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US of POctober 7, 2001: less than a month after 9/11. Police in Maryland decide that two trucks on Interstate 270 might be carrying explosives. The alert cops block traffic for an hour, searching the vehicles for tools of terror. The cargo turns out to be stage equipment headed to a memorial service for the firefighters killed in the attack.

A forgivable mistake, given the circumstances? Perhaps.

In Tyler, Texas, a few days earlier, federal agents, city police, and bomb experts from far-flung cities had descended on a family’s mailbox to grapple with a gadget jerry-rigged from wires, batteries, and green duct tape. The streets were blocked; the neighbors were evacuated. The device turned out to be an eight-year-old’s home-made flashlight, built as a school project and left in the mailbox for safekeeping.

Still forgivable? Maybe—though on reflection, it doesn’t seem likely that the killers who organized the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon would select a neighborhood in east Texas as their next target. But why, after learning that the bomb was actually a flashlight, did the authorities still feel the need to confiscate it?

When George W. Bush was president, the group most frequently invoked as a symbol of political paranoia was the 9/11 truth movement, nicknamed the truthers, who believed that a cabal within the U.S. government had either organized the 9/11 attacks or deliberately refrained from preventing them. But the truthers were ultimately a side attraction. The most prevalent form of paranoia after 9/11 was the mind-set that allowed officials to mistake a harmless school project for a jihad. Americans were on edge, waiting for the next deadly attack. And in a change from the Cold War, when we at least knew the form such an attack would take, all sorts of activities or objects could be construed as a threat.

It was the same species of fear that had flared during earlier hunts for spies and saboteurs. But now the consequences of failing to spot the conspirators seemed much more catastrophic. Anything might be a weapon; anything might be a clue.

The loosely structured Al Qaeda was misperceived as a tightly centralized organization, much as earlier Americans mistook scattered Indian raids for a tightly controlled conspiracy. And there was another antecedent to Al Qaeda’s image: the global networks of mayhem found in the James Bond movies and their imitators. To show how the image of the Bond villain was conflated with the reality of the jihadist, the political scientist Michael Barkun points to the

“speculation about Osama bin Laden’s Tora Bora cave complex in the final days of the U.S. attack on the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. The myth of bin Laden’s subterranean fortress began with a story in the London Independent newspaper on November 27, 2001, which described a mountain honeycombed with tunnels, behind iron doors, with ‘its own ventilation system and its own power, created by a hydro- electric generator,’ capable of housing 2,000 people ‘like a hotel.’ This story was quickly picked up and embellished by American media. The result was that on November 29th the Times (London) published a cut-away drawing titled ‘Bin Laden’s Mountain Fortress,’ showing thermal sensing equipment and tunnels wide enough for a car to drive through. . . . When ‘Meet the Press’ was broadcast on December 2nd,Tim Russert showed the drawing to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who suggested there might be many such sophisticated redoubts, and not only in Afghanistan.”

When American forces arrived at Osama’s actual lair, they found something somewhat simpler. They found some caves.

“There’s a tendency for people to say, ‘First the World Trade Center, then the Pentagon, now something near me,’ ” the sociologist Joel Best remarked after the attacks. Sure enough, after September 11 and the smaller anthrax attacks that followed, the country was dotted with terrorism scares. Baltimore-Washington International Airport shut down an entire concourse when someone mistook some powdered coffee creamer for anthrax spores. In Nevada, a man called in the police after receiving a suspiciously lumpy package that, when opened, turned out to contain a pair of lace panties and a love letter. An airline bound for Los Angeles was diverted to Shreveport when a man handed a stewardess a note she described as “bizarre” but not actually threatening. (“It didn’t make a lot of sense,” she later said, “but at the same time it was alarming.”) Another flight was diverted on its way to New Jersey when some passengers aroused suspicion by speaking a foreign language in the back of the plane. A thorough investigation revealed that the men were two Jews praying.

It was an understandably cautious time, and some of those incidents seem ridiculous only in retrospect. Others were simply preposterous. Even the most sympathetic observer will have a hard time defending the airport guards in Philadelphia who nabbed Neil Godfrey before the twenty-two-year-old could board his flight to Phoenix. According to Gwen Shaffer’s report in the Philadelphia City Paper, a National Guardsman’s suspicions had been aroused because Godfrey was reading a novel—Edward Abbey’s Hayduke Lives!—whose cover illustration included some dynamite. United Airlines refused to let Godfrey board his plane, then barred him again when he tried to take a second flight.

As 9/11 receded into the past, incidents like those happened less often. But they didn’t disappear. In January 2007, guerrilla marketers erected illuminated signs in locations around ten cities, each displaying one of the Mooninite characters from the Aqua Teen Hunger Force TV cartoon. In nine of those cities, the campaign went off without incident, but in Boston the cops construed the signs as bombs and essentially locked down the town. On learning that the installations were not explosives, officials started calling them a “hoax,” as though the advertisers had expected people to mistake the Mooninites for weapons. “It had a very sinister appearance,” Massachusetts attorney general Martha Coakley said of one of the signs. “It had a battery behind it, and wires.”

When people enter an apocalyptic frame of mind, the historian Richard Landes has observed, “everything quickens, enlightens, coheres. They become semiotically aroused—everything has meaning, patterns.” In the months following 9/11, that mentality was almost inescapable. Consider some of the flotsam on the Internet after the attacks. One frequently forwarded e-mail gave readers instructions on how to fold a $20 bill, revealing an image that seemed to predict the planes hitting the towers:

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Another message asked readers to open Microsoft Word, enter the initials NYC, and then switch the font to Wingdings. The results:

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Some people might take that as a curious coincidence; some might declare it evidence that Microsoft was somehow involved in the plot. But every interpretation, from the most levelheaded to the most cracked, demanded that the reader pause to interpret the material in the first place. The world was filled with unexpected connections and irregular details. With clues.

 

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Jesse

Jesse Walker is a senior editor at Reason magazine and Reason.com. He has written on topics ranging from pirate radio to copyright law to political paranoia, and is author of the book Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (New York University Press, 2001). His writing has also appeared in The New York TimesThe Wall Street JournalThe Washington PostThe New Republic, and many other publications. He lives in Baltimore with his wife and two daughters.

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