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The Nefarious Ways 9-11 Turned America into a Lockdown State

Even after his death, Osama bin Laden thrives in the U.S.'s transformation into a lockdown state.

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In the meantime, he -- and 9/11 as it entered the American psyche -- helped facilitate the locking down of this society in ways that should unnerve us all.  The resulting United States of Fear has since engaged in two disastrous more-than-trillion dollar wars and a “Global War on Terror” that shows no sign of ending in our lifetime. (See Yemen, Pakistan, and Mali.)  It has also funded the supersizedgrowth of a labyrinthine intelligence bureaucracy; that post-9/11 creation, the Department of Homeland Security; and, of course, the Pentagon and the U.S. military, including the special operations forces, an ever-expanding secret military elite cocooned within it.

Given the enemy at hand -- not a giant empire, but scattered jihadis and minority insurgencies in distant lands -- all of these institutions, which make up the post-9/11 National Security Complex, expanded in ways that would have boggled the minds of previous generations (as would that most un-American of all words, “homeland”).  All of this, in turn, happened in a poisonously paranoid atmosphere in Washington, and much of the rest of the country.

Even if you ignore that Inauguration Day no-boating zone or the 30-mile no-fly zone (the sort of thing the U.S. once imposed on enemy lands and now imposes on itself), consider those “thousands of doses of antidotes in case of a chemical or biological attack.”  Just about nothing on this planet is utterly inconceivable, but it’s worth noting that, as far as we know, the national security bureaucracy made no preparations for an unexpected tornado on Inauguration Day.  Given recent extreme weather events, including tornado warnings for Washington, that would at least have been a plausible scenario to consider.

Certainly, a biological or chemical attack is a similarly imaginable possibility.  After all, it actually happened in Tokyo in 1995, when followers of the Aum Shinrikyo cult set off Sarin gas in that city’s subway system, killing 11.  But the likelihood of any conceivable set of Islamic terrorists attacking those inaugural crowds with either chemical or biological weapons was, to say the least, microscopic.  As something to protect Washington visitors against, it ranked at least on a par with the ( nonexistent) post-9/11 al-Qaeda sleeper cells and sleeper-assassins so crucial to the plot of the TV show “Homeland.”

And yet, in these years, what might have remained essentially a nightmarish fantasy has become an impending reality around which the national security folks organize their lives -- and ours.  Ever since the now largely forgotten anthrax mail attacks that killed five soon after 9/11 -- the anthrax in those envelopes may have come directly from a U.S. bioweapons laboratory -- all sorts of fantastic scenarios involving biochemical attacks have become part and parcel of the American lockdown state.

In the Bush era, for instance, among the apocalyptic dream scenes the president and his top officials used to panic Congress into approving a much-desired invasion of Iraq were the possibility of future mushroom clouds over American cities and this claim: that Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein had drones (he didn’t) and the means to get them to the East Coast of the U.S. (he didn’t), and the ability to use them to launch attacks in which chemical and biological weaponry would be sprayed over U.S. cities (he didn’t).  This was a presidentially promoted fantasy of the first order, but no matter.  Some senators actually voted to go to war at least partially on the basis of it.

As is often true of ruling groups, Bush and his cronies weren’t just manipulating us with the fear of nightmarish future attacks, but themselves as well.  Thanks to New Yorker journalist Jane Mayer’s fine book The Dark Side, for instance, we know that Vice President Dick Cheney was always driven around Washington with "a duffel bag stocked with a gas mask and a biochemical survival suit" in the backseat of his car.