Last week, the United States of America’s department of homeland security lowered the terror threat level from orange — “high” — to yellow —“elevated,” following the rout of Saddam Hussein. This colour-coded terror alert system, unveiled in the US after 9/11, is like the “Caution: Falling Ice” sign on busy American streets in winter, which is not meant to make pedestrians look up as they walk to protect themselves. The idea is to prevent litigious Americans from slapping a lawsuit on the establishment from which the ice fell.
The colour-coded advisory system is the state’s way of saying, “Hey, the FBI, CIA and a bunch of law enforcement people are working overtime to ensure your safety, but if a bomb detonates somewhere, don’t blame us because we told you so.”
While most people have not reacted to such alerts beyond feeling anxious, others have decided to take their own precautions. There have been reports of severe shortage of duct tape in parts of the US because some people resorted to duct-taping their houses, when the government led them to believe that duct tape could protect them against biological attacks.
Self-preservation is a basic human instinct. But the colour coding, the warning signs and the duct-taping actually spring from the American belief that the individual can control almost everything around him. While some may consider it to be a quirk, many immigrants in the US will argue that it is a virtue.
Unlike fatalistic Easterners who are resigned to their fate, or worse, blame others for their misery, Americans have the get-up-and-go attitude that makes them believe that they can change things for the better. But the belief quickly morphs into paranoia when Americans realize that there exist certain things that are truly beyond their control. September 11 was one of them. Ever since 9/11, Americans have been enveloped by a cloud of fear and uncertainty which has shaken them out of the stupor of security.
Consequently, people are looking to the government,which is reacting by classifying the terror. This is again typical of the American obsession with naming, classifying and analyzing.
This fear emerging from the heightened sense of vulnerability then, has driven the war against Iraq. That Hussein was defying United Nations orders was old news, and this alone would not have spurred a war. Popular sentiment would have been deeply against it. But al Qaida and 9/11 have exposed America to something that it has not witnessed before — an unknown quantity, a faceless enemy, an un-classifiable threat.
So the war in Iraq has been largely supported because the Americans are afraid. And the government has tapped the fear and encouraged it. Helping it along has been the American media. Especially the broadcast media which, prior to the war, added a daily dose on Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction.”
The broadcast media has subtly functioned as the voice of the government, transmitting the government’s claim about al Qaida and Hussein’s links without providing even a shred of evidence. And since most Americans get their news from television, to the average Joe Blow, anything mentioned in the same sentence as al Qaida must be evil and anti-American. Consider this: a disturbing 44 per cent of Americans believe that most or some of the hijackers of the planes that rammed into the World Trade Center were Iraqi, according to a survey that polled more than 1,200 Americans in early January. In reality, there were no Iraqi nationals among the 19 hijackers.
Now that the war in Iraq is over, Washington is sending disturbing signals to Syria. Needless to say, ordinary fearful Americans would gladly support any military action in Syria too. Fear can be blinding. Maybe it is time for squabbling Europeans or Asians to grow up and act as a balancing force to the paranoid superpower.