The war in American hearts and minds

About the author
Andrew Stroehlein is communications director at the International Crisis Group (ICG). His website is here

Once you leave a place, it is never the same when you go back. I moved away from the United States fourteen years ago, and every time I return, I notice more and more changes in the country of my birth. Nothing peculiar in that, of course. I certainly never expected the United States to remain sealed in a pickle-jar marked "1992".

But the process has accelerated since 11 September 2001. Talking with some Americans these days, I am not really sure how much they recognise the scale of the sweeping transformation the country has been through over the past five years. Maybe it is just easier to see it when you don't live there and only visit every year or so. Daily incremental change is hard to spot, but small differences add up over time and become an unambiguous pattern.

My recurrent initial impression when returning to the US for a visit in the last five years is that the place has gone insane while I wasn't looking. It is a bit like visiting an old relative you haven't seen for a long time. You start off feeling she may be losing her faculties. Then you think she may in fact have been senile for longer than you realise. Finally, you begin to wonder if you ever really knew her in the first place.

After a few days of listening to Americans, however, I start to understand the madness and where it comes from. I have heard people talk like this and react like this before. In war zones.

Andrew Stroehlein is media director at the International Crisis Group. The views expressed in this article are his own.

A conflict mentality

I remember back in the mid-1990s talking to a journalist friend from Belgrade, who told me of his attempts after returning from a reporting trip to Bosnia to explain to his father the horrific sights he had witnessed. His father would not believe the accounts of Serb atrocities, preferring instead to stick with the Serb-nationalist version of events: Serbs were victims, never perpetrators. He even ignored it when his own son told him, in effect: "I saw this". He had dug in psychologically, and he would not come out.

That is a conflict mentality at work.

I encountered a related aspect of this psychology in Kosovo, where I met numerous quite well-educated and rational people who would suddenly lose all sense of reason when the conflict in the territory became the topic of conversation. I recall most clearly an experienced Kosovo Albanian journalist a couple years after the 1999 crisis denying that - as international investigators were alleging - a former insurgent-turned-politician had committed war crimes in 1998-99. In fact, he said (without any sense of how absurd it sounded), it was absolutely impossible that any Kosovo Albanian had committed any crime during that period whatsoever. "All two million Kosovo Albanians are completely innocent?" I asked. "All two million of us", he confirmed.

That, again, is a conflict mentality at work.

This is what wars do: they push people into mental corners, where us-and-them thinking works in two pernicious ways: it makes people unwilling to accept other points of view, and utterly blinkers them to facts that do not fit the prevailing group-think. The result is that the very ability to reason gets squeezed, sometimes until it disappears entirely.

This process, my return visits to the US have convinced me, is what has happened in the US after 9/11.

The conflict mentality that has taken hold of disturbingly a high proportion of the American public has had a cascading effect on US politics, US foreign policy and thus the rest of the world. The war they believe they are engaged in is far larger in their collective imagination than the very real war in Iraq, where Americans are actually dying, and which the overwhelming majority of people back home can treat as a distant affair requiring no sacrifice on their part.

This war is the big one - the "war on terror" as it was quickly labelled in 9/11's aftermath. It is for many Americans an existential war which people feel threatens every individual American personally. It is a global conflict, of which Iraq is either (depending on one's political preferences) just one part or a distracting sideshow.

From a purely rational and detached perspective, such a sentiment sounds completely misplaced, if not downright loopy: the day-to-day life of most Americans does not seem to have changed much at all since 9/11, not a single American has been killed by terrorist action in the US since 9/11, and there are none of the visible privations associated with a population face-to-face with war. Yet, that is the prevailing mindset, and I hear Americans talking like the Serb father and the Kosovo Albanian journalist with startling frequency.

Perhaps this belief in an existential war stems in part from the fact that relatively few Americans alive today - Vietnam, and now Afghanistan and Iraq notwithstanding - have lived through a "real" war. But the major reason is the unprecedented national trauma of 9/11 itself, and this is something not very well understood outside the US - at least not in Europe, including Britain, my adopted home. Immediately following 9/11, the entire world had enormous sympathy for America's loss ("we are all Americans", said the newspaper headlines); but after five years, the world has moved on. America hasn't.

Real trauma, imagined war

From the inside, much more of it makes sense. After all, 2,764 people were murdered in an instant on live television before a national audience of millions. Why would anyone have ever expected Americans to keep hold of their senses?

It is similar to what is seen in other conflicts. If you watch members of your family butchered in front of your eyes - as happens with horrifying frequency in Darfur and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, two crises of our age with truly apocalyptic proportions - then your loss of rationality is only natural. Personal and social anchors are cut loose, expectations of the future are ripped apart, and the world ceases to make any sense whatsoever. The result is an obsession with your own (individual or collective) survival.

