Monday, July 18, 2011

The War on Terrorism

Such facile rhetoric, but so ubiquitous, so common that one never stops to question it. Keep it simple and keep it coming. Isnt that just what Hitler recommended in Mein Kampf? And it has worked. Perhaps too well.

The government, along with a host of ideologues, would have you believe that we are winning this war. We subdued Iraq, we have suppressed the Taliban, chased them to the margins of Afghanistan, and we have hunted down and killed Public Enemy Number One, Osama bin Laden. It's a peculiar kind of war, an executive action, not ratified by Congress, fought against a shadowy enemy whose only identifiable characteristic in most people's minds is the turban, in a territory that resists clear definition. Who conceived this war? A bunch of foreign policy wonks, international affairs experts, defense experts, cabinet advisors, and a deluded president. Just who is it we are fighting? Iraqis? Afghans? Chimerical weapons of mass destruction? Chimerical members of Al Qaeda? And where do we fight this war, Iraq -- or Iran, which we accuse of channeling dissent across its border? Afghanistan -- or Pakistan, in those "wild" frontier regions that no one can control? Yemen?

The truth is that the enemy as well as the territory is a vague ideological construct which allows for a rather too broad scope or field of action, targeting Guantanamo detainees, neighborhood mosques, muslims, "ragheads," "sand niggers," dissenters, civilians as well as anyone toting an AK 47 -- that most unAmerican of weapons.

The war on terror is theater, pure and simple. It dramatizes different value systems. Its director and producers intend it as a rousing confirmation of American values, a vindication of our power and our resolution. A resounding answer to the attack on 9/11. A national katharsis. To those of us who refuse to step to the martial drumming, it is theater of the absurd. Nonetheless, it is certainly tragic, because the actors really die -- idealistic young volunteer soldiers and hapless civilians.

The script is heavily clich├ęd. Predictably the bad guy dies. But the play refuses to end. The war on terrorism has its own momentum, a perverse will of its own. The rhetoric is so broad, so adaptable, that new threats, real or imagined, keep popping up, new battlefields beckon. One has to ask, who is the real winner in this interminable war?

We killed the bad guy, but the damage he did to the country outlives him. I was recuperating in a nursing home when the staff excitedly brought me the news that Osama bin Laden had been shot. I was known for having been a victim of 9/11 and they thought I would be pleased by the news. They kept asking my reaction. But I couldnt give them a satisfactory answer. I'm not sure it meant much of anything.

The planes that struck the towers struck through them to the core of our society. They turned us into a nation of paranoids and jingoists quick to sacrifice civil liberties in the name of national security. They amplified police powers at the expense of human rights. They provided an excuse to subvert our own most basic legal principles such as due process. They caused us to expand big government by adding on another useless bureaucracy, the interestingly named Department of Homeland Security. They drained our economy through two bootless wars with uncertain results, which in turn have brought us to the point where we are -- incredibly -- debating the need for social welfare programs that protect and nurture the weakest among us (not just the poor but also the infirm, and senior citizens and children) -- programs like social security that each of us earns, because we pay for it and rightly expect to benefit from it when the time comes. They exposed the weaknesses of our news media, which subsequently provided a classic example of what Chomsky calls the manufacture of consent. And they have diverted our attention from the primary business of perfecting our own democracy while we waste dollars and human lives on propping up shaky parodies of democratic government in places we dont understand and cannot control.

Who wins? Not the American people. Not the military either, at least not in the conventional sense, except insofar as they have been able to use the war to test their new toys, defend their budgets, and amplify their role in American foreign policy. If anyone on "our side" wins it must be the capitalists who profit from the war, the weapons manufacturers, technology companies, security companies (what we used to call, more honestly, "mercenaries") and engineers.

We chose war instead of peace. We chose to define our lives in the terms set by the rhetoric of war and terrorism. And in the end, we imprisoned ourselves just as surely as we encarcerated suspects in Guantanamo. In the words of the immortal Pogo, "we have met the enemy, and he is us."