The attacks of September 11 were many things. Among the most important, we can see now that a decade has passed, is that they were a portal into a phantasmal world, in which the United States has wandered ever since.
The great crime itself eerily foreshadowed the trend by fusing the real with the unreal, the actual with the apocryphal. With its use of passenger-laden aircraft to smash into giant buildings filled with office workers, it was designed to create blood-soaked spectacle, to bring movie-type horror to life. The World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon were clearly chosen for their symbolic value. And then, in a chance twist, unanticipated even by the attacks’ planners (one is tempted to say “producers”), the consequences expanded further into the realm of fantasy when not one but both of the towers fell, as if mischievous gods had sided for the moment with the evildoers.
The United States, as if picking up Osama bin Laden’s cue, keyed its response to the apocalyptic symbolism, not the genuine but limited reality of the threat from Al Qaeda. It accepted bin Laden’s brilliantly stage-managed inflation of his own importance. Soon, the foreign policy as well as the domestic politics of the United States were revolving like a pinwheel around Al Qaeda and the global threat it allegedly posed. Al Qaeda was absurdly likened to the Soviet Union in the cold war and Hitler in World War II, and treated accordingly. “Threat inflation” has a long history in US policy, from the “missile gap” of the 1950s to the Vietnam War, but never has it been so extensively indulged.
Now real, immense forces were in play, for the power of the United States was real and immense, and what it did was truly global in reach and consequence. In his address to Congress nine days after the attack, George W. Bush expanded the “war on terror” to states, declaring, “From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.” The policy of “regime change” was born, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were launched in its name. There was more. In a speech a few months later, Bush announced, “America has, and intends to keep, military strengths beyond challenge, thereby making the destabilizing arms races of other eras pointless, and limiting rivalries to trade and other pursuits of peace.” In other words, he claimed nothing less than an American monopoly on the effective use of force in the world. The famous White House policy paper of September 2002, the “National Security Strategy of the United States of America,” touted the American ideals of “freedom, democracy, and free enterprise” as the “single sustainable model for national success.” Politicians and pundits explicitly embraced a global imperial vocation for the United States.
Yet no sooner had America’s global imperial hegemony been proclaimed than it began to disintegrate. The two regime-change wars, designed as warnings to other governments that might consider crossing the will of the United States, quickly turned into the studies in bloody futility that they remain a decade later, with no clear end in sight for either. No sequels were feasible, either militarily or politically. The pseudo-threat had given rise to a pseudo-empire, which was no sooner launched than it began to crumble. The newly proclaimed American empire rose and flopped in the same motion. The price in suffering for those caught up in this performance, whether in Afghanistan and Iraq or elsewhere, was incomparably higher than that in the United States.
In a new form of jujitsu, the United States, prompted but not forced by 9/11, had turned its power against itself. In normal jujitsu, the fighter uses the adversary’s strength to overthrow him. In the new American version of the sport, he uses his strength to overthrow himself. People speak these days of asymmetrical war, meaning combat between unequal powers. Here was the ultimate extreme of asymmetry. The power disparity was so great that the stronger party’s fist, not finding the adversary expected, swung full circle and hit itself in the nose.
Meanwhile, the habit of exaggerating or making up threats somehow persisted and spread. A new readiness to manufacture and credit illusion infected public life, in ways large and small and in areas far removed from the attacks as well as those connected to them. The list of delusions and absurdities that play an active role in political life—from the widespread belief that the current president is foreign-born and a Muslim to the fear that Sharia law is poised to take over American jurisprudence—steadily lengthens.
Many of these delusions play a role in a perverse pattern, apparently harking back to the war in Iraq, that has established itself in policy decisions. It consists of falsely alleging the existence of some problem to which your proposed solution is something you want to do anyway, for some other reason that you prefer not to advertise. The false allegation in the case of Iraq was, of course, that weapons of mass destruction existed in that country. The thing the Bush administration wanted to do anyway was to attack Iraq. The reason it wanted to do so was to make a demonstration of the United States’ readiness to use force in pursuit of its newly claimed global hegemonic ambitions. Stated honestly, these ambitions were unlikely to be popular. Saying you were preventing a nuclear attack on the United States was more appealing.
Now the pattern has cropped up at the center of economic policy, in the debate over the budget deficit. The false allegation here is that the deficit presents an urgent danger to economic growth, for example by threatening a rise in interest rates. (These, in fact, have remained very low as the deficit has risen.) The thing the right-wing groups want to do anyway is cut government spending on programs that benefit ordinary people and the poor. The reasons they want to do it can be debated, but they include undercutting programs, such as Social Security and Medicaid, that are among the foundations for popular support of the Democratic Party.
We can see the pattern again in the matter of voting restrictions now at issue in states around the country. The Republican Party and right-wing groups have been alleging an epidemic of voter fraud, to which they have been responding with a campaign of challenging voters at polls and passing legislation mandating onerous requirements for voting, such as presentation of official identification. The false allegation here is the wave of voting fraud. A study by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University has shown fraud to be negligible to nonexistent. The thing the right-wing groups want to do anyway is restrict voting among Democratically inclined voters, such as poor people and students, who are less likely to meet the new requirements. The reason they want to do it is to get and keep themselves in power.
The provocateur’s strategy of manufacturing a threat in order to respond to it is a familiar one, but it has never played as large a role in American politics as it has since 9/11.
Another price has been exacted, perhaps the highest one, though it is the hardest to measure. While the United States has been exhausting itself trying to find solutions to unreal problems, the real problems facing the country, and world, go unattended. The nation that was absorbed in its misbegotten wars failed to notice the financial crisis that crept up on it and overtook it in 2008. The nation that has been occupied with propping up its misbegotten empire has had no attention or energy to spare for that existential threat to itself and the whole species, global warming. The suspicion grows that our acts of self-destruction since 9/11 have at a more fundamental level been acts of self-distraction—that we have summoned up imaginary demons precisely in order to spare ourselves from facing the all-too-real burdens of our time.