The 6 Weirdest Things We've Learned Since 9/11
Hey, guys -- I'm starting to think we overreacted to the terrorism thing.
It hit me last year as I was standing in the naked airport scanner again, listening to the faint gasps and then applause from the monitoring booth, and realized that I wouldn't put up with that hassle to ward off the threat of, say, lightning. You know, like if scientists had figured out that you could reduce the already miniscule chance of being struck by merely standing outside and showing God your dick.
Anyway, that made me look back at the lessons we've learned in the 12 years since the 9/11 attacks, and I've got to say, it's not encouraging. For instance, we found out that ...
Terrorism Totally Works!
Al-Qaida spent about $500,000 executing the 9/11 terror attacks. The U.S. government has spent up to $5 trillion fighting back. One expert estimated we're spending about $400 million per life saved.
In other words, for every dollar the bad guys spent, we lost 10 million. And that's not even counting the money lost due to the economic slump that followed. That, friends, is one hell of a return on an investment. Also: The 9/11 attacks killed 2,996 people. The response has killed 224,475 and displaced another 7.8 million refugees.
Or to put it another way, the equivalent of every single living human in the entire city of New York.
Terrorism works. Now more than ever. That's right: I'm David Wong, and I'm here to endorse the effectiveness of terrorism. Buy my book.
And however effective terrorism might have been in the past, holy fuck does it work in the era of mass communication -- the World Trade Center attacks didn't happen once, they happened millions of times, as the news replayed the terrible orange/black blooms of impact over, and over, and over, and over. Amplifying the trauma, reverberating through the culture until every nerve was rubbed raw, creating what would come to be called the "Post-9/11 World." The sheer existence of that as an everyday term says it all:
Keep in mind, a tsunami killed a quarter-million people in 2004, and another one killed 16,000 people in 2011, but neither caused us to refer to a "post-tsunami world." Only terrorism can utterly dominate our thinking that way.
And as a result, a bad guy can now make the whole world stop dead in its goddamned tracks with nothing more than a device built with about a hundred bucks' worth of shit he got at Walmart. If you pick up a gun and shoot six people at your office over a change in dress code, you'll be gone from the front page of CNN by the next day. But build a crude bomb and kill three people in the name of jihad while cameras are rolling? You'll cause an entire city to go on lockdown, utterly dominate the consciousness of a nation for months, and create scenes like this:
That's a video clip of camouflaged men with machine guns going house by house in a Boston neighborhood after the marathon bombing. Some of you watching that immediately thought, "Wait, the Army was just barging into people's houses during the manhunt?"
"OK, soldiers, listen up! We need a 14-foot moat around the perimeter!"
Haha, don't be ridiculous. The military doesn't do that in America, think about how weird that would be. No, those are police officers.
Now imagine being pulled over by this guy for speeding.
See? Says right on the back. That's what the police look like now. Because this is a Post-9/11 World.
Soon after that event, in which a couple of kids made bombs out of black powder and pressure cookers, a random guy in New York Googled "pressure cooker bomb," as you'd expect in the aftermath of a huge news story about pressure cooker bombs. He was surprised to see the cops immediately show up at his house. It turns out his employers were monitoring his searches and called the police. And that, too, is part of our life now, because you can never be too careful in a Post-9/11 World, when absolutely everything we do and think revolves around avoiding terrorism, 24 hours a day.
And it didn't take long for people looking to take advantage to realize ...
Apparently Anything Can Be Called "Terrorism"
Let's be clear: I was absolutely, completely for the "War on Terror" in 2001. It seemed like the clearest-cut conflict in world history: the modern, democratic world versus primitive fundamentalist savages who thought they could rewind the clock on civilization by a thousand years if they blew up enough innocent children. My liberal friends who recoiled at the idea of a war on terror or asked things like "But how do we know when it's over?" seemed to be either terrifyingly oblivious or outright evil. "You're supposed to be progressive, but you're standing up for murderous medieval theocrats who consider women to be cattle? Grow some balls!"
Then, a weird thing happened. While 9/11 was fresh in our minds, on TV they started showing a PSA saying that anyone who bought or sold marijuana was also a terrorist:
Well ... OK. So the idea is that drug money funds terrorist groups indirectly? Sounds kind of shaky, but hey, you can never be too careful in a Post-9/11 World!
Then, several years later, when some Muslims wanted to build a new community center in New York, that was called an act of terrorism. Then I was told that a Middle Eastern news network was a terrorist organization. Then I heard a politician refer to labor unions as terrorists. Then we had the 2008 economic collapse, and that was called "economic terrorism." When Republicans in Congress demanded budget cuts, that was terrorism, too. The political stalemate over those cuts? Terrorism! The mass "Occupy" protests that were held in response? More terrorism, according to the FBI. A guy leaking secret government documents to the press? Terrorism, motherfucker!
