In September 2006, I wrote an article that sought to gauge the atmosphere in the United States five years after 9/11 (“The war in American hearts and minds”, 10 September 2006). At the time, I was struck by the way that a dark and destructive conflict mentality - something I had become accustomed to in places like Serbia and Kosovo during fourteen years’ away from the country of my birth - seemed to have become entrenched in American society.
“This is what wars do”, I wrote then. “(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.”
Five years on, it is clear that things have changed enormously in the second half of the post-9/11 decade. Life may not exactly be back to the way it was on 10 September 2001, but the all-consuming public dread of the next terrorist attack and the collective mindset of tribal defence, as well as the hugely counterproductive policy-making that went with that, have mostly dissipated. Put simply, the country has moved on.
An exhaustion with fear
Perhaps people just stopped being afraid when none of the wolves everyone was constantly crying about ever showed up. After thousands of uneventful trips to the supermarket, ten thousand ho-hum elevator rides up to the office, and a million other mundane events which contained no drama, the accumulated dullness of everyday existence gradually convinced people that their lives were not really on high alert after all. Despite what the TV news kept trying to tell them, their own experience confirmed that Hollywood-blockbuster-style cataclysms of international terror are actually extremely rare.
Of course, there are still sections of the US media trying to boost ratings by tapping war-on-terror anxieties. However, with each passing day that boat-loads of jihadis fail to speed across the Great Lakes and with every week in which sharia law is not installed in rural Iowa, the on-screen Cassandras reveal themselves to be less prophetic than lunatic to more and more viewers. True, not every fear-mongering TV presenter and radio talk-show host is gone, but the fact that scare-master-in-chief Glenn Beck had his show cancelled due to poor ratings earlier this year speaks volumes about how society has shed its earlier vulnerabilities.
The entertainment side of the media has also demonstrated the same dynamic. After 192 episodes of promoting torture and prejudice, 24 finally ran out of time and mercifully went off air in 2010. Fear and panic just don’t sell like they used to.
Much more importantly, the country’s politics has been responding to this social development. Again, some voices continue to vent outrageous claims about alleged international dangers, but convincing people these are existential threats to the country is now far more difficult than before. Fatigue with the wars of the last ten years is today’s established norm.
People well know that Iraq, a war of choice not necessity, killed far more Americans than Osama bin Laden ever did. What’s more, a fair-sized chunk of the public, from traditional Democrats to libertarians in the Tea Party, is now even willing to consider significantly rolling back the past decade’s budget-busting gluttony of defence and security spending.
All this is a long way away from a few years ago, when feelings of insecurity prevailed, and even mentioning possible cuts would seem treasonous amid the general atmosphere of “no defence spending left behind”.
Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign marked the clearest turning-point in America’s move out of its crippling conflict mentality - not because it created the new mood but because it found success by recognising that mood and playing so openly on its associated themes. The exhaustion with fear in American society had become so pervasive that the desire for hope and change could be articulated in almost absurdly simple one-word slogans.
Yet even if this longer-term trend within society is positive, there are worries. As the country heads towards the 2012 presidential election, public debate is already more polarised at this stage than usual. Some candidates may try to resuscitate old fears for their political gain. Indeed, war-on-terror-style fear-mongering may still work in some corners of the country in the same way that American politicians have always been able to tap into small yet significant currents of, say, anti-intellectualism or anti-immigrant sentiments. But if it is still disturbing, few would argue that it will be strong enough to be a decisive factor in November 2012.
A different ground
American politics has a carnival-like quality, and there are still many clowns inside the circus tent - but an occasionally dizzying freak-show represents a return to normality of sorts. In any case, it is far better than a traumatised populace susceptible en masse to every radical idea offered in the name of increased security.
Tellingly, the particular post-9/11 narrative of foreboding seems largely absent from the newest and most dynamic element in US politics today, the Tea Party movement. There may be a few “Obama is a Muslim” signs at some rallies - crude attempts to resuscitate the fears and prejudices that could help win votes in the early years after 2001. Those, however, seem far outnumbered by warnings of impending “socialism”.
That oft-used barb is a bit bizarre, but it does reveal that the nostalgic “take back our country” crowd is more interested in refinding some imagined sureties in the black-and-white ideologies of the cold war, than in focusing on the geopolitical complexities of the post-9/11 era, with its seemingly endless conflict in Afghanistan, the chicanery around the decision to invade Iraq, the rise of new powers like China, and the uncertainties of the Arab spring.
It also demonstrates, if in somewhat coded form, the rise of more practical anxieties. Fear still exists in the US, but Americans now generally appear to be afraid of things that might actually happen to them, like unemployment or tax increases. These are more mundane concerns, perhaps, but thankfully so. A society with worries that are grounded in reality is undoubtedly healthier than one steeped in panic and paranoia.
This a welcome turn, even if the problems it puts at the forefront are hard to solve. But in a decade’s perspective, America’s response to 9/11 also exposed how thin the veneer of its confidence - not to mention its commitment to fundamental freedoms - really is. A return to that all-consuming and dangerous conflict mentality, and to a mindset that is so completely counterproductive to sensible and considered policy-making at home and abroad, is only ever one 9/11 away.