Brian Finney

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    Brian Finney © 2011 Brian Finney 300terrorized


    • The Legacy of Terror: Responses to 9/11 by the Public, the Media,
      and the Entertainment Industry
    • Fear and America’s Cult of Revenge
    • The New Authoritarianism and the Militarization of Civilian Life
    • Responses to Fear: the Rejection of Reason and Science in Favor of Religious Belief
      and Ideology
    • The Cult of Secrecy and the Surveillance Society
    • From Trauma and the Demand for Revenge to the Acceptance of Torture
    • The Economic Aims and Outcome of the War on Terror
    • Conclusion
    • Notes


I would like to thank Barry Sanders and Leo Braudy, two friends and colleagues who read through early outlines and drafts of this book and helped me to focus on its core concern – American culture and society.

I would also like to thank California State University, Long Beach, and especially Gerry Riposa, Dean, Mark Wiley, Associate Dean, College of Liberal Arts, and Eileen Klink, Chair, Department of English, for the encouragement and support they offered for this unconventional project.

Finally I want to thank Jacky Lavin, my wife, for urging me to see this book through, knowing that it would seclude me for innumerable hours from her and all social contact. She discussed issues raised in the book throughout the time I was planning, researching, and writing it, and kept alive my belief in it.


What made a professor of literature write a book like this? Having lived through the extraordinary period of American history following 9/11, I felt that nothing I could write confined to my own area of expertise could fully convey the sea change that has swept through American culture and society during that period and that has dramatically changed my life and perceptions, as it has every American’s. As an insider and an outsider I felt that I could offer readers a unique view of what had transpired during the Bush era. I worked at London University until the age of 52 when I immigrated to Southern California. I have now lived in the United States for 24 years and have been a naturalized citizen for 17 years. So I cannot help seeing events here both as an American and as a previous Londoner who lived through years of the IRA bombing campaign. Like New Yorkers since 9/11, I had experienced what it was like to live with the ever-present chance of random death or injury waiting to overtake you. Inevitably that led to my grudging acknowledgement of the escalating violence that has become a feature of our modern life. After all I am just old enough to remember the Blitz during World War Two, of being woken in the middle of the night by sirens and carried to a makeshift shelter in the garden, of hearing the German V2 rocket engines cut out and counting the number of seconds before the explosion followed. By comparison life in the United States seemed so safe, until the horrors of 9/11 exposed the false nature of the sense of security we all had felt. Yet my experience in London had sufficiently inured me to leave me bewildered by what I perceived to be the over-reaction of the Bush administration and by the support it received from a majority of Americans. In the U.S. we live with some 440,000 deaths annually from smoking-related causes and 45,000 deaths from auto accidents. Yet the deaths of nearly 3,000 individuals on 9/11 led Americans to fear an unknown threat of much smaller dimensions.

I wanted to uncover the new mindset of Americans in the era of the war on terror. How had fear of an unknown threat to our way of life changed our collective psyche or psyches? There is no doubt that the country underwent a dramatic change. But what was its nature? And how permanent is it likely to be? I shared the experience of those years. And yet I simultaneously remained an observer, just like someone who goes to the movies, who both identifies with the characters on screen and still judges their performance. This is what my chosen profession has taught me to do – allow myself to become totally absorbed in a work of literature while observing and analyzing the way it worked. But how does literature qualify me to make use of the numerous disciplines I have had to employ to offer a comprehensive (though far from exhaustive) picture of post-9/11 American society? To the extent that I have always treated literary texts as opportunities to develop critical thinking and to discuss wider issues of contemporary significance, my life as a professor of literature has helped. But this book is not that of a specialist in a particular academic field. It is an ambitious attempt to step outside traditional boundaries and attempt to assess the extent to which American culture and society have been altered since 9/11.

So this book is not the product of primary research. It takes a Renaissance approach to a bewildering variety of existing branches of knowledge – from political economy, statistics and history to business, journalism and media studies – to look for an macro interpretation of widely divergent events and opinions. This is why the book is structured on thematic, rather than chronological grounds. Most theme-based chapters start off by reminding the reader of what new practices and ways of thinking were being instituted by the Bush administration, and then proceed to look at ways in which the rest of society showed similar tendencies, whether it was following the pattern established by the government or exerting pressure on the government to conform to the needs of the people. Because the book offers an interpretation of existing evidence I have been careful to document the sources for my assertions.. What is original is the argument and interpretation I have constructed from an existing body of knowledge. While I don’t conceal my own liberal leanings, I try to avoid polemic. I offer the reader the recorded facts before giving them my own inflexion. So this book is intended to be of interest to readers of all political and ideological leanings.

How is it possible to offer a picture of changes in the American psyche? Even the assumption that there is just one psyche is clearly misleading. One of the themes running through the book is that the war on terror led to a widening set of divisions among Americans. Obviously American culture can only be understood as American cultures. So it is hard to attempt to talk about unitary effects of the war on terror. Clearly one can show that 9/11 produced in most Americans a new level of fearfulness about a future that had traditionally promised a better life for each generation (however illusive that might have proved). But the ways in which this fear played itself out - trauma, withdrawal, revenge – varied among different groupings of Americans. I use popular television shows and movies to try to uncover different aspects of the American unconscious. Another way of taking the temperature of the country is through the findings of opinion polls, and I make considerable use of them. They are after all the best means we have to gauge the public pulse. But polls are notoriously self-fulfilling, depending on how the question is posed, and I try to use them with some caution. The same applies to my use of statistics. They can easily be (and have constantly been) manipulated. But they too are among the best ways we have for estimating major trends. Similarly there is a natural temptation when writing about a defined period of American history to treat features in it as unique or totally different. Many of the changes brought about by the war on terror were not complete innovations, but rather the dramatic escalation of trends that had their origins well before 9/11. For instance the militarization of American society has its roots in the beginning of the Cold War. But the rapid increase in its spread to new areas of the culture is a distinctive feature of post-9/11 America. So mostly I am attempting to identify ways in which existing attitudes and policies have been accelerated to assume new, sometimes startling significance and influence.

