Of all the things out there to be afraid of, why have we wasted so much ink and airtime on the vaguely troubled churnings of Michael Chertoff’s gut? And why, for that matter, do the media, dutifully following the lead of the Bush administration, show such ongoing reverence for al-Qaida’s alleged capacity to bring us to our knees and wreck our way of life?
But the $64,000 question amid all the frantic noise (adjusted for inflation, it may be the $2 trillion question) is: Why is our waiting time at the airport punctuated at regular intervals by utterly meaningless reminders over the PA system that the nation is at threat level orange?
I have my theories. It may well be true that air travel security — unlike airplane maintenance (let us pray) — is a profession with no deeper roots in rationality than any other type of fortune telling, but the widespread collusion of otherwise sensible people in the dissemination of vague “warnings” that do not translate into any obvious modification of behavior point to another explanation.
My country ’tis of thee . . .
Hymns, fireworks, the flag, the Pledge of Allegiance — all this symbolic paraphernalia helps the United States of America define itself as a nation, but the mix doesn’t really cohere until we inject a sufficient dose of fear. Level orange seems to be about right. You might call it the “homeland conspiracy.”
I can only attest to the state of things in my own boomer lifetime, which reaches back to the earliest days of the Cold War and its dire undercurrent of fallout shelters, duck and cover drills and general deference in highbrow and lowbrow circles alike to the Red Menace and the domino theory of Soviet domination, but as far as I can tell we have always been at level orange.
Whatever real dangers stalked the planet in the ’50s and ’60s had little to do with the bogeymen in our imaginations that shored up our patriotism and justified the nuclear arms race, the CIA-orchestrated overthrow of various democratically elected governments around the world and, of course, the national crash landing in Vietnam (when level orange mutated into Agent Orange).
I have never known nationalism that wasn’t laced with superstitious fear — that is to say, a sense of all-embracing threat emanating from a highly simplified, soulless enemy, the opposition of which is a cover for something else — and I wonder if there is such a critter. And if not, what’s the alternative? The Bush-Cheney administration has pushed this question beyond level orange.
I say this for several reasons. First, the cynics currently in power have come up with a carte-blanche justification for whatever they do by proclaiming a war against an enemy so vague and ethereal that it can never be defeated, and have in fact warned us with the bluntness of an Old Time Religion preacher that the war we are now in has no end. This is whole hog greed for power. The fact that they got away with it for so long — that is, until reality caught up with them — is a danger signal my own gut warns me about with every terror update I read in the newspaper.
Second, the blood and money we have spent fighting “al-Qaida in Iraq” — an enemy that literally did not exist until we starting fighting it — is obscene in ways that may take generations for historians to catalogue. We have wrecked two countries fighting a war on terror, sowing them with depleted uranium and other toxic side effects of war that will make those regions infinitely less livable places, and at the same time sowing hatred that will guarantee that terrorism is an acute threat for the foreseeable future. And meanwhile, the real security threats we face — including crises in health care, domestic violence and global warming — remain for the most part unaddressed as we pursue the Bush-Cheney diversion.
Even on its own terms, this war is bogus. The Government Accountability Office, for instance, recently set up a dummy company that was able to obtain a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission allowing it to purchase nuclear material. This ruse demonstrated a mind-boggling laxity of real security in Bush-Cheney America. A terrorist group interested in building a dirty bomb would have no trouble obtaining the materials to do so, even as the war on terror rages and the Homeland Security secretary’s gut warns us to be vigilant.
But level orange turns the brightest red for me when I ponder the administration’s plans to extricate itself from its own quagmires. According to the U.K. Guardian Unlimited, “The balance in the internal White House debate over Iran has shifted back in favour of military action before President George Bush leaves office in 18 months.”
This is slash-and-burn governance betokening a level of cynicism not yet imagined, but perhaps possible in a nation conceived not in liberty but in fear. Could they get away with it? What does your gut say?
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Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column ator visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.
© 2007 Tribune Media Services, Inc.