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9/11 anniversary: The land of the fearful and not-so-free

Sunday, 11 September 2011 - 10:00am IST Updated: Sunday, 11 September 2011 - 1:05am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: The Daily Telegraph
There is something sinister in the term Homeland Security. Homeland sounds a little too like Fatherland for comfort, a place demanding unthinking loyalty.

There is something sinister in the term Homeland Security. Homeland sounds a little too like Fatherland for comfort, a place demanding unthinking loyalty.

Very un-American, one might imagine, but then Americans are not as free-wheeling as they like to think they are. Most of them like rules, enforced with a brand of passive aggression all the more unsettling for being delivered with a smile as bright as it is indifferent.

They don’t even manage the smile at JFK when you hand over your passport. Well, some do. Things have lightened a little since the early post 9/11 era when any foreigner was an object of suspicion.

The Orwellian technology remains, however: the fingerprint scanner and camera, adding you to some vast, churning database, and increasingly for those boarding flights in America, the hugely intrusive whole-body scanner. Land of the Free-ish.

Yet, this stuff, billions of dollars worth of it, doesn’t work. On Thursday, the minute after President Barack Obama finished his speech on how he proposed to get 14 million unemployed Americans back to work, ABC News cut into the broadcast to report that a team of al-Qaeda operatives was loose in the US. It claimed that three people had entered the country in August with the aim of conducting attacks.  

Paranoia was always going to be part of the tenth anniversary of September 11, a partner to grief. Security in New York has been ramped up in advance of Sunday’s commemoration at Ground Zero, to be attended by Obama and George W Bush, and people are a little more jumpy.

There is something else, though, articulated rarely on grounds of taste: 9/11 fatigue. A lot of people are getting out of New York this weekend to breathe fresher air.

Tim Kelleher, who works for T3 Live, an online financial information service, is one of those going in search of a less oppressive atmosphere. The exodus from the area around Wall Street, he says, began on Thursday. ‘’Down in Front Street, bars like Nelson Blue or Stella Maris are usually packed with bond traders, and it was a ghost town,” he says. “They’ve left town already; and for the week, too.

“I was telling a friend this at another place I go to and some drunken guy misunderstood and started telling me I lacked respect. Don’t tell me how to respect people - that’s why I want to leave town.”

The events of 9/11 adhere to New York, even as the years pass. The wicked ingenuity of the assault devised by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Osama bin Laden’s principal planner, lay not only in economy of force - just 19 men and a budget of $500,000 - but in its changing of the city’s motif, its skyline.

One can date television programmes from their cutaway shots of Manhattan: Twin Towers or no Twin Towers. New Yorkers, believers in reinvention, are saddled with a constant reminder, constructed of thin air.

There is another reminder, too. Two square holes in the ground, the footprints of two giants where once some 50,000 people worked, 2,606 of them for the last time on September 11 2001.

Ground Zero, as Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York, prefers it not to be known, must in future function as a place of work, a shrine and a final resting place, the repository for remains identified and unidentified. The holes have been turned into monuments to the dead, their sides imprinted with their names, arranged by association, by friendship, rather than by alphabet. Water flows through them, disappearing as if into the centre of the earth.

This being America, money is an issue. The tower that will replace the doomed twins, One World Trade Centre, known as the Freedom Tower in the early days of its protracted gestation, will cost the American taxpayer $3.3 billion, double the cost of a normal skyscraper its size. Over-engineered to ensure maximum survivability, it is the centrepiece of a construction project that has produced cost over-runs of $2.2 billion.

The construction industry is not the only beneficiary. Charities have sprung up around 9/11, some of dubious utility but almost all of them good payers to the executives who run them. And then there is the biggest beneficiary of all: the security state.

The September 11 attacks were most damaging to the long-term security of the United States not in the destruction they wrought but in the response they provoked. The War on Terror can be seen as one long lost opportunity, a decade-long struggle that, while drawing most of the teeth from hydra-headed al-Qaeda, has distracted America from much greater challenges, not least competition from new economic rivals.

Joseph Stiglitz, recipient of the Nobel prize for economics, estimates that the wars fought by America in Iraq and Afghanistan and their consequences have cost between $3 trillion and $5 trillion, contributing to a crippling national debt of $14.7 trillion.

Twenty-two years after the Soviet Union called time on the Cold War, the US feels it necessary to command a defence budget representing half the global total. Annual spending is $700 billion, a 70 per cent increase on 2001.

Other costs range from rises in the price of oil to losses sustained by airlines, but one figure stands out: homeland security. The bloated department that carries that name is now second only in size to the Pentagon. Together with other federal departments interested in security it has consumed $360 billion during the past decade, while domestic intelligence gathering has cost another $110 billion.

The treasure expended, or rather borrowed from China, is out of all proportion to the threat, according to John Mueller, an American academic and expert on the security industry. He says that America would have to endure almost 1,700 successful or abortive bomb attacks every year to justify the scores of billions lavished on domestic security annually.

“There has been a massive increase in surveillance to deal with a limited problem - I wouldn’t even call it a threat,” he says. “Fears of terrorism are exaggerated. If you say your chance of being killed by terrorism is one in 3.5 million per year if you are an American - which it is - the danger is that someone will say, ‘How come we are giving you so much money?’ There is an incentive to inflate and play to fears.

The thing is that terrorism sells, there is a responsive audience. Genetically modified food doesn’t sell as a fear; global warming is selling better now but it took a long time. There is a genuine fear of terrorism that what I call the terrorism industry can play on.”

The wars drag on and the casualties mount. More than 6,000 Americans have died fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention more than 130,000 civilians in those countries. The cost of tending to wounded and traumatised soldiers will cost US taxpayers more billions in the years to come. There is another, less tangible, cost, to America’s claim to the moral high ground. Rendition of terrorist suspects to repressive regimes, assassination by drone, and the use of waterboarding, a form of torture, have sullied the country’s reputation.

Ordinary Americans know little of this, concerned as they are with unemployment and the possible loss of their homes.

Disillusionment is the order of the day - Obama’s approval rating is sub 50 per cent as he looks towards next year’s election campaign, and more than 70 per cent of Americans disapprove of the Republican Party’s stalling tactics in Congress over the setting of a new debt ceiling. America is turning inward, winding down its commitments in Iraq, which threatens to fall into the Iranian orbit, and Afghanistan, where chaos hovers.

Even the economy will take a temporary backseat tomorrow, though. A tenth anniversary cannot be ignored and, weary or not of remembering, America will remember. Relatives will gather not only at Ground Zero but at Shanksville, Pennsylvania, the crash site of Flight 93, and in Washington in front of the Pentagon.

One of those attending the ceremony at the Pentagon will be John Wesley, whose fiancee, Sarah Clark, died when American Airlines Flight 77 struck the building. A writer and musician, he keeps Sarah’s half-melted driving licence, recovered from the debris.

I’ve been hearing since 2002 people who say, ‘Why don’t you lay it rest? Nobody else is talking about it’. All of that is OK - this is America and everyone is a publisher now, saying what they want on the internet, so all that stuff is OK. But those of us who actually felt that pain, who had someone walk out the door that morning and not return, we will never feel like that. Maybe you have to be there.”




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