Seen from the short distance of two years and a half after President Obama was elected president, American culture has both moved away from some of the excesses of the Bush years (an acceptance of torture, secret surveillance, and a disregard for scientific findings), and yet retained a disturbing number of features that accompanied the war on terror, like the ongoing war in Afghanistan, the outsourcing of official functions to private contractors, the nightmare of airport security, and the like. The underlying fear generating many of the changes that accompanied the war on terror continues to simmer just below the surface of our society, erupting in tea parties, angry demonstrations, extremist political talk shows, and electoral anger such as that erupting in the mid-term election of 2010. A question haunts us today. Will we recover our historic sense of national optimism in a better future? Or will we lose our shared sense of national identity through fear that the future only promises decline.


“In war, truth is the first casualty” (Aeschylus)

This book argues that America has been profoundly changed by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the Bush government’s responses to them. Some of the changes appear to be long lasting, while others were more temporary. But even changes that eventually evaporate leave marks behind, like scars from old wounds. The consequences of Bush’s war on terror on the domestic and international political scenes have been well documented. Whether the blowback from Bush’s endless war has finally demonstrated the limits of American imperial power remains an open question. What this book concentrates on are the effects of the war on terror on American culture and society. It is clear that after 9/11 the country suffered from an acute trauma that profoundly affected every aspect of American life in the succeeding years. Rather than taking a chronological approach I will focus on different kinds of effects – from those impacting civil liberties and democratic practices to those concerned with systems of ideology and belief, and those - such as the acceptance of the practice of torture – arising from a deeply implanted fear of unspecified danger. In most cases I will briefly refer to the relevant policies and practices introduced by the Bush administration before proceeding to the central concern of the book – the effects these have had on American culture and society. In particular I will use the media, especially films and television, as well as fiction, sports, video games, and the like, as expressions of the American unconscious. The question remains: to what extent has the American psyche been damaged or profoundly affected by the war on terror that was waged from late September 2001 to the end of the Bush presidency? This book assumes that what has happened since 9/11 is of monumental proportions while remaining largely invisible, particularly to the majority of Americans who remain mostly unconscious of the extent to which fear has taken possession of their collective imagination.

For a moment I want to focus on a political overview of the events immediately following 9/11, leading to Bush’s declaration of the War on Terror and the opening of hostilities in Afghanistan. Now that the Bush presidency is over it is easier to see the far-reaching effects of the war on terror. But to understand these one needs to revert to the government’s immediate responses to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Should this first attack by foreigners on American soil since the Second World War be taken as the true marker of the start of a new and more terrible century, a major turning point in our history? This is what the government chose to do when nine days later President Bush announced the start of a “war on terror,” a war that “will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated” - by definition an impossible goal. In the same speech to Congress Bush claimed that on September 11 “night fell on a different world, a world where freedom itself was under attack.”[1] Similarly the media, with its insatiable demand for the sensational, treated 9/11 as the inception of a completely new and more terrible era of American history. According to the New York Times, September 11 was “one of those moments in which history splits, and we define the world as ‘before’ and ‘after’.” It concluded, “everything has changed.”[2] An editorial in the Washington Post took the same line: “This attack on our country is worse than Pearl Harbor.”[3] In the same vein on CNN Aaron Brown declared, “all of our lives have been changed today.”[4]

While it is indisputable that 9/11 has become a major landmark in American history, the claim that it marked a transformational moment after which everything had utterly changed continues to be contested. Clearly the unprecedented act of flying planes filled with passengers into occupied buildings horrified the world. As Don DeLillo wrote at the time, “It is our lives and minds that are occupied now. Our world, parts of our world, have crumbled into theirs . . . We are all breathing the fumes of lower Manhattan, where traces of the dead are everywhere.”[5] But what was most unique about this event was that it was directed against and not instigated by America. To cast the country in the role of Adam by suggesting that it lost its innocence and was cast out of paradise on 9/11 is to ignore the extent to which the U.S. had perpetrated its own acts of terrorism (at least seen from the perspective of the recipient) over the previous century. September 11 is also the date in 1973 when the CIA supported General Augusto Pinochet in overthrowing the democratically elected government of Chile, inaugurating a reign of terror that killed some 35,000 Chileans in the first few weeks. Similarly the use of the term “Ground Zero” to refer to the ruins of the World Trade Center evokes the epicenter of the first explosion of an atomic bomb by the United States in New Mexico in 1945, and was subsequently used to refer to Nagasaki and Hiroshima (where over 200,000 inhabitants were killed). The myth of American innocence requires historical amnesia to sustain it, something for which the media was partly responsible with its wide scale abandonment or diminishment of international news coverage and historical / documentary programs after the end of the Cold War.

