Geographies of fear: Letter from America
Twenty years on, 9/11 continues to shape American spaces.
Contributing editor at Jacobin Magazine.
Earlier this summer, I arrived from Mexico to Newark Liberty airport for a brief stay in New York City. It was my first visit in years and a violation of my self-imposed travel ban to the United States, which despite being the country of my birth and upbringing I found to be a terribly disconcerting place and irreparably alienated from the human condition.
I had left the US in 2003 following my graduation from university in New York, nearly two years after the September 11, 2001 attacks had occasioned the giddy launch of a “war on terror”. In keeping with the US predilection for shameless irony, this war had ultimately served to terrorise communities abroad and at home.
Flying into Newark Liberty – renamed in honour of 9/11 – it was immediately clear that 9/11 was still going strong, 20 years after the fact.
My homecoming began with an interminable and schizophrenically supervised passport line. During the wait, US citizens and guests could admire signage from the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection agency, promoting itself as the first and last line of defence protecting America and its “way of life”.
But what exactly is the American “way of life” – and just how much “liberty” does it actually entail?
In her book, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, American scholar Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz lists some of the factors defining existence in the homeland, such as the “endless wars of aggression and occupations” and the “trillions spent on war machinery, military bases, and personnel instead of social services and quality public education”.
Other highlights include the “gross profits of corporations” and the “incarceration of the poor, particularly descendants of enslaved Africans” – not to mention “high rates of suicide, drug abuse, alcoholism, sexual violence against women and children, homelessness, dropping out of school, and gun violence”.
Sounds, well, less than “liberating”.
Of course, a national narrative according to which “terrorists” and other enemies are always out to get you offers a handy distraction from the punitive capitalism and institutionalised inequality upon which the nation is founded.
As I found out once I had cleared Newark passport control and crossed the last line of defence into ostensible freedom, the dangers hardly ended there.
A giant poster on the terminal wall – across the bottom of which is specified that “funding for this message” was provided by Homeland Security Department grants – featured a heavily armed police officer alongside a man in a blue button-down shirt and khaki pants, representing the average US civilian. The accompanying text read: “Officer Greg Elkin is well equipped to keep our region safe. And so is Jason”.
Lest Jason’s contributions to regional safety pass undetected, his eyes, ears, and mobile phone are helpfully labelled.
Another line on the advertisement exhorts passersby: “If you see, hear, or notice something suspicious, speak up” – an approximation of the government’s trademarked “If You See Something, Say Something®” campaign, which has in the post-9/11 era propelled countless Americans to report their fellow humans for suspicious behaviour like appearing to be Arab or Muslim.
After extricating myself from Newark Liberty, I made my way to Manhattan and spent the next week reacquainting myself with New York City and the American policy of sucking the life out of life by issuing rules for everything under the sun and forcing folks to live in fear of breaking them.
For starters, the concept of public space, integral to any community that considers itself free, has effectively been replaced by overzealously regulated space – to the extent that even the tiniest of New York sidewalk plazas comes with extensive signs listing all prohibited activities, from displaying signs – ha! – to feeding birds to lying down.
To be sure, overregulation becomes even more ludicrous when 9/11 can somehow be tied in – as in the case of the New York City Fire Museum in Manhattan’s SoHo district, which I stumbled upon during an innocent quest to find orange juice that did not cost the equivalent of two seafood dinners and beer in Mexico.
At the entrance to the museum, inexplicably, is a 9/11 memorial cow statue – yes, cow – decorated with American flag designs, depictions of 9/11 firefighters, and, on the left bovine shoulder, portraits of ex-US president-cum-war on terror king George W Bush and sociopathic ex-New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Next to the animal, a sign on a pedestal reads: “Please Do NOT allow children to sit on the Memorial Cow.”
So much for freedom.
Further downtown at the former World Trade Center site, meanwhile – which now hosts a Dubai-like skyscraper and other monuments to material excess befitting the American “way of life” – rules also abound.
One sign informs that “prohibited items includes [sic], but is not limited to” weapons, tools, paint, glass bottles, open flames, and “powdered and liquid soaps” – no doubt a curious prohibition during a pandemic.
Another sign lists a range of forbidden activities, from “causing obstruction, loitering or interfering with safe and orderly flow of pedestrians” to “bathing, showering, shaving, laundering, changing clothes or disrobing”. At the bottom of the list is a QR code with a note that “a copy of the full World Trade Center Rules and Regulations are [sic] available here”.
Then there is the “Oculus” – focal point of the World Trade Center Transportation Hub – a white monstrosity containing upscale shops and constructed with a mere $4bn of public money. The Oculus escalator comes equipped with audio rules stipulating that there is to be only one passenger per step, as well as other crucial survival tips.
Indeed, it may seem silly to rant about trivial things when so much of what constitutes life in America is no joking matter – such as, you know, the police propensity for killing unarmed Black people.
In the end, though, hyperregulation in the US is of a piece with the de facto criminalisation of Blackness, Brownness, Muslimness, poverty, mental illness – and, in many respects, life in general.
The conditioned fear of ubiquitous criminality is in turn used to justify a massive police and military apparatus that is itself often committed to lethally breaking the law.
During my spin through the security-heavy grounds of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum – located across from the Oculus – a map directed me to the “America’s Response Monument” in nearby Liberty Park, where I half-expected to find a rendering of mutilated Afghans or a flattened replica of Baghdad.
Instead, I found a bronze statue of a US Special Forces soldier on horseback, subtitled “De Oppresso Liber” – the Special Forces’ motto, translated from the Latin as “To Free the Oppressed”. The monument pays tribute to US military contributions to, inter alia, “overthrowing the Taliban regime in that most dangerous of countries, Afghanistan”.
Now, 20 years after 9/11, Afghanistan is as dangerous as ever thanks in good part to – who else? – the US military. And as Americans continue to live in debilitating state-induced fear of those allegedly plotting to subvert our “way of life”, it might just be time to break free from oppression.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.
Contributing editor at Jacobin Magazine.