Shut up and Sing

The 20 year anniversary of 911 promises plenty of weepy testimonials and homages to the heroic first responders who died in the attacks.

What we won’t see is a reckoning on how 911 was used to fundamentally transform the United States. All of the wars, the trampling of American civil liberties under the USA Patriot Act, the unbelievably widespread acceptance of torture, and the creation of known and secret prisons and detention centers in various countries. Ultimately, the attacks ended up being channeled into a geopolitical revenge fantasy that happened to neatly overlap with the neocons long-standing foreign policy goals.

All that and more for a cool $21 trillion.


State of Insecurity: The Cost of Militarization Since 9/11newly published by the Institute for Policy Studies, details the breathtaking financial and human consequences of the war on terror. Using data drawn mainly from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), authors Lindsay Koshgarian, Ashik Siddique, and Lorah Steichen set out to calculate the overall cost of militarization since 2001. Their key finding–that “the United States has spent a stunning $21 trillion on foreign and domestic militarization over the past two decades.”

It’s an astonishing insight into the kind of society America might be if its elites abandoned their commitment to militarism and war. And this commitment brought about a radical transformation in American society, one visible with a pandemic raging. The attacks of 911 were used to further divide, tribalize and inflame American citizens. We were trained to view other viewpoints as treasonous. In the wake of the attacks, no effort was spared to shut up anyone who tried to explain the context of what had just happened. Such talk was dismissed as the disloyal ramblings of America-hating moral relativists. In 2003, the legendary television host Phil Donahue was fired from his prime-time MSNBC talk show during the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The problem was not Donahue’s ratings, but rather his views: An internal MSNBC memo warned Donahue was a “difficult public face for NBC in a time of war,” providing “a home for the liberal antiwar agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.” 

It only got worse. When Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines criticized George W. Bush before the invasion of Iraq American audiences responded by boycotting the Chicks’ shows, bulldozing their CDs, banning their songs from country radio and, in the most extreme cases, hate mail threatening to shoot Maines onstage. One letter drew such concern from both the FBI and the Texas Rangers that they advised the Chicks to cancel a concert in Dallas, Texas, and they were shown the original letter that specified a date, time, and location at which lead singer Natalie Maines would be shot dead, unless she “shut up and sang.”

Indeed, not only did the attacks drastically shaped the world history of the last two decades, greatly changing the daily lives and liberties of most ordinary America, but the widespread doubts about the reality of the official story provided by our government and almost universally promoted by our media has severely diminished popular faith in the credibility of crucial government and media institutions, with consequences that are still very apparent in today’s highest profile issues. Meanwhile, the events of 9/11 have been used by every administration since to justify every single aspect of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East since September 11.

And now the US is a power in steep decline. It has engaged in multiple military conflicts over the past 20 years that could not be described as anything but colossal failures. It has squandered trillions of dollars on these efforts, which range from full-scale invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, to protracted regime change operations in Syria to a proxy war against Yemen, to bombing attacks on Libya that brought about a mass emigration crises. Multiple presidents from both parties campaigned in opposition to these failed military adventures, but through a combination of bureaucratic capture, deliberate intra-governmental undermining, and lack of will, ended up perpetuating them.

The ongoing dissolution of empire is why US elites were driven totally apoplectic by the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. But, they can’t articulate that to the average American after 20 years of lies. No, the US isn’t an empire, simply a peace-loving leader of the free-world busy spreading democracy to the benighted third-world natives who are too backward and corrupt to appreciate it.

Unfortunately, we get the government we deserve, at some point of responsibility. Americans have thus far allowed themselves to be spoon-fed a steady diet of pro-war propaganda that keeps them content to wave flags with patriotic fervor and less inclined to look too closely at the mounting body counts, the ruined lives, the ravaged countries, the blowback arising from ill-advised targeted-drone killings and bombing campaigns in foreign lands, or the transformation of our own homeland into a warzone.

In retrospect it’s apparent that 911 ushered in the mother of all moral panics amongst Americans. And moral panics are always in fashion during authoritarian times when the public is effectively terrified of a new group every day and will acquiesce to all sorts of previously unthinkable changes, like for instance wide-scale censorship or sweeping new domestic surveillance programs people have been clamoring for in recent years. In the process our traditional civil liberties and constitutional protections have been drastically eroded, with our society having taken long steps toward becoming an outright police state. American citizens now passively accept unimaginable infringements on their personal freedoms, all originally begun under the guise of preventing terrorism.

911 also demonstrated the ease of stampeded a nation to war. Americans fancy themselves as free and brave and their country superior to other governmental arrangements, but as Herman Goering remarked while waiting trial at Nuremberg, “the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”

Update: There was another party, in addition to the military/industrial/complex, that massively benefitted from the attacks on 911. We’ll discuss this controversial subject next week.

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