Hey, it's a Post-9/11 World -- we can't take the risk of not calling something terrorism, goddamnit, or else people might not pay attention to it. In the last few years I've heard either pundits or politicians stick the "terrorist" label on pro-abortion-rights protesters, Republicans in Congress, WikiLeaks, Monsanto, Walmart, drug dealers, a teenager posting rap lyrics on Facebook, and people who are mean to you. So after 12 years, we've settled on a very clear definition of terrorism, which is "anyone doing something that is harmful in some capacity."
"Hey! What did I tell you kids about doing terrorism inside the house?!"
And here's the thing: Half of you reading this are saying, "Sure, it's silly to call drug dealers terrorists, but have you read about the evil shit Monsanto does to poor farmers? They really are terrorists!" Exactly! Because we're too busy deciding which bad people we want to call terrorists, we never stop to consider whether or not it's become a meaningless label. After all, we can't just stop using the label against the people we hate, otherwise they might use it against us.
Meanwhile, we kind of lost track of the fact that the thing we were originally calling terrorism -- extremists blowing the shit out of large numbers of innocent people -- had kind of stopped happening. Because as it turned out ...
It's Actually Really Hard to Pull Off a Large-Scale Terror Attack
If on September 12, 2001, you had predicted that we'd make it to 2013 with no further large-scale terror attacks, I'd have said you had your goddamned head in the sand. "Don't you know we're in the middle of an epic clash of civilizations, and either radical Islam or Western civilization itself will be wiped from the Earth forever? This shit is going to end in a mushroom cloud, bitch!"
After all, the only thing between a terrorist and a massive body count is the will to do it -- and 9/11 proved they have the will. Put some C4 in a backpack, go to a concert, boom -- 500 dead. Pack a car full of fertilizer, drive it into the lobby of an office building -- bang, 5,000 bodies in a collapsed building. This was the new reality, I thought -- the USA had become Palestine. Bombings would be weekly news, soldiers would stand at the entrance of the Mall of America with M4 rifles.
No one would make fun of mall security ever again.
Instead, it's been just small-scale, bullshit attempts, usually by fucktards more likely to blow themselves to bits before they even leave the safe house. Their primary source for bomb-making materials is undercover ATF agents.
Right now some of you are saying, "Uh, I hate to break the news to you, asshole, but you just admitted that the nation was brought to a standstill by the horror of the Boston Marathon bombing." Sure, but the sheer fact that we're able to regard the deaths of three people and the wounding of dozens more as a massive event rather than "the 10th largest bombing of the month" is the point -- you get twice as many murder victims in an average weekend of Chicago gang violence.
The target of the Boston bombers was a dense crowd of 500,000 people standing shoulder to shoulder -- why were there three deaths instead of 300, or 3,000? Because it's really fucking hard to carry out a terror attack. The bombers didn't have any actual bomb-making materials -- no C4, no TNT, no truck full of ammonium nitrate. Instead they had off-the-shelf cookware and what appeared to be black powder they scraped from some fireworks.
I assume they said "WHEEEE!" a lot while making them.
And that's about as deadly as it gets. In 2010, a dipshit tried setting off a car full of firecrackers, gasoline, and fertilizer in Times Square. It didn't explode, because he didn't use the explosive kind of fertilizer, and it's actually way hard to make a bomb, you guys. Even a really sophisticated shoe bomb can be foiled by sweaty feet. The attempted transatlantic bombings in 2006 (aka "The reason you can't bring a regular-size tube of toothpaste onto a plane anymore") took the plotters years of planning and involved incredibly complicated liquid bombs that had to be mixed on the plane without anyone noticing. The so-called Underwear Bomber (aka "The justification for nude body scans for every airline passenger") was a Nigerian man who sewed a tiny bomb into his underpants that, when detonated, succeeded only in setting his pants on fire.
The truth is that law enforcement has done a fantastic job of monitoring the sale of black market bomb-making materials (the transatlantic bombers were being watched by more than a thousand agents -- they only got as far as buying the components before police swept in). See, we've been fooled by action movies, where any mobster can come up with a block of plastic explosive to stick under the car of a snitch. Hell, the Joker can buy entire buildings full of explosive liquids without anyone noticing. In the real world, it turns out that no, you can't really order large quantities of anything that goes "boom" without the government kicking down your door five minutes later.
"Sir, step away from the Google search bar!"
Pulling off an effective attack means a lot of things have to go right. It takes money, skill, intelligence, discipline, and training. The enemy, as it turns out, is always short of some or all of those things. They're usually poor, uneducated, stupid people who are deeply unsatisfying to capture or kill. Which brings me to the next point ...
