"I'm not a terrorist: I'm eight years old, and that's my science project"

We're looking for truthers, terrorists and conspiracies everywhere. Our paranoia says more about us than reality

Published August 20, 2013 11:45AM (EDT)

Excerpted from The United States of Paranoia

I think he was trying to tell me something, like it had some sort of a meaning.
— George Costanza

October 7, 2001: less than a month after 9/11. Police in Maryland decide that two trucks on Interstate 270 might be carrying explosives. The alert cops block traffic for an hour, searching the vehicles for tools of terror. The cargo turns out to be stage equipment headed to a memorial service for the firefighters killed in the attack.

A forgivable mistake, given the circumstances? Perhaps.

In Tyler, Texas, a few days earlier, federal agents, city police, and bomb experts from far-flung cities had descended on a family’s mailbox to grapple with a gadget jerryrigged from wires, batteries, and green duct tape. The streets were blocked; the neighbors were evacuated. The device turned out to be an eight-year-old’s homemade flashlight, built as a school project and left in the mailbox for safekeeping.

Still forgivable? Maybe — though on reflection, it doesn’t seem likely that the killers who organized the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon would select a neighborhood in east Texas as their next target. But why, after learning that the bomb was actually a flashlight, did the authorities still feel the need to confiscate it?

When George W. Bush was president, the group most frequently invoked as a symbol of political paranoia was the 9/11 truth movement, nicknamed the truthers, who believed that a cabal within the U.S. government had either organized the 9/11 attacks or deliberately refrained from preventing them. But the truthers were ultimately a side attraction. The most prevalent form of paranoia after 9/11 was the mindset that allowed officials to mistake a harmless school project for a jihad. Americans were on edge, waiting for the next deadly attack. And in a change from the Cold War, when we at least knew the form such an attack would take, all sorts of activities or objects could be construed as a threat.

It was the same species of fear that had flared during earlier hunts for spies and saboteurs. But now the consequences of failing to spot
the conspirators seemed much more catastrophic. Anything might be a weapon; anything might be a clue.

We’ve seen how the loosely structured al-Qaeda was misperceived as a tightly centralized organization, and we have compared this to the ways earlier Americans mistook scattered Indian raids for a tightly controlled conspiracy. But there was another antecedent to Al Qaeda’s image: the global networks of mayhem found in the James Bond movies and their imitators. To show how the image of the Bond villain was conflated with the reality of the jihadist, Michael Barkun points to the speculation about Osama bin Laden’s Tora Bora cave complex in the final days of the U.S. attack on the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.

The myth of bin Laden’s subterranean fortress began with a story in the London Independent newspaper on November 27, 2001, which described a mountain honeycombed with tunnels, behind iron everything is a clue 301 doors, with “its own ventilation system and its own power, created by a hydroelectric generator,” capable of housing 2,000 people “like a hotel.” This story was quickly picked up and embellished by American media. The result was that on November 29th the Times (London) published a cutaway drawing titled “Bin Laden’s Mountain fortress,” showing thermal sensing equipment and tunnels wide enough for a car to drive through. ... When “Meet the Press” was broadcast on December 2nd, Tim Russert showed the drawing to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who suggested there might be many such sophisticated redoubts, and not only in Afghanistan.

When American forces arrived at Osama’s actual lair, they found something somewhat simpler. They found some caves.

“There’s a tendency for people to say, ‘First the World Trade Center, then the Pentagon, now something near me,’” the sociologist Joel Best remarked after the attacks. Sure enough, after September 11 and the smaller anthrax attacks that followed, the country was dotted with terrorism scares. Baltimore-Washington International Airport shut down an entire concourse when someone mistook some powdered coffee creamer for anthrax spores. In Nevada, a man called in the police after receiving a suspiciously lumpy package that, when opened, turned out to contain a pair of lace panties and a love letter. An airline bound for Los Angeles was diverted to Shreveport, Louisiana, when a man handed a stewardess a note she described as “bizarre” but not actually threatening. (“It didn’t make a lot of sense,” she later said, “but at the same time it was alarming.”) Another flight was diverted on its way to New Jersey when some passengers aroused suspicion by speaking a foreign language in the back of the plane. A thorough investigation revealed that the men were two Jews praying.

It was an understandably cautious time, and some of those incidents seem ridiculous only in retrospect. Others were simply preposterous.Even the most sympathetic observer will have a hard time defending the airport guards in Philadelphia who nabbed Neil Godfrey before the twenty-two-year-old could board his flight to Phoenix. According to Gwen Shaffer’s report in the Philadelphia City Paper, a National Guardsman’s suspicions had been aroused because Godfrey was reading a novel — Edward Abbey’s "Hayduke Lives!" — whose cover illustration included some dynamite. United Airlines refused to let Godfrey board his plane, then barred him again when he tried to take a second flight.

