Ever since I was a kid, seems like every time I turn on the TV it tells me that I'm supposed to be afraid of something. Growing up in the waning years of the Cold War, it was the Russkies with their great big bombs and funny marching and their hatred of the American way. By the time I was old enough to notice, nobody seriously worried anymore about "nucular combat toe to toe with the Rooskies," as Major "King" Kong put it in Dr. Strangelove. Still, when the Soviet Union fell apart in 1990, I thought we were in the clear.
But it wasn't just the crazy freedom-hating Russians that we were told to be afraid of. They topped the hit parade for years, but in my lifetime we've been told to panic about all kinds of things. Here are some of them, in no particular order:
Soviet nukes, North Korean nukes, suitcase nukes, nuclear power plants, dirty bombs, shoe bombs, guns, assault rifles, semiautomatic weapons, sarin, anthrax, Ebola, E. coli, Lyme disease, Legionnaires' disease, smallpox, salmonella, dengue fever, Asian flu, bird flu, swine flu, yuppie flu, West Nile virus, the pesticides sprayed on the mosquitoes that spread West Nile virus, breast implants, AIDS, SARS, SIDS, ADD, ADHD, PTSD, TB, Y2K, EMP, WMD, illegal aliens, drunk drivers, road rage, asbestos, mercury, lead, oil shortages, the national debt, inflation, stagflation, hurricanes, twisters, tsunamis, asteroids, earthquakes, killer bees, killer canines, mad cows, global warming, the hole in the ozone, flesh-eating bacteria, stem-cell research, Frankenfood, Halloween, poisoned Tylenol, sex addiction, identity theft, secondhand smoke, Crips, Bloods, neo-Nazis, Satanists, pagans, cults, serial killers, postal workers, Catholic priests, heroin, cocaine, crack cocaine, methamphetamines, club drugs, ecstasy, Special K, day-care centers, retirement homes, hospitals, an epidemic of obesity, an epidemic of teen drug abuse, an epidemic of teen murders, an epidemic of teen suicides, an epidemic of teen gambling, an epidemic of teens having sex, an epidemic of teens having babies, an epidemic of child pornography, missing children, workplace violence, violence against seniors, violence on TV, violence in movies, violent video games, rap videos, rap music, heavy-metal music, Dungeons & Dragons, snuff films, Internet porn, high-voltage power lines, cell phones that explode, cell phones that cause brain cancer, drivers on cell phones, pedophiles on MySpace, the air, water, soil, eggs, ham, fish, peanuts, spinach, and dog food.
And in 2001 fear got a new mascot—a glorious rebranding featuring the godfather of fear, the hardest-working man in terrorism: Osama bin Laden. The attacks of September 11 ramped us up to levels of fear and paranoia I'd never felt in my life. Some of it was justified; I mean, it was the first time since Pearl Harbor that outside aggressors had attacked us on our own soil. But all the media-fanned panics that followed were even scarier than the actual event.
The odd thing is that when you look past the terror of the headlines Americans actually live longer, healthier, safer lives than ever before. Our average life expectancy is 60 percent greater than it was at the start of the twentieth century. Medical science has conquered all sorts of diseases that were once common killers. Violent crime has plummeted in every major city. We're safer in our homes, in our cars, on planes, trains, and bicycles than ever before. And globally, since the end of the Cold War no great military power has really threatened us. As shocking as 9/11 was, it wasn't nuclear war.
But we don't feel safer, do we? In poll after poll, we express our belief that times are more frightening now than they used to be, that people are more dangerous and the world is more violent, that we're so close to the apocalypse that you can smell the brimstone. We're afraid of strangers, we're afraid of our own teenagers, we're afraid of insects, we're afraid of the food we eat and the water we drink and the air we breathe, we're afraid of TV and movies and the Internet, we're afraid of the weather, and we're afraid the earth itself is dying.
Fear is a biological survival mechanism. But there's rational, useful fear, and then there are phobias—illogical, unwarranted fears of imagined or highly exaggerated threats. Take the fear of flying. Flying is a much, much safer form of transportation than, say, driving. In 2004, a representative year, almost 43,000 Americans died in car accidents. That same year, only 600 Americans died in aircraft crashes. Your chances of dying in an aircraft are around one in 10 million, versus one in 7,000 in a car. Statistically, you're far safer during your flight than you are driving to and from the airport. (Your luggage, however, is another story.)
