America's Terrorism Amnesia

Why do our politicians and press react to every terrorist incident as though it was happening for the very first time? Lee Siegel on learning to live in a modern state of siege.

In his comments on homeland security Tuesday, President Obama spoke reassuring technocrat-ese. He declared that he would use the “best science and technology” in order to “correct the failure [of intelligence] so that we can prevent such attacks in the future.” Unfortunately, he is still talking about the war we are engaged in as though it consisted solely of “attacks”—as though these attacks did not arise out of a larger and older context.

The president isn’t the only one caught up in our strange inability to think beyond the instantaneous present. Coverage of the so-called Underwear Bomber is eclipsed by interminable analyses of the “new” threat from Yemen, which is then eclipsed by the Jordanian double agent’s murder of seven CIA agents in Afghanistan. A near-catastrophe, a crisis, and a disaster, all interconnected—yet the media and the legitimate political establishment shift from one to the other while seldom mentioning the larger context, which includes all of them.

It is almost as if Islamic terrorists trusted that American democracy’s commitment to the fresh start would ensure that we never conceived of their virulence as having a chronology, a history, a practical worldly ambition.

But Yemen has been roiling for years, and it is far from the first time that someone we thought was a friend in Afghanistan turned on Americans there, and we have been suffering or thwarting terrorists attacks on American soil for almost two decades. We are in a wholly new type of conflict, neither hot war nor Cold War, yet we continue to respond to each event as if it were happening for the first time.

Salameh Nematt: Was the CIA Bomber a Double Agent for the Taliban? Gallery: The Lives of Double Agents There is even something like a perverse type of hopefulness in the way public officials and the media have fastened on Yemen as the new Middle Eastern problem. A fresh, new problem for a new year. Out with the old geopolitical nightmares—in with the new! Worrying about Yemen is a way not to worry about the insoluble problems of Afghanistan and Pakistan. (By this point, the slaughterhouse in Iraq is about as fresh in the collective mind as the War of 1812.) It is bizarre how so many of the current frenzied analyses of Yemen barely even mentioned Afghanistan or Pakistan, even though both were fixtures of official handwringing just a few weeks ago.

But, then, our whole culture is built on the premise that everything happens as if for the first time. Maybe this mental framework is the origin of the technocrat’s can-do optimism. Future historians will puzzle over how our media covered a mass murder happening two weeks after a previous mass murder without mentioning the one that came before. Indeed, we treat terrorist “incidents” as if they, like mass slaughters, were rootless crimes. The Underwear Bomber’s emails are plumbed for clues to his state of mind as though he were a deracinated loner, a Columbine killer.

And for days now, the media has been abuzz with stories about al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (ARAP)—as if this were an entirely new threat, and not a branch of the very same al Qaeda that has been around for over 20 years, and that has been attacking the United States for almost all of that time. Almost a decade after terrorists commandeered American planes, destroyed the Twin Towers and attacked the Pentagon—and nearly half a century after the first American commercial flight was hijacked by Islamic terrorists—we are now having an overheated national conversation about how to increase airport security. And for all Obama’s adamant reminders that he has used the word “war” to describe our conflict with Islamic militancy, he emphasizes remote threats in distant lands: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen.

One reason we approach terrorist events as isolated happenings is that we need therapeutically to talk away our fear. We have to pretend, during each new crisis, that we have lots to talk about—even though everything we are saying we said during the last crisis. We must also make believe that we are presented with a new problem because then we can indulge the fantasy of coming up with a new solution, rather than submitting to the depressing reality that terrorists attacking America and Americans is a relatively old problem that can’t be solved.

There is a tragic fatefulness to our conflict with Islamic terrorists. It is almost as if they trusted that American democracy’s commitment to the fresh start would ensure that we never conceived of their virulence as having a chronology, a history, a practical worldly ambition. They, on the other hand, are fixated on a past that is eternally present. We responded, weakly, to the failed World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and moved quickly on. They relived it in their heads until they could fulfill its promise 8 years later.

We do not want to sink to such a fanatical fixity, but we do not want to drown in ahistorical complacency, either. What we need to get through our heads is that we are now living in a permanent condition of what you might call Gray War. This crepuscular conflict requires a new vocabulary and a familiarity with a new type of history. A new set of circumstances has sprung up around us, one that is every bit as distinct as the culture created by the Cold War. We have to start speaking its language.

It might seem odd to say, but along with its political and spiritual deformations, the Cold War produced a generation of Americans steeped in history and politics. Wherever you stood on the ideological spectrum, you were drawn into one hundred years of events and ideas. We had to be smarter than they were, therefore we had to master their burden of historical inheritance. For some people, knowing the communist enemy produced a lifelong paranoia. For others, it was a terrific liberal education.

In our present case, we have to accept the fact that we are in a war that is somewhere between hot and cold. This war is not far away, but within our borders and at our doorstep. Its violent events are not “isolated.” Rather, behind them stretches a history that goes back at least as far as Sayyid Qutb and Egypt’s repression of the Muslim Brothers in the 1950s. It is a history that connects each violent event to the other.

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Most wrenching of all, we have to accept the miserable fact that 9/11 will not be a unique event. In one degree or another, attacks inside American borders will happen again. And again. We have to start talking about terrorism as the norm rather than as an exception, and we have to start talking about terrorist violence in the larger accumulating context. We should probably even find a different word than “terrorism” to describe what is the permanent condition of Gray War. We hear “terrorism” or “terrorist” and we think “exceptional event,” “freakish, exceptional figure.” But there’s nothing exceptional, or isolated, about them at all. Not anymore.

Lee Siegel is The Daily Beast's senior columnist. He publishes widely on culture and politics and is the author of three books: Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently, Against the Machine: How the Web Is Reshaping Culture And Commerce—And Why It Matters. In 2002, he received a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.