As 9/11 receded into the past, incidents like those happened less often. But they didn’t disappear. In January 2007, guerrilla marketers erected illuminated signs in locations around ten cities, each displaying one of the Mooninite characters from the Aqua Teen Hunger Force TV cartoon. In nine of those cities, the campaign went off without incident, but in Boston the cops construed the signs as bombs and essentially locked down the town. On learning that the installations were not explosives, officials started calling them a “hoax,” as though the advertisers had expected people to mistake the Mooninites for weapons. “It had a very sinister appearance,” Massachusetts attorney general Martha Coakley said of one of the signs. “It had a battery behind it, and wires.”

When people enter an apocalyptic frame of mind, the historian Richard Landes has observed, “everything quickens, enlightens, coheres. They become semiotically aroused— everything has meaning, patterns.” In the months following 9/11, that mentality was almost inescapable. Consider some of the flotsam on the Internet after the attacks. One frequently forwarded e-mail gave readers instructions on how to fold a $20 bill, revealing an image that seemed to predict the planes hitting the towers:

Another message asked readers to open Microsoft Word, enter the initials NYC, and then switch the font to Wingdings. The results:

Some people might take that as a curious coincidence; some might declare it evidence that Microsoft was somehow involved inthe plot. But every interpretation, from the most levelheaded to the most cracked, demanded that the reader pause to interpret the material in the first place. The world was filled with unexpected connections and irregular details. With clues.

* * *

After the attacks, the government expanded its apparatus for collecting its own clues and interpreting them. Congress created a federal Department of Homeland Security. The USA PATRIOT Act, rushed through in October 2001, permitted secret searches and warrantless Internet surveillance, gave police access to accused terrorists’ phone records (again without a warrant), and required retailers to report suspicious customer transactions to the Treasury; it also provided other extensions of state power.

Muslim-baiting hucksters from a variety of backgrounds gave presentations to law enforcement agencies on how to identify Islamic terror plots. At their worst, they resembled the alleged experts on Satanism who peddled paranoid misinformation to the police in the 1980s. (“When you have a Muslim that wears a headband, regardless of color or insignia, basically what that is telling you is ‘I am willing to be a martyr,’” Sam Kharoba, the founder of the Counter Terrorism Operations Center, told a crowd of cops at one course.) Across the country, law enforcement agencies established institutions called fusion centers: intelligence-sharing shops run on the state and local levels but heavily funded by the Department of Homeland Security. Some fusion centers and Homeland Security contractors extended the rhetoric of counterterror in disturbing ways. The Missouri Information Analysis Center devoted a dossier to the remnants of the militia movement, plus a host of other dissidents it roped in with the militiamen. The fact sheet, which was distributed to police throughout the state, declared that “it is not uncommon for militia members to display Constitution Party, Campaign for Liberty, or Libertarian material. These members are usually supporters of former Presidential
Candidate: Ron Paul, Chuck Baldwin, and Bob Barr.”

The document also warned that the Gadsden flag, a familiar historical banner bearing the slogan “Don’t Tread on Me” below a coiled rattlesnake, “is the most common symbol displayed by militia members and organizations.” Watch out, highway patrolman: That history buff with the flag on his bumper just might be a terrorist!

The Virginia Fusion Center’s “terrorism threat assessment” covered not just real terrorists but such groups as the Garbage Liberation Front, an ecological organization whose activities, the report explained, “include dumpster diving, squatting and train hopping.” A Texas center warned that “Middle Eastern Terrorist groups and their supporting organizations” were “gaining support for Islamic goals in the United States and providing an environment for terrorist organizations to flourish.” Among its examples: public schools that allowed Muslim students to take prayer breaks, a Treasury Department conference on financial services in the Islamic world, and certain “marketing schemes” in “hip hop fashion boutiques.” The Institute of Terrorism Research and Response, a terror-tracking company hired by the Pennsylvania Office of Homeland Security, sent out alerts that subversives were plotting to hold a candlelight vigil, organize a gay and lesbian festival, and screen the anti-fracking film "Gasland." One of its memos revealed that

anti-government groups, convinced that the U.S. government is intent on incarcerating them in FEMA prison camps, injecting them with micro-electronics while giving them the flu vaccine, and planning to seize their firearms will be out in full force in support of the “Fed is Dead” protests being held the weekend of 21–22 November 2009.

