September 11 and the collapse of US Democracy
It was a small but telling incident. On February 28, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle remarked before a group of reporters that before he and his fellow Democrats appropriated more money for President George Bush's growing anti-terrorism crusade, "I think we need to have a clearer understanding" of where it is heading. Bush, gearing up for war with Iraq, seemed to regard the conflict in Afghanistan as all but over. Yet a few tasks remained uncompleted, Daschle pointed out, most notably capturing Osama bin Laden, the whole point of the war in the first place. Americans are "not safe until we have broken the back of al Qaeda," he said, "and we haven't done that yet."
Mild as such comments were, this was the first time that the Democratic leadership in Capitol Hill had dared take issue with White House war policy. Ears pricked up across Capitol Hill as a consequence. But then came the Republican response. Representative Thomas M Davis III of Virginia charged Daschle with "giving aid and comfort to our enemies," while Trent Lott of Mississippi, leader of the Senate's Republican minority, demanded: "How dare Senator Daschle criticize President Bush while we are fighting our war on terrorism, especially when we have troops in the field? He should not be trying to divide our country while we are united." Tom Delay, the notoriously rightwing Texan who serves as House Republican Whip - and who keeps a pair of long, cowboy-style bullwhips in his office as a symbol of his power - summed up the Republican reaction to Daschle's comments with a single word: "Disgusting."
How did Daschle reply to this transparent attack on the right of democratic debate? By proclaiming his right to speak his mind regardless of what the other side thinks? Not quite. A few hours later, his office issued a press release denying that he had taken issue with the president at all. "Some have chosen to characterize remarks Senator Daschle made this morning on the war on terrorism as critical of President Bush," the statement said. "In fact, the transcript [..] indicates no criticism of President Bush or his campaign against terrorism." Those who thought Daschle was questioning White House war policy were mistaken. Democratic support for Bush's widening military campaign was as strong - and as unquestioning - as ever. 
Political debate has not completely died in Washington, although the casual observer might be excused for thinking that it had. Congressional Democrats are perfectly happy to criticize the administration over its ties to Enron, its plans to permit oil drilling in the Arctic, or its thinly-veiled hostility to campaign finance reform. What they are not willing to criticize, however, is the war. Bush's anti-terrorism crusade has all but turned Washington upside-down. Although the chief lesson of the Vietnam War seemed to be that Congress should carefully scrutinize White House military adventure overseas, Bush has declared his intention to wage war against alleged al Qaeda operatives in some sixty countries around the world, without oversight by the legislative branch. Although Congress authorized the president in mid-September to use "all necessary and appropriate force" against those responsible for the World Trade Center attack, Bush has all but declared war on three nations - Iraq, Iran, and North Korea - that, according to all available evidence, were unconnected with the events of September 11. Despite decades of struggle to safeguard civil liberties, Congress has bowed to White House pressure by approving a bill known as the USA Patriot Act that is so broadly worded that it could conceivably permit prosecutors to charge individuals with aiding and abetting terrorism merely because they contribute to charities connected with the Irish Republican Army or, in the days of apartheid, with the African National Congress. 
Yet except for a few backbenchers, Congressional Democrats have hardly uttered a peep. The administration's refusal to extend the Geneva Convention to accused al Qaeda members being held at "Camp X-Ray" in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has aroused a storm of controversy abroad, yet has barely caused a stir in the US. The same goes for the administration's plans to try accused terrorists in special military tribunals with no right of appeal beyond the executive branch or its recent statement reserving the right to indefinitely detain al Qaeda members even after they have been acquitted. Both have been met with virtual silence on Capitol Hill. Although The New York Times recently published an account of a filthy, disease-wracked prison run by pro-US forces in Shibarghan, Afghanistan, that is little more than a death camp for the 3,000 accused Taliban inside, Democrats have also not deemed it worthy of comment. 
Politics have been suspended "for the duration," as the British used to say during World War II, even though Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has warned that, like the Cold War, the war on terrorism could last forty years or more. Obviously, the United States is far short of a dictatorship at this moment. Yet the atmosphere is more conformist, deferential, and authoritarian than nearly anyone would have thought possible prior to September 11.
What happened? Clearly, the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon has given an enormous impetus to tendencies that were already well developed in American politics. To the degree the process has a starting point, it was probably around 1979 when Margaret Thatcher became prime minister in Britain and Jimmy Carter delivered his famous "malaise" speech about "paralysis and stagnation and drift" at home in the United States. The two events seem to have served as a signal for a dramatic lurch to the right, resulting in a series of bruising battles over everything from aid to the Nicaraguan contras to gays in the military, control of the federal judiciary, and impeachment.