Now, take terrorism. Since 9/11 we've been kept on a constant state of alert—i.e., anxiety—about terrorists. Depending on who's doing the math, the average American civilian's chances of being a victim of a terrorist attack are minuscule—about one in 9 million, according to one estimate. According to the National Safety Council, you have an equal, if not greater, chance of being struck and killed by lightning (6,188,298 to 1) or of being bitten to death by a dog (9,089,063 to 1). Yet the National Weather Service doesn't make you leave your golf clubs at the door when it starts raining, and the NSPCA doesn't have color-coded threat levels for German shepherds.
Let me put it another way: From the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 through 2005, about 3,200 American civilians died in terrorist attacks, 2,973 of them on the single day of September 11, 2001. In that same period, in round numbers:
• about 700,000 Americans died of heart disease
• roughly 600,000 Americans died of cancer
• nearly 500,000 Americans died in car accidents
• about 200,000 died in homicides
• nearly 150,000 died after falls
• almost 40,000 people drowned
• and more Americans were killed by police officers—almost 4,000—than by terrorists.
Despite the infinitesimal chance that the average American will be the victim of a terrorist attack, Osama bin Laden, "the terrorist threat," and the Global War on Terror have turned our entire society upside down and inside out. We've started two wars that we can't seem to end, in which thousands and thousands of people are dying. The United States has committed what many see as war crimes and human rights abuses. We've made a lot more enemies around the world than friends, and by the fall of 2006 more Americans had died fighting the War on Terror in Afghanistan and Iraq than were killed by terrorists from 1995 to 2005.
So why, if the threat is so exaggerated, do we feel so much dread? Partly because we're told to, over and over and over. We live in what sociologists call a "culture of fear," in which the media, the government, and various special-interest groups keep us in a constant state of anxiety about wave after wave of supposed new threats to our health and well-being. Since Machiavelli's time politicians have known how to use fear to keep people distracted, cowed, and obedient. Bureaucrats use it to justify their budgets and their jobs, TV newspeople use fear as a way to keep our eyes glued to the screen, and special-interest groups use it to keep our donations pouring in.
But since September 11, the government hasn't just kept us in a panic; the government itself has been in a panic. In 2002, the Bush administration created the Department of Homeland Security, whose very name invokes insecurity, not to mention the odd sound of that word "Homeland." Maybe it should have been called the Department of We Hate You, Osama, and You'll Never Catch Us with Our Pants Down Again! Because the DHS is nothing but a massive restructuring of the same old federal bureaucracy. It's an interdepartmental Frankenstein stitched together from existing agencies, including Customs, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, FEMA, and various parts of the FBI, the Coast Guard, the Secret Service, and the departments of Defense, Transportation, Energy, and Agriculture.
With an annual budget upward of $40 billion, the DHS defends us from terrorists, illegal aliens, drug smugglers, hurricanes, earthquakes, and epidemics. It guards our seaports and coastlines, our farms and reservoirs, and protects us in cyberspace. See, it really is the Department of Disaster Movie Plotlines. It's the DHS that issues those colorcoded threat-level advisories and makes us take our shoes off at the airport.
And the DHS is charged with ladling out hundreds of millions of dollars every year in antiterrorism grants to the states. Having few legitimate terrorist targets in their districts but knowing pork when they smell it, many local bureaucrats have gotten very creative. On the list of 77,069 potential terrorism sites nationwide were "1,305 casinos, 163 water parks, 159 cruise ships, 244 jails, 3,773 malls, 718 mortuaries and 571 nursing homes." Specific targets included "the Old MacDonald's Petting Zoo near Huntsville, Ala., a bourbon festival, a bean festival and the Kangaroo Conservation Center in Dawsonville, Ga. . . . the Amish Country Popcorn factory, the Mule Day Parade, the Sweetwater Flea Market and an unspecified 'Beach at End of a Street.' " Ice-cream parlors, check-cashing joints, and tackle shops also made the list.
Meanwhile, the DHS spends about $5 billion a year screening us at airports. But the reality, as The Atlantic Monthly noted, is that it's "largely for show. . . . 'The inspection process is mostly security theater, to make people feel safe about flying,' says John Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State."
Only it doesn't make us feel safer, does it? Take off your shoes! Empty that baby bottle! At Dulles Airport, security personnel ordered a woman to peel her banana. Banana bombs! When fruit and baby formula become potential WMDs, what's next? And who really feels safe? That nursing mother and her child in the seat next to you could be terrorists. She could be carrying liquid explosives in her breasts. How do you know she isn't? Don't rough her up when you arrest her—she might explode.
