Chasing Phantoms: Reality, Imagination, and Homeland Security since 9/11

Chasing Phantoms: Reality, Imagination, and Homeland Security since 9/11

Chasing Phantoms: Reality, Imagination, and Homeland Security since 9/11

Chasing Phantoms: Reality, Imagination, and Homeland Security since 9/11

Synopsis

Although a report by the congressionally mandated Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction, Proliferation, and Terrorism concluded that biological or nuclear weapons were very likely to be unleashed in the years soon after 2001, what Americans actually have experienced are relatively low-tech threats. Yet even under a new administration, extraordinary domestic and international policies enacted by the U.S. government in the wake of 9/11 remain unchanged. Political scientist and former FBI consultant Michael Barkun argues that a nonrational, emotion-driven obsession with dangers that cannot be seen has played and continues to play an underrecognized role in sustaining the climate of fear that drives the U.S. "war on terror." Barkun identifies a gap between the realities of terrorism--"violence without a return address"--and the everyday discourse about it among government officials and the general public. Demonstrating that U.S. homeland security policy reflects significant nonrational thinking, Barkun offers new recommendations for effective--and rational--policymaking.

Excerpt

As I observed the extraordinary fear that gripped both the nation and its policymakers in the months after 9/11, it seemed to me that a significant aspect of terrorism and the response to it remained unexplored. For the fear that we can all still recall came not from an enemy whose forces and weapons we could see but from an adversary that was effectively invisible. the nineteen hijackers had lived among us undetected and unmolested, a fact that quickly aroused fear of sleeper cells and of terrorists indistinguishable from the innocent persons around them. When a month later the anthrax letters began to arrive, new anxieties came with them, evoked this time by minute disease-bearing agents that might be in the very air we breathed. the fear of terrorism thus resolved into fear of unseen dangers, and though much has been said about terrorism, its link with the unseen is a subject that has aroused curiously little interest.

The complexity in understanding the problem of unseen dangers lies in the fact that terrorism exists in two domains—in the world and in our minds. It can take one shape in the world outside and another in the imagined worlds that we fear await us. As the chapters that follow demonstrate, we often seek to understand these worlds by constructing narratives about them, broad and gripping stories about how evil is organized and why it occurs. in the case of terrorism, where full and reliable information is often difficult to come by for governments as well as citizens, these narratives help to fill in the blanks.

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