Although they have lost plenty of elections in the interim, the Republicans have emerged from each new confrontation stronger and more self-confident, while the Democrats have either tried to compromise with the conservatives or, in the case of welfare reform and drugs, to outflank them on the right. The consequence has been growing weakness and demoralization. The Democratic rout deepened in December 2000 when Al Gore chose not to take the fight over the presidency to Congress after a Republican-controlled Supreme Court awarded the election to George Bush (even though he had lost in the popular vote). And it turned to outright collapse in the wake of September 11 when leading Congressional Democrats proclaimed a new era of "bipartisanship" and declared that henceforth there would be "no daylight" between them and the president when it came to the global crusade against terrorism.
Indeed, the collapse of the Twin Towers in a hurricane of smoke and debris is an apt metaphor for the decline of American democracy. In the immense wave of patriotism that followed the attack - within days, American flags appeared in every shop window in New York City and on every car, taxi, and truck - it became all but impossible to discuss in a realistic fashion how US policy may have encouraged terrorism or contributed to a growing wave of anti-Americanism abroad. The verdict seemed to be unanimous: the United States could not possibly be at fault, it was in no way responsible, and any suggestion to the contrary was tantamount to siding with the enemy. In Texas, a newspaper columnist was fired for writing that Bush was "flying around the country like a scared child" following the assault (in fact, the president's disappearance for nine hours or so on September 11 has never been fully explained), while a television talk-show host was nearly yanked off the air for remarking that, pace Bush, "coward" was the last word to describe men who drive fuel-laden airliners into the sides of tall buildings. The president was brave, the hijackers were cowardly, end of discussion. At a university commencement ceremony in California in December, a crowd of some 10,000 people shouted down a speaker for daring to suggest that the anti-terrorism crusade might bode ill for civil liberties. 
Of course, just about any nation would have reacted with fury to an act as nihilistic and bloodthirsty as the destruction of the World Trade Center. Nonetheless, leading politicians and intellectuals, including self-proclaimed members of the left, responded to the attack in a way that was all but designed to play into America's most dangerous tendencies. It was one thing for George Bush to proclaim that anyone who dislikes America must be evil because America stands for "freedom and the dignity of every life."  But it was quite another to hear prominent left-leaning members of the intelligentsia accuse their more radical colleagues of schadenfreude, which is to say taking pleasure in Americans' pain, because they had suggested that US imperialism may in some way have paved the way for al-Qaeda.
Such patriots of the left have essentially followed a two-pronged strategy. First, they have declared that terrorism is the essence of evil and that anyone who does not instantly agree is a moral idiot, a coward, or an apologist for al-Qaeda. Second, they have pointed to the reactionary quality of Islamic fundamentalism as proof of the progressive nature of US society. If America is hated, it is because it is too free and dynamic for certain forces in the Middle East. If it is guilty, it is only of being excessively good. In warring against the US, bin Laden is warring against freedom, individualism, and all the other good things the US stands for, while America is fully justified in its use of 2,000-pound bombs and 15,000-pound "daisy-cutters" - even if innocent civilians sometimes get in the way - because it is defending liberal values.
Thus, a month after the massacre, Paul Berman - member of the editorial board of the social-democratic magazine Dissent, recipient of a $260,000 MacArthur Foundation "genius" award, and an admirer of "New Philosopher" André Glucksmann - published an essay in a left-of-center magazine arguing that al Qaeda was an outgrowth of twentieth-century totalitarianism and that what united people like Hitler, Stalin, and bin Laden was their common hatred for Western liberalism as epitomized by the United States. Wrote Berman:
"...America's crime, its real crime, is to be America herself. The crime is to exude the dynamism of an ever-changing liberal culture. [..] America's crime is to show that liberal society can thrive and that anti-liberal societies cannot. This is the whip that drives the anti-liberal movements to their fury. America ought to act prudently in the Middle East and everywhere else; but no amount of prudence will forestall that kind of hostility. 
While acknowledging that not everything the US does is admirable, Berman argues that American misdeeds are irrelevant because it is America's positive achievements that is fueling resentment in the Middle East. No amount of foreign policy reform will alleviate Arab hostility - which is certainly convenient for proponents of the status quo since it means there is no material incentive to change. After all, why alter US policy if those people will complain regardless? Why not continue supporting Israeli policies in the Occupied Territories or the embargo on Iraq despite mounting outrage in the Middle East?