Since President Bush played a leading role in helping to form Americans’ reactions to 9/11, it is revealing to look at the way he represented the attacks and the war on terror he proposed to wage in consequence. In the nine days between 9/11 and his address to Congress on September 20, 2001, a period when everyone was most traumatized and terrified, one can see the emergence of a fully developed rationale for all that followed. Invoking the Scriptures from the first day of the attacks and drawing on Christian fundamentalist rhetoric, Bush denounced the instigators as “evil-doers,” “evil folks,”[6] “people who have no country, no ideology.”[7] By contrast, America represents “the brightest beacon of freedom”[8] that will “rid the world of evil.”[9] In effect Bush perversely de-historicized the terrorist attacks, and ignored the terrorists’ history of resistance to the presence of American troops in the Muslim holy land (of Saudi Arabia), to American support of Israel at the Palestinians’ expense, and to past American military interventions in the Middle East. In effect he claimed for America the status of an innocent victim of unprovoked aggression. His definition of “terrorist” is also highly selective: it does not embrace the IRA or the Tamil Tigers, or even Muslim fundamentalists in Saudi Arabia. Invoking a Manichean world of pure good and evil also helped cast the Islamic militants in his sights as the adversaries of popular American legend. They were the savages whom the American mythic hero would “hunt down and punish”[10] (where Bush occupies the role of pioneer-cum-sheriff). In designating them “terrorist aliens” Bush’s Attorney General, John Ashcroft, drew on another popular genre, movies featuring alien invaders from outer space, such as The X-Files, to deprive them of the status of humans.[11] In casting them as aliens, “enemies of freedom,”[12] Bush turned them into the other that helped define the identity of the nation as one of “freedom loving people.”[13]

Two days after the attacks Bush was referring to the attacks as “despicable acts of war,”[14] a term conventionally employed for acts of armed aggression between states, not between a state (that was the world’s only superpower) and a small band of terrorists. His immediate response on the day of the attacks was to pledge that America and its allies would “stand together to win the war against terrorism.”[15] By declaring war against a method of fighting, Bush avoided addressing the root causes of the attacks on 9/11. Gradually the scope of this war was enlarged, first to “a series of decisive actions against terrorist organizations and those who harbor and support them,”[16] finally to a war that “will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.”[17] This absurdly inflated goal was greeted by applause across the aisles by members of Congress to whom it was addressed on September 20, 2001. In effect Bush had managed to frame America’s response to the attacks of 9/11 as one of massive military retaliation against an invisible and miniscule enemy. At the time al Qaeda (meaning “the base”) was a loose confederation of guerillas, which was reputed to have no more than 200 members. Yet members of both political parties, the press, and the public, all accepted the terms of the debate with hardly a voice heard raised in protest. Was this because Bush was offering a shocked nation by way of war a means of ridding its psyche of the fear that now haunted it? Fear is, after all, more powerful than rational thought.

In the same address to Congress Bush went on to link the beliefs of al Qaeda with the “murderous ideologies of the 20th century.” Specifically he charged that these terrorists “follow in the path of fascism, Nazism, and totalitarianism.”[18] This comparison of America on September 11, 2001 to America on December 7, 1941, when it was attacked in Pearl Harbor by a fascist state and forced to go to war to save the world from totalitarianism, became the analogy most frequently regurgitated by politicians and the media. It may be coincidental that Pearl Harbor, the movie, was released that December, but the film only reinforced an analogy that helped show the United States in an ethically superior role. What the comparison achieved is the return of America to a time when it occupied the moral high ground. In 1941 we were defending the free world from the immoral and aggressive actions of fascist states. The immoral character of fascist rule was demonstrated most forcefully by the atrocity of the Holocaust. And America had not yet resorted to its own form of state terror by unleashing the atom bomb on civilian targets in Japan. Yet in naming the site of the destroyed World Trade Center “Ground Zero”, the American unconscious was simultaneously undermining the nation’s claim to moral superiority. The effect of this return of a repressed sense of guilt was to negate the claim of moral superiority invoked by an innocent America at the time of Pearl Harbor. It is ironical that the administration which appealed to the high-minded ideals of America in 1941 to combat the rise of fascism would be seen by many critics at the end of its term as responsible for what Naomi Klein calls “a shift from a pluralistic, democratic society to a dictatorship,”[19] or neo-fascist regime. While her claim is extreme, she convincingly argues that a resort to German history shows how similar were a number of the practices of Hitler’s and Bush’s regimes. She cites such simple evidence as the fact that the White House’s references to “the Homeland”, as opposed to “the nation” or “the Republic”, echoed Nazi Germany’s use of Heimat (German for “Homeland”). She goes on to list a series of measures introduced by the White House (from the PATRIOT Act to methods of interrogation) that had close parallels to measures introduced by the Nazis. In other words, the analogy to Pearl Harbor was used to conceal the fact that the U.S. was responding to its second Pearl Harbor by employing many of the practices used by fascist and totalitarian regimes in the 1930s and 1940s.

