Not long after 9/11, I was driving home from work – past the tank that was sitting by the side of the road near the wreckage at the Pentagon, to my home in the city that’s the #1 target for attacks – and on NPR, there was yet another “how are the people doing after this” stories. This time it was a bunch of people in Kansas (I think) who were staying home that weekend because there was a story circulating that al Quaeda was going to come attack their mall.
And I thought, “These people are too fucking stupid to live.”
I know, uncharitable, and in my own defense, my nerves were on edge in that mid-to-late September. That will happen when every time you leave your house, there are Humvees full of soldiers with big ass guns, you keep hearing sirens and wondering what’s up, roadblocks and diversions keep appearing and disappearing, and basically everything keeps reminding you of the horror that just happened.
And yeah, sorry rest of America, if you were living in DC or NY, it was a lot more personal. It wasn’t just wondering “What is happening to our country?” It was wondering, “will I be able to get home tonight? what about my cat?” It was things settling down a bit for you, and then worrying about anthrax in your mail because all those letters came through the same postal facility on New York Avenue where your mail was processed. It was up close and personal. It was exhausting enough in DC; I honestly don’t know how New Yorkers didn’t totally lose their minds.
So sorry, when you hear about Kansans afraid of going to the mall, you just think, “Do these people not realize the safety they enjoy by being somewhere nobody really cares much about?”
And as the rest of that decade played out, we saw what Americans do when faced with a big scary threat: they become controlled by fear. They go along with any erosion of civil rights that some power-hungry politician dreams up. They go along with a war against someone who didn’t attack us that makes absolutely no sense, and when it destroys thousands of lives and upsets the balance of power in a volatile part of the world and creates the space for a new radical terrorist group to emerge, they still can’t connect the dots, because they’re become comfortable with their fear.
And so this is what I have learned in our brave new century: modern Americans basically are ruled by fear, don’t value the things that our founders fought a revolution over, and will follow anybody who knows how to stoke that fear and promise an easy answer.
And so that’s what I think about when I read that there are people in Minnesota who think that a bunch of people from Central America are going to stroll over the border, then walk all the way to Minnesota and break into somebody’s vacation house on the lake.
Mr. Trump’s dystopian imagery has clearly left an impression with some. Carol Shields, 75, a Republican in northern Minnesota, said she was afraid that migrant gangs could take over people’s summer lake homes in the state.
“What’s to stop them?” said Ms. Shields, a retired accountant. “We have a lot of people who live on lakes in the summer and winter someplace else. When they come back in the spring, their house would be occupied.”
Where do you even start with people thinking that way? It’s a lot more likely that some Canadian meth heads will be in somebody’s lake house. Or that Carol will be struck by lightning.
Here’s the thing about being an American: it requires something of its citizens. It requires us to adjust to letting people we disagree with speak. It requires us not to lock up people because we don’t like their politics (paging the president here….). It requires us to have the strength to live in a free and open society on an often dangerous planet, and when someone takes advantage of the way our society works, to value the things that make us sometimes vulnerable and double down on them.
It requires, in other words, grit and strength and a refusal to be governed by fear. By that measure, an enormous number of us are failing terribly at being Americans. And we’re all paying for that.
Please vote. Just as importantly, please remember why you’re voting, why it matters, and remember that the day you turn into Carol from Minnesota, you have no business ever talking about how much you love America again. Because at that point, you don’t love America. You don’t even know America.