On September 11, 2001, I was in Austin, Texas, preparing to travel to Italy to spend the academic year at the University of Rome.
As my departure was not until the end of the month, I got to witness the saturation of every available physical and rhetorical space with American flags and patriotic propaganda - as well as other more creative national coping mechanisms.
I watched the launch of the war on Afghanistan on Italian TV and was convinced the world was ending - which it was, of course, for a lot of Afghans and others, but not for me
Certain Texan acquaintances of mine, for example, phoned in a massive delivery order to Kentucky Fried Chicken and spent the night of 11 September consuming it in front of the television set, with the explanation that “comfort food” was required in such times of tragedy.
President George W Bush, for his part, ran around issuing eloquent threats to the terrorists such as that the US was gonna “smoke ’em out of their holes”.
I myself had not been enormously surprised by the attacks; decades of screwing over other countries will, after all, often produce blowback. I had, however, always been prone to a curious form of extreme anxiety - in fifth grade, I diagnosed myself with epilepsy for no reason and descended into total panic for a period of several weeks - and thus, in the aftermath of 9/11, found material to inspire all manner of new and exciting manic behaviour.
Days after the US launched operations in Afghanistan in October 2001, residents in the northern village of Quruq try to cross a river as they head for Tajikistan (AFP)
I hallucinated anthrax-dispersing crop dusters; I hid in bathrooms and under desks. I crouched on sidewalks when planes flew overhead. From my apartment in Rome, I watched the launch of the war on Afghanistan on Italian TV and was convinced the world was ending - which it was, of course, for a lot of Afghans and others, but not for me.
I eventually got over the anthrax fixation and, when I subsequently returned to America in time for the run-up to the war on Iraq, I didn’t even find it necessary to stockpile duct tape in accordance with US government anti-terror instructions.
Easy rule of thumb
Now, 16 years after 9/11, the date continues to serve as a morbid gift that keeps on giving in terms of providing a blanket justification for US military destruction of worlds from Iraq to Yemen to Pakistan and beyond.
Imagine informing a resident of the Gaza Strip that Americans 3,000 kilometers away from the World Trade Center had to devour buckets of KFC in order to cope with 9/11
Also benefiting from the arrangement is America’s partner in crime, Israel, which had, of course, long hyped the notion of Palestinian terrorism to excuse its own constant acts of terror but was able in the post-9/11 era to promote itself to the frontlines of an alleged battle for civilisation.
To keep things simple - and to keep folks from getting confused as to who’s the terrorist and who’s the victim on this complicated planet of ours - an easy rule of thumb has been established: the US and Israel are never, ever, ever the terrorists, even when they do things like blow up schools, hospitals, apartment buildings, mosques, wedding parties, children, and so on.
Young members of the Bakr family walk at the beach in Gaza City where an Israeli air strike killed four children in their family during the 2014 summer war (AFP)
For an idea of the glaring psycho-spatial discrepancies tied up in the monopoly on victimhood, imagine informing a resident of the Gaza Strip - where some two million people inhabit 360 square kilometers that are regularly under indiscriminate aerial bombardment by the US-backed Israeli army - that Americans 3,000 kilometers away from the World Trade Center had to devour buckets of KFC in order to cope with 9/11.
Beyond the chicken
But it’s about much more than fried chicken. While even attacks on invading and occupying US forces abroad are advertised and exploited by the powers that be as attacks on America itself, the victims of US military excess are taught that - if they want to be reasonable, moderate, civilised human beings - they must not react emotionally to said excess.
In other words, victims of US terror are meant to internalise the myth of US concern for civilian casualties and to placidly embrace the prospect of becoming collateral damage at any moment.
Americans’ imperially inflated sense of individual and collective worth meanwhile clearly leaves little room for international empathy - aside from the politically expedient variety engineered to expire shortly after initial bouts of popular enthusiasm for liberating the women of Afghanistan or bringing freedom and democracy to Iraq.
A prototype of the 'mother of all bombs' that the US dropped on Afghanistan this April (AFP)
And since, as Americans, our lives are deemed inherently more valuable than others, we’ll need ever bigger and better weapons with which to ostensibly protect them. Earlier this year, The Atlantic reported on the “US military’s announcement that it dropped the ‘mother of all bombs,’ one of the largest non-nuclear devices, against an ISIS facility in Afghanistan… despite the US assessment that only about 700 ISIS fighters remain in the country".
Now, 16 years after Bush’s proclamation that the terrorists “hate our freedoms”, it remains to be seen how much longer Americans can go on believing ourselves free when we’re trapped in a system of unending conflict, hatred and fear that alienates us from humanity and fills the pockets of an array of profiteers.
And with the position of US leader now occupied by the even more articulate Donald J Trump, whose campaign promises included wanting to “bomb the shit out of” select areas of the globe, the Bush-era assurance that “freedom is winning” appears ever more elusive.
You might even say that freedom itself is in deep shit.
- Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: The 'Tribute in Light' interim memorial to the World Trade Center Twin Towers glows from lower Manhattan near the Brooklyn Bridge in New York 11 March 2002. (AFP)
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.