It has been argued that the Bush administration was attempting to distract the public from its own intelligence failures by unifying the nation behind a call to war. War has long been used by politicians to achieve a consensus that normal democratic politics discourages with its reliance on differences of opinion and debate. As James Madison reflected in 1795, "No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare." He went on to assert, “War is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement.”[20] This certainly was the case with Bush’s war on terror. On 9/11 Bush’s popularity rating stood at 40%; by 7 October of that year, when the bombing of Afghanistan began, it had risen to 90 percent. What is astonishing is that so few voices were raised questioning the need for war. Weren’t the terrorist attacks on 9/11 criminal acts that called for investigation and prosecution by legal authorities? The irony is that the Bush administration’s response, while it offered immediate relief to a traumatized public, aided and strengthened the terrorists’ objectives. According to the U.S. Army manual, terrorism is the threat or use of violence against civilians to create fear in order to achieve political or ideological goals. In treating al Qaeda from the start as a far more potent threat than it actually represented, the Bush administration prolonged Americans’ perception of the threat of violence in their cities through the remaining seven years of its tenure. In choosing as a principal target the Twin Towers, the terrorists were symbolically attacking the center of the globalized free market that they hated because it was destructive of traditional Islamic values and interests. The American government’s response to 9/11 – spending billions on Homeland Security and the Pentagon, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq - ultimately contributed to the collapse of the economy in 2008, an achievement bin Laden could only have dreamed of in 2001. In responding to violence with far greater violence, while manipulating the media to avoid a proliferation of graphic images of the violence being used against the populations of Afghanistan and Iraq, the government demonstrated again that terrorism is primarily, as Naom Chomsky has repeatedly said, the weapon not of the weak but of the strong.[21]

There was a small minority of independent thinkers who at the time did question America’s historical amnesia, its refusal to see the attacks in any wider context. The month following 9/11 Jean Baudrillard, the French sociologist, offered a provocative overview of what had happened. He argued that once America had become the world’s sole superpower its increased power caused resentment around the world and heightened the will to destroy it. He saw the terrorist attacks as an immoral response to the immorality of globalization. By using the West’s technology (civilian airplanes) against a symbol of that technological superiority (the World Trade Center), the terrorists “have assimilated everything of modernity and globalism, without changing their goal, which is to destroy that power.”[22] Globalization, with its aim of creating a seamless global marketplace, contains within it the danger of leaving the nation state without a sense of identity, because it lacks an exterior that negatively defines it. By declaring a war on terror Bush offered the country an external other or enemy, which, like the USSR earlier, gave it its sense of a unified self. It is ironical that Bush’s characterization of al Qaeda as “the evil ones” symmetrically mirrors Osama bin Laden’s description of the American military as “Satan’s US troops.” Each constructed its mythic identity as all that the other supposedly is not. Other critics, such as Susan Sontag, reminded readers of the New Yorker that this was “an attack on the world’s superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions.”[23] Fredric Jameson subsequently commented, “the history of the superstate is as bloody as anyone else’s national history.”[24] Being a critic of capitalism, he also argued that the United States needed recurrent wars to destroy its unused inventories and create a demand for new hardware.

So the way Bush and his administration (and the media, as will be shown in chapter 1) chose to respond to the attacks on 9/11 reinforced Americans’ awakened sense of a new vulnerability, and brought to an abrupt end their technological and economic optimism. By transforming a small if lethal band of Islamic terrorists into a threat against America’s very survival, Bush turned Americans’ collective trauma into a persistent and recurring condition. As Franklin Roosevelt observed, “War is a contagion.”[25] His answer was to quarantine the disease. But war has also been promoted as a cure of disease, although it is a drug that can prove addictive. What Bush claimed to offer was a cure-all to terrorism, but the wars he proceeded to launch proved more contagious than curative, because they served to proliferate the terrorist threat, which in turn served to prolong Americans’ new sense of vulnerability. Bush invoked the long-standing ideology of American exceptionalism – the belief that the United States differs qualitatively from other countries due to its history and constitution – to try to impose American anti-terrorist measures on the rest of the world (“Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists”[26]). The effect of this resort to nationalist chauvinism was to isolate America from the international community and leave Americans feeling that they faced the terrorist threat virtually alone. In their minds they had become the prime target of Islamic terrorism, no matter how often subsequent terrorist acts elsewhere showed this not to be the case. By responding to 9/11 out of a sense of its own paranoia, the government infected the American people with the virus against which it was ostensibly vaccinating them.

A good example of the way the government augmented the spread of fear among Americans was its handling of the Jose Padilla case. On June 10, 2002, John Ashcroft, Attorney General, announced the arrest of Jose Padilla, a Brooklyn-born convert to Islam, on a charge of plotting to detonate a dirty bomb in the United States. He went on to define a dirty bomb as one that “involves exploding a conventional bomb that not only kills victims in the immediate vicinity, but also spreads radioactive material that is highly toxic to humans and can cause mass death and injury."[27] This highly misleading description played directly into the deep fears most of us have of a lethal force that we cannot see or easily detect and that can produce that most dreaded of illnesses, cancer. For those who had lived during the Cold War it triggered memories of schoolroom exercises of duck and cover, which only convinced children of the lack of any effective protection from a nuclear explosion. On March 6, a mere two months before Padilla’s arrest, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had held a hearing on radiological dispersion devices (RDDs), the technical term for dirty bombs. Experts even from within the government testified that a dirty bomb might do enormous economic damage, but was unlikely to cause deaths or injuries beyond the immediate area of the conventional explosion.[28] Also a test explosion of a dirty bomb by the United States Department of Energy concluded that even if no clean up is done and everyone affected stays in the contaminated area for a year there would be no fatalities.[29] Despite this evidence the government chose to spread its own alarmist and highly exaggerated account of the likely effects of such a bomb. The government exaggerated not just the effects of a dirty bomb but the alleged crime Padilla had committed. In 2007 Padilla was eventually charged and found guilty, not of targeting his own country with a dirty bomb, but of conspiracy to commit terrorism overseas by providing money, recruits and supplies to Islamic jihadists globally. But for the intervening five years the American public had been led to believe that an American had been planning a devastating radiation attack on his fellow citizens. The government’s cure had simply produced the disease it ostensibly sought to protect everyone from - widespread panic and fear among a public uninformed of the likely effects of a dirty bomb, had Padilla even contemplated one. The White House was inadvertently promoting al Qaeda’s plan to terrorize Americans far more effectively than Osama bin Laden could.

