The initial announcements were inconceivable — multiple planes had been hijacked and crashed deliberately into financial and military meccas on the east coast of the US — and for a people unused to military attacks on their home country, terrifying. It was happening here, and our defense was caught unawares. The reality stunned and the plan’s effect perfect in all regards.
In the panic that came afterwards, it was clear that we do not understand ourselves and our own history. This was true on a micro level: New Yorkers earnestly and ignorantly repeated the promises and beliefs that survivors of the Murrah bombing had made before. Outside of Oklahoma, people didn’t really understand what was in store for them over the next six months or year. Their unfamiliarity was rooted in historical ignorance of the aftermath in OKC. Determination was all it seemed to require to rebuild, unless you knew what had happened after the bombing — in which case, you just grieved.
Ignorance fueled responses on a larger level too. On the one hand, it tinged the tragedy with irony that a nation born when terrorists funded and encouraged by enemy nations overthrew a world superpower was now the superpower undone by sponsored idealistic warriors. Staters seemed oblivious to that. At the same time, so many questioned our poor defense and wondered why there was no centralized control over the agencies to whom these responsibilities were assigned. When it was clear that those in positions to protect the country failed to coordinate responses and even intelligence that might have prevented the attacks, the demands for change were potent.
So, fear of more terrorism drove people ignorant of their history to make sweeping changes that defied American principles and practices to that point. Until then, the dispersion of power and political decentralization was intentional. Our predecessors feared government by standing army and a military threat to civilian authority; they would not create a Napoleon from our republic. The national guard was divided accordingly, and means taken to keep any single governmental agency or leader from having the opportunity to seize control through centralized power. Similarly, as federal authority over security matters expanded, their powers were again divided, and the agencies responsible were more often rivals than collaborators. Accordingly, even as the federal government swelled in size and importance, there were checks and balances, but the same conscious choices that prevented potential coups in this way left us vulnerable to guerilla tactics.
Those who knew this history largely forgot it in the post-9/11 hysteria. Or, they were willing to trade productive political constraints for emotional and psychological cover. But most Staters simply didn’t know better and, therefore, made no opposition as hundreds of years of precedent were suddenly undone. No one wondered if the protective shield promised by the new umbrella agency — the Department of Homeland Security — was also a restrictive cage. Sinclair Lewis predicted (It Can’t Happen Here, 1935) that dictatorship would come from welfare, but it seems more likely now that people would welcome it simply because they were afraid of outsiders.
The antidote is, of course, education. Americans fear Islamists particularly because they don’t understand them; they do not fear homegrown killers the same way. Racism is certainly a component of this fear as well, but, again, the way to overcome that is education. The best protection is informed understanding and educated responses.
And, of course, better historical education might have given us pause to consider whether it was American to centralize domestic defense in the aftermath and if we really wanted to reimagine what was “American,” if not. But, we were afraid, and when we fear, we don’t think historically. This is how frightful events spur unconscious social and political breaks, from angst and ignorance.