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13 years later, Americans are afraid

On the 13th anniversary of 9/11, Americans are afraid...

Jon Letman

Published: Updated:

On the 13th anniversary of 9/11, Americans are afraid. Last month’s demonstrations and clashes between police and protestors in Ferguson, Missouri have drawn questions of race, violence and the militarization of America’s police into sharp focus. But the drama played out in the suburbs of St. Louis is only the latest manifestation of a problem much broader than racial profiling and excessive police force (though both are emblematic of America’s troubles). This culture of fear in the “home of the brave” needs to be examined in its broader context.

The killing of unarmed African-American teenager Michael Brown, then ten days later and less than four miles away, Kajieme Powell, and the subsequent reaction are just two more examples that demonstrate Americans seem to be afraid.

Although we pride ourselves on being free, the truth is fearful best describes the American psyche in 2014

Jon Letman

Although we pride ourselves on being free, the truth is fearful best describes the American psyche in 2014. Fear, which is supposed to motivate us when we encounter unexpected danger, is today a permanent condition which has become like a thermostat dial that is raised and lowered, but never completely shut off.

The age of fear

Although it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when Americans became so afraid, the path to permanent fear has had many milestones; over four decades of Cold War and the atomic age, the tumult of the 1960s, a long, slow bleeding defeat in Vietnam, punctuated by assassinations in Dallas, New York, Memphis and Los Angeles followed by Kent State led to a decade of self-absorption. The 1979-1981 Iranian hostage crisis preceded the shock of the space shuttle Challenger and Chernobyl nuclear disasters and high-profile incidents like the Bernhard Goetz subway shooting and the Central Park jogger assault that seeped into the American mindset.

As economic inequality grew, so did American fear with the Rodney King-L.A. riots and insecurity bolstered by foreign and domestic terrorism. In the 1990s, we buoyantly slept walked into cyberspace only to be violently jolted from our dreams by horror at the World Trade Center, in Oklahoma City, then four years later at a high school near Littleton, Colorado.

After 40 years of mounting uncertainty at home and abroad, the attacks of September 11, 2001 inflated America’s culture of fear to new heights. Now, thirteen years after 9/11—after the anthrax attacks, the shoe bomber, the underwear bomber, the Boston Marathon bombing, protracted wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and undeclared drone wars, Americans have come to expect an endless stream of frightening events. Mass shootings in Tucson, Aurora, Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, Sandy Hook, Oak Creek, Seal Beach, Red Lake and so many other places have fueled a state of permanent national in-security.

‘Home of the scared’

Americans have become accustomed to the idea that random violence can erupt anywhere at any time—an office, an airport, a place of worship, a shopping mall, a college campus or a hospital. Terms like “shelter in place,” “lockdown” and “active shooter” have become part of the American vernacular. Today’s culture of fear and suspicion is epitomized by “Stand Your Ground” shooters like George Zimmerman, Michael Dunn and increasingly by police in high-profile killings of citizens in Oakland, Albuquerque, White Plains, Staten Island and Ferguson, to name just a few.

The dramatic rise in the deadly use of Taser guns by police coupled with 35 years of spiking SWAT team responses have been well documented by human rights groups. In August, The Economist published a telling info graphic showing the number of annual killings by police in Japan (zero), Britain (zero), Germany (8) and the U.S. (409).

Patriots and Haters

While the police are under increasing scrutiny, accused of becoming domestic paramilitary forces, ordinary Americans have been busy stocking up on more weapons and more ammo, fearful not just of crime and terrorism but afraid that they won’t be able to get more weapons and ammo in the future.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), “patriot and militia” groups have seen a revival and are mushrooming in the Obama years. SPLC reports extreme right wing groups have soared from a low of 197 “active groups” in 2002 up to 1,608 in 2011. Meanwhile, “hate groups” have steadily grown from 708 to 1,018 in the same period, reports the SPLC.

