Shortly after 10 a.m. on Monday, a Boeing 747 marked Air Force One flew low over Manhattan, dogged by two fighter jets. Within minutes, people began pouring out of downtown office buildings, some rushing down 20 flights of stairs. It was a publicity photo-shoot, but not even the mayor knew that. To those in the skyscrapers, it looked like 9/11 all over again.
Fortunately, there were no injuries stemming from this event, but there could well have been. In the rush down the stairwells, one trip and fall could have led to many.
Panic causes immediate, reactive behavior. With no time to think, adrenalin-fueled acts of self-preservation often result in self-destruction.
Panic affects institutions too, but it works in an institutional way.
The 9/11 attacks threw the nation and its leadership into dazed confusion. There was no discrete enemy, no threatening nation, no army or missile silos to focus a retaliation — just some mysterious underground network of radicals using commercial aircraft as weapons of mass destruction. The supposedly invincible superpower, laden with the highest-tech conventional weaponry, was flummoxed.
Pressed for action, any action, the Bush administration set the juggernaut of institutional panic moving. By calling their initial response a war — the "War on Terror," a mere metaphor, like the "War on Drugs" — they were then compelled to pick some nation to set their conventional war-making machinery against. In less than a month, U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan, using a prepackaged Pentagon plan to overthrow the Taliban government, all the while claiming it would root out the elusive, highly mobile leadership of the terrorist group Al Qaeda, harbored somewhere there. Panic had forced the use of the wrong tools for the task.
Pressed for action on the domestic front too, the Congress hastily cobbled together a collection of freestanding agencies into the ungainly and unworkable Office of Homeland Security, with its orange alerts and duct-tape advisories. It equally hastily fashioned the so-called Patriot Act, which broadly expanded domestic surveillance. Into this atmosphere of panic entered G. W. Bush's oedipal obsession with finishing his father's job in Iraq in the name of flushing out Al Qaeda — a contrived connection that tapped the well of panic once more and bogged down the American military on two fronts.
It should come as no surprise that White House lawyers started drafting memos justifying the torture of terror suspects as early as January 2002. It is all of a piece, another example of how the initial panic, where the end of self-preservation seems at the moment to justify any means, was codified into policy.
So develops the banality of evil.
What is truly surprising is that the U.S. did not abrogate all its guarantees of civil liberties and barrel headlong into fascism, as has happened so often to other countries in recent history. The resilience of the Constitution once again saved us at the brink.
Should the authors of the torture memos, or those higher up that approved them, or those down below that carried them out, be investigated? Yes. Should they be prosecuted? No.
Prosecution is not the right route because almost everyone in government shares complicity in the torture policy, including Democrats in Congress who were briefed on the subject early on and uttered no word of opposition at the time. To a greater or lesser degree, the entire nation was caught in the web of institutionalized panic, from which we are just beginning to set ourselves free. To prosecute some lets all others off the hook.
An official investigation of the entire dynamic of post-9/11 institutional trauma, including but not limited to detainee torture, is imperative, to mark on the national memory how panic can so easily lead to perversion. Like responders who constantly drill to react automatically and effectively in the moment of emergency, the country as a whole should take this as an opportunity to examine its past actions and prepare itself for the inevitable next crisis.