This puts in question the true motives of the Bush administration. Did it have an interest in keeping Americans in a state of fear and uncertainty? Wouldn’t a quiescent public enable the administration to pursue policies that would normally be considered divisive and ideologically extreme? Wasn’t a diet of repetitive alarms followed by reassurances that the government was containing the threat most likely to keep a disoriented electorate in a state of dependency on a paternalistic presidency? The public’s most elementary desire was for a return to its pre-9/11 sense of security and confidence in the future. The government’s response was to repeatedly postpone the likelihood of such a return by issuing new threat alerts while holding out a prospect of achieving it some time in the future. Meantime what could the private citizen do against such an unidentifiable and intangible enemy? Only the government and its security apparatus could hope to counter the murderous intentions of this terrorist chimera. The scenario came straight from science fiction movies in which alien invaders threatened the survival of America (representative of the “civilized” world). These movies exploit the fear of being oppressed by alien (or foreign) beings that desire the total destruction of earthlings (or Americans) and often assume their appearance. (One shouldn’t forget that most addicts of horror movies get a thrill from being scared). Frequently set in a future time when the Earth is close to coming to an end, these movies depict the inhabitants of small-town America being pursued or possessed by extra-terrestrials (from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956 to They Are Among Us, 2004) who want their blood (Final Days of Planet Earth, 2005; Night Feeders, 2006), who want to enslave them (Alien Apocalypse, 2005), or who introduce a deadly virus to wipe them out (Alien Nation: Dark Horizon, 1994; The Monster Man, 2001; Invasion, 2005) – the latter obviously playing to Americans’ increased fear of terrorists’ use of biological weapons. Only a hero can protect them by uncovering the aliens’ weakness. When Bush and his cabinet assumed the role of heroic saviors, Americans were left to identify with the terrified townsfolk pursued by aliens (Islamic extremists), and looking to their leader as the only hope of defeating this unseen enemy.

* * * * * * * Chapter 1 focuses on the immediate aftermath of the attacks on September 11. How did ordinary Americans feel— not just New Yorkers but Americans, including children, across the nation? It looks at the evidence for concluding that Americans suffered a collective trauma, which resulted in either an obsessive reliving of the original shock or a state of denial and repression of that experience. The increase in substance abuse, and the use of anti-depressants and heart ailments all substantiate this claim. American children experienced a loss of their normal optimism when reality erupted into their fantasy world and comic book enemies turned out to be real killers. But Americans also felt isolated from one another and sought reconnection through a mass demonstration of their loyalty to the nation at every opportunity. Because the national flag had already been partially appropriated by diehard conservatives, many liberals were left feeling ambiguously about the entire patriotic response. Simultaneously the corporate world was quick to use the new nationalist fervor to sell their products. The news media experienced an immediate rise in ratings from a public hungry for hard information, but its own obsession with ratings and circulation led it to foster patriotic platitudes while falling short on its obligation to explain the origins of and motives for the attacks. Television channels quickly packaged their news programs under trivialized titles such as “America Under Attack” which soon became “America Fights Back,” titles that frequently borrowed their slogan and format from movies. The mainstream media’s near universal acceptance of the need for a military response to terrorism was the result of a number of pressures. Media executives in search of higher ratings allowed the public, corporate sponsors and members of the government to affect how the news media portrayed the conflict. Its nationalistic representation of events paved the way for the bombing and invasion of Afghanistan that caused huge civilian casualties, which the media downplayed or ignored. All too soon hard news reporting gave way to infotainment and returned to celebrity scandals, crime and local news for its standard fare. But Americans’ sense of insecurity, the feeling that the future no longer offered a vista of unending material improvements, and the fear of some unspecified apocalyptic disaster survived, affecting almost every aspect of American life for many years.

Chapter 2 looks at how Americans’ initial fear came to be prolonged by the actions of the government and the media, both of which offered the false panacea of revenge as a palliative. The government greatly exaggerated both the chances of Americans being killed by acts of terrorism and the likely effects of the use of weapons of mass destruction. Equally it vastly inflated the size, capabilities and significance of al Qaeda and it repeatedly warned of the presence of numerous sleeper cells in the country even while admitting that none had been identified. It also claimed to have prevented repeated terrorist plots that turned out on inquiry to be no more than empty threats. Its system of color-coded threat alerts (which when raised were avidly hyped by the news media) were manipulated for political purposes, and, like the other government responses to terrorism, only served the terrorists’ objective of raising and perpetuating the level of fear in the American population. Hate crimes and school shootings increased during this period, as did acts of payback against immigrants trying to assert their rights. The media and Hollywood exploited this widespread fear for their own purposes. In 2005 movies like War of the Worlds and TV shows like season four of 24 helped reproduce public anxiety about the presence of sleeper cells in their midst. The war on terror offered Americans revenge as therapy. The Bush era saw the rise to new prominence of revenge movies and video games. Games like Medal of Honor: Rising Sun offered the player no alternative to shooting the enemy to win, thereby unintentionally reinforcing the government’s promotion of war as its only option. Gradually the pleasure obtained in anticipating revenge came to be balanced by the bloody consequences of executing it, both in movies like Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith and in the playing out of the wars In Afghanistan and Iraq. If movies reveal the undercurrents of the American psyche, the Oscar winners for 2009 revealed a more optimistic zeitgeist, suggesting that the desire for revenge had run its course by the end of Bush’s term of office. But the fear still lay just beneath the surface.

