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Act of Terrible: Comment on the “Highpoiint” of the Second Presidential Debate


Originally posted at: http://www.thepolemicist.net/2012/10/act-of-terrible.html 

Update below.

Today, self-identified liberals and progressives are all a-twitter and high-fivin’ each other because in yesterday’s debate their guy “proved” that he actually and immediately did use, and does embrace, the term “act of terror” to describe the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi.  Thus have Obama, and, following him, the bulk of the liberal caste, demonstrated their complete acceptance of the vapid, self-serving, hypocritical, obfuscatory, and dangerous language of “terror” as a touchstone of foreign policy credibility.  That this has happened, and that nobody notices or cares that it has happened, is one of the more shameful facts about this debate, and the whole discourse of this sham campaign.

Noticing, and caring about, the bipartisan embrace of this phony and destructive discourse is certainly more important than whether Obama uttered the magic word “terror” the day or the week or the month or your-exact-right-instant-here after the event.  From any decent progressive position, the only proper response to that “controversy” is: “Who the fuck cares?”  From any decent progressive position, it is a shame that anybody – and certainly anybody who poses as a progressive – would care about such a non-controversy, let alone use and embrace this language, let alone think that it was important to do so.

 
And, no, it is not OK to see this as just a matter of style, in the manner of “Sure, we know that this is a substantively useless word, but everybody uses it so Obama has to, and, really, it’s all about the horse race, and isn’t it just so cool that Romney was fact-checked upside his head.”  It’s nice that those who say that are recognizing how stupid and substance-free these debates are, but it’s not OK to just accept that and go along with it. 
 
This is especially true here, because there is no more pernicious word in the current American political lexicon than “terror” and its cognates.  As Glenn Greenwald points out: “There is no term more potent in our political discourse and legal landscape than “Terrorism.” It shuts down every rational thought process and political debate the minute it is uttered. It justifies torture (we have to get information from the Terrorists); due-process-free-assassinations even of our own citizens (Obama has to kill the Terrorists); and rampant secrecy (the Government can’t disclose what it’s doing or have courts rule on its legality because the Terrorists will learn of it), and it sends people to prison for decades (material supporters of Terrorism)…[It] means nothing yet justifies everything1
 
The incident in Libya – indeed, the entire issue of the American presence in Libya – is important, has far-reaching implications for every American, and deserves to be discussed seriously – not to be diverted into discursive channels that shut down rational thought.  One Democratic politician has tried to address it in the terms it warrants:
 
“You’d think that after ten years in Iraq and after eleven years in Afghanistan that the U.S. would have learned the consequences and the limits of interventionism. … Today we’re engaging in a discussion about the security failures of Benghazi. The security situation did not happen overnight because of a decision made by someone at the State Department. …
 
“We owe it to the diplomatic corps, who serves our nation, to start at the beginning and that’s what I shall do. Security threats in Libya, including the unchecked extremist groups who are armed to the teeth, exist because our nation spurred on a civil war destroying the security and stability of Libya. … We bombed Libya. We destroyed their army. We obliterated their police stations …  Al Qaeda expanded its presence.
 
“…Our military intervention led to greater instability in Libya. … It’s not surprising that the State Department was not able to adequately protect our diplomats from this predictable threat. …
 
“We want to stop attacks on our embassies? Let’s stop trying to overthrow governments. …Let’s look at the real situation here. Interventions do not make us safer. They do not protect our nation. They are themselves a threat to America.”2
 
To have the discussion we should have about the issues Dennis Kucinich raises would also entail addressing the way Obama, the uber-imperial president, “dissed Congress even more blatantly than Cheney and Bush did on Iraq, where there was at least the charade of a public debate,” as Ray McGovern reminds us.3  Obama simply ignored the vote in Congress against authorizing American military intervention.4  That assumption of unconstitutional presidential privilege is what got us into – no, impelled our role in creating – the mess that Libya now is. That is what Obama and Romney do not want to talk about.  And that is what will get us into the bigger mess that Obama is now, in secret, planning to get us into in that country – and across North Africa (and Syria?) – with his plans for drone strikes and “special” operations.5  Because that’ll make everything better.  Because they’re terrorists.
 
So, to replace the discussion we should be having about those issues with a discussion of who said the sacred phrase “act of terror” first, is not a trivial matter of “style,” but a disgraceful capitulation of political substance. The important thing to take away from this utterly trivial exchange is not that Romney is a careless and/or dishonest campaigner, and booo-ya, Obama’s up in the polls again.  The important thing to take away, and the thing you should realize you’re cheering, is that “Obama has won the War on Terror debate — for the American Right.6  Obama didn’t win that exchange; Dick Cheney did.  Hoo-ray.
 
No, it is not OK that Obama has normalized the language of “terror” for liberals and progressives, a language that “means nothing yet justifies everything.”  It is not OK that, because Obama is, liberals and progressives are now embracing and perpetuating “a childish morality narrative which is pleasing and self-affirming to believe — The Terrorists attack us because they are bad and we are good,” a narrative in which “it’s just inconceivable that it is actually the U.S. itself which is enabling these plots and has long been galvanizing the very anti-American animus that fuels them.”7  It is not OK to blithely legitimize that discourse, a discourse that is a prime ideological component drawing us deeper every day into a new “self-sustaining and self-perpetuating form of militarism”8 that is destroying the social fabric of many countries in the world, including our own.  It is not OK, not even for a few points in the polls.

Update (Oct. 17):  William Saletan at Slate makes a similar point.
 
Links and notes:
1“The sham ‘terrorism expert’ industry,” http://www.salon.com/2012/08/15/the_sham_terrorism_expert_industry/
 
2, 3Ray McGovern, “Libya: Policy Bankrupt, Diplomats Dead.“ http://www.commondreams.org/view/2012/10/15-10
 
“House Rebukes Obama for Continuing Libyan Mission Without Its Consent,” http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/04/world/africa/04policy.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all
 
5“US Preparing for JSOC ‘Kill-Capture’ Operations in Libya After Consulate Attack,” http://news.antiwar.com/2012/10/02/us-preparing-for-jsoc-kill-capture-operations-in-libya-after-consulate-attack/
“White House widening covert war in North Africa,” http://news.yahoo.com/white-house-widening-covert-war-north-africa-194214804.html
 
6Greenwald, “Al Qaeda’s best friend,” http://www.salon.com/2012/06/14/al_qaedas_best_friend/singleton/
 
7Greenwald, “Obama's Libya response highlights his foreign policy mentality.” http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/oct/03/obama-libya-embassy-attack
 
8Greenwald “The vindication of Dick Cheney,” http://www.salon.com/2011/01/18/cheney_72/

Saletan, "Follow the Leader" Democrats are using patriotism to drown out criticism of the president, just like George W. Bush," http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/frame_game/2012/10/obama_s_libya_debate_answer_he_s_exploiting_patriotism_just_like_bush.single.html

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