Those of us hundreds of miles from ground zero sat glued to our television sets with horror and disbelief as two of the tallest buildings in the world slowly disintegrated in a violence of dust and death.
Since that bright September morning in 2001, none of us have felt the same. Undergoing an unexpected and brutal national rape, we shuddered at our own vulnerability and defenselessness.
In grief, anger, and frustration, we gathered our tattered dignity around us and vowed repeatedly that it would never happen again. Next time, we would be ready, we would defend ourselves, we would regain our sense of power and invulnerability. We set out resolutely on the journey to make our world safe again.
Security was tightened at airports, border crossings, ports, bridges, and nuclear generating stations. Laws were passed to abridge civil liberties to better fight those out to hurt the United States. Action was implemented in Afghanistan to find the terrorist cells and overthrow their political supporters. The long-standing conventions of war prisoner treatment were abrogated in the name of national security. Iraq was invaded in a preemptive strike to limit the likelihood of future attacks on American soil.
Where has the yearning for security led us?
We have become the enemy. In the hazy logic of the Patriot Act or ethnic profiling at airports and borders, and the specious arguments supporting the treatment protocols at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, America has bought into the mindset of terrorism.
When individuals are kidnapped, psychologically or physically abused, threatened with pain, rape, torture, or death, they become terrified shells of their former selves. Often, they start to identify with their captors, their wills bent to the twisted but all-powerful logic of their oppressors. The prisoner becomes the kapo and exhibits more brutality than his superiors. This is the true price of terrorism: the response it elicits from its victims.
Since all of us are direct or indirect victims of 911, we all need to guard against the mindset we have assumed. We must ask ourselves about our priorities. Is improved safety worth the price of voiding our civil rights? Is the defense against terror worth the abdication of our humanitarian and ethical ideals? Shall we descend to the degradation and torture of our enemies in order to defend our “superior” way of life?
The United States has always, no matter how misguided or hated its temporary policies may have periodically been, stood as a beacon of freedom and fairness in a world too often enslaved and unjust. It is this beacon, this ideal, this dream that millions of American soldiers, through multiple wars over more than 200 years, have fought and died for. It is too precious to be obliterated by a suicide bomb or hijacked airplanes flying into buildings. It will flicker and die only when the values it represents no longer exist.
It has been imperiled before: in the sacking of Washington, the internal convulsions of the Civil War, the formalized institution of slavery, the destruction of Native American cultures, the seizure of Panama, the machinations of McCarthyism, the dropping of the atomic bomb. Somehow, lady liberty was able to dust herself off and recapture the inspiration and vision she represents to the world.
Now she faces her biggest challenge yet: surviving intact in a prevailing climate of fear. There have been wars before where too many young men died before their time. This time, the disturbed sleep of the watchful, wary soldier in his bivouac has moved into the bedroom of suburbia. We no longer feel safe, agonizing over the vulnerability of our children and loved ones. We watch the danger alerts turn different colors and know that sometime, somewhere, another strike will come.
The long heritage of openness, personal liberties, restraint, innocence until guilt is proven beyond a shadow of a doubt, and the willingness to defend those rights to the death, has dissolved into the murk of security above freedom, life above ideals, and apathy above involvement. We invade each other’s privacy as a mechanism of defense. We abuse and humiliate our prisoners in the name of preventing their future abuse and humiliation of us. We expand our “no fly” lists to close that traditionally-open golden door. We shut down our borders lest a terrorist lurks among the tired, poor masses.
A post-911-world will never be as innocent as before, no more than the permanent changes wrought by the assassination of President Kennedy or the bombing of Pearl Harbor could be avoided. Reaction to tragic, horrifying events is inevitable, both personally and politically. It is when that reaction becomes the basis for major decisions and colors how laws are interpreted, ethics are enforced, and relationships are developed that we must step back and look at our deep-rooted principles and identify where they have become warped and withered.
It is when we look at the world through the eyes of those who hate and threaten us that we see the true power of terrorism: not to destroy us but to assimilate us. That is when the terrorists will know that they have truly won.
Virginia Bola is a licensed clinical psychologist with deep interests in Social Psychology and politics. She has performed therapeutic services for more than 20 years and has studied the effects of cultural forces and employment on the individual. The author of an interactive workbook, The Wolf at the Door: An Unemployment Survival Manual, and a monthly ezine, The Worker’s Edge, she can be reached at http://www.virginiabola.com