Watching thousands of your people vaporised before you in the space of a few minutes has a comparable effect. True, you are not in the exact location where the atrocity takes place, and the victims are not your immediate family but part of your wider tribe. And in an intensely mediatised society, the harrowingly modern details (from people jumping from the highest floors of the towers to their deaths, to final mobile-phone conversations with loved ones) accentuated the intimacy of the horror. Relentlessly recycling the moment in the media drives it even deeper into Americans' consciousness.

The resulting trauma may not be as instantly comprehensible to the outside world as that caused by a horrific personal tragedy, but it has some similar characteristics. Few Americans were direct victims of 9/11, and a significant portion of the victims were not American citizens, but all Americans felt like victims. As survivors, their thoughts turned naturally towards survival, both on the national (we are under attack) and the personal (it could be me next) level.

A detached observer might say that if the nation is an "imagined community", then 9/11 sparked an "imagined war of national survival", a unifying myth in a time of shared trauma on an unprecedented scale. It may seem an over-reaction to some, but that is how deeply Americans were hit by events five years ago. Terrorism sets out to terrorise people, after all, and the 9/11 attacks certainly managed that.

A united state of fear

The depth of this reaction helps explain the persistence and pervasiveness of the current of fear in Americans' collective psychology after 9/11. Many commentators - for example, Bob Herbert in the New York Times ("America the Fearful", 15 May 2006) - emphasise how the George W Bush administration is stoking public fear to accomplish its agenda. No doubt there is some truth in this argument, but the real problem goes much deeper and is far more unsettling.

The political manipulation of fear certainly exists, but it becomes possible only because it is rooted in the original experience. People did not need Bush or Dick Cheney to remind them "we are at war" to feel that sentiment. Regular speeches about "the war on terror" on every political level also reflect (as well as attempt to give definition and shape to) what people already think. Nobody had to be convinced to be afraid; they were afraid already. This is evident in five areas of American public life.

First, the news media provides a fearful nation with a constant, addictive intravenous drip of new things to be scared of. Today, it may be only a dizzy passenger who forgot to take her medicine - but it could have been a recurrence of the "big one". There was a new arrest of suspects over there yesterday - that was almost really close to maybe being "even bigger than 9/11". While you're waiting for the next calamity, here's a graphic animation showing how a "dirty bomb" would work. Not scared yet? Well, there's more coming up after these commercial messages, so stay tuned.

Second, the entertainment industry has been busy just trying to keep up with new ways to match and milk people's fears. Did you know that people aren't even vaccinated against smallpox anymore? Well, here's a three-part docudrama about it, showing how a vial of virus spread on a terrorist's marmalade in the morning and then a few coughs on people in the rush-hour trains can leave an entire city dead by lunchtime. It was on TV last night, and today it's the buzz at the office. We need to do something drastic, or surely we're all going to die.

Near the lowest point of the "frightentertainment" industry is surely 24. The adventures of Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) and all the other high-octane heroes at the "Counter Terrorist Unit" have been a huge hit for the Fox network show for five seasons running.

Now Fox didn't manufacture its audience. People are tuning in because 24's creators are tapping a seam of public anxiety, speaking to the fears viewers already have and the prejudices they currently hold. Agent Bauer's willingness to use torture and cold-blooded murder in pursuit of his aim is not questioned by a scared viewing public looking for security by any means.

Third, the publishing industry's lead book-titles seem tailor-made to serve Americans' conflict mentality: America Against the World, The Next Attack, The Age of Sacred Terror, The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global, Future Jihad: Terrorist Strategies Against America, The West's Last Chance: Will We Win the Clash of Civilizations?, Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire and all the innumerable fresh titles along the lines of [Some Topic] and the Decline/Collapse/Death/End of America. Some might look at the litany and say book marketers are conjuring up fear. Perhaps. But it seems more likely that, as with Fox executives, they simply know how to pitch products in the existing market of widespread public anxiety. For the panicked, perplexed and paranoid, apocalypse sells.

Fourth, a rich woodland of blogs has also grown since 9/11 purporting to follow the "war on terror" but ending up serving as a dark forest of mutually-reinforcing doom. One blogger tells his readers about something hair-raising he found and includes a link so they can go and frighten themselves; other bloggers follow up by trying to find something even more chilling; then, everybody argues about which factoid is creepier and why one political party is clearly to blame, is unpatriotic and risks bringing the country to its decline/collapse/death/end. A phenomenon that grew as a sharp, provocative, illuminating "alternative" to the "mainstream media" ends by recycling its worst (group-think) tendencies.