Chapter 3 traces the connections between the Bush administration’s cult of executive privilege, a new acceptance of authoritarianism, and the greatly accelerated militarization of American civilian life. A fearful public opted for a form of paternalism that claimed to protect it from threats to its previous way of life. Polls taken shortly after 9/11 show that most Americans were willing to forgo some civil liberties and accept government restrictions to fight terrorism. Accepting much of the ideology of neoconservatives after 9/11, the Bush administration cultivated the authoritarian concept of a unitary executive. Bush used signing statements and executive orders to counter Congress and enhance the power of the executive. The government manipulated the media by feeding it with government made videos that were broadcast as news without attribution. In fact the media mirrored the public with its uncharacteristic deference to authority. Similarly corporations during this period showed a preference for the autocratic over the participative style of leadership, especially the strategic version of the autocratic style modeled on the military. Americans increasingly equated the identity of the country with its military might. The war on terror helped effect the permanent militarization of civilian life. The huge increase in funding for defense and security after 9/11 was accompanied by an expansion of police power and weaponry, a major enlargement of the prison population (by criminalizing social problems), the militarized response to illegal immigration, and the conversion of school campuses into armed camps in which standardized tests promoted conformity in place of free thought. The military and Hollywood developed a symbiotic relationship in which film makers received access to military hardware in return for portraying US forces in a favorable light. Video games made killing the enemy (who disappeared unrealistically in a harmless puff of smoke) the only feasible way of winning, and ridiculed the alternative of diplomacy. The consoles used for video games were adapted for the military’s remotely controlled weaponry so that recruits had little difficulty learning how to manage them. And the relationship between sports and the military grew closer with the rise of extreme sports that offered the excitement of similar life-threatening dangers. In the later years movies and television shows began to offer a more nuanced representation of things military, while fashion adverts of these years showed a continued identification of Americans with the spirit of militarism.

Chapter 4 traces the connections between the untruths used to justify the war on terror in Iraq and the wider national displacement of both the findings of science and the outcomes of reasoned argument by religious conviction, political ideology and a cultivation of gut feelings. By giving the war a religious and moral inflection (a Manichean fight against the forces of evil) the Bush administration was able to subordinate facts to the absolutes of religious conviction. After the invasion of Iraq the denial of facts and the distortion of truth acquired a new acceptance and respectability. Much indebted to evangelicals for his election, Bush repaid the favor by appointing judges and high-level administration officials partly based on their religious convictions. Instances where religion trumped science included the administration’s promotion of sexual abstinence (long before shown to be ineffective by social scientists) and the Republican Congress’s attempt in 2005 to refute the conclusion of neurosurgeons that Terry Schiavo was brain dead. The centuries old embrace of capitalism by Christianity gave top government officials the illusory moral authority to suppress scientific evidence in order to defeat regulations restricting the free market. Over half the EPA’s 1,600 scientists reported political interference in their work between 2003 and 2008. What helped the religious right to impose its ideology on the country at large? Some blamed low educational standards that left a majority of Americans unable to distinguish truth from illusion and subject to manipulation by the Christian right and America’s consumer culture. A combination of religious, political and corporate forces mounted a campaign to confuse the public over the issue of global warming. Despite the scientific findings of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, opponents used pseudo-scientific papers to obfuscate the degree to which humans were responsible for global warming. In the case of the teaching of evolution almost 100 percent of America’s 480,000 scientists were opposed by 44-47 percent of Americans who believed in creationism. Despite its ban on the promotion or endorsement of religion, the military allowed evangelicals to penetrate its highest ranks and to sanction the use of mandatory prayers at a number of its training academies. The widespread preference for what feels right to what is actually true encouraged a new wider acceptance of lying – in the corporate world (where corporations repeatedly suppressed findings endangering their profits), in the world of journalism and publishing (where plagiarism and impersonation were repeatedly exposed) and in the world of sports (where numerous superstars were found to be taking performance-enhancing drugs).

Chapter 5 shows the way in which the blanket of secrecy imposed by the Bush administration after 9/11 and its introduction of massive surveillance rapidly spread to all sectors of American society. After the government ordered its agencies to withhold all information it was legally permitted to, local governments followed suit by withdrawing online data on air and water quality, even on drivers’ licenses. Similarly the chemical, nuclear and energy industries were happy in the name of security to keep secret information that included details of their spillages and accidents. The month after 9/11 Congress passed the PATRIOT Act, which inaugurated a new surveillance society that disregarded fundamental civil liberties in the name of protecting them. The FBI promptly proceeded to misuse power the Act gave it to issue thousands national security letters allowing search without probable cause. Simultaneously the NSA began to illegally wiretap the phone and electronic communications of millions of Americans with the willing assistance of the major telecommunications companies. The military enthusiastically entered the new surveillance frenzy by spying on Americans, flouting the act forbidding it from performing a law enforcement role within the US. Even in the final years of the Bush era 47-52 percent of Americans supported the use of illegal interception to preempt a terrorist attack. The pattern established by the government quickly spread to local governments and private corporations. Police regularly targeted political and environmental protest groups and placed their members on FBI terrorist watch lists. The number of closed circuit television cameras exploded during this period. Owned by government, law enforcement and private bodies, their information was shared between all three. Inevitably they were abused. Corporations vastly extended their electronic spying on employees, monitoring their phone calls, emails and web sites visited. They also made wide use of smart cards, even implanting them in employees’ arms. Our digital profiles came to be used to decide how much we could loan, what interest rate we were charged, and what job we were offered, as well as whether we were allowed to fly, or whether we would be investigated or arrested. In the new era of mistrust, surveillance also entered the home. Sales of nanny cams for domestic use doubled every year between 2002 and 2006. Nearly all domestic court cases came to involve the use of electronic evidence. Inevitably ID theft from these huge databases escalated proportionately. Had Orwell’s nightmare depicted in 1984 overtaken us two decades later than he predicted?

