Thursday, April 18, 2013 10:57 AM
From right-wing think tanks to Homeland
Security to the “drone lobby,” a lot’s riding on the constant threat of global terrorism. Here’s how it all started.
This article originally
appeared at TomDispatch.
The communist enemy, with the “world’s
fourth largest military,” has been trundlingmissiles around and threatening the United States
with nuclear obliteration. Guam, Hawaii, Washington: all, it claims, are targetable. The coverage in
the media has been hair-raising. The U.S. is rushing an untested missile defense system to Guam,
deploying missile-interceptor ships off the South Korean coast, sending “nuclear capable” B-2 Stealth bombers thousands of
miles on mock bombing runs, pressuring China, and conducting large-scale war games with its South Korean ally.
Only one small problem: there is as yet little evidence that the enemy with a few nuclear weapons
facing off (rhetorically at least) against an American arsenal of 4,650 of them has the ability to miniaturize and mount even one on a missile, no
less deliver it accurately, nor does it have a missile capable of reaching
Hawaii or Washington, and I wouldn't count on Guam either.
It also happens to be a desperate country, one possibly without enough fuel to fly a modern air force, whose
people, on average, are inches shorter than their southern neighbors thanks to
decades of intermittent famine and malnutrition, and who are ruled by a bizarre
three-generational family cult. If that other communist, Karl Marx, hadn’t once
famously written that history repeats itself “first as tragedy, then as farce,”
we would have had to invent the phrase for this very moment.
In the previous century, there were two devastating
global wars, which left significant parts of the planet in ruins. There was
also a "cold war" between two superpowers locked in a system of mutual
assured destruction (aptly acronymed as MAD) whose nuclear arsenals were
capable of destroying the planet many times over. Had you woken up any morning
in the years between December
7, 1941, and December 26, 1991, and been told that the leading
international candidate for America's Public Enemy Number One was Kim Jong-un’s
ramshackle, comic-opera regime in North Korea, you might have gotten down on
your hands and knees and sent thanks to pagan gods.
The same would be true for the other candidates for that
number one position since September 11, 2001: the original al-Qaeda (largely
decimated), al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula located in poverty-stricken areas
of poverty-stricken Yemen, the Taliban in poverty-stricken Afghanistan, unnamed
jihadis scattered across poverty-stricken areas of North Africa, or
Iran, another rickety regional power run by not particularly adept theocrats.
All these years, we’ve been launching wars and pursuing a
“global war on terror." We’ve poured money into national security as if
there were no tomorrow. From our police to our borders, we’ve up-armored everywhere. We constantly
hear about “threats” to us and to the “homeland.” And yet, when you knock on
the door marked “Enemy,” there’s seldom anyone home.
Few in this country have found this
striking. Few seem to notice any disjuncture between the enemy-ridden,
threatening, and deeply dangerous world we have been preparing ourselves for
(and fighting in) this last decade-plus and the world as it actually is, even
those who lived through significant parts of the last anxiety-producing, bloody
You know that feeling when you wake up and realize you’ve
had the same recurrent nightmare yet again? Sometimes, there’s an equivalent in
waking life, and here’s mine: every now and then, as I read about the next move
in the spreading war on terror, the next drone assassination, the next
ratcheting up of the surveillance game, the next expansion of the secrecy that
envelops our government, the next set of expensive actions taken to guard us --
all of this justified by the enormous threats and dangers that we face -- I
think to myself: Where’s the enemy? And then I wonder: Just what kind of a
dream is this that we’re dreaming?
A Door Marked “Enemy” and No One Home
Let’s admit it: enemies can have their uses. And let’s
admit as well that it’s in the interest of some in our country that we be seen
as surrounded by constant and imminent dangers on an enemy-filled planet. Let’s
also admit that the world is and always will be a dangerous place in all sorts
Still, in American terms, the bloodlettings, the
devastations of this new century and the last years of the previous one have
been remarkably minimal or distant; some of the worst, as in the multi-country
war over the Congo with its more than five million dead have passed us by entirely;
some, even when we launched them, have essentially been imperial frontier
conflicts, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, or interventions of little cost (to us)
as in Libya, or frontier patrolling operations as in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia,
and Northern Africa. (It was no mistake that, when Washington
launched its special operations raid on Abbottabad,
get Osama bin Laden, it was given the code name “Geronimo” and the message from the SEAL team
recording his death was “Geronimo-E KIA” or “enemy killed in action.”)
And let’s admit as well that, in the wake of those wars
and operations, Americans now have more enemies, more angry, embittered people
who would like to do us harm than on September 10, 2001. Let’s accept that
somewhere out there are people who, as George W. Bush once liked to say, “hate us" and what we stand for. (I
leave just what we actually stand for to you, for the moment.)
So let’s consider those enemies briefly. Is there a major
state, for instance, that falls into this category, like any of the great
warring imperial European powers from the sixteenth century on, or Nazi Germany
and Imperial Japan in World War II, or the Soviet Union
of the Cold War era? Of course not.
There was admittedly a period when, in order to pump up
what we faced in the world, analogies to World War II and the Cold War were
rife. There was, for instance, George W. Bush’s famed rhetorical construct, the Axis of
Evil (Iraq, Iran, and North Korea), patterned by his
speechwriter on the German-Italian-Japanese “axis” of World War II. It was, of
course, a joke construct, if reality was your yardstick. Iraq and Iran were then enemies. (Only in
the wake of the U.S.
invasion and occupation of Iraq
have they become friends and allies.) And North Korea had nothing whatsoever
to do with either of them. Similarly, the American occupation of Iraq was once regularly compared to the
U.S. occupations of Germany and Japan, just as Saddam Hussein had long been presented as a modern Hitler.
In addition, al-Qaeda-style Islamists were regularly
referred to as Islamofascists, while certain military and neocon types
with a desire to turn the war on terror into a successor to the Cold War took
to calling it “the long war,” or even “World War IV.” But all of this was so wildly out of whack
that it simply faded away.
As for who’s behind that door marked “Enemy,” if you
opened it, what would you find? As a start, scattered hundreds or, as the years have
gone by, thousands of jihadis, mostly in the poorest backlands of the
planet and with little ability to do anything to the United States. Next, there were a
few minority insurgencies, including the Taliban and allied forces in Afghanistan and separate Sunni and Shia ones in Iraq. There
also have been tiny numbers of wannabe
Islamic terrorists in the U.S.
(once you take away the string of FBI
sting operations that have regularly turned hopeless slackers and lost
teenagers into the most dangerous of fantasy Muslim plotters). And then, of
course, there are those two relatively hapless regional powers, Iran and North Korea, whose bark far exceeds
their potential bite.
The Wizard of Oz on 9/11
in other words, is probably in less danger from external enemies than at any
moment in the last century. There is no other imperial power on the planet
capable of, or desirous of, taking on American power directly, including China. It’s
true that, on September 11, 2001, 19 hijackers with box cutters produced a
remarkable, apocalyptic, and devastating TV show in which almost 3,000 people died. When those giant towers in
downtown New York
collapsed, it certainly had the look of nuclear disaster (and in those first days, the
media was filled was nuclear-style references), but it wasn’t actually an
The enemy was still nearly nonexistent. The act cost
bin Laden only an estimated $400,000-$500,000, though it would lead to a series
of trillion-dollar wars. It was a nightmarish event that had a
malign Wizard of Oz quality to it: a tiny man producing giant
effects. It in no way endangered the state. In fact, it would actually
strengthen many of its powers. It put a hit on the economy, but a passing one.
It was a spectacular and spectacularly gruesome act of terror by a small,
murderous organization then capable of mounting a major operation somewhere on
Earth only once every couple of years. It was meant to spread fear, but nothing
When the towers came down and you could suddenly see to
the horizon, it was still, in historical terms, remarkably enemy-less. And yet
9/11 was experienced here as a Pearl Harbor
moment -- a sneak attack by a terrifying enemy meant to disable the country.
The next day, newspaper headlines were filled with variations on “A Pearl Harbor of the Twenty-First Century.”
If it was a repeat of December 7, 1941, however, it lacked an imperial Japan or
any other state to declare war on, although one of the weakest partial states
on the planet, the Taliban's Afghanistan, would end up filling the bill
adequately enough for Americans.
To put this in perspective, consider two obvious major
dangers in U.S.
life: suicide by gun and death by car. In 2010, more than 19,000 Americans killed themselves using guns. (In the same
year, there were “only” 11,000 homicides nationwide.) In 2011, 32,000 Americans
died in traffic accidents (the lowest figure in 60 years, though it was again on the rise in the first six months of 2012). In other
words, Americans accept without blinking the equivalent yearly of more than six
9/11s in suicides-by-gun and more than 10 when it comes to vehicular deaths.
Similarly, had the underwear bomber, to take one post-9/11 example of
terrorism, succeeded in downing Flight 253 and murdering its 290 passengers, it would have
been a horrific act of terror; but he and his compatriots would have had to
bring down 65 planes to reach the annual level of weaponized suicides and more
than 110 planes for vehicular deaths.
And yet no one has declared war on either the car or the
gun (or the companies that make them or the people who sell them). No one has
built a massive, nearly trillion-dollar car-and-gun-security-complex to deal
with them. In the case of guns, quite the opposite is true, as the post-Newtown
debate over gun control has made all too clear. On both scores, Americans have
decided to live with perfectly real dangers and the staggering carnage that
accompanies them, constraining them on occasion or sometimes not at all.
Despite the carnage of 9/11, terrorism has been a small-scale American danger in the years since, worse than
shark attacks, but not much else. Like a wizard, however, what Osama bin Laden
and his suicide bombers did that day was create an instant sense of an enemy so
big, so powerful, that Americans found “war” a reasonable response; big enough
for those who wanted an international police action against al-Qaeda to be
laughed out of the room; big enough to launch an invasion of revenge against
Iraq, a country unrelated to al-Qaeda; big enough, in fact, to essentially
declare war on the world. It took next to no time for top administration
officials to begin talking about targeting 60
countries, and as journalist Ron Suskind has reported, within six days of the attack, the CIA had
topped that figure, presenting President Bush with a “Worldwide Attack Matrix,”
a plan that targeted terrorists in 80 countries.
What’s remarkable is how little the disjuncture between
the scope and scale of the global war that was almost instantly launched and
the actual enemy at hand was ever noted here. You could certainly make a
reasonable argument that, in these years, Washington has largely fought no one -- and
lost. Everywhere it went, it created enemies who had, previously, hardly
existed and the process is ongoing. Had you been able to time-travel back to the Cold
War era to inform Americans that, in the future, our major enemies would be in
Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Mali, Libya, and so on, they would surely have
thought you mad (or lucky indeed).
Creating an Enemy-Industrial Complex
Without an enemy of commensurate size and threat, so much
that was done in Washington
in these years might have been unattainable. The vast national security building and spending spree -- stretching from the Virginia
suburbs of Washington, where the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency
erected its new $1.8 billion headquarters, to Bluffdale, Utah, where the
National Security Agency is still constructing a $2 billion, one-million-square-foot data center for storing
the world’s intercepted communications -- would have been unlikely.
Without the fear of an enemy capable of doing anything,
money at ever escalating levels would never have poured into homeland security,
or the Pentagon, or a growing complex of crony corporations associated with our
weaponized safety. The exponential growth of the national security complex, as
well as of the powers of the executive branch when it comes to
national security matters, would have far been less likely.
Without 9/11 and the perpetual “wartime” that followed,
along with the heavily promoted threat of terrorists ready to strike and
potentially capable of wielding biological, chemical, or even nuclear weapons,
we would have no Department of Homeland Security nor the lucrative mini-homeland-security complex that surrounds it; the
17-outfit U.S. Intelligence Community with its massive $75 billion official budget would have been far less impressive;
our endless drone wars and the “drone lobby” that goes with them might never have
developed; and the U.S. military would not have an ever growing secret military, the Joint Special Operations Command,
gestating inside it -- effectively the president’s private army, air force, and
navy -- and already conducting largely secret operations across much of the
For all of this to happen, there had to be an
enemy-industrial complex as well, a network of crucial figures and institutions
ready to pump up the threat we faced and convince Americans that we were in a
world so dangerous that rights, liberty, and privacy were small things to
sacrifice for American safety. In short, any number of interests from Bush
administration figures eager to “sweep it all up” and do whatever they wanted in the world
to weapons makers, lobbyists, surveillance outfits, think tanks, military intellectuals, assorted pundits... well, the whole
national and homeland security racket and its various hangers-on had an
interest in beefing up the enemy. For them, it was important in the post-9/11
era that threats would never again lack a capital “T” or a hefty dollar sign.
And don’t forget a media that was ready to pound the
drums of war and emphasize what dangerous enemies lurked in our world with
remarkably few second thoughts. Post-9/11, major media outlets were generally
prepared to take the enemy-industrial complex’s word for it and play every new
terrorist incident as if it were potentially the end of the world. Increasingly
as the years went on, jobs, livelihoods, an expanding world of “security”
depended on the continuance of all this, depended, in short, on the injection
of regular doses of fear into the body politic.
That was the “favor” Osama bin Laden did for Washington’s national
security apparatus and the Bush administration on that fateful September
morning. He engraved an argument in the American brain that would live on
indelibly for years, possibly decades, calling for eternal vigilance at any
cost and on a previously unknown scale. As the Project for the New American
Century (PNAC), that neocon think-tank-cum-shadow-government, so fatefully put
it in "Rebuilding America's Defenses" a year before the 9/11 attacks:
“Further, the process of transformation [of the military], even if it brings
revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and
catalyzing event -- like a new Pearl Harbor.”
So when the new Pearl Harbor
arrived out of the blue, with many PNAC members (from Vice President Dick
Cheney on down) already in office, they naturally saw their chance. They
created an al-Qaeda on steroids and launched their “global war” to establish a Pax
Americana, in the Middle East and then perhaps globally. They were aware
that they lacked opponents of the stature of those of the previous century and,
in their documents, they made it clear that they were planning to
ensure no future great-power-style enemy or bloc of enemy-like nations would
For this, they needed an American public anxious,
frightened, and ready to pay. It was, in other words, in their interest to
manipulate us. And if that were all there were to it, our world would be a
grim, but simple enough place. As it happens, it’s not. Ruling elites, no
matter what power they have, don’t work that way. Before they manipulate us,
they almost invariably manipulate themselves.
I was convinced of this years ago by a friend who had
spent a lot of time reading early Cold War documents from the National Security
Council -- from, that is, a small group of powerful governmental figures
writing to and for each other in the utmost secrecy. As he told me then and
wrote in Washington’s China, the smart book he did on the
early U.S. response to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China,
what struck him in the documents was the crudely anti-communist language those
men used in private with each other. It was the sort of anti-communism you
might otherwise have assumed Washington’s
ruling elite would only have wielded to manipulate ordinary Americans with
fears of Communist subversion, the “enemy within,” and Soviet plans to take
over the world. (In fact, they and others like them would use just such
language to inject fear into the body politic in those early Cold War years,
that era of McCarthyism.)
They were indeed manipulative men, but before they
influenced other Americans they assumedly underwent something like a process of
collective auto-hypnotism in which they convinced one another of the dangers
they needed the American people to believe in. There is evidence that a similar
process took place in the aftermath of 9/11. From the flustered look on George
W. Bush’s face as his plane took him not toward but away from Washington on September 11, 2001, to the image of
Dick Cheney, in those early months, being chauffeured around Washington in an armored motorcade with
a “gas mask and a biochemical survival suit" in the backseat, you could
sense that the enemy loomed large and omnipresent for them. They were, that is,
genuinely scared, even if they were also ready to make use of that fear for
their own ends.
Or consider the issue of Saddam Hussein’s supposed
weapons of mass destruction, that excuse for the invasion of Iraq. Critics
of the invasion are generally quick to point out how that bogus issue was used
by the top officials of the Bush administration to gain public support for a
course that they had already chosen. After all, Cheney and his men cherry-picked the evidence to make their case, even formed their own secret intel outfit to give them what they
needed, and ignored facts at hand that brought their version of events into question.
They publicly claimed in an orchestrated way that Saddam had active nuclear and WMD
programs. They spoke in the most open ways of potential mushroom clouds from (nonexistent) Iraqi nuclear weapons
rising over American cities, or of those same cities being sprayed
with (nonexistent) chemical or biological weapons from (nonexistent) Iraqi
drones. They certainly had to know that some of this information was useful but
bogus. Still, they had clearly also convinced themselves that, on taking Iraq, they
would indeed find some Iraqi WMD to justify their claims.
In his soon-to-be-published book, Dirty Wars, Jeremy Scahill cites the conservative
journalist Rowan Scarborough on Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s growing
post-invasion irritation over the search for Iraqi WMD sites. “Each morning,”
wrote Scarborough, “the crisis action team had
to report that another location was a bust. Rumsfeld grew angrier and angrier.
One officer quoted him as saying, ‘They must be there!’ At one briefing, he
picked up the briefing slides and tossed them back at the briefers.”
In other words, those top officials hustling us into
their global war and their long-desired invasion of Iraq had also hustled themselves
into the same world with a similar set of fears. This may seem odd, but given
the workings of the human mind, its ability to comfortably hold potentially
contradictory thoughts most of the time without disturbing itself greatly, it’s
A similar phenomenon undoubtedly took place in the larger
national security establishment where self-interest combined easily enough with
fear. After all, in the post-9/11 era, they were promising us one thing:
something close to 100% “safety” when it came to one small danger in our world
-- terrorism. The fear that the next underwear bomber might get through surely
had the American public -- but also the American security state -- in its
grips. After all, who loses the most if another shoe bomber strikes, another
ambassador goes down, another 9/11 actually happens? Whose job, whose
world, will be at stake then?
They may indeed be a crew of Machiavellis, but they are
also acolytes in the cult of terror and global war. They live in the Cathedral
of the Enemy. They were the first believers and they will undoubtedly be the
last ones as well. They are invested in the importance of the enemy. It’s their
religion. They are, after all, the enemy-industrial complex and if we are in
their grip, so are they.
The comic strip character Pogo once famously declared: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
How true. We just don’t know it yet.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the
and author of
The United States of Fear
as well as a history of the
The End of Victory Culture
, runs the Nation Institute's
His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is
Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare,
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check
out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy
Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.
Copyright 2013 Tom Engelhardt
Image by ISAF Media,
licensed under Creative
Friday, October 28, 2011 11:30 AM
Somewhere along the way most of us have encountered a prediction by Nostradamus, and a person claiming that a sentence or two proves the man could tell the future. Most recently the events of September 11, 2001, have rekindled speculation that Nostradamus “saw” the attacks coming. A Google search turns up this quatrain as “proof” of the matter:
In the City of God there will be a great thunder,
Two brothers torn apart by Chaos,
while the fortress endures, the great leader will succumb,
The third big war will begin when the big city is burning
But, that’s exactly what Colin Dickey, writing in Lapham’s Quarterly, warns against if you really want to understand the man behind the prophecies. “Before you even begin, forget the Internet,” writes Dickey. “A Google search of his name would leave you mired in hordes of conspiracy theorists, New Age peddlers, devotees who give him the cloying nickname ‘Nosty’ and credulously recycle the same badly translated lines and outright inventions that people have always cited as ‘proof’ of his foresight.” As Dickey examines some of these translations, their absurdity becomes obvious.
So, who was this man whose “name is almost a byword for cataclysm, trotted out over the centuries in the wake of major disasters as evidence that long ago someone had figured out they had been foreordained”? The answer is a fascinating story, much more so than hackneyed translations of the man’s writing. After years of fighting the plague as a pharmacist and doctor—and losing his first wife and two children—Nostradamus turned to writing almanacs, “switching his focus from the plague to Europe’s other source of constant anxiety and speculation: the weather.” This is where he made a name for himself, which allowed him later to publish TheProphecies. But, according to Dickey, his frontline reporting about the plague is his best writing. Still, it’s the “apocalyptic tone” of The Prophecies that has kept his name current all these centuries later. “[A]fter years of futile struggling against the plague,” Dickey writes, “he seemed to have decided that it was far easier to narrate the apocalypse than try to fight it.”
So the man we remember today came to be—his mythical standing, that is—through a sort of exhaustion set upon him by “a disaster [the plague] so total that human civilization seemed to collapse utterly.” Dickey’s profile shows a real human behind the name, while also digging into why we, all these years later, try and make sense of “the garbled and the fragmented” to look for “lucid meaning beneath.” In doing so, the essay shows us as much about ourselves as it does about Nostradamus.
Source: Lapham’s Quarterly
Image in public domain.
Monday, October 17, 2011 10:35 AM
This post originally appeared at TomDispatch.
These last weeks, there have been two “occupations” in lower Manhattan, one of which has been getting almost all the coverage -- that of the demonstrators camping out in Zuccotti Park. The other, in the shadows, has been hardly less massive, sustained, or in its own way impressive -- the police occupation of the Wall Street area.
On a recent visit to the park, I found the streets around the Stock Exchange barricaded and blocked off to traffic, and police everywhere in every form (in and out of uniform) -- on foot, on scooters, on motorcycles, in squad cars with lights flashing, on horses, in paddy wagons or minivans, you name it. At the park’s edge, there is a police observation tower capable of being raised and lowered hydraulically and literally hundreds of police are stationed in the vicinity. I counted more than 50 of them on just one of its sides at a moment when next to nothing was going on -- and many more can be seen almost anywhere in the Wall Street area, lolling in doorways, idling in the subway, ambling on the plazas of banks, and chatting in the middle of traffic-less streets.
This might be seen as massive overkill. After all, the New York police have already shelled out an extra $1.9 million, largely in overtime pay at a budget-cutting moment in the city. When, as on Thursday, 100 to 150 marchers suddenly headed out from Zuccotti Park to circle Chase Bank several blocks away, close to the same number of police -- some with ominous clumps of flexi-cuffs dangling from their belts -- calved off with them. It’s as if the Occupy Wall Street movement has an eternal dark shadow that follows it everywhere.
At one level, this is all mystifying. The daily crowds in the park remain remarkably, even startlingly, peaceable. (Any violence has generally been the product of police action.) On an everyday basis, a squad of 10 or 15 friendly police officers could easily handle the situation. There is, of course, another possibility suggested to me by one of the policemen loitering at the Park’s edge doing nothing in particular: “Maybe they’re peaceable because we’re here.” And here's a second possibility: as my friend Steve Fraser, author of Wall Street: America’s Dream Palace, said to me, “This is the most important piece of real estate on the planet and they’re scared. Look how amazed we are. Imagine how they feel, especially after so many decades of seeing nothing like it.”
And then there’s a third possibility: that two quite separate universes are simply located in the vicinity of each other and of what, since September 12, 2001, we’ve been calling Ground Zero. Think of it as Ground Zero Doubled, or think of it as the militarized recent American past and the unknown, potentially inspiring American future occupying something like the same space. (You can, of course, come up with your own pairings, some far less optimistic.) In their present state, New York’s finest represent a local version of the way this country has been militarized to its bones in these last years and, since 9/11, transformed into a full-scale surveillance-intelligence-homeland-security state.
Their stakeout in Zuccotti Park is geared to extreme acts, suicide bombers, and terrorism, as well as to a conception of protest and opposition as alien and enemy-like. They are trying to herd, lock in, and possibly strangle a phenomenon that bears no relation to any of this. They are, that is, policing the wrong thing, which is why every act of pepper spraying or swing of the truncheon, every aggressive act (as in the recent eviction threat to “clean” the park) blows back on them and only increases the size and coverage of the movement.
Though much of the time they are just a few feet apart, the armed state backing that famed 1%, or Wall Street, and the unarmed protesters claiming the other 99% might as well be in two different times in two different universes connected by a Star-Trekkian wormhole and meeting only where pepper spray hits eyes.
Which means anyone visiting the Occupy Wall Street site is also watching a strange dance of phantoms. Still, we do know one thing. This massive semi-militarized force we continue to call “the police” will, in the coming years, only grow more so. After all, they know but one way to operate.
Right now, for instance, over crowds of protesters the police hover in helicopters with high-tech cameras and sensors, but in the future there can be little question that in the skies of cities like New York, the police will be operating advanced drone aircraft. Already, as Nick Turse indicates in his groundbreaking report [at TomDispatch], the U.S. military and the CIA are filling the global skies with missile-armed drones and the clamor for domestic drones is growing. The first attack on an American neighborhood, not one in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, or Libya, surely lurks somewhere in our future. Empires, after all, have a way of coming home to roost.
Read Nick Turse's essay, “America's Secret Empire of Drone Bases” at TomDispatch.com >>
Image by WarmSleepy, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, September 15, 2011 4:32 PM
As we were reminded ad nauseam on every media platform for a week, the mass murders committed on 9/11 continue to have an incalculable impact on foreign relations, world economics, and the broader culture. It’s a certainty the same will be true for decades to come. And while you may feel as though the event and aftermath has been covered from every conceivable angle (including pieces on how the attacks affected professional athletics and may have led to America’s latest recession), a just released, essential collection of essays go beyond the strained headlines and over-boiled melodrama.
The book, Transforming Terror: Remembering the Soul of the World (University of California Press), functions neither as a political autopsy nor an emotional anthology. Instead, it examines the tragedy from a philosophical distance that, while far from dispassionate, forces readers to consider the unintentional causes and subconscious effects of violence, both individual and collective.
The eight chapters, written by over 100 visionary thinkers who span generations and transcend borders ethnic (Federico García Lorca, Reza Baraheni), religious (Deepak Chopra, Rabbi Arthur Waskow), and political (Chris Hedges, Henry Kissinger), are strategically broken into two parts. The first takes a “Deeper Look” at the origins of fear and consequences of grief while convincingly establishing the editors’ broad definition of terrorism, which includes acts of aggression against any unarmed civilian, no matter the perpetrator. The ruminations in the second section, “Paths to Transformation,” demand unedited honesty, empathy for all, and raw self-reflection, all essential in the quest of equal peace and meaningful justice.
Given last week’s media blitz, no one could be blamed for wanting to take a deep breath and little down time before diving into such a collection. Keep it on your reading list, though, as the latest anniversary fades and the popular narrative around 9/11 further simplifies the complicated causes and horrific effects. Both historical distillation and timeless psychological treatise, Transforming Terror rivets and moves because it dares to recognize 9/11 not just as a painful tragedy, but an unwelcome opportunity.
Image by Bennett 4 Senate, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, September 06, 2011 4:07 PM
As the tenth anniversary of September 11th approaches, writer and blogger Courtney E. Martin reflects on seven ways in which that fateful day shaped the millennial generation of which she is a part.
We are fundamentally practical.
For many of us, 9/11 was a wake-up call about the precious and finite nature of human life. For better or worse, many of us gravitated away from artistic dreams, or romantic notions of living abroad, far from our families, and hunkered down. Even our approaches to social change are often scoffed at by our authority-resisting parents, who see our focus on actionable goals as sometimes less-than-radical.
- We are sector agnostic in our good works.
Relatedly, we are known for conceiving of meaningful and world-improving work very widely. Just because one cares about making the world more just, doesn’t mean one becomes a lawyer or a social worker; it might also mean going to business school and becoming a social entrepreneur or becoming a chef and getting involved in the local food movement.
- We are distrustful of organized religion and Politics.
Though we are open to most vocations, we are—according to sociologist Robert Putnam—the least religiously affiliated generation in history, and also largely uninterested in becoming politicians. In part, no doubt, this stems from seeing religion distorted and political leaders let off the hook for profound failures during the post-9/11 era.
- We are resilient as a matter of survival.
Two recent studies, one in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and one in Psychology & Health, have proven that there is actual validity to the old adage that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Millenials who have faced national disasters like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, not to mention the economic downturn, have flexed their resilience over and over again.
- We think globally and systemically.
Quite obviously, one couldn’t experience the world’s ever contracting quality over the last decade—enhanced by the internet and the connectivity it offers—without conceiving of citizenship in a truly global and interdependent way. We know what we do in Colorado Springs can have a direct effect in what goes on in Cairo.
- We innovate when it comes to disaster relief.
Struck by the successes and failures of post-9/11 relief work—from the physical rebuilding to the more amorphous rebuilding of the human spirit—we have contributed much to the field of disaster response. From the pro bono architecture movement that gets better at responding to immediate infrastructure needs to the innovations in crowdsourced mapping that helps rescue workers figure out where people are and what they need, we are changing the way the world experiences trauma.
- We know that multiculturalism is about much more than just tolerance.
Though we grew up with an often wishy washy approach to diversity, highlighted by the notion of “tolerance,” we have rejected that in favor of more rigorous race and class analysis—evidenced by so many astute publications, like Racialicious and Colorlines—and an effort to really face and engage with the most polarizing issues in a civil way. We know too much about the potential outcomes of just “tolerating” one another to do otherwise.
Courtney E. Martin is the co-author of the recently released Project Rebirth: Survival and the Strength of the Human Spirit from 9/11 Survivors. You can read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.
Image from Courtney E. Martin's December 2010 TEDWomen talk.
Friday, September 02, 2011 12:11 PM
On September 11, 1973 a coup against the government of Chilean President Salvador Allende began with planes bombing the presidential palace in Santiago. Ariel Dorfman, a Chilean-American writer, was in that city on that fateful Tuesday. “By the end of the day,” Dorfman writes, “Allende was dead and the land where we had sought a peaceful revolution had been turned into a slaughterhouse.”
Twenty-eight years later, on another Tuesday, September 11, another city Dorfman had called home was “attacked from on high.”
In a moving essay at The Nation Dorfman explores the reaction of the countries affected by these two tragic events. Ultimately Chile’s nonviolent response—which echoed “unawares another September 11, back in 1906 in Johannesburg, when Mohandas Gandhi persuaded several thousand of his fellow Indians in the Empire Theatre to vow nonviolent resistance to an unjust and discriminatory pre-apartheid ordinance”—is the response Dorfman praises. As for the response of Dorfman’s other home country, he writes, “If 9/11 can be understood as a test, it seems to me, alas, that the United States failed it.”
UPDATED 9/8/11: Watch Ariel Dorfman discuss his essay on Democracy Now!
Source: The Nation, Democracy Now!
Image by Patricio Mecklenburg, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, August 24, 2011 12:07 PM
In an article about “9/11 fiction” in Prospect, Adam Kirsch points out one difficulty in writing about that day: It was a television event, and that is the medium through which the vast majority of us learned about it. Of one writer’s experience escaping one of the towers, Kirsch writes, “Like everyone else, he had to watch TV afterwards to piece together what had happened.” (I previously wrote about Kirsch’s article here.)
I hadn’t realized just how true this was—just how attached the attacks were to television—until I heard Brewster Kahle and Rick Prelinger on Democracy Now!this morning. Kahle, a 2009 Utne Reader Visionary, and Prelinger are Internet archivists who have put together a project called “Understanding 9/11: A Television News Archive.” “[9/11] was a major event, that was really a television event,” says Kahle. “People understood this through television.”
The archive is a collection of 3,000 hours of television news from around the world from September 11 to September 17. The project is exhaustive and impressive, at times even overwhelming—seeing all the news organizations’ coverage in one spot. Watching Charles Gibson reference New York fashion week going into a break, on the other side of which would be footage of one burning tower, has an effect like nothing I’ve felt on the page. It brings you back to that exact moment.
Kahle and Prelinger are looking to television as “a medium of record,” which is somewhat antithetical to the way it is usually used. News on television is here and then it is gone, never to be referenced again, at least not with any depth and analysis. “When we can watch the real-time coverage [of 9/11],” says Prelinger,
not just the famous images that get broken out and repeated all over again, but capture the full stream of that day and see how consciousness developed and how events were covered, it gives us a lot of grounding and enables us to begin to really think kind of analytically, critically about these events and about the way that television works.
Source: Democracy Now!, Understanding 9/11: A Television News Archive
Thursday, July 21, 2011 2:29 PM
Many American novelists have tried their hand at what is now widely referred to as “9/11 fiction,” more often than not, to mixed reviews. Often novels by writers from other countries are cited as the most successful books on the matter. Netherland by Joseph O’Neill, who was born in Ireland and schooled in The Netherlands, is often said to be the best novel about September 11, 2001.
This, too, is the conclusion reached by Adam Kirsch in “In the shadow of the twin towers” (Prospect, June 2011). Naming the (in Krisch’s view) failed attempts by some of America’s heavy weights, like Don DeLillo’s Falling Man (“But style defeats itself in these cool, hypnotic sentences, precisely because DeLillo knows that he is wagering everything on style.”) and John Updike’s Terrorist (“Sex, not God, is Updike’s God, which is why he overdetermines Ahmad’s rage by giving him a clear Freudian grievance…”), Krisch is left to conclude that American writers may just be “ill-suited to a subject that, like the sun, does not bear looking at directly.” This conclusion seems a bit simplistic to me, as do others in this article, like when Krisch uses a description from a nonfiction book about one man’s descent from the south tower on September 11 to criticize a novelist’s decision to devote “the last ten pages of his novel to the thoughts of his protagonist, Kevin, while he plunges to his death from the 52nd story of a burning building.” In fact, as we learn from the nonfiction writer, nothing enters the mind, much less ten pages worth of thoughts: “My mind switched off. I didn’t start praying. I didn’t have visions of childhood. My life didn’t flash before my eyes. It was a puzzling feeling.” Putting aside the discussion of how the thoughts of someone falling to his death from a skyscraper might differ from those of someone trying to run for his life from one, no matter what appears on those last ten pages of a novel, it is unfair to compare them to a work of nonfiction. I am not one to claim that there is no imagination in nonfiction—that it’s a simple task of retelling—but surely there is a distinction between someone trying to relay their experience in a book and someone trying to possess “the imagination of disaster” (a term coined by Henry James and used by Kirsch) and fictively tell the story of a character falling through the sky. Now, if the thoughts of the falling character are unbelievable, that’s another story, but comparing them to a work of nonfiction seems arbitrary to me.
Kirsch’s argument also falls short for me when he addresses attempts by writers to focus on the perpetrators of the attacks:
There is something admirable about the dogged attempts of American writers to inhabit the minds of the hijackers. After all, the terrorist act involves a radical refusal to imagine the experience of the victim. By contrast, the novelist’s insistence on his obligation to inhabit the mind of the terrorist can be seen as an exemplary liberal response.
In practice, however, this kind of liberal imagination depends on a psychological and materialist understanding of character, which leaves the novelist ill-equipped to understand religious fanatics whose deepest motives are theological and absolute.
Couldn’t the same be said about any individual throughout time whose “deepest motives” were “absolute”? Isn’t this and the “radical refusal to imagine the experience of the victim” what make up any number of novels about murder?
While I disagree with much of Kirsch’s reasoning, I appreciate his attempt to address these books, writers , and topic with a level of respect. Kirsch reminds us that after a brief moment of a new national “sobriety and sternness of purpose,” most of the country went back to business as usual. The fact that so many American writers to this day are wrestling seriously with this subject matter shows Kirsch that at least that demographic has remained steadfast toward that sobriety and sternness. “American writers, to their credit,” Kirsch writes, “have taken the exhortation to seriousness quite seriously.” And who am I to say that his ultimate conclusion is not correct? Maybe “there is no need for the novelist to re-imagine 9/11 when, on some level, Americans have never stopped thinking about it.”
