NEW YORK--Once, we Americas did brave things: We crossed the English Channel, knowing that most of us would die on the beach in Normandy. We sat at the lunch counter in the Deep South, waiting for white goons to beat us up. We also did brave things that were stupid: When the president sent us to Vietnam, some of us went, risking death. Others went to Canada, sacrificing everything for principle. We bungee jumped. We tried New Coke. Bravery can be dumb. But it's still brave.
Then came 9/11/01. It was the defining event of the decade, a fin-de-siecle moment for a previously proud nation's once glorious history. The Fear Decade had begun.
Bin Laden wanted the destruction of the World Trade Center to smack oblivious Americans upside their collective heads, to draw their attention to their nation's toxic foreign policy, maybe to demand the United States stop propping up dictators. It didn't work.
Rather than reassessing the government's behavior, Americans got angry. Anger comes from fear, and fear makes you do stupid things. Fear of attacks, of Muslims, of anyone wearing a turban. Governments act stupid and mean. That's normal. What the Fear Decade made different was us. It made us let the government do whatever it wanted.
I watched a legless vet, humiliated and detained by a TSA agent as he repeatedly explained why the metal detector kept going off: His body was full of titanium, courtesy of the Iraqi insurgency. I watched. So did other passengers. We said nothing. We were afraid.
Not just at the airport. We were afraid at work. Unions were deader than dead, the government was in the hands of gangster capitalists, and the economy started tanking the instant Bill Clinton began packing his bags. We were overleveraged, maxed out and one paycheck away from losing everything.
National Guardskids, all of 20 years old and decked out in their best Kevlar, brandishing automatic weapons taller than they are at women and children as they came out of commuter rail stations. Annoying, sure, but what if something happened? We heard that the government was listening to our phone calls and reading our e-mail, but instead of summoning up outrage at this brazen and illegal violation of privacy, we took cold comfort in that hoary chestnut: "If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear."
But we were afraid. We still are.
Then we elected Barack Obama. We didn't vote for him because he was accomplished. He wasn't. Or because we liked his ideas. He hardly had any. We voted for him because he seemed so calm.
But he was afraid, too. More than that, he wanted us to keep being scared of the same exact stuff George W. Bush had us so frightened of! Lions and tigers and Muslims, oh my! The Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan, even though the Pentagon said there were fewer than 100 al-Qaida guys in the whole country! Iraq, still, although he couldn't quite explain why, and the bad guys who didn't do anything wrong at Guantanamo, just in case.
Now it's all fear, all the time. Fear of diseases (H1N1). Fear of evil banks. We were arrogant once, loud and silly and funny and crazy as hell, and we were Americans.
Now we're timid and pissy, and I don't recognize, much less like, what we've become.