Chapter 6 looks at the reciprocal relationship that developed between the Bush administration and Hollywood in the justification of the use of torture. Both used the ticking time bomb scenario, a circumstance that was first imagined in a French novel, Les Centurions (1960), and which belongs to the world of fiction, virtually never occurring in the real world. This did not stop the government from invoking it constantly as the justification for its sanctioning rendition and torture after 9/11. The routine use of torture began at Bagram Air Base in late 2001. The fact that 98 percent of the prisoners held there had nothing to do with al Qaeda or the Taliban suggests hat the regular beatings and other prisoner abuses there were punitive acts of revenge, not a means to obtaining information. Did soldiers’ widespread resort to violence belong to the same cult of inflicting pain and humiliation to which hazing had already accustomed them? Torture was first employed at Guantánamo after top legal officials from the White House met with Guantánamo’s officers in charge of interrogations. The White House officials were fans of Fox’s 24 in which counterterrorist agent Jack Bauer, faced with a ticking time bomb, readily resorts to extra-legal methods of interrogation. The methods the Guantánamo officers came up with owed much to the television show. But al-Qahtani, the prisoner for whom they devised these harsh methods, turned out to be a low-level terrorist with no ticking time bomb. It was ABC’s 60 Minutes’ release in 2004 of explosive images of MPs at Abu Ghraib torturing prisoners there that first made the American public aware of the widespread official use of torture. The administration mounted a largely successful media blitz confining the blame to a few aberrant grunts and refusing to use the word “torture.” Later evidence showed that the authorization for the torture originated in the White House. By 2004 43 percent of Americans thought that torturing terrorist suspects was at least sometime justified. Had television programs like 24 helped confuse Americans’ understanding of the distinction between fact and fiction? Had government officials’ insistence on the ever-present danger of a ticking time bomb and high regard for 24 muddied their attitude to torture? Bauer’s successful, much repeated use of torture to preempt mass murder was so appealing to military recruits that the dean of West Point Military Academy met the 24 team to plead with them to scale back on the show’s numerous scenes of torture – to little effect. Unlike 24, SciFi’s Battlestar Gallactica showed torture in a much more ambiguous light, forcing the viewer to decide on whether it could ever be justified or not. Yet public support for the use of torture peaked at 46 percent by the end of Bush’s tenure, and Republican presidential candidates vied with one another as to who would most readily employ it. Despite its proven inefficacy, torture in the Bush years turned from a crime to an issue to be debated that haunts us to this day.

Chapter 7 shows how Bush’s National Security Strategy tied the nation’s security to the promotion of a free global market. But to enforce this would entail huge increases in expenditure on defense and homeland security that came to constitute the real market opened up by the administration. Market fundamentalists see citizens only as consumers and are naturally opposed to those aspects of democracy that seek to provide a safeguard for those who require financial support. Bush’s response to 9/11 was to urge Americans to become better consumers. His tax cuts and huge expenditure on a new military-security complex increased the federal deficit by 75 percent by 2008, while widening the gap separating working and middle classes from the wealthiest Americans. In fact inflation adjusted family incomes fell 2.9 percent between 2002 and 2007. Under Bush the government outsourced to private contractors huge areas it controlled, especially in the Defense, Homeland Security, and State Departments, creating in effect a privatized security state. By 2008 contracted personnel outnumbered uniformed US troops in Iraq by 180,000 to 146,000. The government’s deregulatory policies reduced food, drug, and airline safety, and led to excessive risk taking by financial institutions, as well as the Madoff Ponzi scandal. Equally the flooding of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina was a preventable disaster to which the government’s reductions in funding for hazard mitigation, and its demotion and outsourcing of FEMA contributed significantly. The tragedy following Hurricane Katrina graphically revealed the human cost of the Bush administration’s obsession with security and the need to pay for it through deregulation, outsourcing and other fiscal measures. While employee productivity rose during the Bush years by an average of 3.6 percent a year, median household income fell by 0.6 percent. This led American families, expecting to participate in the economic boom, to follow the government by almost doubling the debt they incurred. By 2007 household debt had swelled to an all-time high of 120 percent of annual income. Banks followed suit, lending money on risky sub-prime mortgages, derivatives, and the like. The outcome was the dramatic recession starting in late 2007, when the whole of heavily indebted America sustained a major loss in pensions, investments, income, jobs and standard of living. But the costly war on terror continued unabated, as did Americans’ fear of the unknown.

