Sniff the armpit of America as the 9/11 decade comes to a close and the odour is unmistakably fear and a funny, pungent, sense of humour about Muslims. That’s why the popular joke in some small towns revolves around Muslim mothers and their terrorist offspring. The punchline has one of the women sighing “they blow up so fast”. It is a pitch perfect parody of every mother’s lament that children grow up too quickly. Transposed to Muslims, it is also a profoundly cruel – and slanderous – stereotype masquerading as humour.
But it serves a purpose. It illustrates the grim, unsmiling reality of the last 10 years for small-town America, a decade that the country’s authoritative Prospect magazine recently damned as “lost”. In a piece signed by its editors and titled “The Remains of the Day”, the magazine severely diagnosed America’s troubles as “stemming from what the country has done to itself (with much) squandered wealth and unrealized opportunities to address such longterm problems as global warming and rising inequality”. The American public, it finished, is ready for a rapid drawdown of troops (in Afghanistan) and “ambitious nation-building” at home.
If American Prospect is right about the American public’s readiness to rebuild, it has its work cut out. It would have to roll up its sleeves and start in the armpit of America, in the thousands of unremarkable small towns across the country. But where in America is this fabled and odiferous armpit? Back in December 2001, Gene Weingarten, The Washington Post Magazine’s Pultizer Prize-winning humour columnist, officially anointed Battle Mountain, Nevada as “dreadful enough” to be the armpit. This, even as he acknowledged with solemn emphasis that it was just three months after 9/11 and “Everything (had) Changed… with the nation united in mourning and at war, snide was out”.
Weingarten admitted Battle Mountain faced enormous competition with readers nominating urban cesspools from all over the map — East St Louis, Illinois; Elizabeth, New Jersey; Branson, Missouri; Buffalo, New York; Fargo, North Dakota. But Buffalo Mountain won through because it fulfilled key criteria listed by Weingarten in mock seriousness: “The armpit must smother. It can permit no escape…Even God discourages visitors…”
So far, so comic. But there is a serious point to be made. Despite offering many serious competitors for Armpit, the small town is the heart of the American dream. This is where presidential campaigns are traditionally launched because, in the cliché, American politics may live in the cities and suburbs — but it dreams in small towns. It is here that America fancifully imagines “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average,” as New York Times columnist Garrison Keillor wrote of his fictional small town Lake Wobegon in his bestselling series on the American mid-west.
It is also the place the national spasm of fear has the most effect. All the strong women, good-looking men and exceptional children cannot downsize America’s problem accruing from the 9/11 decade. The challenge, which is simply enormous, is in inverse proportion to the small town. The editor of a familyowned newspaper in a mountain town three hours away from the capital admits to this writer that the 9/11 decade hit small town America hard. “The patriotism meter has gone up; so has bigotry. And anyone who hadn’t got on a plane before 9/11 certainly wouldn’t after it. There is a pronounced fear of the world”.
He might have added fear of the ‘foreign’. Beenish Ahmed, 24, a Pakistani American who grew up in small town Ohio, says “almost half my life has occurred after the attacks” and that she knows what it is to symbolize foreignness and fear to America, “the country where I was born, the country where I am a citizen.” She was referring to a sentiment that an ABC News poll put bald statistics on last September, namely that 49% of Americans have a negative view of Islam, compared with just 39% in October 2002.
It’s worth remembering that America has historically been good at fearing the foreign. In 1798, the young country’s second president John Adams used the Alien and Sedition Acts to arrest critics and deport foreigners during an undeclared naval war with France. During World War II, the Act was pressed into renewed service to impose travel restrictions and night curfews on 900,000 Japanese, Italians, and Germans, who were barred from owning cameras, guns, and shortwave radios.