As an expat living in Africa for the last 13 years, I can honestly say that America in its current iteration is completely unrecognizable when held up to the country I left. Rolling back women’s family planning and health care rights, voter suppression, gun hoarding on a mass scale, vociferous and self-righteous mainstream bigotry, fundamentalist Christianity actually dictating policy instead of just campaigning for it as a powerful interest group, an assault on the middle class and particularly unions, the rise of smarmy oligarchs who see nothing wrong with undermining democracy in favor of a plutocracy, elected officials in the highest House in the land willfully determined to destroy the global economy – the list goes on and on. It is a bizarre chapter in American history and, as best I can tell, it all started with a man named bin Laden.
With hindsight, 9/11 proved to be much more than a single incident of terrorism delivered by a faraway religious fanatic. It was the catalyst for large-scale coordinated fanaticism in America itself and a seemingly endless round of attacks on the fabric of the nation, all delivered from within. Bin Laden could never have imagined just how successful his murderous act would be at destabilizing the country he hated. Nor could he have dreamed that his victims would be so willing to continue what he started by taking the wrecking ball to their own society, institutions and security.
It has been widely acknowledged that the Bush Administration shamelessly and cruelly used the fear created by 9/11 to manipulate the country it was supposed to serve into a war it didn’t need. Less discussed, but arguably more important to events unfolding today, was the damage caused by scotch-taping the propaganda machine of WWII onto a conflict more akin to Vietnam. Massive, all-consuming and in no way proportional to the actual wars being waged, it riled but gave no outlet for expending the energy created.
Consider that when the machine was put in place during WWII, everyone had a role to play. From women entering the previously male dominated workforce, to food rationing, to an entire generation – more than 10 percent of America’s total population at the time – going to the front. The enemy was clear, unity was critical and the stakes were high. Life at home during WWII did not carry-on as normal, it was an ‘all hands on deck’ affair. In contrast, Iraq and Afghanistan on the home front more closely resembled being ‘all dressed up with nowhere to go’.
While the Bush war machine can be blamed for creating an emotional powder keg, it was Sarah Palin who lit the fuse. Sure, it is fun to mock the ‘Killa from Wasilla’ as an irrelevant moron but, from where I sat watching in Africa, she seemed to play the dangerous game of populism a little too well. Bush-era rhetoric focused on defining those against the war as being unpatriotic but Palin successfully shifted the conversation to defining who was a ‘real’ American and who wasn’t. By so doing, she officially brought America’s conflicts abroad home. For the frightened, frustrated and downright paranoid, there was finally something to do: lock and load to take the country back from the enemy within.
Thanks to the precedents set by the Bush Administration’s cynically manipulative response to 9/11 and the right’s relentless demonization of fictional ‘enemies’ within, it has become clear that a certain portion of the population now thinks it is okay for Americans to hurt America - as long as it is the “real” Americans landing the blows.
I, however, am having a hard time differentiating external fanatics bent on harming my homeland from internal forces threatening economic destruction to achieve one-sided political goals. To call what has become a zero-sum game “irresponsible”, “childish” or “stupid” is being too kind. If you had told me on 9/12 that just over a decade later, America would be waging a bizarre campaign of economic sabotage…on itself...I wouldn't have believed you. Now, I can’t help but wonder what new low the United States will sink to next.
Congratulations bin Laden, for the moment it seems you have won. Quite frankly, given the headlines coming out of America every day, I feel safer in Africa.