Past 9/11 Retrospectives

Here (beginning three paragraphs below) are two pieces I did in late 2004 on 9/11/2001. I have just sent a short five-year 9/11 retrospective out for publication and so will not paste it in here. If and when it goes up I’ll wait a while and link it here. Personally I think these old ones hold up okay.

Some of us on the left have been fairly unsurprised by the broad shape of post-9/11 events and developments — leading as we expected to the concentration of power and the deepening of the empire/inequality dialectic or dance at home and abroad. I must say I thought they could pull off the occupation of Iraq more effectively than they have. Whether that’s primarily because of bumbling at the elite level or because they are just hitting the limits of their imperial power/hegemony I’m not sure. Perhaps it is a combination of both factors.

By the way, CNN reported last week that “as the fifth anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attack on the United States approaches, another somber benchmark has just been passed. The announcement Sunday of four more U.S. military deaths in Iraq raises the death toll to 2,974 for U.S. military service members in Iraq and in what the Bush administration calls the war on terror.
The 9/11 attack killed 2,973 people, including Americans and foreign nationals but excluding the terrorists. The comparison between fatalities in the war on terror and 9/11 was drawn last month by Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, during testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee….Of the 2,974 U.S. military service members killed, 329 died in Operation Enduring Freedom and 2,645 in Operation Iraqi Freedom, according to the Pentagon. The total includes seven American civilian contractors working for the military in Iraq.Of the 329 U.S. military deaths in the Operation Enduring Freedom campaign, 261 occurred in Afghanistan, including many in recent months amid a resurgent Taliban guerrilla campaign.”

1. Nine-Eleven Retrospective
Our Tears, Their Opportunity

by Paul Street; September 10, 2004

The fetters imposed on liberty at home have ever been forged out of the weapons provided for defense against real, pretended, or imaginary dangers abroad.

- James Madison, 1799

My initial, week-one response to 9-11 combined shock, cynicism, and naiveté. Shock: at the sheer carnage, the horrifying audacity of zealots ready to die and kill en masse, and the grisly spectacle of jetliners full of human beings exploding into flames and the twin towers disintegrating.Cynicism: in response to government and media authorities’ claim of surprise at the occurrence of a major terror attack on the United States from the Arab world and especially at official claim that the attacks were motivated by hatred of the supposedly freedom-loving “American way of life.”Within ten days of the attacks, president Bush told the US Congress that the enemies of the US were “the enemies of freedom.””Americans are asking, ” he noted ” ‘why do they hate us?’ They hate,” Bush answered, “our freedoms, our freedom of religion, our freedom to vote” – denied tens of thousands of illegally disenfranchised African-Americans in Florida in the pivotal 2000 presidential election, more than enough to swing the outcome to Bush – “and assemble and disagree with each other.”

According to Chicago Tribune columnist Stephen Chapman one day after the attacks, “America” had “become a target” because foreign tyrants and terrorists were threatened by and jealous of our superior, democratic “way of life.”By Chapman’s estimation, the core ingredients of that glorious American way were “prosperity,” “happiness,” “openness,” individualism, and “love of freedom” for “ordinary people.”

Actually, there was nothing surprising about an attack by zealots of Arab background on Washington DC and New York City.The motives behind the attack had little if anything to do with militant Muslim terrorists’ feeling about the nature of America’s internal society. What bothered them and indeed many Arabs most about America was the United States’ external policy in and around the chief area of the perpetrators’ concern and ambition – the Middle East itself. If bin-Laden and his followers and ilk were driven by hatred of American freedom and democracy, why were they firmly on the side of the US in the late 1980s, when America enjoyed if anything more domestic freedom and democracy than in the summer of 2001?

The answer, of course, was American foreign policy.The US in the Reagan era funded extremist Islam as part of its late-Cold War campaign the “evil” Soviet Union.And if bin-Laden and the rest were so angry at the internal freedom and democracy of “infidel” Western nations, then why were Canada, Denmark, Holland, Sweden, New Zealand, and Switzerland (to name a few non-Islamic democratic states) right to be much less worried about major attacks from al Qaeda? These countries had as much and possibly more (particularly if you consider socioeconomic security and removal from the threat of poverty to be key components of modern liberty) internal freedom and democracy than the US. What they didn’t have was America’s terrible terrorist record of destructive intervention in the Middle East and elsewhere.