The Era of Awesome "Good vs. Evil" Wars Is Over
I realize the actual event was more nuanced, but in popular memory World War II is basically The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars: a clearly evil bad guy dressed in black with a clearly evil army versus clearly good protagonists who take him out with a clean, neat ending where the bad guy dies and his dark empire lies in rubble, never to be resurrected. And when the war was over, it was over -- clear objective, clear outcome, good guys win, roll credits.
Yeah, I don't think we're going to get that kind of war again. The way wars go now is that some regime or group is doing something we don't like, then we either A) kind of throw cruise missiles and drone missions at them for a few months or B) land troops there and fight them for a few years until we get bored and quietly leave. Did we win Afghanistan? Or Iraq? These days there's no signing of a peace treaty, no ceremony, no liberated people cheering in the streets. When the last troops came home from Iraq, there was barely a whisper in the news. Actually, did you even know the troops came home from Iraq? Did you know we still had troops in Afghanistan?
Do you know where Afghanistan is on a map?
We killed bin Laden, but it wasn't a Hitler situation where the whole thing stopped the moment the bullet entered his brain -- al-Qaida kind of just stumbles along regardless of who is in charge, or whether anyone is in charge at all (we've killed al-Qaida's second in command like 25 times).
And now as I write this, the U.S. government is in the middle of debating a strike against Syria. Again, no big declaration of war, no big shift from peacetime to war footing. Maybe the president makes a speech about it that gets carried on cable. At some point we'll probably just shrug and send a ship full of cruise missiles, like the cops dispatching a car to check out a domestic dispute. Do you even know, off the top of your head, who the good guys and bad guys are in Syria? Are we supporting their government or the rebels? Are the rebels progressive freedom fighters or Islamists angry that the government isn't jihadist enough? Is either side tied to al-Qaida? I've lost track.
It's probably something these kids did. Look at those assholes.
The point is, there are no good enemies anymore. Don't say China -- what are we going to do, bomb the factory where they make our iPads? And what are they going to do, bomb the people who buy their iPads? OK, what about Iran? They've got one of those cartoon villain dictators in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- the press said a few years ago that he was determined to bring about the apocalypse and would launch a nuclear strike against Israel to get it. We're definitely going to have to deal with that madman soon-
What's that? He's not president anymore? Thank God! Was it the CIA who took him out with a targeted assassination, or did his own people rise up and overthrow him in a coup? Oh, he left office on his own? Because his term ran out? Because presidents in Iran are limited to two terms, just like in the U.S.? Wait, they have elections there? Well, shit. Looks like we missed the window on that one.
"No, I asked for the large ballot"
So how are we supposed to get all worked up and patriotic if we don't have a cartoon villain to oppose? But maybe that's for the best, because ...
Patriotism Got Really Weird at Some Point
America is a wonderful country, and a lot of the liberal counterculture types who call it a fascist wasteland in reality live a very comfortable and fulfilling life there. That's why Eddie Vedder never moved away -- the people who bitch the loudest would miss it the most.
So in the face of attacks by extremists who objectively hate core progressive values such as women's rights and freedom of religion, why weren't a whole bunch of artists stirred to create music that really got to the heart of what we love about the USA? Even if musicians are all liberals, we're fighting an enemy that hates liberalism, right? Let's have some awesome anti-Islamist diss tracks, Eminem!
Instead we got this:
Patriotism shouldn't make you stupid, right? Or racist? Wasn't there a bunch of great patriotic music during World War II? Did our ability to be patriotic in non-ridiculous ways die with Vietnam?
These days, if an organization has "patriot" in the name, I get scared. Seriously, Google the word "patriot" -- once you get past the links involving the NFL and that Mel Gibson movie, you get shit like Patriot Depot, which sells shirts that say things like "Due to Price Increase on Ammo, Do Not Expect a Warning Shot."
Nope, not a joke.
Or you get websites like PatriotUpdate.com (sample headline: "Obama Stings Taxpayer's for More Blood $$$"). Or you get groups like the Tea Party Patriots, whose website screams that this is our last chance to stop Obamacare before it's too late.
Somebody tell me when the entire concept of patriotism got hijacked by the pickup truck and gun rack brigade. It's at the point where if anyone I knew wore a shirt with an American flag on it, I'd assume they were being ironic, unless it was the Fourth of July. If I pass a crowd of protesters waving American flags, I assume somebody in the group is also wearing a T-shirt bearing a racist caricature of Barack Obama.
"And this flag shirt is just some kind of big stupid rectangle of fabric!"
Not that I can mock them for being paranoid, because above all, what the last 12 years have taught us is ...
