international analysis and commentary

Facing terror: fear in the aftermath of 9/11


On June 11, 2001, exactly three months before 9/11, Americans sat comfortably on their couches as they were transported via their television screens to Terre Haute, Indiana. That was the setting for the execution of the country’s top terrorist at the time – Timothy McVeigh, the man behind the Oklahoma City bombing. Americans had waited six years to see McVeigh’s end and there was a sense of security in the nation as that chapter on terrorism came neatly to a close. Little did anyone know, the next chapter would be far more extensive, messy and much more frightening.

The death toll alone was bone-chilling in respect to the 167 killed in Oklahoma City. In the hours after the attacks, when experts were desperately guessing, they alarmed television viewers with numbers as high as ten thousand (2,996 people were killed on 9/11, including the 19 hijackers). Then there were the images. Many were watching the first tower burn on live television when the second was hit. These images would be looped before the public’s eyes for weeks and months to come. These two details alone were enough to completely turn the previous sense of security upside down. But it got worse.

First there was the economy. That morning the stock exchange did not open – and it stayed closed for a week creating a number of anxieties. Among the big economic fears: gas prices. In the hours after 9/11, Americans lined up outside stations to fill up their cars and any additional plastic tanks they could carry. They were afraid of price spikes or, even worse, that the nation would run entirely out of gas. (It was later discovered that some station owners raised prices in order to take advantage of the situation.) Local news stations did little to ease their minds, as not even reporters knew what would happen next.

It was the beginning of a trend towards survivalism and towards giving in to fear. Americans felt that they were under attack. Besides gas, they began hoarding canned goods, bottled water, duct tape and other materials considered necessary for survival. Some families even began building bunkers and businesses in the survival sector began to boom.

Soon, strange Arab names started coming out of the woodwork, a modern-day band of Boo Radleys who originated from afar: Osama bin Laden, Khalid Sheik Mohamad, Mohammad Atta. This quickly led to islamophobia and even hate crimes. In the first week after 9/11, there were reports of attacks on mosques and on people of perceived Middle Eastern descent. On September 15th, Balblbir Singh Sodhi was shot dead in Mesa, Arizona – he was a Sikh mistaken for a Muslim. His killer apparently wanted revenge for 9/11.

Also within a week of the attacks, a new fear factor began haunting the American public: the threat of biological warfare. The so-called “anthrax attacks” began on September 18th. Several newsrooms and two US senators received letters containing a “white powdery substance” laced with anthrax spores. Five people eventually died from exposure and 17 others were infected. The FBI investigation would become one of the most complex in US history. It ended after the main suspect, Bruce Edwards Ivins who had been under tight surveillance, committed suicide in 2008 and federal prosecutors named him the culprit – despite a lack of direct evidence. The case was finally closed last year.

The fear of a “white powdery substance” created alarm all over the country. Americans were constantly on the look-out for “suspicious packages”. Polls in the early weeks after 9/11 showed that almost 60% of Americans were taking steps to protect themselves. Also, new terminology, like “dirty bomb”, began to permeate media discussions. At the same time, airport security was being tightened, the mail service was under watch and Americans began seeing their civil liberties at risk.

In October, as President Bush’s approval ratings were soaring, Congress passed the Patriot Act. The promise was to facilitate law enforcement in hunting down terrorists and prosecuting them. This translated into loosened restrictions on intelligence gathering – including searches on phone, internet, medical, library and business records. Though in a reduced form, the Patriot Act still exists today.

Also in October, the war in Afghanistan began. Americans began watching the bombing on television. Young national guardsmen and women deployed from all over the nation. Journalists interviewed teary-eyed husbands, wives and mothers. As President Bush had made clear, America was definitely at war. This introduced even more Boo Radleys into American homes (one-eyed Mullah Omar) and scary new places like Tora Bora and Mazari Sharif. Most notably, President Bush christened the term “war on terror” – three words that defined the new culture of fear in America.

By springtime, the nation had become the “homeland” in Bush speak – and the Department of Homeland Security was formed. It was the largest restructuring of the government in modern times. One of the department’s first tasks was the release of the “terror threat alert” system. It was a color-coded scale designed to demonstrate to the public the possibility of a terrorist attack:

  • Red: severe risk
  • Orange: high risk
  • Yellow: elevated risk
  • Blue: guarded risk
  • Green: low risk

The government issued a graphic image of the scale to media outlets. It was flashed across news screens almost daily in the months following the launch of the war. It kept Americans on edge as they began to associate the red and orange bars with the possibility of a terrorist attack (the level never dropped below “yellow”). The problem: there was no published criteria behind the levels, so no one ever really knew what the colored bars meant in concrete terms. The Department of Homeland Security eventually acknowledged that the system had a psychological effect on the nation. And later Tom Ridge recounted how the Bush administration tried to pressure him into raising the alert level on the eve of the 2004 presidential elections. Rarely seen in the past few years, the terror threat alert was replaced in the spring of 2011 with a simpler 2-code system.

Also in 2002, the United States opened the Guantánamo Bay detention center. It was designed as a holding facility for “unlawful enemy combatants”. In reality, it became a prison for al Qaeda suspects or prisoners of the war in Afghanistan and later those detained in Iraq. The existence of this camp meant that Bush’s “terrorists” were all too real (it has housed almost 800 “suspected terrorists”). Eventually, the center came under fire for alleged abuse and President Obama promised to close it in his 2008 campaign platform. However, Gitmo (as it is often called) is still open today with more than 170 detainees.

It wasn’t long before this abundance of fear was reinforced by a second war. In early 2003, Americans watched Colin Powell demonstrate satellite images of Iraq on live television. It was enough to convince even the most hardened journalists. With this display, the second Gulf War began.

Also in 2003, studies reported that Congress had listed 160 sites as potential national targets for terrorists. Many Americans began to avoid public places. That number increased exponentially over the next few years. In 2007 there were hundreds of thousands of sites listed. Some were of great importance, many were insignificant – such as small town festivals.

All of this may have prevented a second terrorist attack (the legacy that both Bush and Obama like to claim for themselves) but it also led to embarrassment. There was the Abu Ghraib scandal, the revelation that America had thousands of suspected terrorists detained in secret prisons around the world, reports of public funds wasted on unnecessary law enforcement activities and little by little the principals that made America unique had faded with its sense of security. According to most of the Bush administration’s critics, America had fallen into the trap that Benjamin Franklin had warned against: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

America suffered a genuine shock on September 11th and the country’s collective psychology was certainly affected. This was reflected in the choices made by its political elite: Washington’s reaction was to some extent understandable and even predictable, but certainly – in hindsight – it did not always serve America’s own interests. The war on terror, very often criticized as an ideological choice, was ultimately more a psychological reaction than a policy calculus.