George F. Will, the erudite conservative U.S. columnist, recalled Pearl Harbor the other day, noting there were few commemorations to mark the 10th anniversary of the surprise Japanese attack. On Page 1 of The New York Times, there was nary a word about it; The Washington Post ran a six-paragraph item. Dec. 7, 1941, wasn't a memory Americans wished to burnish.
By contrast, we have just witnessed an avalanche of 10th-anniversary observances for 9/11. Why, wondered Dick Cavett, the former talk-show host, are we wallowing in it? "Who wants this?" The terrorists, he observed, "must enjoy tuning in to our festival of their spectacular accomplishment."
The surfeit of commemorations featured George W. Bush and warmonger Dick Cheney. If they were allowed to show their faces, shouldn't it have been, someone was saying, to apologize for the security breakdown that allowed 9/11 to happen and for starting an unrelated war that sent some 5,000 Americans to their deaths?
The remembrances touched on a lot of questions, but there was no sustained focus on the vital one: How long is America going to be held hostage to what happened that day? How long, owing to our modern dial-a-threat form of so-called warfare, is it going to bleed the U.S. Treasury, ratchet down its liberties and humiliate its citizenry by undressing them in order to get on an airplane.
The entrapment psychosis the country finds itself in is unprecedented. Since there'll always be terrorists, since there'll always be terror threats, this war – if it's allowed to be viewed as one – is unlike any other. It's eternal. The intimidation of a great nation continues ad infinitum.
While some spoke of the pressing need to move on, the sum effect of the around-the-clock showcasing of the terrorist triumph was not a willingness to change but rather a validation of the country's siege mentality.
Leaders have a choice. Given that terror can never be fully eradicated, they can establish a climate that inflates the threat with all its corrosive consequences, or establish a climate that puts the threat in a realistic perspective that allows the country to move forward.
The United States has eliminated Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders. It has disbanded the terror networks in Afghanistan. It has the biggest defence budget in the history of mankind. It has built the biggest intelligence-gathering network in history. But instead of fears being alleviated, they harden. There have been victories against the enemy, but the enemy wins the big prize: the psychological capitulation of the world's greatest power.
It's hard to imagine a Teddy Roosevelt or a Franklin Roosevelt or a John F. Kennedy allowing such a run-for-cover psychology to fester. Barack Obama took office criticizing George Bush for inculcating the fear mentality, but he has been unable to change it.
The assumption that the paranoia would gradually diminish hasn't come to pass. It doesn't seem to matter that, in North America, more people have died from snowmobile accidents since 9/11 than from terrorism. Seven years after the calamity, Washington imposed passport requirements along our border. Ottawa is bringing back anti-terrorist laws that expired a few years ago. State surveillance powers are being increased. A security perimeter accord is being negotiated.
The U.S. embassy in Ottawa bears testimony to the degree of intimidation. It's still barricaded on its west side by no less than three security walls, the idea being, as nutty as it sounds, that the ramparts might slow down advancing terrorist hordes. The symbolism of the blockades can be summed up in three words: "We are afraid." Ten years on, just as the enemy would hope, the great power still cowers.
What a signal it would send if the embassy tore down those walls. Some there, including Ambassador David Jacobson, would like to do that. But it's not going to happen. His country's siege mentality is here to stay.