Similarly, an innocuous statement by Edward Said in the London Observer a few days after September 11 was an occasion for a furious denunciation by Todd Gitlin, a New York University sociologist who is the author of The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (1987), a sympathetic account of American student radicalism. In the course of describing the "spectacular horror" and "senseless destruction" visited on New York, Said also noted that the incident had not occurred in a vacuum and that the US is "almost constantly at war, or in some sort of conflict, all over the Islamic domains."  To which Gitlin, writing in the left-liberal monthly Mother Jones, replied bitterly:
"As if the United States always picked the fight; as if US support of the Oslo peace process, whatever its limitations, could be simply brushed aside; as if defending Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo - however dreadful some of the consequences - were the equivalent of practicing gunboat diplomacy on Vietnam and Cambodia." 
It was wrong, evidently, to mention any of the bad things America has done without immediately mentioning the good, even if Gitlin is himself unable to come up with a list of positive achievements that are not in some way seriously flawed. If America is good - and it is an axiom of US political life that it is a veritable wellspring of morality - then there must be some positive achievements that people like Said can cite to prove their loyalty.
Finally, there was Christopher Hitchen, who exploded with rage against Noam Chomsky because Chomsky had not denounced the World Trade Center attack as singularly evil and left it at that. While noting in an interview that bin Laden, a Saudi millionaire, is a reactionary Islamic fundamentalist, Chomsky also observed that the CIA and its allies had recruited him to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, that bin Laden and his supporters had then spread an arc of terror through Russia and the Balkans, and that Israel's harsh treatment of the Palestinians and the embargo against Iraq were among the factors feeding his hatred of the United States. It wasn't only American liberalism that has stirred him to anger, in other words, but its misdeeds also. For Hitchens, however, a Trotskyist who has abandoned socialism since 1989 and gravitated more and more to the center, any effort at historical context was morally indecent. As he put it in The Nation, a left-liberal weekly published in New York:
"But the bombers of Manhattan represent fascism with an Islamic face, and there's no point in any euphemism about it. [..] Loose talk about chickens coming home to roost is the moral equivalent of the hateful garbage emitted by [Christian fundamentalists Jerry] Falwell and [Pat] Robertson, and exhibits about the same intellectual content. [..] Any decent and concerned reader of this magazine could have been on one of those planes, or in one of those buildings - yes, even in the Pentagon." 
Since to understand al Qaeda is to excuse, the only proper thing to do was to refuse to understand and to side with George Bush in the battle against Islamic fascism.
These were not chance remarks by outraged individuals, but part of a concerted effort to shape the post-September 11 debate in such a way as to leave liberals with no alternative other than to support (or at least not oppose) Bush's anti-terrorism crusade. The same can be said about the notion that terrorism is invariably evil, that it must be instantly denounced as such, and that all people must join in combating it. Bush's famous statement on September 20 - "Every nation in every region now has a decision to make. Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists" - would not have had as much impact if leading members of the intelligentsia had not rushed into print with elaborate defenses of the proposition that American liberalism and terrorism are diametrically opposed. For Berman, Bush's words that evening were "admirable" - "serious in presentation, realistic in its account of the complex nature of the enemy." The solution to the problem of terrorism, he wrote,
"lies in effecting enormous changes in large parts of the political culture of the Arab and Islamic world. [..] It is a transformation that [will] require a vast range of actions on the part of the liberal world - military and commando raids when necessary and possible, constant policing, economic pressure, and much else..." 
Since terrorism is exclusively a product of the Middle East, it is the job of the liberal West to crush it through the relentless application of military and economic pressure. Similarly, Michael Walzer, co-editor of Dissent, argued in the wake of September 11 that what makes terrorism so singularly evil and hence antithetical to Western liberal values is its penchant for targeting innocent civilians. Such people, said Walzer,
"have every right to expect a long life like anyone else who isn't actively engaged in war or enslavement or ethnic cleansing or brutal political repression. This is called noncombatant immunity, the crucial principle not only of war but of any decent politics. Those who give it up for a moment of schadenfreude are not simply making excuses for terrorism; they have joined the ranks of terror's supporters." 
Yet beginning with the ancient Israelites' conquest of Jericho ("They devoted the city to Yahweh and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it - men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys" [Joshua 6:21]) to the February 1945firebombing of Dresden, virtually every military power has violated "noncombatant immunity" in one way or another. According to Walzer's definition, the West was guilty of terrorism in Dresden because RAF bombers killed an estimated 130,000 or more civilians who, for the most part, were not "engaged in war or enslavement or ethnic cleansing or brutal political repression," but were merely under the thumb of a regime that did engage in such crimes. If Western liberalism is capable of terrorism on a scale far exceeding that of September 11, as Dresden would certainly suggest, then perhaps the struggle is not as clear-cut as latter-day Manicheans would have us believe.
