Especially in a contentious election year, I find it difficult not to be skeptical when the Department of Homeland Security issues terror alerts. When the alert level was raised just after the Democratic Convention, for example, the specific details seemed convincing. But when the cited sources and vintage of the intelligence kept shifting, you didnt have to be a conspiracy theorist to question the administrations motives.
And yet, terrorists are real and they want to attack me. Or you. Or Capitol Hill legislators. Or Midwestern mall shoppers. Nothing personal: Terrorists just need stage props. For the most part they dont care about who dies, specifically. Whats important is the theatrical power of violent, unpredictable deaths, in a symbolic setting if possibleand the reverberations of notoriety, panic, revenge, suspicion, and repression that inevitably follow.
Sept. 11 strained the body politic. Traumatized, our democracygrieving, harried, and surveilledwas dragged to brutal places or ran there headlong, raging. Our countrys belligerence and abiding anxiety are both part of the terrorist script. Our leaders dont need to manufacture or manipulate the chaos for Machiavellian ends: They are propelled into chaos as haplessly as the rest of us, at least initially.