In the Conclusion I ask: was Barack Obama’s election on a platform of hope a sign that Americans had rejected the prospect of their country’s inevitable decline? Or does the fear of the unknown continue to undermine their historic optimism? After his inauguration Obama reversed Bush era policies relating to secrecy, surveillance, torture, and the use of scientific findings. Yet a continuing sense of fear helped drive the country into an even more bitter divide than during Bush’s second term. The politics of hate resurfaced as Obama was accused by right wing populists of trying to socialize healthcare, introduce death panels, indulge in irresponsible deficit spending, socialize America, and so on. The Obama administration also perpetuated a number of the previous administration’s policies, including rendition, allowing the military to still use some abusive methods of interrogation, and outsourcing government functions to private contractors, who in August 2009 collectively still outnumbered uniformed troops in Afghanistan 74,000 to 57,000. The military even continued spying on civilian anti-war groups. During Obama’s first year in office Americans became more conservative in their outlook, partly a consequence of the continued threat of terrorism emanating more often from homegrown jihadists. The residue of fear and the distortions it produces in the American psyche is the most important change effected by the war on terror. Whether this persists or not could affect the future of the country, including its very sense of a unified identity.



  • [1] “war on terror . . . defeated.” “night fell . . . attack.” President George W. Bush, “Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People,” White House Archives, 20 September 2001, <> [6/2008].
  • [2] “one of those moments . . . has changed.” “The War Against America," New York Times, 12 September 2001, p. A26.
  • [3] “This attack . . . Harbor.” “After a day of Terror,” Washington Post, 13 September 2001, p. A30.
  • [4] “all of our lives . . . today.” Aaron Brown, “America Under Attack: New York Authorities Wait for Area to be Secured to Go In”, Transcripts, 11 September 2001, <> [3/2011].
  • [5] “It is our lives . . . everywhere.” Don DeLillo, “In the Ruins of the Future,” Harper’s Magazine, December 2001, p. 33.
  • [6] “evil-doers,” “evil folks.” George W. Bush, “Remarks by the President upon Arrival,” White House Archives, 16 September 2001, <> [3/2011].
  • [7] “people who have no country, no ideology.” George W. Bush, “Remarks to Military Personnel at Travis Air Force Base, California,” 17 October 2001. Source Watch, <> [3/2011].
  • [8] “the brightest beacon of freedom.” George W. Bush, “Address to the Nation,” Oval Office, Washington, D.C., 11 September 2001, <> [3/2011].
  • [9] “rid the world of evil.” George W. Bush, , “Speech on the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance,” National Cathedral, 14 September 2001,,<> [3/2011].
  • [10] “hunt down and punish.” George W. Bush, “Remarks at Barksdale Air Force base, Louisiana,” 11 September 2001, September 11, <> [3/2011
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  • [12] “enemies of freedom.” George W. Bush, “Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People,” White House Archives, 20 September 2001, <> [3/2011].
  • [13] “freedom loving people.” George W. Bush, “Remarks by the President upon Arrival,” White House Archives, 16 September 2001, <> [3/2011].
  • [14] “despicable acts of war.” George W. Bush, “Speech, National Day of Prayer and Remembrance,” 13 September 2001, <> [3/2011].
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  • [16] “a series of decisive actions . . . support them.” George W. Bush, “Radio Address,” 15 September 2001, Wikisource, <> [3/2011].
  • [17] “will not end . . . stopped and defeated.” George W. Bush, “Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People,” White House Archives, 20 September 2001, <> [3/2011]
  • [18] “murderous ideologies . . . totalitarianism.” George W. Bush, “Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People,” White House Archives, 20 September 2001, <> [3/2011].
  • [19] “a shift from . . . dictatorship.” Naomi Klein, The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot, White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2007, p. 8.
  • [20] “No nation can preserve . . . aggrandizement.” James Madison, "Political Observations,” 20 April 1795, Letters and Other Writings of James Madison, Vol. 4, Whitefish, MT: Kessinger, 2008, p. 491.
  • [21] “terrorism is . . . the strong.” Naom Chomsky, “The New War Against Terror,” Counterpunch, 24 October 2001, <> [12/2008].
  • [22] “have assimilated . . . that power.” Jean Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism and Other Essays, trans. Chris Turner, London, New York: Verso, 2002, p. 19.
  • [23] “an attack . . . actions.” Susan Sontag, “9. 11. 2001,” “The Talk of the Town”, New Yorker, 24 September 2001,<> [12/2008]
  • [24] “the history of . . . national history.” Fredric Jameson, “The Dialectics of Disaster”, South Atlantic Quarterly, 101.2 (2002): p. 299.
  • [25] “War is a contagion.” Franklin D. Roosevelt, Speech, Chicago, 5 October 1937, Teaching American, <> [3/2011].
  • [26] “Either you are . . . the terrorists.” George W. Bush, “Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People,” White House Archives, 20 September 2001, <> [3/2011].
  • [27] “involves exploding . . . injury.” “Transcript of the Attorney General John Ashcroft regarding the transfer of Abdullah al Muhajir (born Jose Padilla) to the Department of Defense as an enemy combatant,” Department of Justice, 10 June 2002, <> [1/2009].
  • [28] “On March 6 . . . conventional explosion.” Peter D. Zimmerman and Cheryl Loeb, “Dirty Bombs: the Threat revisited,” Defense Horizons, 1 January 2004, <> [1/2009].
  • [29] “Also a test explosion . . . no fatalities.” Dr. Rockwell, The Power of Nightmares, BBC Television documentary, 2004, < watch/213659/1198382> [1/2009].

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