Ten Years Later

N ot long before his death in 2008, I had a conversation with General William E. Odom, director of the National Security Agency under President Ronald Reagan, and a man who was hardly known for his reluctance to use force against the enemies of the United States. The subject was terrorism. On the issue of all the new security controls that had taken root in the United States since 9/11, the general was almost apoplectic. This was not entirely unexpected: Odom had already gone public in expressing his fierce opposition to the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping practices. I had anticipated his ire over what he viewed as the Bush administration’s constitutional violations. What I had not expected was his generalized contempt for most of the security measures that had been put in place since the attacks.

“First of all,” he expostulated, “the concept is totally flawed. Terrorism is a method, not a movement.” Doubtless thinking back on some of his and his administration’s own murkier initiatives in Central America in the 1980s, and visibly smiling at the memory, Odom added, “I always liked my terrorists!” But the general’s main point was that the visible security measures, from bollards in front of even some fairly unimportant government buildings, to closed streets, to the demeaning nightmare of the way security is handled in US airports, all of which had been put in place so “promiscuously”—the word was his—were an emblem of fear rather than strength, and, equally importantly for him, of an empire rather than a republic.

“If I had my way,” he told me, “I’d remove eighty or ninety percent of them. They don’t convey the impression of a nation determined to win this conflict and to do so without being either cowed or transformed by the adversary, but of weakness, fear, and doubt.”

I have thought of the general’s words often over the last few years. For it seems to me that one of the most pernicious results of 9/11 has been to turn almost every office building in every major city into a government building, complete with identification cards necessary to secure entry for everyone working in them and guest passes for those who do not, complete with the presentation of ID cards and the taking of photographs. This accomplishes absolutely nothing in terms of truly enhancing security. After all, it is not as if the building receptionists are competent to judge a real identity document from a forged one. What it does do to perfection is create an atmosphere of fear and paranoia, while giving many Americans one more daily dose—as if they need another one—of the incompetent, unresponsive, and high-handed bureaucracies that already play such a large role in most of our lives. It is almost as if, having defeated the Soviet Union, the post–Cold War United States is now coming to resemble its old foe in a host of ways, from hostile border guards and a bloated and uncaring bureaucracy to sullen, indifferent shop assistants and a decaying infrastructure. And the process seems to have accelerated after 9/11.

Predicting the future is a mug’s game. But despite that, I think it is a fairly safe bet that none of these measures will ever be repealed. Would any building owner dare break ranks and say, “Enough with these ridiculous security measures. I’m lifting them here.”? Presumably, the lawyers would tell such a brave and realistic soul that the liability risks alone precluded doing anything of the sort. And yet if we can be fairly confident this will never happen, we can also be confident that the purported justifications for initiating these controls in the first place will fade away eventually.

We now are given to calling the inchoate conflict in which we find ourselves “The Long War.” The expression is not a bad one—and obviously is vastly preferable to “The Global War on Terrorism” that it has largely supplanted. But even long wars end eventually, and this one will too. It is as easy to be certain of this as it is to be certain of the proverbial inevitability of death and taxes. And while cheating death is, alas, not an option, at least we talk a great deal about reforming the tax code and bringing the Internal Revenue Service back under some modicum of control. Can one realistically imagine our doing the same with the security measures instituted since 9/11?

This may seem like a trivial matter next to the questions of how to defeat the jihadis in the field (whether the field in question is Yemen or Minneapolis) and of how to pay for it without the United States going bankrupt in the process. But the truth is that it is these preposterous and demeaning security arrangements that define most Americans’ actual experience of the effect of terrorism on their lives. And given the fact that only a tiny fraction of the population now serves in the military, and an infinitesimal fraction have been the victims or known victims of terrorism, this should hardly be surprising.

If we in America did bureaucracy well, there might at least be a case to be made for such arrangements. But one of the more unpleasant realities of contemporary American life is that we do bureaucracy extremely badly, which, as much as historical differences in my view, helps explain the astonishing depth and passion of anti-Washington feeling in the country (its latest manifestation being the Tea Parties). Although major European countries like France, Germany, and the Netherlands are highly bureaucratized, their bureaucracies at least are fairly efficient.

Assuming all these measures are continued, though, it is fair to ask what the long-term effect on the country will be—after we have won the Long War, that is, as we will . My fear is that the daily experience of entering an office building, while not approaching the vile and lowering experience that using American airports has become, will be some mild version of going to the local DMV. Putting the matter charitably, it cannot be good for the country when that happens.

Sometimes, it takes a pop singer to get to the heart of the matter. In his ironic song “Just a Few Words in Defense of Our Country,” Randy Newman evoked Franklin Roosevelt’s famous statement in his first inaugural address that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” But today, Newman’s lyrics seem about right. “We’re supposed to be afraid,” he sings, “it’s patriotic in fact, color coded. What are we supposed to be afraid of? Why of being afraid. That’s what terror means, doesn’t it? That’s what it used to mean.”


David Rieff is a journalist and author. He is finishing a book on the global food crisis.

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