As I sat in a college classroom Thursday afternoon, the power went out and we swiftly determined we were in the throes of a regional electrical power failure. My first thought was to check for students in the elevators. My second thought was of the anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks and the possibility that the blackout was somehow related.
Actually, I’m being too charitable: My second thought was that the blackout could be the result of a terrorist attack, and when I couldn’t reach my daughter by cell phone, I had a fleeting moment of private panic.
My third thought was a multitude of things. I was angry that my own nation responded to the ravages of a small group of devastatingly lucky mad men with a devastatingly prolonged war and a culture of fear that would lead anyone to consider terrorism when simple corporate stupidity was a more likely cause of the electrical grid failure. I was angry with myself for passively complying with that fearful thinking. I was angry that the years and days leading up to the 10th anniversary have been an exercise in institutionalized fear mongering and its internalization, as we have continually revisited the horrors of the attacks, glutted the irresolvable question of whether Osama Bin Laden has won despite that he now sleeps with the proverbial fishes, and chewed the cud of dread with the same fervor engendered by reality television — as though fear, normalized by our response to September 11, has become a national pastime.
And, I am angry because all the fear we have conjured has not made our country safe. National security is a misnomer, a fantasy even. No nation is safe, no nation is free from external or internal threat, no nation can secure its borders. Any nation can, however, encourage its populace to embrace fear or encourage its populace to open its arms to tolerance and democracy.
Former U.S. President George W. Bush and the majority of Congress responded to September 11 with the Patriot Act and new legal interpretations that violate our rights to privacy, free speech and due process; that entrench government secrecy and unconstitutional surveillance powers, the bane of democracy; that lead with fear.
In poignant contrast, Norway Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg responded to the July terrorist attacks on his nation with this: "We will not be intimidated or threatened by these attacks. The aim of such attacks is to spread fear and panic. We will not let that happen. … The Norwegian response to violence is more democracy, more openness and greater political participation."
Some in the United States will refuse the comparison, dismissing Norway for its relatively size, but Stoltenberg might understand better than Bush the notion that, no matter its size, a nation cannot be secure if the least of its people is not secure.
This thought gained clarity as we sat in our slowly warming classroom Thursday and talked about human security, personal security. We spoke of not feeling safe on the way to the campus parking lots in the dark. We spoke of being accosted on city sidewalks by men who felt entitled to do so simply because we are female. We spoke of feeling threatened in a group of men who might respond hostilely should we reveal our sexuality. We spoke of being targets of violence, by virtue of our gender — and that many men could not understand that, by virtue of being the privileged gender.
One vibrant young Black woman answered an assignment with this:
Where do you feel a lack of security? “Everywhere.”
What threatens your sense of security? “Men, white, police.”
What changes might give you more of a sense of security? “Having uncomfortable conversations.”
How brave she is to indeed have that conversation, no matter the discomfort — unlike our leaders, who have shown us that the most effective way to perpetuate the world’s evils is to fear them, to “spread fear and panic,” as we have done since September 11, 2001.
That vibrant young woman in my class is my new hero. The next time there’s a power failure, my first thought will be to check for folks in the elevators. My second thought will be that the utility-industrial complex has cut corners somewhere and screwed up again. And my third thought will be to have an uncomfortable conversation.
Take Action: Reform the Patriot Act
Read more: Let’s Cancel 9/11 by Tom Engelhardt
Jens Stoltenberg video: