09/24/2013 11:50 am ET Updated Nov 24, 2013

Death's Consultants and the Profit Game in Washington

Cross-posted with

If you think about it, since 9/11, death has been the great topic of conversation in this country and the crucial building block for the national security and global surveillance state whose shadow has fallen across Washington. It has been the selling point for the loss of American liberties, the assault on American privacy, and the transformation of that city into a war capital overseeing a permanent global conflict. All the building, all the investment, and all the deaths elsewhere, American and foreign, were part of a project raised not so much on the bodies of the dead of 9/11, as on the prospective bodies of Americans from the Canadian to the Mexican border, who were going to die if our "safety" wasn't assured by endless trillions of dollars, invasions and kidnappings, drone assassination campaigns, special ops hunter/killer teams, and so much else. All of it was supposed to offer a near-100 percent guarantee that death, that global visitor, would not arrive in one specific way: via a terror attack. From that and that alone, Americans were to be made as safe and secure as it was possible to be.

In the name of death, the word "homeland" was embedded in our lives and became as American as apple pie, while every death in that "homeland" at the hands of terrorist wannabes -- from Fort Hood, Texas, to Boston, Massachusetts -- played onscreen 24/7, day after day, as the hysteria built and vast sums of money were poured into the project of making us ever more "secure." Meanwhile, when death paid a visit to Americans armed to the teeth but without an al-Qaeda mask, as it did at the Washington Navy Yard recently, people went on with their lives.

In these years, it turned out not to matter that terror attacks were the least of the lethal dangers facing Americans compared to, among other things, the car, the cigarette, the flood, the hurricane, or of course the gun, which by suicide (19,000 dead), accident, or murder, was slaughtering tens of thousands annually, not to speak of so many other dangers against which no one was offering any guarantees of safety or security. Money poured into labs working to save Americans from prospective death by chemical or biological weaponry, while the funds to protect Americans from food-borne illness (which kills approximately 3,000 people a year) were regularly endangered.

In the twenty-first century, it was not death itself -- no stranger to this country -- but the fear of prospective death by terror that settled comfortably into Washington. It spawned a homeland-security-industrial complex and gave birth to lobbyists of every sort who descended on Congress as front men not just for their burgeoning companies, but for prospective death-by-terror. They were eager to hire themselves out as death's consultants on how to make a profit off possible end games.

It's been quite a spectacle, this dance with future death. The marketing of death (and our safety from it) has been on the mind of Lewis Lapham, too. In the Fall issue of his remarkable magazine, Lapham's Quarterly, he steps onto the dance floor himself and takes death by the hand, as he explains in his latest essay, "Memento Mori: The Death of American Exceptionalism - and of Me."