Sometimes the Alarmist Tinfoil Hat Crowd Is Right
In the underappreciated 1982 sequel to the wacky slapstick satire Airplane! (Airplane II: The Sequel), there's a scene where security agents monitor a body scanner in a futuristic airport. The joke is that the scanner shows the agents images of the passengers' naked bodies as they pass through.
If you had told me in 2002 that in 10 years that technology would be real, specifically that A) every passenger would be made to stand in a scanner that displays their naked body to security and B) 99 percent of fliers would be perfectly fine with it, I would have laughed you out of the room and told you to take off your goddamned tinfoil hat and stop sharing your weird sci-fi sex fantasies. We're talking about Americans here, the most famously prudish, fiercely private, and violently anti-government people in the world. And you're telling me that in this supposed future, if we refuse the scan, we get frisked? I'm telling you that we would fucking burn down the airport before we let that happen.
But as I mentioned in this week's podcast, we got here little by little. One terror warning at a time, one replay of the WTC attacks at a time, one report of a failed terror attempt at a time.
If you had told me that, in the name of stopping terrorism, the U.S. government would spend $2 billion building a gargantuan 1.5-million-square-foot sprawling mass of humming supercomputers for the purpose of (apparently) monitoring absolutely everyone's email and/or phone calls, I'd have said that was even more ridiculous and dystopian than the penis scanner. If you'd told me that virtually everyone would be OK with that save for a few vocal activists on the Internet, I'd have said that was impossible, unless we had reached the point where terrorists had leveled half of our cities.
Even worse than riots after major sports events.
But now here we are, in a world where you're told that A) only an idiot would expect any online or cellphone communication to be secure, just by its nature and B) from now on all of your communications -- from banking to work projects to shopping to romance -- will be done with the Internet or cellphones. And because these two things evolved at the same time -- the wall-to-wall worry about terrorism and the 24-hour dependence on the Internet -- we just accepted it as a natural evolution of society that everything we do will be monitored. We can't imagine it any other way.
After all, if you're under 30, you were still a kid when 9/11 happened, living at home. What the rest of us are calling "a Post-9/11 World" you know only as "the world." If I try to tell you about the good old days when you could correspond with friends and absolutely know that no one was listening in, you'll tune out when you realize that I'm also talking about a time before the Internet and cellphones existed. We don't want to go back to that, right?
I saw that cord and immediately vomited.
Because they've told us that our modern world is made entirely of glass, we just accept that this is how it is, that we're all on display, all the time. And it's all by necessity because it's a Post-9/11 World, and that ends the discussion. And please note: It will still be a Post-9/11 World a hundred years from now, because that's how time works.
And over time, we'll just come to accept that typing a weird search into Google might get you a visit from the cops, that a crude joke on Facebook might get you arrested and/or fired, that certain things uttered in phone calls might land you on a no-fly list, that suspicious conversations might be recorded by a nearby pair of Google Glasses. And so, over time, you make a mental note to not say anything too weird, or make crude jokes, or think too far outside the box. You'll learn to automatically rein in that crazy, irresponsible part of the brain that incidentally also has resulted in all human creativity through history.
Needs more dicks.
Sure, it's not like some controversial comment on Twitter will get you sent to a gulag. It may merely get you a day spent in a hot interrogation room and your computer seized for a few months. Just a little reminder to watch what you say, and what you think, at all times. They don't have to throw you in prison, they just have to harass you enough that you'll remember next time. And the fire that makes us human grows just a little dimmer, and we shrug and say, What can we do? After all, it's a Post-9/11 World.
And apparently it always will be.
David Wong is the Executive Editor of Cracked.com and a NYT bestselling author; his long-awaited new novel is about cybernetic criminals and other futuristic shit like that. Pre-order it at Amazon, B&N, BAM!, Indiebound, iTunes, or Powell's. You can read the first seven chapters for free by clicking below:
Who knew that children born on and after 1995 would have so little regard for their privacy? Check out our latest Podcast where David Wong and Jack O'Brien look at the odd trends social media has created and the ramifications they'll have on the future. Go here to subscribe on iTunes or download it here. Getting your Cracked fix while driving has never been this unlikely to kill you.
Related Reading: It wouldn't be a post-9/11 world without a whole lot of cashing in on the tragedy. Once you've had your fill of commemorative coins and remembrance wine, check out these incredibly offensive pop culture references to September 11th. It doesn't get much worse than a 9/11 Pig Roast. Done with trinkets and crass commercialism? Read about 9/11's hidden impacts and gain some well-needed perspective.
Had enough talk of terrorism? Remind yourself there's still good in the world and stare at Nikola Tesla's face on a t-shirt.