(Note: The online version of this article includes interesting responses from three American novelists, Siri Hustvedt, Stefan Merrill Block and Teddy Wayne.)
Image is in the public domain.
Monday, May 02, 2011 1:21 PM
The news of Osama bin Laden’s death came as a surprise to most people around the world. And while there are still many questions to be answered, we have found interesting takes from those we turn to at times like these. Here are just a few.
UPDATED: 5/6/11: Al Qaeda has confirmed the death of bin Laden, according to National Post, and “vowed revenge on the United States and its allies, including Pakistan.” Not too surprising . . . Here is just a little bit more taken from an Islamist Internet forum: “It will remain, with permission from God Almighty, a curse that hunts the Americans and their collaborators and chase them outside and inside their country.”
UPDATED: 5/5/11: Tom Engelhardt of TomDispatchlooks at bin Laden’s legacy: a changed America, not a changed Middle East.
It was our misfortune and Osama bin Laden’s good luck that Washington’s dreams were not those of a global policeman intent on bringing a criminal operation to justice, but of an imperial power whose leaders wanted to lock the oil heartlands of the planet into a Pax Americana for decades to come. So if you’re writing bin Laden's obituary right now, describe him as a wizard who used the 9/11 attacks to magnify his meager powers many times over.
After all, while he only had the ability to launch major operations every couple of years, Washington -- with almost unlimited amounts of money, weapons, and troops at its command -- was capable of launching operations every day. In a sense, after 9/11, Bin Laden commanded Washington by taking possession of its deepest fears and desires, the way a bot takes over a computer, and turning them to his own ends.
UPDATED: 5/5/11: Steve Chapman, writing for Reason, has this to say:
Responding to attacks or perceived threats with irresistible force is America's strength—as the Taliban, Saddam Hussein, and bin Laden learned. Our weakness is what comes after: reconstructing defeated countries as stable, democratic states.
It's a much tougher undertaking, requiring far more money, knowledge, and patience than Americans can muster. We rouse ourselves to ambitious tasks when adversaries challenge us. But as soon as we've taken one down, we lose interest.
UPDATED: 5/4/11: Christopher Hayes at The Nation looks at how the term “bad guys” worked itself into our national conversation following 9/11. Using the term, Hayes argues, is a rejection of mature thought and an acceptance of a childlike view of the world. He hopes the death of bin Laden will allow us to “return to the world as our adult eyes see it, shot through with suffering and complexity.”
We can feel compassion for the thousands of innocents who died by bin Laden’s hand as well as our own, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time in places like Bagram and Baghdad. We can remember that just because there is evil in the world that we are fighting—and bin Laden was a mass murderer and war criminal—that does not mean we are purely righteous.
UPDATED: 5/3/11: Chris Good at The Atlantic examines the politics of the language used to talk about Bin Laden and the post-9/11 “war on terror.” He notes:
During his time in office, Obama has sought to do away with Bush-era terminology. His Department of Homeland Security stopped using the phrase “Global War on Terror,” which President Bush coined after 9/11, and replaced them with the term “Countering Violent Extremism.” For this, Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano took some criticism.
When he announced bin Laden’s death Sunday night, Obama made no mention of “radical,” “extremism,” “war,” or “Islam,” except to note that: “…we must also reaffirm that the United States is not—and never will be—at war with Islam….” House Republicans, by contrast, used all those words Monday afternoon as they reacted to the news in a press conference at the Capitol.
UPDATED: 5/3/11: Jessa Crispin of Bookslut fame looks to an old comic strip to give her comfort from her annoyance toward the responses to bin Laden’s death.
Yesterday, after waking up to the news of bin Laden’s death, I started reading Get Your War On again from the beginning. The comic now exists as an online archive and a two-volume collection. I still marvel at it, a little. When I’m worked up and angry about politics, I turn into a sputtering child. In arguments with my Fox News-watching family members, my side of things degrade into, “Yeah, well, what do you know?” Rees managed to articulate righteous anger and despair, and reading his work is still weirdly comforting.
UPDATED, 5/3/11: Associate Editor Peter Gabel and Founding Editor Rabbi Michael Lerner give Tikkun’s spiritual response to the assassination. First Gabel writes:
Never should the killing of a human being be an occasion for such celebration — even in circumstances that involve actual self-defense against mortal danger. Not only does such a raucous display of pleasure in response to the killing of another disrespect the sacredness of every human life; it also inherently undermines the moral character and worthiness of those responsible for the death itself.
Lerner follows with a short statement addressing what the Jewish tradition says about killing murderous foes.
[W]hen we do the Seder on Passover and recite the plagues that were used against the Egyptians to get them to free the Jews, we put our finger in the cup of wine, symbolic of our joy, and dip out a drop of wine for each plague — this symbolizes that our cup of joy cannot be full if our own liberation requires the death of those who were part of the oppressor society….
The task of spiritual progressives at this moment is to reaffirm a different consciousness — to remind ourselves that we are inextricably bound to each other and to everyone on the planet.
Adam Weinstein at Mother Jones notices similarities in the responses coming from bin Laden’s supporters and President Obama’s detractors:
“I will wait for the Mujahideen to confirm this, and will not believe until I see a picture of his dead body,” wrote one jihadi sympathizer on Islamic Awakening (IA)—one of several such forums provided to Mother Jones by Aaron Y. Zelin, a researcher at Brandeis University who tracks online militant activities on the website Jihadology.net.
This sentiment, and many others by Islamists, were echoed by conservative detractors of the president. “Obama can claim what ever he wants but his word is no good,” wrote one commenter on the right-wing site Free Republic. “Without proof that Osama is dead and staying dead, I don’t have to believe anything he says.”
Paul Waldman at The American Prospect wonders “Can Bin Laden’s Death Make Us Dial Back the Crazy?”
