In the 1990s, Americans grew used to winning. The Soviet Union had collapsed, China wanted to join the US-led order, the US could pick and choose its wars, its economy boomed. The great crisis of the republic stemmed from Bill Clinton’s sex drive.
September 11, 2001 changed all that. A “dot.com boom” was replaced by a “war on terror”. What had been a discrete if perpetual problem – angry young men killing powerful older ones – now took on the contours of a global struggle. Terrorists were everywhere and who knew quite what capacity they had to harm us?
This war, unlike the interventions of the 1990s, had fronts, most obviously in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also in the American psyche. 9/11 created a home front where every citizen could play their part in watching for, and exaggerating thereby, the looming threat; the internet sold emergency parachutes for high-rise office workers; neighbour snitched on neighbour.
Panic and fear began to inform political discourse and, as social media grew in reach if not in wisdom, exaggeration for the purpose of influence increased. The war on terrorism, on carbon dioxide, on loose credit, on COVID-19 – all morphed into existential struggles demanding political and cultural obedience. To paraphrase George W. Bush, “You are with us or you are with the enemy.”
Zero tolerance, zero emissions, COVID zero – as targets of public policy, these all had their origin at Ground Zero. It was in that hellish landscape that politicians and bureaucrats, of left and right, felt the full force of their failure. Half-measures to realise safety – exposed on September 11 – were replaced by a form of absolutism and an obsession with root causes.
Common to all, because of 9/11, was the designation of the threat as systemic. The requirement for government action increased. Climate change and social justice – great causes of what are becoming a Third Great Awakening – were especially, though not uniquely, subject to this panic syndrome. 9/11 catalysed them.
In top-down initiatives from wars to climate treaties, from diversity training to speech codes, the threat was invariably presented as being at fever pitch and rooted in deep patterns of oppression, from Saddam’s Iraq to the university campus – locations which, it turned out, were mostly free of the iniquities levelled at them.
What we know now, of course, is that the 9/11 attacks were a flash in the pan. But the enormous expansion in the apparatus of the security state and its accompanying psychology of fear begun by them was not.