Are the Terrorists Winning?

Time to trot this one out again.

I wrote “My Terrorist Eye: Risk, the Unexpected, and the War on Terrorism” over several years in the mid-2000s. Yes, it does go on at some length about my out-of-the-blue retina detachment. Feel free to skim those parts and reflect instead on some similar experience of your own.

terrorist eye web

Sorry about the clunky link(s). Keep clicking and you’ll get to a downloadable PDF of my essay.

In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings and Friday’s “lockdown,” it seems that “whenever the word ‘terrorist’ is mentioned in this country,” as John Cassidy noted in an excellent New Yorker blog post, “reason tends to go out the window, and many other things go with it, too, such as intellectual consistency, a respect for civil liberties, and a sense of proportion.”

Is it rude to suggest that, despite all our rhetoric to the contrary, the terrorists are winning? A million people, give or take, stay inside for 12 hours because the authorities tell them to — and plenty of people outside the Boston area think that’s just fine.

In “My Terrorist Eye” I wrote:

The events of 9/11 were indeed terrifying, but it was not fear alone that led to the official “war on terror.” On September 11, 2001, the Bush administration and the U.S. Congress were forced to acknowledge, in an implacably public way, that they weren’t in complete control, that all the little games they play to create the illusion that they are in control had proved inadequate. And it freaked them out. When the shock wore off, they — and many who shared their assumption that the United States was invulnerable — reacted in anger. Someone had to pay for bringing them face-to-face with their own vulnerability, perhaps the nearest man in a turban or woman in a hijab, or the next person to declare that the destruction of the World Trade Towers didn’t nullify the Bill of Rights. The U.S. went to war with Afghanistan, then invaded Iraq. With one eye open and the other shut tight, it looked as though treating all Muslims, Muslim countries, and people with Arabic names as suspects would make us safe, or at least make us feel safer. Through the other eye it was easy to see that our safety, or the illusion of safety, was being purchased with other people’s fear. With both eyes open and mindful of our own recent experience, it wasn’t hard to see where this was leading: scared people often react, and retaliate, in anger.

About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has been preoccupied with electoral politics since 2016. She just started a blog about her vintage T-shirt collection: "The T-Shirt Chronicles." Her other blogs include "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories," about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard, and "Write Through It," about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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4 Responses to Are the Terrorists Winning?

  1. Sharon Stewart says:

    Prescient, Susanna. I couldn’t agree more. Awhile ago, an American editor that we both know pushed me back hard when I said on Facebook that I don’t live my life in fear. She implied that I was lying. But I was not. I can’t imagine living in fear, either temporarily or permanently. Part of my “complaisance” is no doubt due to the fact that I have never seen a handgun in real life, and nobody I know (friends or relatives) has either. That’s not to say that there’s no violent crime in Canada. But most murders in my area (eastern Ontario) are not random: It’s criminals against criminals after drug deals gone bad, for the most part. Or ex-husbands against their own wives (we have monuments in a downtown park dedicated to each of these women ).

    We did have the War Measures Act temporarily invoked in 1970 when the LFQ kidnapped a British diplomat and a Quebec cabinet minister (who was later murdered). Members of the Armed Forces were posted in front of embassies, but this did not affect us (I just remember seeing them from the bus when I was on my way to work). Also, hundreds of people were arrested and held without charge. Not good.

    Sharon in Ottawa


    • I can’t imagine living in fear either. Being afraid occasionally, yes; living in fear, no. When I lived in D.C., I carried lots of keys, I was cautious, and a lot street-smarter than I am now, but I walked and biked and took public transportation all over the place. I saw guns and I sometimes heard guns and I knew too many women who’d been raped, but I didn’t live in fear. Here my front door is never locked, my car keys are in the ignition, and I go walking in the dark whenever I feel like it — but there’s no shortage of people telling me what a risk I’m taking. I’ve got a couple of theories about this. One is that for many people there’s a payoff in being afraid. Another is that people who watch a lot of TV think the world is much more dangerous than it is.

      The closest I’ve lived to martial law was during the Mayday demonstrations in D.C. in 1971. 13,400 people were arrested over several days. I was one of them. 🙂 On the first day people got busted for congregating in groups of more than two. National Guard vehicles rolled up and down the streets. Military and police everywhere.

      James Keelaghan wrote “October 70” about the “October crisis.” Good song. As usual he manages to get it from several sides at once.


      • Sharon Stewart says:

        I wasn’t aware of your Mayday demonstrations. That’s a huge number of people to arrest, contain, and process (or should it be arrest, process, and contain?). I’m proud of you for putting your money where your mouth is. And jealous.


      • It was mostly an impulse thing. I and most of my fellow activists didn’t agree with the “Mayday Tribe”’s tactics — physically block the main commuting routes in and out of D.C. during rush hour — but we did our usual thing of organizing shelter and food for as many incoming demonstrators as we could. The official overreaction, however, was infuriating. A friend and I went down to the Capitol that Wednesday to hear four members of Congress speak. They invited us up on the Capitol steps so we could hear better. The cops cordoned us off and said if we didn’t leave we’d be arrested. Staying put was a no-brainer. The MCs and the ACLU brought suit for civil liberties violations, and about 10 years later all of us bustees got some money out of it.


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