Published on
the Miami Herald

Fear Has Profoundly Changed Us

Leonard Pitts Jr.

Meanwhile, back at the War on Terror . . .

You remember the War on Terror, don't you? It was in all the papers. Back before presidential politics sucked the air from the room and your 401(k) shrank till it was worth maybe dinner and a movie, it was considered quite the important news story. Abu Ghraib? Extraordinary renditions? Fight 'em over there so we don't have to fight 'em over here? Surely you recall.

I only ask because of a news story that broke last week to a yawn of media disinterest. The Washington Post reported on two secret White House memos explicitly endorsing the use of waterboarding -- simulated drowning -- on so-called high-value terrorism suspects. This is, says The Post, the first time the still-classified memos have been disclosed. They were written in response to requests from then-CIA Director George Tenet, who worried his agents might be hung out to dry if the practice were discovered and the people or their representatives demanded someone's head.

According to The Post, the White House issued written authorizations in 2003 and 2004. Yet in 2006, President Bush told the nation, "The United States does not torture. It's against our laws, and it's against our values. I have not authorized it -- and I will not authorize it.''

Which was, of course, a lie.

You'd think the latest proof of that lie -- yet another smoking gun to stack with all the others -- would merit attention. But a computer search Thursday turned up only seven newspaper stories mentioning the memos. Searches of the CNN and FOX news websites also came up dry, though the story did appear on MSNBC's site.

If you think my point is that the media missed an important story, it isn't. No, the point is that normal is not where we thought it would be.

You remember how it was just after Sept. 11, 2001, right? Some of us vowed we would never enter a skyscraper again. Some of us didn't want to leave our houses again. The minutiae of popular culture became staggeringly unimportant. Humorists like David Letterman and my colleague, Dave Barry, wondered if they could ever return to the business of laughter.


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We were scared dry. And some of us said: Get used to it. This was the new normal.

But skyscrapers did not close from lack of use. We did not become a nation of agoraphobics. We did not lose our interest in singers and movie stars. Letterman and Barry went back to work.

Fear, which had cut through us like a hot poker, became instead a low-grade fever, ambient noise, wallpaper, something you feel without feeling, hear without hearing, see without seeing.

Then you look up one day and realize how profoundly that fear has changed your world. People are imprisoned without charges or access to attorneys, and it's routine. People are surveilled, their reading habits studied, their telephone usage logged, and it's commonplace. People, including children, end up on a secret list of those who are not allowed to fly, nobody will tell you why, there is no appeal, and it's ordinary. We swallow lies like candy, nod sagely at babblespeak, and it's unexceptional.

Torture is inflicted with White House approval, the president lies about it and it's just another Tuesday.

Once upon a time, Americans were fond of looking upon backward nations, upon places where law was whatever the king said it was, and noting with pride that we do things differently in our country. But that was a day long ago and a country long gone.

If we miss the one or mourn the other, you'd never know it to look at us. We live through what feels evermore like a Joe McCarthy fever dream. We feel without feeling, hear without hearing, see without seeing and do not protest what we have become.

Because this is normal now.

--Leonard Pitts Jr.

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