The wages of gullibility: How they keep us constantly fearful

By Nicholas L. Waddy

The 19th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the bloodiest and most destructive terrorist attacks ever to occur on American soil, challenges us to reconsider the meaning of those events – and to learn, if we dare, from history.

As a historian, I know better than most that such a thing is easier said than done.

It is tempting to ruminate, as people often do, on the human toll of those attacks, or the unity that they (briefly) brought to to our national discourse, or the shot in the arm they gave to “Dubya” and the sudden transformation they wrought upon his agenda, which up to then had barely registered foreign threats as significant.

These are all fascinating topics – topics that seem incredibly far removed from the dystopian Trump-scape the media now insist we inhabit – but, when I think of 9/11, I must confess I think about something completely different.

One of the fascinating things about the human condition is just how much subjectivity it involves. It has always been my view that people are almost infinitely manipulable, and their fears are a point of special vulnerability. Simply put, our perception of risk and the reality of risk need not bear any meaningful relationship to one another. If a man, or a group, can control the former, the latter becomes an irrelevance. In this respect, we adult Americans are no different from infants or toddlers: Our eyes are invariably drawn to the shiniest object in the room. Whoever, therefore, can give even a narrow portion of reality some luster … inherits the Earth.

And what, pray tell, does any of this have to do with 9/11?

In the wake of those horrific attacks, terrorism, which previously had been only a modest concern of our government and of the American people, rocketed to the top of our list of priorities. Our nation spent trillions of dollars after 9/11, and involved itself in two wars, because of our newly hyperbolic anxieties vis-a-vis Islamic terrorism. While I don’t wish to minimize the ghastliness of terror, nor excuse the nefarious deeds of terrorists, the fact remains that these fears were largely irrational. Terrorism never posed a significant threat to most Americans – not compared to other threats that we face routinely and with a light heart.

Nonetheless, despite the ethereal nature of the “War on Terror,” it held all of us in its vice-like grip for months, and arguably for years. Only gradually did terrorism-related levels of dread abate. They rose again around 2014-2017, when ISIS briefly held sway over a large portion of Syria and Iraq, only to shrink again, virtually to the vanishing point, as President Trump obliterated ISIS and brokered several visionary peace agreements between Gulf states and Israel. From 2017 to the present, therefore, Americans were redirected to other threats, or “threats”: Russia-gate and impeachment, trade wars, police brutality, the coronavirus and the greatest scourge of them all … Donald Trump!

The truth, however, when one steps back from all this hurly-burly, is that the danger posed by terrorism, throughout these two decades since 9/11, has remained relatively constant – and low. Our perception of that danger, however, has vacillated wildly.

The inescapable conclusion is that we humans are fallible, and even that is an understatement. We frankly misperceive the world around us more often than we perceive it for what it is. Nevertheless, it’s how and when and why we misperceive it that gets interesting.

Politics is the art of persuading men and women to make sacrifices, to set priorities, to surrender their freedoms and their hard-earned assets, even to put their very lives on the line, for one cause or another. Most of these causes, moreover, when you get right down to it, are bunkum. They may have some basis in reality, and some semblance of justification, but savvy, smooth-talking elites have always known how to twist these causes, and our devotion to them, to promote their own selfish ends. More often than not, they are the winners in these political machinations, and we, the huddled masses, are the losers.

The hard truth, therefore, is that the phantasms that currently keep Americans up late at night – bloodthirsty, super-racist policemen, killer viruses from China and orange-haired tyrants – are, even if based on some slice of reality, mostly fictional and almost certainly harmless to the vast majority of the American people. These threats are, in other words, similar to the specter of terrorism after 9/11: more imagined than real.

Americans should, therefore, continue to support and vote for whichever politicians they feel have the keenest sense of the threats that truly threaten us, and who will uphold the values that made our country great in the first place; they should also heed whichever analysts offer the most clear-headed diagnosis of what is wrong, and what is right, with our beloved country and the wider world. We should not surrender ourselves to cynicism, but we also shouldn’t kid ourselves: Red or blue, conservative or liberal, most politicians and pundits are as befuddled and blinkered as the rest of us. They only claim to know what they’re talking about. Mostly what they have to offer is hot air, and self-serving hot air at that.

But, surely, the reader may be tempted to object that corrupted reasoning, empty promises and false prophecies will all be exposed in the end. Not really. That is because by the time one set of distortions has outlived its usefulness, another has already taken its place – and, in the meantime, the eye of the American people has already wandered to some new and seductive shiny object. Thus, accountability for the deceiver is almost never achieved.

It pays to remember, therefore, that, as brilliant as our American system may be, the one thing our founders could never do is to turn mere mortals into gods. They could not abolish the infirmities that plague us and define us.

For that reason, one thing about America will never change. We, the People, are always being played. It’s high time we had the courage to admit it.

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