Typically, these groups are violently opposed to gays, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Hispanics, Asians, African-Americans, immigrants and non-English speakers among others. Chances are, if you’re reading this, there’s probably a group in America somewhere that hates you for one reason or another.

Fear, Inc.

This culture of fear, in many ways, is reflected in American media. Entertainment in America today often revolves around a simulation or reenactment of crime, fighting, a battle, a war, an attack or some variation of violent conflict. Strikingly, in most quarters this type of “entertainment” is considered perfectly normal.

It’s worth noting that in order to watch an online video of the police shooting of Kajieme Powell, I had to first watch an advertisement for the cable TV crime drama Legends which was as dark and violent as any real life killing. The trailer included the line “...make the lies as close as possible to the truth,” illustrating how violent entertainment and a violent reality have become blurred to the point of being almost indistinguishable from one another.

This web of violence and fear, enabled by an impassioned defense of the second amendment (“the right of the people to keep and bear arms”) borders on religious zealotry. Even though brutality by heavily militarized police and deeply pervasive widespread violations of basic civil rights and privacy (via the TSA, NSA, Department of Homeland Security, et al.) are well documented, millions of Americans insist on owning guns not only for their own (in)security, but in case “the government tries to take over.” That’s one horse that left the stable long ago.

All this comes as multiple states have passed increasingly permissive gun laws, allowing ordinary people to purchase more guns and ammunition more simply and to carry concealed weapons in more places (college campuses, schools, office, libraries, bars, etc.). In 2013, Illinois became the final state to legalize concealed weapons. The Wall Street Journal published a map of open-carry states here.

In recent years gun and ammunition sales have soared and some towns have gone so far as to require residents to own firearms. And in a perverse twist, proponents of “open-carry” have taken to flaunting their weapons in public. There have been numerous online campaigns by (non-packing) citizens troubled to see open carriers brandish everything from hand guns and shot guns to semi-automatic assault rifles more like what you’d expect at a Mogadishu gun bazaar than the chips and salsa aisle of a big box store.

So it seems that many guns, along with the belief that gun ownership is an inviolable right, makes for a deadly combination.

We’ve got a bigger problem

America’s underlying culture of fear is reflected by and reflective of its own overly militarized foreign policy. Just a many Americans are heavily armed at home, the nation’s military keeps it heavily armed abroad.

By maintaining some 600 foreign military bases, America deploys the world’s largest arsenal of “conventional” and “non-conventional” weapons on every continent, effectively executing a global version of open carry in at least 40 countries.

Whether it’s a Glock or a Bushmaster on the home front or the vast array of military armaments and nuclear weapons abroad, America’s collective fear has it serving double-time by exporting violence overseas as war and global arms sales only to repackage it and import it back home later.

As long as the U.S. continues to police the world (despite the growing reluctance by many to do so) and holds private gun ownership sacrosanct, the likelihood that a less fearful America will evolve seems unlikely.

But to even suggest that the second amendment might actually not be in the public’s best interest is simply unfathomable. In many quarters the mere mention of restricting gun access is as unacceptable as the idea that the U.S. open itself to the kind of foreign military bases it operates around the world.

One alternative view that offers hope, but one that most Americans would probably dismiss, comes from the Dalai Lama. Speaking in 2012 on the topic of fear, he said: “I think among emotions or thoughts [are] the real destroyer is fear and distrust. Distrust eventually develops into fear. Fear develops into frustration. Frustration develops anger. Anger brings violence.

“I think that on a national or even on a family level, whenever we face some problems, we often rely on the use of force. So, that reality is totally wrong,” said the world’s most famous monk. “...If you can change a negative person through a non-violent way, that’s real victory.”
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Jon Letman is an independent freelance journalist in Hawaii. He covers the environment, militarism and society in the Asia-Pacific region. As the U.S. pursues its ‘Asian-Pacific pivot,’ Letman is reporting on the impact of the U.S. military on people around the region. Follow him on Twitter: https://twitter.com/jonletman.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.