Fifth, and most tellingly, members of the public themselves constantly reinforce each others' fears in so many small ways every day - even when the effort is intended to be uplifting and patriotic. The bumper stickers with images of the Twin Towers remind everyone that "we will never forget"; the proliferation of caps, t-shirts and car magnets with New York police - and fire-department logos declare "remember 9-11"; and the still ubiquitous stars-and-stripes flags - the inescapable verbal and visual messages convey a single message: we are under attack, we are at war, and we must display the symbol of our unity.

The perception of threat

An additional element in American attitudes after 9/11 must be added to domestic politics and popular attitudes: the public language of terrorism. Despite the clearly limited capacity of al-Qaida and its affiliates, many Americans really believe the threat their country faces is equal to that posed by Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union I hear comparisons to the second world war and the cold war from ordinary Americans all the time. The rhetoric that describes this as a war of great ideologies, of freedom vs tyranny or "Islamofascism", a war "to protect our way of life" - is all-pervading.

Many people see the next terrorist attack on US soil as imminent. A recent CBS News poll shows that a majority of Americans think a terrorist attack in the US is likely in the next few months (the figure was 53% in July 2006, rising to 64% in August after the high-profile terror arrests in London).

An individual's assessment of his or her own risk is rarely fully rational, of course, but these days people are ignoring facts and reason on the national level as well as in the personal sphere. In the aftermath of 9/11, it was no surprise that 78% of Americans felt another attack was looming; but to see over half the country feeling that way five years on reveals much the depth of the national trauma.

The reality is (as John Mueller writes in his essay, "A False Sense of Insecurity"): "Even with the September 11 attacks included in the count, the number of Americans killed by international terrorism since the late 1960s (which is when the State Department began counting) is about the same as the number of Americans killed over the same period by lightning, accident-causing deer, or severe allergic reaction to peanuts."

Moreover, even if al-Qaida scores another atrocity on US soil tomorrow, it has not invaded any countries, not occupied any land, doesn't have thousands of tanks, and does not have a nuclear arsenal capable of wiping out the planet - as past enemies either did or could realistically threaten to do. Yet it is treated as if it had all of these things and more. This misconception has enormous consequences, as a brilliant article by James Fallows in the Atlantic Monthly makes clear ("Declaring Victory", September 2006).

Fallows surveys dozens of security and terrorism experts to reach the assessment that al-Qaida is now mostly neutralised and sidelined, but that America's greatest danger remains the national feeling of vulnerability and the corresponding public pressure on politicians to provide security at any cost. This leads to disproportionate reactions and inappropriate spending priorities, both at home and abroad.

The politics of fear

The post-9/11 conflict mentality has had six disturbing consequences in the United States.

The first is the subduing of domestic dissent over foreign policy; for although polls show majority opposition to the Iraq war, organised protest is marginal. US foreign policy has hardly been squeaky clean in the past, but even its greatest critics would admit it is very rare for the American public to silently sanction the deployment of hundreds of thousands of its young men and women to invade a country that did not attack first - and to continue that support despite heavy casualties, scandalous abuses and the extended deployments of its soldiers, which have put enormous stress on countless families.

Second, the widespread belief in an existential threat helps explain the sweeping changes in attitudes to security in everyday civic life - from armed soldiers patrolling public places like Grand Central Station in New York City and additional security checks on transport (some perhaps sensible, others bizarre: does my 3-year-old really need to take off her shoes for our fellow airline passengers to feel safe?). These measures are quite unsettling to those who recall a country that once rejoiced in extensive freedom of movement. Also disturbing is the massive expansion of federal funding on security and defence - highly unusual for the country that is probably the most averse to big government in the developed world.

The third consequence is the tearing down of so many fundamental pillars of human and civil rights in just a few short years: wiretaps without warrants, the state's comprehensive collection of phone records, unlawful arrests, the erosion of habeas corpus, extraordinary rendition, Guantánamo. Again, all this occurred with very little outcry among the general public. A few elite commentators kept reminding the country of the 18th-century warning (wrongly attributed to Benjamin Franklin), "those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither" - but few of the frightened seemed to be listening.

Fourth, and most shockingly of all, torture has made a comeback in America, and its use has been defended openly and persistently both in the media and among the wider population. When torture became a matter of public debate in the US soon after 9/11, it was the surest sign imaginable that something had really slipped in the American mind. That is also when it started to hit me just how traumatised Americans were, how the conflict mentality had warped their basic moral compass. Call me naïve or nostalgic, but the very idea of even discussing the use of torture is something I never expected to see in the country of my birth.