TAM-C [the Targeted Actionable Monitoring Center, a division of the company] analysts hasten to add that not all of the protestors marching against the Federal Reserve System are conspiracy theorists. But enough of the protesters possess these types of theories that cause the TAM-C to alert law enforcement personnel that some of the marchers have a different view of reality than most people.

You’re forgiven if you expected people tasked with preventing terrorism to concern themselves with whether a political group includes anyone who is violent, not whether it includes anyone with “a different view of reality.”

In 2012, Senate investigators offered a devastating judgment on the fusion centers’ output. After reviewing thirteen months’ worth of the centers’ reports, the investigators concluded that the documents were “oftentimes shoddy, rarely timely, sometimes endangering citizens’ civil liberties and Privacy Act protections, occasionally taken from already-published public sources, and more often than not unrelated to terrorism.” Nearly a third of the reports were not circulated after they were written, sometimes because they contained no useful information and sometimes, the Senate study said, because they “overstepped legal boundaries” in disturbing ways: “Reporting on First Amendment–protected activities lacking a nexus to violence or criminality; reporting on or improperly characterizing political, religious or ideological speech that is not explicitly violent or criminal; and attributing to an entire group the violent or criminal acts of one or a limited number of the group’s members.” Homeland Security usually refused to publish these problematic reports, but the department also retained them for an “apparently indefinite” period.

Meanwhile, mission creep was setting in. By the time the Senate conducted its investigation, many centers had adopted an “all-crime, all-hazards” philosophy that shifted their focus away from stopping terrorism and onto a broader spectrum of threats.

In itself, this was arguably a wiser use of public resources. Terrorism is rare, after all, and the practical effects of a terrorist attack can be functionally identical to the practical effects of a natural or technological disaster. Unfortunately, when fusion centers looked past terrorism, they were less concerned with such collective hazards than with drug and immigration offenses.

In the words of the disaster researcher Kathleen Tierney, all-hazards planning — a staple of traditional emergency management — asks institutions to “focus generically on tasks that must be performed regardless of event type, and then plan for specific contingencies, guided by risk-based assessments of what could happen.” The DHS was rhetorically committed to the all-hazards idea, but in practice it was oriented toward more specific threats; and since the department had absorbed the Federal Emergency Management Agency, those threats took priority in places with worries far larger than terrorist conspiracies. Under Homeland Security Presidential Directive 8, Tierney wrote, communities that once had assessed their own risks and vulnerabilities were “required to develop plans and programs for dealing with fifteen different scenarios, thirteen of which involve terrorism, [weapons of mass destruction], and epidemics.” Worse still, “as we saw so vividly in Hurricane Katrina, the government’s stance is that the public in disaster- ravaged communities mainly represents a problem to be managed — by force, if necessary — and a danger to uniformed responders.”

The sociologists who study disasters are wary about using the word panic. In real-world disasters, genuine panic is rare and spontaneous social cooperation is the norm. But in 2008, the Rutgers sociologists Lee Clarke and Caron Chess suggested that events like Katrina can spark something they called an elite panic. When the hurricane hit New Orleans, there were rumors that dozens of dead bodies were stacked in the convention center where refugees had taken shelter, that men were firing weapons at the helicopters coming to rescue them, that roving bands of rapists were assaulting people willy-nilly, that survivors of the storm had turned to cannibalism. “Misinformed about conditions on the ground and overly fearful of the loss of property,” Clarke and Chess wrote, “officials turned resources away from rescue in New Orleans. Elites responding after Katrina were disconnected from non-elites and obviously fearful of them. Further, their actions and inactions created greater danger for others.”

Panic may or may not be the appropriate word here. But paranoia is a term that fits. The effects of the elites’ fears were far greater than the effects of, say, the grassroots rumors that the authorities had deliberately blown up New Orleans’ levees to drive out black residents, even if the latter idea was more likely to be invoked in discussions of public paranoia during the disaster.

The first decade of the twenty-first century saw three particularly notable eruptions of elite paranoia. The first came with the reactions to the 9/11 attacks. The second was the response to Katrina, when powerful people’s fears both fed and were reinforced by the centralization and militarization of disaster relief. And the third began when Barack Obama became president, as commentators treated a group of unconnected crimes as a grand, malevolent movement. As is often the case with paranoid perspectives, this connect-the-dots fantasy said more about the tellers’ anxieties than it did about any order actually emerging in the world.

Excerpted from "The United States of Paranoia" by Jesse Walker. Copyright 2013 Harper. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

By Jesse Walker

Jesse Walker is an associate editor of Reason Magazine.

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