How Boston Exposes America’s Dark Post-9/11 Bargain
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But I think the real reason why this gruesome but small-scale attack sent the whole country into such an incoherent panic lies a little deeper than that. As a New Yorker who lived through 9/11, by the way, I’m aware that the trauma felt by people in and around Boston, whether or not they were directly affected, is real and likely to last quite a while. What I’m talking about is the media spectacle of fear and unreason delivered via TV, news sites and social media, the nationwide hysteria that made a vicious act apparently perpetrated by two losers with backpack bombs seem like an “existential threat” (to borrow a little bogus “Homeland”-speak) to the most powerful nation in the world.
Because it was, in a way. In America after 9/11, we made a deal with the devil, or with Dick Cheney, which is much the same thing. We agreed to give up most of our enumerated rights and civil liberties (except for the sacrosanct Second Amendment, of course) in exchange for a lot of hyper-patriotic tough talk, the promise of “security” and the freedom to go on sitting on our asses and consuming whatever the hell we wanted to. Don’t look the other way and tell me that you signed a petition or voted for John Kerry or whatever. The fact is that whatever dignified private opinions you and I may hold, we did not do enough to stop it, and our constitutional rights are now deemed to be partial or provisional rather than absolute, do not necessarily apply to everyone, and can be revoked by the government at any time.
The supposed tradeoff for that sacrifice was that we would be protected, at least for a while, from the political violence and terrorism and low-level warfare that is nearly an everyday occurrence in many parts of the world. According to the Afghan government, for example, a NATO air attack on April 6 killed 17 civilians in Kunar province, 12 of them children. We’ve heard almost nothing about that on this side of the world, partly because the United States military has not yet admitted that it even happened. But it’s not entirely fair to suggest that Americans think one kid killed by a bomb in Boston is worth more than 12 kids killed in Afghanistan. It’s more that we live in a profoundly asymmetrical world, and the dead child in Boston is surprising in a way any number of dead children in Afghanistan, horrifyingly enough, are not. He lived in a protected zone, after all, a place that was supposed to be sealed off from history, isolated from the blood and turmoil of the world. But of course that was a lie.
We are supposed to be protected, and then something like Boston comes along, a small-minded and bloody attack that appears to have been conducted by a couple of guys flying under the radar of law enforcement or national intelligence, pursuing some obscure agenda we will probably never understand. (We have recently learned that Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his family were interviewed by the FBI in 2011, apparently at the request of Russian intelligence, and agents found “no derogatory information.” Is that the right’s new Benghazi I smell?) Not only does it conjure up all the leftover post-traumatic jitters from 9/11 – which for many of us will be there for the rest of our lives – it also makes clear that our Faustian bargain was completely bogus, and the devil never intended to hold up his end of the deal. We surrendered our rights to a government of war criminals, who promised us certainty and security in a world that offers none. We should have known better, and in fact we did. At the literal birth moment of American democracy, Benjamin Franklin summed it up in a single sentence: “Those who would give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”