You think I'm joking? I met a woman who was ordered by an inspector at Newark International Airport to remove the gel inserts from her push-up bra! Just because she's a member of the IBTC (that's the Itty Bitty Titty Committee, for those of you who aren't or don't act like you're twelve), she's a terrorist threat. You'd never see Pamela Anderson getting stopped. Why? Because Pamela Anderson loves freedom, 36D times more than that other girl.
These were the thoughts that were running through my head as I sat in front of the TV in January 2006. I flipped through the news channels, hearing all about the dread and despair, thinking about how unsafe everyone felt (a few weeks before this friends of mine canceled a trip to New York because they had heard about potential New Year's plots on
New York City), and about how I got cheated out of the relief I felt entitled to when the Cold War ended. Who was to blame for all this fear? Whom could I confront and say, "Enough already. We get it. The world's a scary place. Leave us all alone." Whom did I have to smack to get some peace around here?
And on the news there he was—the man anointed as the father of all our fears these days. The man who torments and inspires millions around the world from an undisclosed location that even Dick Cheney can't find from his undisclosed location. The most wanted man on the planet: Osama bin Laden.
This was the guy who wrecked the carefree, post-Communist party the twenty-first century was supposed to be. The one guy who screwed it all up for the rest of us. If this guy is such a big deal, why haven't we caught him? Why haven't we found him? Is he a nine-foot-tall ninja with mind-control powers? Why haven't we spent every resource and hired every person we can to turn over every rock on earth to find him? I mean, who is this guy? Why does he like to terrorize us? What does he want? Why do people support him?
Despite all the face time he got in the media, I bet most Americans really don't know much about Osama bin Laden. Be honest. Would you pick him as a category on Jeopardy!? He's the Most Wanted Man on Earth, the man who single-handedly terrorized the entire United States, and I bet most of us know more about Britney Spears than we do about bin Laden.
Sure, there isn't an American alive who doesn't know what he looks like. With his narrow, sharp face and long nose, his dark eyes and scraggly beard, emerging from a cave in long robes and head wrap with an AK-47 dangling from one hand, he was the very image of the evildoer I'd heard so much about. The poster boy for fanatics. If he hadn't made himself the global enemy of the West, we might have created him.
But what did I really know about him? What did I know about his life before September 11? Where did he come from? Where did he get his ideas? Why did he decide to start Al Qaeda? Why did he make us his enemy? Was he married? Did he have kids? Did they run and hug him when he came home to the cave after a hard day of global jihadism? ("What did you do at work today, Daddy?" "Oh, I terrorized the West." "Cool!") And what was he doing living in a cave, anyway? Wasn't he, like, a multimillionaire? What drove him to give up the cushy life in favor of waging jihad?
For that matter, what the hell is a jihad? What's a fatwa? What do other Muslims think of Osama? Do they all hate us, or is it just a lunatic fringe?
I wanted to know. And I really wanted to know how we got to this point where the United States, one of the most revered and respected countries around, is now one of the most hated on earth. I needed some answers, and I figured other people might, too.
So there it was. At that moment, in January of 2006, I decided that I would do what no one else could. I would take my complete lack of knowledge, experience, or expertise and put it to good use by looking for the most wanted and most dangerous man on earth. And to sniff him out I thought I had to try to figure him out. Like Sherlock Holmes getting inside Moriarty's head. Or that chick in Profiler.
Maybe I could fix this mess. Maybe not. Maybe he'd agree to a mano-a-mano cage match to settle this thing forever. Maybe not. At the very least, I'd try to tackle the one question no one else could answer: Where in the world is Osama bin Laden?
Four months later. April 2006. Morning. I opened my eyes to see a beautiful blonde staring at me. It was my girlfriend, Alex. She smiled at me as she came into early-morning focus. I believe I smiled back.
"I think I'm pregnant," she said.
I closed my eyes and said to myself, "You're going to open your eyes and find that this is all a dream."
I opened my eyes and there she was, still smiling.
"How do you know?" I asked her. I was pretty awake now. From the groggy borders of deep REM sleep to a heart-pounding post-marathon dry-mouth sweat in 0.24 seconds.
She pulled one of those little plastic urine sticks out from under the covers and showed me the plus sign in the little window.
"But that's only one test," I said. "You can't be sure with just one test."
She reached under the covers again and pulled out five more little EPT sticks, fanning them out in front of my face. My eyes jumped from plus sign to plus sign to plus sign to plus sign to plus sign, then back to her eyes, glistening and anxious.
I couldn't speak. It felt as if I'd swallowed one of those EPTs. I closed my eyes again, and had another quick conversation with myself: "Pull yourself together, man. What did you think was gonna happen? You're getting married in a month anyway. This is what married people do. Well, this and get very out of shape."