Walzer, moreover, has since broadened his attack to include an entire left that he says has turned against its country and effectively joined the terrorist camp. In an article posted on the Dissent web site, he again levels the charge of schadenfreude at a movement that assumes that "[a]ny group that attacks the imperial power must be representative of the oppressed, and its agenda must be the agenda of the left."  Because he destroyed a worldwide symbol of American economic clout, Osama bin Laden must therefore be an ally in the anti-capitalist struggle - or so, Walzer maintains, broad sections of the American left believe.
But who are these leftists who are so foolish as to regard a millionaire Saudi fundamentalist as an ally in the progressive cause? When I asked Walzer in a follow-up interview for an example of such left-wing gloating, he cited Robert Fisk, the long-time Middle Eastern correspondent for the London Independent, who, shortly after the Twin Towers catastrophe, published an impassioned article in The Nation making the point that after sponsoring so much violence in the Middle East, it was unrealistic for America to assume that it would remain forever immune to violence at home. As Fisk observed:
"Ask an Arab how he responds to thousands of innocent deaths, and he or she will respond as decent people should, that it is an unspeakable crime. But they will ask why we did not use such words about the sanctions that have destroyed the lives of perhaps half a million children in Iraq, why we did not rage about the 17,500 civilians killed in Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon." 
Rather than gloating, this was nothing more than an effort to remind Americans that not everyone who dislikes the US is merely jealous of America's freedom or economic clout, but that some people are legitimately outraged by some of the more unsavory aspects of US foreign policy. If this is schadenfreude, then anyone who strives for a balanced point of view is guilty. Only those who make a point of viewing exclusively through US lenses are not.
The relationship between opinions such as these and the lack of opposition on Capitol Hill is complex. There is a school of thought, of course, that holds that members of Congress do not give a damn about what intellectuals think and that the only people they care about are the voters in their home districts and a small number of wealthy political contributors whose money they need for their reelection campaigns. If those people want war, then who cares some article in some obscure journal? Yet not even American politics are this philistine. In the absence of a strong party system - American parties are little more than mutual aid societies for freelance politicians - think-tanks, lobbying groups, and intellectual journals are more important rather than less. Their role is to thrash out political issues long before they reach Capitol Hill, which is why supporters of Bush's anti-terrorism crusade have worked so hard at shaping the debate so as to insure that the outcome is to their liking. In order to shape the debate, they have had to narrow it so that some questions are considered and others are not. The real nature of terrorism, America's use of people like bin Laden when it has suited its purposes, its long record of support for religious fundamentalists - these are just some of the topics that are now closed to discussion.
Although September 11 shook the American political system to the core, ideological control was quickly re-established. Bush's behavior in the first few days after the attack could not have been less impressive. The more he indulged in macho rhetoric about wanting the perpetrators "dead or alive" and "smok[ing] them out" of their hiding places, the more he truly seemed "like a scared child" in over his head. But when Bush turned in a creditable performance in his televised September 20 address, pundits and opinion-makers sighed with relief. The commander-in-chief was again in control. In a fundamentally religious system based on faith in the presidency and the Constitution, belief had been restored. Debate over whether to respond militarily was stamped out. Analysis of America's own role in creating al Qaeda was discouraged. Henceforth, the only subject that would be permitted was the relatively narrow one of whether to confine the war to Afghanistan or extend it to other countries as well. And even there, as we have seen, debate was severely constrained.
This is even the case with the Pentagon's new "Nuclear Posture Review" concerning the use of tactical nuclear weapons against non-nuclear powers such as Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. The new stance represents the most dramatic change in US nuclear policy since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Not only does it render the use of tactical nuclear weapons possible in the years to come, it renders it likely. After all, after spending billions of dollars to develop deep-burrowing nuclear warheads capable of destroying fortified bunkers hundreds of feet underground, how will the Pentagon be able to resist using such a device in the event of a war with Iraq? Yet debate on Capitol Hill was once again muted. Although Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California declared that America was in danger of becoming "a rogue nation" in its eagerness to find new uses for its nuclear arsenal, Tom Daschle refused to comment, while another Democrat, Senator Bob Graham of Florida, pronounced himself in favor. "There are nations and groups adversarial to US interests that have gotten the mindset that the United States is a paper tiger," Graham, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, announced. As a result, the new policy "sounds like a step in the right direction."  If firing of a few nukes is necessary to show that America is not a paper tiger, then so be it.
