For a moment this morning, I confess that I found myself on the edge of my seat in the middle of the Halloween special edition of the Today show. As a corporate media critic, an academic, and a professional with a regular day job, such a confession could be damning, as if I were a militant vegan caught red-handed choking down a Sloppy Joe. In my defense, however, I wasn't riveted by a middle-aged Meredith Vieira jumping around a Times Square stage cross-dressed as teen pop star Justin Bieber, nor a blue-domed Will Ferrell pitching his latest animated cartoon Megamind , in which he plays an evil mastermind that learns a heartwarming lesson on not being evil (just like George Bush, whom he used to impersonate).
Rather, my heart jumped a beat as the Ferrell was cut off mid-one liner by a Special Report (apparently more special than Al Roker dressed as Superman), in which Brian Williams intoned with grave vagueness about an "unfolding situation" involving airplanes across the country.
With three words, nine years melted away, and I found myself back on the edge of my seat in 2001, staring incredulously at the smoldering World Trade Center on the television, my panic at the "unfolding situation" building as the towers fell. Like all of us on 9/11, I found myself in a state of shock, terrifying possibilities spinning through my mind:
Was this just the start? Would we be attacked in San Francisco? Would I be drafted? Would I die?
At that moment, we felt terrible empathy with New York, one that has scarred us all it wasn't just the towers falling, as cognitive linguist George Lakoff observed after 9/11, but ourselves. He argues that we see buildings as people, that we "see features--eyes, nose, and mouth--in their windows." And when we saw the flights smash into the towers, it was "an image of a bullet going through someone's head, the flame pouring from the other side blood spurting out." Lakoff rightly concludes 9/11 was a powerful symbolic event in our national consciousness:
"It was an assassination. The tower falling was a body falling. The bodies falling were me, relatives, friends. Strangers who had smiled as they had passed me on the street screamed as they fell past me. The image afterward was hell: ash, smoke, and steam rising, the building skeleton, darkness, suffering, death."
And to this day, I know this horrible image and the terror with it lies just barely beneath the surface of my everyday awareness. It's so close to the surface, that Brian Williams pressed my panic button with a scant three words, as if I were one of Pavlov's dogs slobbering for a Sloppy Joe at the sound of a bell. Since 9/11, though there have been no further terrorist attacks on our soil, this panic button has been pressed over and again, and the image is no less hellish, and the panic no less real, as if it's now hardwired into our national consciousness. And after almost a decade of hitting the panic button, it has become our default setting, our new, hypervigiliant, paranoid normal.
We now live in terror just three words away.
And as Williams continued to speak, it was clear that the "unfolding situation" was not an attack, but that authorities were searching grounded UPS planes because of credible, but then unsubstantiated threats. Whatever situation could have unfolded, in short, was already being folded away, and by the end of the day, as I write this article less than eight hours later, the now "credible terrorist threat" was averted, with all "hazardous materials intercepted," according to MSNBC . Now, we are so fearful, so paranoid, that we not only fight wars preemptively, but get panicked preemptively.
We have become a nation of hypochondriacs, convinced every cough is tuberculosis, every bump is cancer, and every sneeze is the swine flu. So scarred are we by 9/11, we find the terror in the innocuous, we see foreboding omens in the everyday.
The loathed and loved Glenn Beck is a product of this hypochondriac culture, a man who sees immense communist plots and evil conspiracies everywhere, in the same way McCarthy channeled the 50s Cold War panic into uncovering and fighting, well, immense communist plots. To Beck, as to McCarthy, every itch is a symptom of a fatal, systemic disease. In his dystopian novel The Overton Window, Beck vividly describes the dystopia he sees around him, a malevolent century long Big Government plot, in which freedom-lovers are tossed "into concentration camps" ( LA Times) . Unlike George Orwell's vision, Beck sees his work as "faction," or a combination between fact and fiction in other words, his totalitarian plot is real.