The 21st century sucks
William Rivers Pitt
February 10, 2007
It took an astonishingly stupid bomb scare in my town last week to really make me feel old for the first time. "Old" isn't the proper word, I guess, since I am only midway through my 30s. I live in Boston, temporary home to nearly one million students from September to June every year, and so I am surrounded by kids all the time.
I used to teach high school English to roomfuls of teenagers. Neither of these things made me feel old. The now-infamous Lite-Brite Bomb Fiasco of 2007 that unspooled here last week didn't make me feel old either, so much as it made me feel out of touch, for the first time, with those who are ten or fifteen years younger than me.
The gulf between my feelings and thoughts that day, and the feelings and thoughts of the twenty-somethings I talked to about it afterward, could not have been wider. Not to put too fine a point on it, that whole thing scared the almighty cheese out of me. The reports started coming in around noon — "suspicious items" that had "wires" and "electronics," which were found strapped to critical infrastructure all over the city, according to the news media — and for a few hours, I entertained the possibility that my darkest fears were becoming a reality.
My fears were inspired by all the stuff I've been trying to telegraph to people for the last several years. This Iraq occupation, I've been arguing since the fall of 2002, will inspire more terrorism. A 10-year-old girl in Baghdad gets blown sideways out of her kitchen, a mother gets blasted in a sectarian street-battle in Fallujah, a father has menstrual blood smeared on his face in a cement cage in Abu Ghraib by leering U.S. troops looking to humiliate those of his faith, a son gets shot by a U.S. sniper in Najaf ... and the families of those people are going to pick up a gun and volunteer to die that they might kill.
Combine this manufacture of terrorists with the legal aftermath of 9/11, the evaporation of constitutional protections put in place "for our safety," and the rancid motivations of those in power, and you have a recipe for catastrophe. The terrorists we are manufacturing in Iraq are not going to the beach, or heading off to a camping trip. Play the tape to the end, and one has to operate under the assumption that, sooner or later, they are going to show up here. If and when they do, they will not need to take down buildings to create mayhem.
A few hand grenades at a mall in Duluth, a car bomb in St Louis, or a few bridges blown up in Boston, and that's the ball game. We will see a declaration of "Red Alert," which is martial law, the suspension of habeas corpus, the suspension of posse comitatus, and the end of the rule of constitutional law in America. This great experiment in government of, by and for the people, with all its flaws and all its strengths, will be shelved, and a great light will be, perhaps forever, extinguished.
That is what I thought I was watching here in Boston last week. The places they were finding these items — a main railway bridge, an overpass on the city's main highway, the hospital a few scant blocks from my apartment — are precisely the kind of soft targets that, if destroyed, would create chaos. Attacking infrastructure is one of the oldest and most effective tactics of warfare, and here it was in my neighborhood, or so I feared. I thought I was watching "The Last Day," and it sickened me in a place within that words cannot touch.
This was not, of course, the case. Once images of those stupid little cartoon things made it to television screens, I was able to relax. When it came out that the whole mess was an advertising campaign for a cartoon, I thought my brain was going to leap out of my skull. The rest of the country saw those things and had a hearty laugh at our expense, especially the twenty-somethings who recognized it immediately.
So, was my fear an over-reaction? It is easy to say so in hindsight. How can anyone think one of those Lite-Brite things was a bomb? Easy. You spend a few hours watching the TV news people natter about "wiring" and "electronics" and things strapped to bridges and hospitals, but you're not shown the actual items by those same news people. It was hours before I saw what they were talking about, and in that simple fact, we find one of the central afflictions of our wretched estate.
That whole thing last week was of the media, by the media and for the media. An advertising agency pimps a television show, and the resulting nonsense becomes fodder for the TV news shows. This was the perfect example of the media serving itself at the expense of the people. If they had shown us one of those LED boards, no one would have thought twice. It served the news media better, however, to bluster about suspicious items for hours. Better ratings, you see.
The event also exposed a dissonance in our collective thinking, especially among the aforementioned younger set. For them, and to use their favorite word, the 21st century absolutely sucks. A 21-year-old today was 17 years old when we invaded Iraq, 15 years old when September 11 happened, and 14 years old when the Supreme Court decided to take over the duties and responsibilities of electing our public officials. Since then, they have been subjected to bogus terror scare after bogus terror scare, to lies without count about threats beyond measure, to a war seemingly without end that serves only itself.
The cynicism that breeds because of this is central to that dissonance. On the one hand, it is accepted as axiomatic that we are manufacturing terrorism in Iraq. On the other hand, it is also axiomatic that these Bush people deliberately frighten people for purely political purposes, and so the threat of terrorism itself becomes just another bag of nonsense, a fear tactic to be dismissed out of hand. Only a sucker falls for that game, and what happened in Boston last week feeds that cynical dismissal.
These two ideas, while correct on their own, cannot exist together in the same space.
If we are manufacturing terrorism, then one of these days, the warning will be real. It is one of the most searing crimes committed by Bush and his ilk — and yes, to my mind, it is a crime — that so many people are motivated to stand against this war because it is dangerous for us all, but at the same time scoff at one of the most dangerous potential consequences of the war. Why should someone who graduated from high school in this climate, who has begun to come of age as the walls of the castle crumble, who has been subjected to media-driven terror and state-sponsored murder believe anything they are told?
I was reminded of the years I spent living in San Francisco. The threat of an earthquake was ever-present, but in no way dominated the attention of the citizenry. The threat occupied a corner of your mind; if it happened, you wouldn't be surprised, but if you walked around worried about it every second of the day, you'd go mad. So you didn't worry about it, but you always breathed a little easier once you drove off the Bay Bridge. It was what it was.
Today, it is what it is. Terrorism exists, and the threat of it has been made all the more pressing by the actions of this government. I thought I was watching the consequences of their activities arrive here last week, and was shaken by it. It was, to me, a dry run for the worst day ever. In the end, however, the worst part came later. It came when I heard people making fun of the threat.
Actions have consequences. What the Bush administration is doing in Iraq makes us far less safe, both over there and over here. The fact that they have so abused the sensibilities of the populace with their fear-mongering does not change this fact. If this situation in Iraq is allowed to burn on, or if we are foolish enough to attack Iran, the warnings we in Boston went through last week may well become commonplace all across the country.
Such is the way of things in the 21st century. We curse the fear while whistling past the graveyard. It sucks out loud.
William Rivers Pitt is a New York Times and internationally bestselling author of two books: "War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know" and "The Greatest Sedition Is Silence." His newest book is "House of Ill Repute: Reflections on War, Lies, and America's Ravaged Reputation."