For a moment this morning, I confess that I found myself on the edge of my seat in the middle of the Halloween special edition of the Today show. As a corporate media critic, an academic, and a professional with a regular day job, such a confession could be damning, as if I were a militant vegan caught red-handed choking down a Sloppy Joe. In my defense, however, I wasn’t riveted by a middle-aged Meredith Vieira jumping around a Times Square stage cross-dressed as teen pop star Justin Bieber, nor a blue-domed Will Ferrell pitching his latest animated cartoon Megamind, in which he plays an evil mastermind that learns a heartwarming lesson on not being evil (just like George Bush, whom he used to impersonate).
Rather, my heart jumped a beat as Ferrell was cut off mid-one liner by a Special Report (apparently more special than Al Roker dressed as Superman), in which Brian Williams intoned with grave vagueness about an “unfolding situation” involving airplanes across the country.
With three words, nine years melted away, and I found myself back on the edge of my seat in 2001, staring incredulously at the smoldering World Trade Center on the television, my panic at the “unfolding situation” building as the towers fell. Like all of us on 9/11, I found myself in a state of shock, terrifying possibilities spinning through my mind:
Was this just the start? Would we be attacked in San Francisco? Would I be drafted? Would I die?
At that moment, we felt terrible empathy with New York, one that has scarred us all – it wasn’t just the towers falling, as cognitive linguist George Lakoff observed after 9/11, but ourselves. He argues that we see buildings as people, that we “see features—eyes, nose, and mouth—in their windows.” And when we saw the flights smash into the towers, it was “an image of a bullet going through someone’s head, the flame pouring from the other side blood spurting out.” Lakoff rightly concludes 9/11 was a powerful symbolic event in our national consciousness:
It was an assassination. The tower falling was a body falling. The bodies falling were me, relatives, friends. Strangers who had smiled as they had passed me on the street screamed as they fell past me. The image afterward was hell: ash, smoke, and steam rising, the building skeleton, darkness, suffering, death.
And to this day, I know this horrible image – and the terror with it – lies just barely beneath the surface of my everyday awareness. It’s so close to the surface, that Brian Williams pressed my panic button with a scant three words, as if I were one of Pavlov’s dogs slobbering for a Sloppy Joe at the sound of a bell. Since 9/11, though there have been no further terrorist attacks on our soil, this panic button has been pressed over and again, and the image is no less hellish, and the panic no less real, as if it’s now hardwired into our national consciousness. And after almost a decade of hitting the panic button, it has become our default setting, our new, hypervigiliant, paranoid normal.
We now live in terror just three words away.
And as Williams continued to speak, it was clear that the “unfolding situation” was not an attack, but that authorities were searching grounded UPS planes because of credible, but then unsubstantiated threats. Whatever situation could have unfolded, in short, was already being folded away, and by the end of the day, as I write this article less than eight hours later, the now “credible terrorist threat” was averted, with all “hazardous materials intercepted,” according to MSNBC. Now, we are so fearful, so paranoid, that we not only fight wars preemptively, but get panicked preemptively.
We have become a nation of hypochondriacs, convinced every cough is tuberculosis, every bump is cancer, and every sneeze is the swine flu. So scarred are we by 9/11, we find the terror in the innocuous, we see foreboding omens in the everyday.
The loathed and loved Glenn Beck is a product of this hypochondriac culture, a man who sees immense communist plots and evil conspiracies everywhere, in the same way McCarthy channeled the 50s Cold War panic into uncovering and fighting, well, immense communist plots. To Beck, as to McCarthy, every itch is a symptom of a fatal, systemic disease. In his novel The Overton Window, Beck vividly describes the dystopia he sees around him, a malevolent century long Big Government plot, in which freedom-lovers are tossed “into concentration camps” (LA Times). Unlike George Orwell’s vision, Beck sees his work as “faction,” or a combination between fact and fiction – in other words, his totalitarian plot is real.
And in fact, Beck founded an organization bent on stopping this plot, dubbed the 912 Project, which he hopes will “get everyone thinking like it is September 12th, 2001 again.” Through this organization, he wants his members to know that they no longer need be trapped by the lies fabricated by the Wizard of Marxist Oz, that “once you pull back the curtain, you realize that there are only a few people pressing the buttons, and their voices are weak. The truth is that they don’t surround us at all. We surround them.”
Beck’s ascendence, like McCarthy’s, is no accident. He is surrounded by millions of supporters because he zestfully channels their free-floating paranoia produced on 9/11, exacerbated by years of pre-emptive panic, and ultimately, financial meltdown.
Beck has his finger soldered onto the panic button.
As Beck sees tyranny from the left, columnist Chris Hedges sees it from the right in “How Democracy Dies: Lessons from a Master”. Hedges sees us “slouching towards Bethlehem,” marching blindly towards the breakdown of our democracy, with gulags and fascism at the end of this road:
There will be no swastikas this time but seas of red, white and blue flags and Christian crosses. There will be no stiff-armed salutes, but recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance. There will be no brown shirts but nocturnal visits from Homeland Security…[and] unless we begin to hinder the functioning of the corporate state through acts of civil disobedience, we are finished.
In Hedge’s call to action, we feel the panic button pressed yet again, the feeling of immediate disaster crouching at the fringe of our consciousness, ready to overtake us, to destroy us totally.
As a grandson of a blacklisted screenwriter and member of the Hollywood Ten, who has thrown into federal prison for a year by McCarthy and other true “patriots”, I tend to be sympathetic to Hedges’ fears. I fear, however, that it is our fear that poses the gravest danger to us. This fear unseats our good sense, it makes us prone to irrational ideas, and to fearmongers like Beck and McCarthy that wield paranoia as a weapon to pit us against each other. In the midst of the Great Depression, in a country full of fear and angst, FDR reminds us to not give into this fear, which is the greatest enemy of stability:
This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.
What FDR tells us is that the only way we can overcome our struggles is not in overcoming each other, but in overcoming our paralyzing hypochondria – in winning the War on our personal Terror.