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Tomgram: Peter Van Buren, Class of 2017 -- So Sorry!

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Let's start with the basics. In an era when the U.S. seemed to have no great power rivals on the horizon, its national security state was expanded to monstrous proportions and given the "right" to commit acts ranging from kidnapping to torture, surveillance of its citizenry to assassination, based on the horrific events of a single day and on a single danger: the slaughter of September 11th and the threat of terrorism. In those years, before Donald Trump even began stirring the pot, Americans were already consumed by fears of a danger that, in the United States at least, couldn't have been more minor. In the process, we essentially terrorized ourselves into a new world.

If you want to worry about real dangers in American life, start with vehicles, not terrorists. If you're smart, in fact, don't give another thought to Islamic terrorism and stay off the roads. In 2015, the U.S. saw the largest percentage rise in death-by-vehicle in the last half-century: more than 38,000 people slaughtered and 4.4 million injured. And in the first half of 2016, those figures rose by another 9% with no end to the carnage in sight. Unlike our war on terror (and the seven conflicts that now go with it), no one's likely to spend trillions of dollars dealing with such deaths, even though they add up to more than 12 times those of 9/11 annually; nor, on a more minor scale, with the deaths of Americans who simply fall out of their beds, are hit by lawnmowers, or are gunned down by toddlers. In most recent years, each of these dangers has equaled or exceeded deaths in the U.S. from Islamic terrorists (or the disturbed individuals who often masquerade as them). And yet, in case you haven't noticed, no one is investing in a national security state apparatus to prevent them, nor is the country convulsed with worry about killer lawnmowers or armed toddlers, even as fears of being taken out by Islamic terrorists continue to grow (especially among Republicans).

By now, a way of life built and funded on this singular fear has -- thank you, Osama bin Laden -- transformed our national security state into an unofficial fourth branch of government. Add in one other development: a new media landscape has also been built on such relatively rare moments of terror in our world. In this year of the never-ending Trumpian news cycle, just about the only thing guaranteed to break into it and monopolize our onscreen attention is the sudden slaughter of people by someone claiming allegiance to, or inspiration from, ISIS. You can practically chant the names of the places where this has occurred: San Bernardino, Orlando, Paris, Brussels, Nice -- or rather, where this has occurred to people we identify with. (Few are likely to be chanting Kabul, Aden, Baghdad, Iskandariya, or Istanbul, among other places.) Such events, if they happen to the right people, can monopolize screen time for days, if not weeks, at a stretch, creating a sense of danger out of all proportion to the actual threat level in our lives.

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Fifteen years after 9/11, this is our American way of life. With Russia and China now being elevated to, or toward, enemy status in Washington, and terror groups still spreading across the Greater Middle East, you can expect the same sorts of demobilizing fears to continue to rise in the years to come. This should be, but generally isn't, an embarrassment to Americans, which is why I have particular sympathy (or perhaps I mean empathy) for former State Department whistleblower and TomDispatch regular Peter Van Buren's urge to apologize to his child for the world he's turning over to her. Tom

It's Personal
Apologizing to My Daughter for the Last 15 Years of War
By Peter Van Buren

I recently sent my last kid off for her senior year of college. There are rituals to such moments, and because dad-confessions are not among them, I just carried boxes and kept quiet. But what I really wanted to say to her -- rather than see you later, call this weekend, do you need money? -- was: I'm sorry.

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Like all parents in these situations, I was thinking about her future. And like all of America, in that future she won't be able to escape what is now encompassed by the word "terrorism."

Everything Is Okay, But You Should Be Terrified

Terrorism is a nearly nonexistent danger for Americans. You have a greater chance of being hit by lightning, but fear doesn't work that way. There's no 24/7 coverage of global lightning strikes or "if you see something, say something" signs that encourage you to report thunderstorms. So I felt no need to apologize for lightning.

But terrorism? I really wanted to tell my daughter just how sorry I was that she would have to live in what 9/11 transformed into the most frightened country on Earth.

Want the numbers? Some 40% of Americans believe the country is more vulnerable to terrorism than it was just after September 11, 2001 -- the highest percentage ever.

Want the apocalyptic jab in the gut? Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley said earlier this month that the threat remains just as grave: "Those people, those enemies, those members of that terrorist group, still intend -- as they did on 9/11 -- to destroy your freedoms, to kill you, kill your families, they still intend to destroy the United States of America."

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All that fear turned us into an engine of chaos abroad, while consuming our freedoms at home. And it saddens me that there was a different world, pre-9/11, which my daughter's generation and all those who follow her will never know.

Growing Up

My kids grew up overseas while, from 1988 to 2012, I served with the State Department. For the first part of my career as a diplomat, wars were still discreet matters. For example, though Austria was a neighbor of Slovenia, few there were worried that the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s would spill across the border. Suicide bombers didn't threaten Vienna when we visited as tourists in 1991. That a war could again consume large parts of the globe and involve multiple nations would have seemed as remote to us vacationers that year as the moon.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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