We may not know for a time what effect Bin Laden’s killing has on Al Qaeda as an organization (or a movement, or however it could be described these days). But we can at least hope that this event can help us be a little more sane about terrorism.
David Sirota (who has a piece in the most recent issue of Utne Reader) writing for Salon thinks that all the celebrations and chants of “USA! USA!” following the news of bin Laden’s death actually give him his most “enduring victory”:
This is bin Laden’s lamentable victory: He has changed America’s psyche from one that saw violence as a regrettable-if-sometimes-necessary act into one that finds orgasmic euphoria in news of bloodshed. In other words, he’s helped drag us down into his sick nihilism by making us like too many other bellicose societies in history—the ones that aggressively cheer on killing, as long as it is the Bad Guy that is being killed.
How many ways can you say Osama Bin Laden is dead? Not many, to judge from the selection of newspaper front pages posted on Jim Romenesko’s media blog at Poynter.org—although the East Coast tabloids eagerly worked the dancing-on-his-grave angle.
The Twitterverse was there first, reports Poynter’s Al Tompkins.
If Republicans are strangely dispassionate and Democrats openly gleeful about the news, what do the Libertarians think? In a press release, Libertarian Party Chairman Mark Hinkle says they’re glad to hear about bin Laden’s death—but eager to also see the “termination” of “the Department of Homeland Security, the TSA, the PATRIOT Act, warrantless wiretaps, the ‘state secrets’ doctrine, and other violations of Americans’ civil and economic rights.”
In “With Bin Laden Gone, Is the Jihadi Revolution Dead?” Mark Juergensmeyer, writing for Religion Dispatches, extends credit for undermining the jihadi insurrection beyond the U.S. forces that killed bin Laden.
The imagined war of the Bush era may indeed be over. And the jihadi insurrection associated with bin Laden and his al Qaeda organization may also be dead. But I suspect that the real perpetrators of their deaths may not have been the elite American military cadre some hours ago in Pakistan, but the legion of cell-phone toting protestors earlier this year in Tahrir Square. They have helped to complete the erosion of legitimacy that has undermined the jihadi activists in recent years within the Muslim world….
[T]he jihadi warriors may again have their day. For the moment, however, bin Laden is dead, and Tahrir Square has challenged both the strategic value and the moral legitimacy of the jihadi stance. The legion of young Muslim activists around the world have received a new standard for challenging the old order, and a new form of protest, one that discredits terrorism as the easy and ineffective path and chooses the tough and profitable road of nonviolence.
Fast Company offers an early analysis of the Obama administration’s global PR war:
[A]ll we’re left with is old images of Bin Laden, and the image of a stern, dignified President Obama. The latter presents a far more dignified, far less political image than any of the high-profile captures that have attended the War on Terror, inaugurated under George W. Bush. There is nothing there for Bin Laden’s cohort to twist and remix for their purposes. There is no whiff of American savagery, and no whiff of personal vendetta. Simply justice.
Source: Mother Jones, The American Prospect, Poynter, Religion Dispatches, Fast Company
Image by hodgers, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, August 16, 2010 1:13 PM
Before you decide whether or not you support the proposed Islamic community center near Ground Zero (now known as the “Ground Zero Mosque), check out these photos by New Yorker Daryl Lang.
He says “Look at the photos. This neighborhood is not hallowed. The people who live and work here are not obsessed with 9/11. The blocks around Ground Zero are like every other hard-working neighborhood in New York, where Muslims are just another thread of the city fabric. At this point the only argument against this project is fear, specifically fear of Muslims, and that’s a bigoted, cowardly and completely indefensible position.”
Source: The Daily What
Thursday, October 02, 2008 10:01 AM
What begins as a snarky takedown of cell phone culture evolves into a meditation on love in Jonathan Franzen’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You” from Technology Review (free registration required). Moving from a discussion of the technological developments that have shaped the past decade—most notably, the cell phone—to a careful consideration of the various ways people say, “I love you,” Franzen begins to wonder whether the person bellowing those three magic words into their cell phone in the checkout lane at the grocery store might not be honoring the sentiment’s spirit.
Having garnered plenty of acclaim for his 2001 novel The Corrections—and plenty of scorn after turning down Oprah’s book club invitation—Franzen has since evolved into a prolific writer of nonfiction, navigating his personal essays through moving, humorous territory in two collections, How to Be Alone and The Discomfort Zone. “I Just Called to Say I Love You” is no different, winding from stand-up comedy-style observations on the annoyances of cell phones to 9/11, then taking an unexpected turn into his parents’ marriage and a funny passage where a teenaged Franzen does everything in his power to avoid having to explicity reciprocate his mother’s affection:
The one thing that was vital was never, ever to say “I love you” or “I love you, Mom.” The least painful alternative was a muttered, essentially inaudible “Love you.” But “I love you, too,” if pronounced rapidly enough and with enough emphasis on the “too,” which implied rote responsiveness, could carry me through many an awkward moment. ... She also never told me that saying “I love you” was simply something she enjoyed doing because her heart was full of feeling, and that I shouldn’t feel I had to say “I love you” in return every time. And so, to this day, when I’m assaulted by the shouting of “I love you” into a cell phone, I hear coercion.
It’s this blend of the personal and the universal that draws me to Franzen’s essays. His observations on technological annoyances are astute and just this side of cantankerous, but he injects his arguments with enough personal matter to remind us of his—and by extension, our—humanity.
Image by Ed Yourdon, licensed by Creative Commons.
Monday, March 17, 2008 11:01 AM
September 11 rescue workers aren’t the only professionals suffering the aftereffects of prolonged toxic exposure. Photojournalists who captured early images of Ground Zero also breathed in toxic fumes and debris, and some have suffered from related health problems. Photo District News Online reports that New York Times photographer Keith Meyers, whose photographs of the still-smoking towers earned him a Pulitzer, has asthma and other health problems so severe he can no longer work.
Monday, October 01, 2007 12:00 AM
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