9/11: the Era of Illusion
I have been thinking about 9/11 a lot lately.
Anniversaries imbue special dates with added significance, and the twentieth anniversary of the towers falling is no different. Back then I was somebody else, living in another country and working in a different profession. But that period of my life remains a touchstone for "how much we've changed" since the War on Terror began on that cool, cloudless New York morning twenty years ago.
My most vivid memory of the day, in addition to the turmoil at the Tucson public high-school where I taught, was of an e-mail I received from a former colleague at RAND. In response to my simple question ("What the hell is going on?") he replied with a curt admission of bafflement and a warning: attached was a draft of the USA PATRIOT Act, which I read. To my mounting horror I learned that, in amongst the Sturm und Drang, patriotic anger and angst, I was being stripped of my right to Habeas corpus. Under this pre-drafted legislative contingency, as a foreign resident in the US, I could be arrested and detained without cause and held indefinitely. The border crossing just south of us had been occupied by the US Marine Corps and closed to all traffic.
They say the curse of a long life is to remember that which history would erase. Without much fanfare, I had become transported from the most modern civilization on Earth to a police state reminiscent of 1980s El Salvador.
Remembering this today, it occurs to me that what began on 9/11/01 is now reaching its surreal fruition. A ham-handed analysis might suggest the surveillance state has come of age. But I counter that none of what followed would be possible without the dark arts of illusion and story-telling. At every stage, public passions were enflamed. Again and again, consent was manufactured. And by the alchemy of spectacle, the multitudes were moved to do their masters' bidding.
From the day of the attack, images were employed to stoke awareness of the horror we faced. The rhetoric of war was invoked and national momentum coaxed into motion. All the usual machinery of propaganda and advocacy was deployed to achieve the necessary end. This was reasonable under the circumstances as we understood them at the time. But there was an odd self-consciousness to it: we were all aware that we had seen run-ups to war - all the displays, martial and nationalistic - before, and that it had been insincere. More than anything, we wanted to believe it was not so now. More than ever, we knew we were participants in a story and wanted to believe it was a good one. But by its end, two nations had been invaded, both inconclusively, at least one on pretexts that have since unraveled in the light of history with unique savagery.
Yet that awareness of story - of the importance of narrative in galvanizing public action - remains at the forefront of our awareness. We have seen this same machinery of pageant employed a dozen times since 9/11. And we all seem to know instinctively when a certain consent is being manufactured, when a certain 'approved' spin on events is being presented for consumption. That we will readily consume has made the act of 'framing narratives' almost more important than 'taking action' itself as the ability to 'spin' events and 'exploit crises' becomes more important than actually accomplishing anything productive.
The Trumpian cry of 'fake news' and the renaissance of conspiracy theories add yet more weird ripples to this strange age of narrative pageant. Now instead of terror threat levels, our nightly anchors read contagion statistics and tell of inexplicable foreign policy reversals with blank expressions. In this environment, the mother of all narratives reaches fruition. With the abandonment of Afghanistan, the spell of the tale which held us transfixed for twenty years has been broken. If 9/11/2001 was the beginning of the tale, then 9/11/2021 is surely its end.
The State once had an external enemy from which it promised to protect us. It imposed its security and surveillance apparatus. Control breeds more control; the blanket of security was drawn down and tightened. Long accustomed to living within its strictures, we are now its grateful subjects. We believe whatever narrative is presented so long as it is offered in the name of safety. And, as it has in the past, the System galvanizes all the accoutrements of national momentum to achieve its aims.
In the age of mandated vaccines and Apartheid-style internal passports, we become active participants in our own surveillance. Perhaps most alarmingly, the System's ability to generate foes remains yet fruitful. The cross-hairs have moved from an external enemy who is ideologically motivated to an internal one that is hygienically impure. Each new incursion into our rights and those of others is quickly rationalized. It's for our own good, we argue, and only to keep us safe. Thus, we begin by constructing the beast only to end up its assistants and finally, as numbered cogs within its controlling logic.
The 9/11 Era of Illusion is over. The Era of Control has begun.