At President Obama's news conference Friday, a reporter demanded to know why the Obama administration had not yet caught Osama bin Laden and his lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri. "Do you think Americans are going to face another nine years of this terror threat, another generation?" asked CNN's Ed Henry.
The question reinforced what has been oozing through the mad headlines and crazed commentary on the all-talk networks in recent weeks. Nine years after the terror attack in lower Manhattan that took close to 3,000 lives, fear is still the primary emotion that drives the American response to the world around us. The vituperation over the building of the "Ground Zero mosque"; the attacks on Muslims or people who might be Muslims; the pyromaniac Florida pastor; even the persistent belief among some Americans that the president of the United States is a foreigner or, worse, a secret Muslim agent are all manifestations of the fear that has held much of America in its grip in the past nine years.
This fear is not just about terror. It is about the uncertain economic situation. The recession and the housing collapse have highlighted the flight of "good" jobs to China and India without the reassurance from our leaders that our idealized middle-class lifestyle can still be salvaged. It is about changing demographics as seen mostly in the vast influx of Hispanics, but also in the rise of African Americans — epitomized by Barack Obama — to positions of real power, even as black quarterbacks and beauty queens challenge the meaning of the "all-American" American. It is that fear of change that also drives the Tea Party effort to "take back America," and the GOP's regression to sending coded messages to its core white constituency.
Franklin D. Roosevelt's famed declaration that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself" is well enshrined in our collective memories. The rest of the quote, often elided, also offers an important lesson for us today: " … nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance." Roosevelt made this exhortation against panic at his first inaugural speech in the depths of the Great Depression. But its call to courage should resonate with us today.
There was no equivalent poetic call to courage in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center in New York. But there is no doubt that al-Qaida forever altered our sense of security and froze our progressive sense of what we represent as Americans.
"It doesn't have to completely distort us or dominate our foreign policy," President Obama pleaded at Friday's press conference. But fear did just that in the aftermath of Sept. 11. Fear drove the Bush administration — with the full compliance of Democrats — into a morass of kidnappings, unlimited detentions, renditions, torture and targeted assassinations. Not to mention two wars in the Middle East and Central Asia — at least one unnecessarily — that have consumed the lives of more than 5,000 of our young people and that of at least 100,000 Iraqis. Yet nine years later we feel no safer, according to the polls. What's more, we have seriously undermined the principles and ideals that so many around the world have admired.
The Hays-Tilden Compromise of 1877 — signed on by Northerners, we must not forget — ended hopes of true democracy in America for another century. In our own era, fear of black crime has filled our prisons with black men sentenced with laws that are blatantly tilted by race. That fear has allowed cities like New York to resort to violations of constitutional rights on a grand scale through stop-and-frisk laws.
We know that advancement is not inevitable and that the arc of the moral universe that Barack Obama so lovingly evokes is not linear. There have been frequent setbacks and side trips and retreats in our history. The Dec. 6, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor triggered the greatest act of ethnic cleansing in America since the expulsion of the Native Americans from the Eastern half of the United States a century earlier. Japanese Americans — successful, entrepreneurial, committed citizens — were rounded up into concentration camps on suspicion of disloyalty, an act of irrationality that received the imprimatur of the U.S. Supreme Court and an apology a half-century later.
In the aftermath of 9/11, thousands of Arab Americans and Muslim Americans found themselves under suspicion for little more than their ethnicity or religion. Some Americans argued loudly that profiling Arabs made sense because the World Trade Center bombers were from Saudi Arabia. Holding suspects outside the reach of the U.S. Constitution in Guantánamo or Abu Ghraib, they argued, was sound strategy. Fortunately, as the panic subsided, our legal system began to reassert itself and pushed back against the draconian behavior of the administration.
But as we pull back from Iraq and, soon enough, Afghanistan, most Americans sense that we have not won the war against terror. We are not necessarily safer now. We all have reason to worry about the consequences of the next terror attack or military setback. And those of us who are brown or hyphenated Americans do have reason to fear fear itself. After all, its consequences can, and will, affect our own status as Americans.
Joel Dreyfuss is managing editor of The Root.