The fifth consequence is in language. The prevailing public sense of fear and existential foreboding has been essential to the acceptance of the ludicrous term "war on terror" (an echo of the equally implausible, and unendable, "war on drugs"). Yet the slogan has caught on fantastically well in America precisely because people believe they are at war, and they are terrified.

Sixth, the persistence of the conflict mentality is reflected in the recent rise in dogmatic forms of religiosity in the US. Fundamentalist Christians are more assertive these days, and after witnessing atrocities that can be plausibly presented as "Biblical", the wider population too seems more willing to listen to their apocalyptic ideas, and to accept irrational explanations as truth.

All these radical changes have been accomplished by a relatively passive public and in ways that are simply unimaginable outside of wartime, when people consider virtually any action justifiable in a fight for survival. The widespread belief in an existential war affects political decision-making on everything - what politicians must do, what they must be seen to do, and what they can get away with - and that, in turn, affects the rest of the world.

9/11 made Americans believe they are fighting for their survival, and while a rational person viewing it from the outside can call that attitude nonsensical, it is nothing unusual in conflict situations. Rational policy-making in Washington on some key issues may indeed have to wait until the public shakes its existential fear.

Living with it

The picture portrayed here may appear gloomy, and indeed it should be balanced by more hopeful signs, including the fact that public concern with restrictions on civil liberties (46%) is greater than that over the government's failure to enact anti-terror laws (39%).

But the most hopeful signals are in popular culture - most strikingly, the liberating laughter of Jon Stewart's Daily Show (which actually predates 9/11 by a couple years but which, along with its spin-off, The Colbert Report has become a sanctuary for those seeking relief from all-doom-all-the-time TV news in post-9/11 America).

This, and other comedic responses to post-9/11 America (for example, the Muppet-based terror alert indicator of blogger Alan Penner, a hilarious comment on the Department of Homeland Security's own "Advisory System"), are echoed in the film industry by satirical features such as the 2004 hit Team America: World Police, an important social ice-breaker for over-terrorised Americans. The new release Snakes on a Plane, with all its grassroots-driven web hype, signals, if not exactly a return to normality, then at least a rebirth of the comically absurd airplane disaster movie.

So, perhaps people are not quite as afraid today as they were five years ago. I ponder this as I wait at the departure gate at Newark Airport - renamed Liberty Airport after 9/11, another reminder - and watch the latest scare news on TV. "Target: USA" reads the banner headline as the network runs through a series of reports on new arrests in London, subsequent new security restrictions for air travellers, the possibilities of a nuclear strike on American soil, the chances of a biological attack, and the porosity of the Canadian border. Apparently, there are millions of registered recreational boats on the Great Lakes, and "according to experts" any one of them could be used to smuggle weapons or terrorists (or both) into the US.

Then they show a GoogleEarth-assisted look at potential targets in the Chicago area. Rail lines in blue, major highways in yellow, important landmarks and monuments as green circles, key commercial buildings as yellow circles, significant electricity infrastructure in red ... pretty soon the map of greater Chicago is just a pile of cluttered graphics, impossible to make out anything clearly. There are just too many targets; too many things to be afraid of.

Only three or four people out of the twenty-five or so in the departure area are actually following the newscast, however. Everyone has grown used to this typical daily news fare, and the fact that people are in the airport waiting to board a flight doesn't exactly suggest people are scared to go about their business.

The CBS News poll revealed that 17% of Americans think terrorism is the number-one problem facing the country (second only to Iraq at 28%). But these figures emerged in the context of the fresh terror-related arrests in the alleged London plot. In July, only 7% had put terrorism at the top of their list - fourth behind Iraq, economy/jobs, and the price of petrol. The monthly change is precisely the point, however. People may have become somewhat sensitised to the daily stream of scare stories, and others may now able to laugh through some news reports, but with every new twist in the "war on terror", the fear returns and reorders the priorities. People can downplay their feeling of vulnerability only until the next incident or anniversary. Then it all comes rushing back.

And even if people are getting used to believing they are living in wartime, this offers no great comfort, because when such a prevailing attitude exists for too long, a generation emerges that knows nothing else and can imagine nothing better. Surely Americans are not as deeply consumed by a conflict mentality as the young Afghans I spoke with in Kabul in 2002 who wanted their country to declare another war, this time on Pakistan. "But you've just been through decades of civil war, and your country is in ruins: don't you want peace?", I asked. "What is peace?" one of the group of 20-somethings replied.

America has only lived with its conflict mentality for five years, after all, not a generation, so that leaves some room for optimism, some possibility people will snap out of it and re-engage with the realities of their own country's experience and its real predicament. But on this melancholy fifth anniversary, America's dark mood does not appear to be dissipating just yet.