I opened my eyes.
"What do you think?" she asked.
"I think we're going to have a baby," I said. I smiled, rolled over, and hugged and kissed her.
But inside, ten thousand questions and ideas and fears had all started welling up inside me. Me. A dad. What kind of father was I going to be? I just got really good at taking care of myself! I mean, I'd made it through all the pre-planning test stages of responsibility that determine parental aptitude. Stage 1: The plants in my apartment were all still alive. Great sign. I could water and care for greenery. Stage 2: The cat. He was still alive and kicking! He didn't look malnourished or neglected or unhappy. He still slept in the bed with me, so he must like me! Stage 3: The dog. Dammit! I missed the dog stage. This is the most important stage, especially in New York, because dogs are a real responsibility. You gotta walk them and play with them and pay attention to them and pick up their doody off the sidewalk. Great preparation for a kid, and I'd missed it. Crap!
"It's okay," I told myself. "You got two outta three. Still very good signs that you can actually handle some responsibility." Only now this little old-person-space-alien-looking thing is going to be coming into my life, and it's going to be completely dependent on me. Me! Scary.
Fudge. I'd already started the ball rolling on my quest for Osama. The ball hadn't rolled far yet, but I was doing extra push-ups, wearing more sensible shoes, and prepping to leave the country in a few months. What should I do now? Stay home with Alex and discover my nesting instincts, or stay on the path to finding His Scariness?
Double fudge! Being a dad meant that I couldn't just think about what was best for me, or my girlfriend. I had to consider the big picture. And what, exactly, was the big picture? I thought . . . I squinted . . . I started to see something. . . .
Now, suddenly, it came into focus. What kind of a world are Alex and I bringing this kid into? He or she will be our responsibility for at least the next eighteen years. It'll be our duty to nurture her, educate her, protect her. Children are like little sponges, soaking up everything you do and say, everything in their environment—all the good and all the bad, from toxic chemicals to toxic emotions. What sort of world will our little SpongeBob see and hear?
A pretty screwy one, to judge by the news. We'd just marked the third anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. We'd gotten rid of Saddam Hussein, but we'd been caught completely by surprise in the aftermath of his removal—and had compounded the chaos with extraordinary blunders of our own.
The cost of our occupying the country had risen to nearly $10 billion a month. Ten billion dollars! A month! How would I explain that to my kid? You could house all the homeless people in America with what it was costing us to be in Iraq in April alone. And what was all that money buying us? Every morning I looked in the papers and saw more slaughter, more chaos.
How was our other war, the one in Afghanistan, going?
Don't ask. Though we'd just passed the fourteenth anniversary of the Soviet Union's final retreat from Afghanistan in 1992, the place was still a mess. In March, President Bush had made a "surprise" visit to Kabul, where he promised that we would "help Afghanistan grow its democracy and defend those who . . . can't stand the thought of terrorism. . . . Our desire is to see this country flourish." But all that had flourished in Afghanistan was the Taliban insurgency, Al Qaeda recruiting and training operations, and the poppy harvest.
Iraq and Afghanistan were being called "the frontlines in the Global War on Terror" (also known as the GWOT, pronounced Gee-wot, as in "Gee, wot a predicament we've gotten ourselves into!"). But there were a lot of sidelines in the news. Countries like England, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan paid for being our allies in the GWOT by becoming targets for terrorists. Pretty much the entire Middle East had seen even more terrorist violence than we had. Israel and the decades-long issue of the Palestinian refugees were still sources of rage for Muslims around the world, and a handy recruitment tool for groups like Al Qaeda. France, where people seem to hate our culture as much as Osama does, had become a major recruiting zone for young extremists.
Was all this trouble really caused by one guy? Or, at least, by the ideas he'd come to symbolize? Somehow, the fact that I had a little bundle of joy (and fear) on the way made it seem even more important that I get out there and try to find some answers. I had to do this—for me, for my family, for the child I was about to have. I had to face the terror. I had to know what kind of world I was about to bring a child into. What kind of father I could be. What hope we had for the future. You know, all that light and fluffy stuff.
And so, with the tentative blessing of my wife-to-be, I set off on the adventure of a lifetime—a trip that would take me around the world in search of someone people say is the Devil himself. As I stared into Alex's eyes after we'd agreed that I wouldn't give up this quest, I remembered something my grandmother used to say to me: Be careful what you wish for, because you might just get it.
Excerpted from Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden? by Morgan Spurlock. Copyright 2008. Reprinted by permission of Random House.