|Cultivating a Culture of Fear: Post 9/11 America|
After the devastation of September 11th, the United States was forced to deal with an external breach of national security. The immediate outpouring of generosity and kindness from within the United States and the international community was remarkable. Patriotism was revitalized and a shared pain and sense of solidarity was felt across the country. Out of this utter atrocity came unity and strength.
It has been over seven years since this loss of security in the United States. Throughout this time, and in reaction to the utter confusion faced by our entire nation, American foreign and domestic policy has been reformed to tighten borders, increase security networks, and systematically target “terrorism” the world over. It is to these reforms I wish to speak.
I was moving my way through security in an American airport, shoes, belt, and jewelry off, belongings placed securely in the plastic gray colored container, serious demeanor in place. I glanced back at the poster that had greeted me as I got off the escalator: “The Faces of Global Terrorism,” accompanied by dozens of photographs of men and an image of money to denote the rewards available for their capture. These men all shared similar “Middle Eastern” characteristics: some with turbans or long beards or Middle Eastern names.
I was immediately outraged by the poster because it generalized a specific cross section of individuals as “terrorists.” The men in those photos might very well be implicated and even convicted by the United States government as actors in criminal events. However, these “faces of terrorism” were taken from a minute sampling of the “types” of people who have committed acts of violence against the United States. This poster was created, reproduced, and distributed in airports throughout the country in an attempt to stereotype a “terrorist.” These are the faces of global terrorism!
To add to the impropriety of this poster, the general American public should not be responsible for looking out for these individual men. Largely because those individuals who pass by it quickly do not have ample time to assess the unique characteristics of each photo, memorize their names, or make any legitimate note of their identity, other than the sweeping generalizations that have allowed for increased aggression in our country towards specific groups of people.
At the University of Maryland there are many courses and lectures offered through the Terrorism Studies minor and department, most of which are funded by the National Security campaign. There is one aspect of terrorism that is continuously stressed: Anyone can be a terrorist. There is no algorithm that can synthesize the region, social class, educational background, ethnicity, religion, or physical appearance of an individual and determine his/her “terrorist status.” It is the work of this poster and other “national security” propaganda and rhetoric that has become institutionalized into the American system that has allowed people to think such a formula for finding “terrorists” exists. This poster and others like it have worked to create stereotypes, racism, and prejudices across the United States in the aftermath of September 11th.
Regardless of airport protocol and its rampant inequality and prejudice plaguing America’s security system, there has been a shift in the American psyche in how it views the Middle East and how it treats individuals within the United States who have Middle Eastern heritage and affiliation. “Islamophobia” has swept across the country with a new vigor—directly related to the “national security” reforms, such as the “Faces of Global Terrorism” poster decorating airports across the country.
A manifestation of this tension can be seen in the recent incident of nine Muslim passengers removed from an AirTran Airways flight flying from Orlando to Washington, D.C on the first day of the New Year. After a “suspicious report” was made by a fellow passenger, an FBI investigation ensued. The nine travelers were found to pose no threat to the safety of the flight; however, they were prohibited from re-boarding the airplane and were therefore forced to fly via an alternate airline. This incident is proof of the heightened sensitivity of airlines; however, it is also an indication of the mistrust some individuals in this country are feeling towards individuals with a certain appearance.
Many other stories, such as this one, exist in regard to the biased screening of individuals of Middle Eastern descent in American airports. The fear created in the general public and the subsequent attacks faced by individuals of a certain appearance or heritage is destabilizing any foundations of trust and tolerance the United States claimed to have.
The fear that is part of these instances has been continuously developing since the United States government has systematically targeted “threats” to our country immediately following the September 11th attacks. The panic that has swept our country must be subdued through better education on the Middle East and Islam and an elimination of prejudiced posters, such as the one discussed here.
There must be increased dialogue between the United States and the Middle East on the subject of religious and ethnic diversity, not only on the political level but also among civilians. We must encourage the modification of government reforms, which have become the Bush legacy, and to redirect the funds that enable slanderous propaganda to increase education in public schools on religion, history, and foreign language. It is only through an increase of dialogue and diverse education that we can hope to rebuild the dedication to tolerance of which our country boasts.
A country has a right to defend itself and its sovereignty. However, the United States’ policies that have developed within the past seven years have not been defensive, they have been offensive. They have offended the values of freedom, equality, and justice to which the United States of America has been dedicated for centuries. Making national security a top priority is not worth destroying the foundations of democracy and freedom.