On the other hand, if the relationship between the intelligentsia and politics on Capitol Hill is complex, the relationship between democracy and imperialism is not. The two are inversely proportional to one another. The more the United States mobilizes for war, the more the American people must be persuaded to reduce their view of the world to a simple matter of good versus evil, Western liberalism versus Islamic terrorism, or, most primitively, "us" versus "them." Nuance, balance, and any sense of reciprocity must all be eliminated. Learning to see the world from varying points of view must be eliminated so that only one point of view will predominate, that of the American imperial state. In order to enforce this point of view, moreover, anyone who questions it in the slightest must be denounced for siding with the enemy and taking pleasure in America's pain. He or she must be cast out of the community of faith.
If the bourgeois nation-states institutionalizes national egotism, the United States does so to an exceptional degree. One reason is geographic. America, it has been said, is a country bordered by insignificant military powers to the north and south and fishes to the east and west. If it consistently disregards world opinion, it is because it thinks it can safely get away with it. But another reason is ideological. To a unique degree, America is a self-invented nation. The US Constitution, largely unchanged since it was drafted in 1787, is a utopian document that seeks to boil down politics to a few eternal principles that, once adopted, will transform the United States into an ever "more perfect union," as the Constitution's preamble puts it. This implies a number of things about how America views itself and its place in the world. Because its founding principles are unquestionably correct, it implies that the duty of all subsequent generations is to see to it that they are eternally upheld. Because they are just and moral, it implies that America is incapable of doing wrong as long as they are consistently applied. And it implies that foreigners who adhere to different principles are to be either pitied or reviled. As one European visitor, the Duc de Liancourt, noted, Americans were convinced as early as the 1790s "that nothing good is done, and that no one has any brains, except in America; that the wit, the imagination, the genius of Europe are already in decrepitude."  Or as Bill Clinton characterized the national faith two centuries later, "There's nothing wrong with America that can't be cured by what's right with America."  There is no reason for America to look to the outside world for answers to problems that lie within.
As a result, not only did al Qaeda kill some 3,000 people on September 11, it triggered a political chain reaction whose essential outlines were all too predictable. Osama bin Laden and his followers did not just declare war on the United States. Rather, as Americans see it, they declared war on eternal principles of justice and freedom that America represents and that are the source of it greatness. They didn't just destroy a few buildings in Lower Manhattan, but violated America's community of faith. Not only must they be hunted down and destroyed, consequently, but the Law must be avenged. America must prevail so that justice can triumph. As George Bush put it in a speech in Atlanta on Jan. 31:
"If [..] you don't hold the values we hold dear true to your heart, then you, too, are on our watch list. [..] People say, what does that mean? It means they better get their house in order, is what it means. It means they better respect the rule of law. It means they better not try to terrorize America and our friends and allies, or the justice of this nation will be served on them as well."
Political debate in the United States now revolves around a single purpose: how to insure that justice - as America defines it, needless to say - is done.
1 Helen Dewar, "Lott calls Daschle divisive," Washington Post, Mar. 1, 2002, pA6. [Back]
2 Ronald Dworkin, "The real threat to US values," The Guardian (London), Mar. 9, 2002, Guardian Saturday Pages, p3. [Back]
3 Dexter Filkins, "Marooned Taliban count out grim hours in Afghan jail," The New York Times, Mar. 14, 2002, pA1. [Back]
4 Timothy Egan, "In Sacramento, a publisher's questions draw the wrath of the crowd," The New York Times, Dec. 21, 2001, pB1. [Back]
5 Jan. 29 Address to Congress on the State of the Union. [Back]
6 Paul Berman, "Terror and liberalism," The American Prospect, Oct. 22, 2001. [Back]
7 Edward Said, "Islam and the West are inadequate banners," The Observer (London), September 16, 2001, special supplement, p27. [Back]
8 Todd Gitlin, "Blaming America first," Mother Jones, January-February 2002. [Back]
9 Christopher Hitchens, "Against rationalization," The Nation, Oct. 8, 2002, p8; Chomsky's comments on September 11 are available at http://www.zmag.org/chomb92.htm. [Back]
10 Paul Berman, "Terror and Liberalism," op. cit. [Back]
11 Michael Walzer, "Excusing terror: the politics of ideological apology," The American Prospect, Oct. 22, 2001. [Back]
12 Michael Walzer, "Can there be a decent Left?," Dissent, Spring 2002, and currently available at www.dissentmagazine.org. [Back]
13 13 Robert Fisk, "Terror in America," The Nation, Oct. 1, 2001. [Back]
14 Greg Miller, "Democrats divide over nuclear plan," Los Angeles Times, Mar. 13, 2002, pA1. [Back]
15 Henry Adams, History of the United States of America During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Library of America, 1986), p108. [Back]
16 Todd S Purdum, "Facets of Clinton," The New York Times Magazine, May 19, 1996, p36. [Back]