian news cycle, just about the only thing guaranteed to break into it and monopolize our onscreen attention is the sudden slaughter of people by someone claiming allegiance to, or inspiration from, ISIS. You can practically chant the names of the places where this has occurred: San Bernardino, Orlando, Paris, Brussels, Nice — or rather, where this has occurred to people we identify with. (Few are likely to be chanting Kabul, Aden, Baghdad,Iskandariya, or Istanbul, among other places.) Such events, if they happen to the right people, can monopolize screen time for days, if not weeks, at a stretch, creating a sense of danger out of all proportion to the actual threat level in our lives.
Fifteen years after 9/11, this is our American way of life. With Russia and China now being elevated to, or toward, enemy status in Washington, and terror groups still spreading across the Greater Middle East, you can expect the same sorts of demobilizing fears to continue to rise in the years to come. This should be, but generally isn’t, an embarrassment to Americans, which is why I have particular sympathy (or perhaps I mean empathy) for former State Department whistleblower and TomDispatch regular Peter Van Buren’s urge to apologize to his child for the world he’s turning over to her.