More cynicism, in response to the ease, rapidity and confidence with which Bush and his advisors, collaborators, and enablers in government and media identified “us” (Americans) with “good” and “them” with “evil.” Sadly, the terror attacks were all-too morally consistent with a long and bloody record of US behavior and policy.As Arundhati Roy has noted, “the US empire rests on a grisly foundation: the massacre of millions of indigenous people, the stealing of their lands, and following this, the kidnapping and enslavement of millions of black people from Africa to work that land.Thousands died on the seas while they were being shipped like caged cattle.”Further:

“In the best-selling version of popular myth as history, U.S. “goodness” peaked during World War II.Lost in the din of trumpet sound and angel song is the fact that when fascism was in full stride in Europe, the U.S. government actually looked away…Drowned out in by the noisy hosannas is [America's] most barbaric, in fact the single most savage act the world has ever witnessed: the dropping of the atomic bomb on the civilian populations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.The war was nearly over.The hundreds of thousands of Japanese people who were killed, the countless others who were crippled by cancers for generations to come were not a threat to world peace.They were civilians.Just as the victims of the World Trade Center bombings were civilians.Just as the hundreds of thousands of people dying in Iraq because of US-led sanctions are civilians….Since the Second World War, the United States has been war with or attacked, among other countries, Korea, Guatemala, Cuba, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Grenada, Libya, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Yugoslavia, and Afghanistan.This list should also include the U.S. government’s covert operations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, the coups it has engineered, and the dictators it has armed and supported. It should include Israel’s U.S.-backed war on Lebanon, in which thousands were killed.It should include the key role America has played in the conflict in the Middle East, in which thousands have died fighting Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory.It should include America’s role in the civil war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, in which over one million people were killed.It should include the embargos and sanctions that have led directly and indirectly to the death of hundreds of thousands of people, most visibly in Iraq.Put it all together, and it sounds very much as though there has been a World War III, and that the U.S. government was (or is) one of its chief protagonists.”

Back in the imperial “homeland,” Chapman’s outraged formulation ignored rampant poverty, authoritarianism, class rule, powerlessness, racial inequality, mass incarceration, depression, oppression, and misery.It evaded the epidemic of non-freedom in a savagely unequal and plutocratic land, where the top 1 percent owns more than 40 percent of the wealth and a possibly higher percentage of its politicians and policymakers. It equally ignored related connections between the suffering experienced by others, American policies, and America’s hyper-consumerist, ultimately ecocidal “way of life.”

The naivete came in the form of my initial hope that the September 11th terror attacks would provide an opportunity for Americans to honestly confront our domestic and related foreign policy records and to look at our selves (I’ll use first person plural since I am a US citizen) and the world in ways that challenged the selective vision of conventional American wisdom.A chance, perhaps, to stand down our entrenched psychic and ideological defenses, to understand how and why we cause ourselves and others pain, why millions across the world resent us (many to the point where they could applaud 9/11) and how we might stop the vicious circle of injury at home and abroad. Nine-eleven, I wanted to believe, was a chance to face our inner demons and choose sanity, to lose our self-absorbed innocence in ways that might permit us to lose our manufactured innocence about how much harm our policy makers and “democratic American System, capitalism” (as Tom Brokaw described the dominant US system of socioeconomic management and hierarchy on 9/11) have been causing others, and to drop our longstanding sense of special historical superiority to the rest of the world.

Watching the riveting drama unfold, commercial free, for hours and days on end, I thought I glimmered an opportunity for positive learning and democratic change. Maybe, I thought, the black clouds of tragedy over New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington and on the television screens of America came with a silver lining.Maybe, I felt, the national drama would jolt Americans out of their hyper-privatized, commodified and fragmented daily experience, trumping neo-liberal societal disintegration with a new sense of civic duty and public engagement.

I was wrong.Nine-eleven was an opportunity alright, but it was seized primarily by the privileged American few, strongly represented in the White House, to exacerbate existing tendencies of inequality, empire, and denial.It was used by the rich and the powerful and their authoritarian allies to increase the already outrageous over-concentration of wealth and power at home and abroad and to tar all who opposed this aristocratic agenda as “enemies of freedom” and allies of terrorism. It was used to divert attention and concern away from stunning socioeconomic and racial disparities, spiritual crisis, ecological collapse, declining societal health, chronic overwork, mass civic disengagement, soulless consumerism, and countless other problems that arise from the increasingly unchecked operation of the American System.It was used to privilege the right (repressive and militaristic) hand of the state over the left (social and democratic) – the policeman, prosecutor and prison warden over the librarian, welfare worker, teacher, and lifeguard.It was exploited to help the White House assault the relevance of international law and the sanctity of America’s own justly prized commitment to civil liberties. It was used to change the subject away from the need for true democracy, peace, and social justice, and to enable the ascendancy of a “belligerent nationalism” that constructs community on the basis of fear and mindless conformity rather than democratic possibility. It was used by “elites” to speed up the American public sector’s ongoing transformation into a repressive, neo-liberal “garrison state.”

This weak-left/strong-right state increasingly acts as little more than the authoritarian agent of capital’s dictates.It replaces compassion with repression and criminalizes and militarizes social problems that result from the deepening of socioeconomic and related racial inequalities at home and abroad.It conducts a massive transfer of wealth and power from social programs to the military, remarkably enough in a time of rising poverty and unemployment at home, worsened by massive tax cuts for the few.

The renewed “war on terrorism” fed by 9/11 has “functioned,” to quote Noam Chomsky writing about the Cold War in the early 1970s, “as a marvelously effective device for mobilizing support…for ventures that carry a significant cost, economic and moral.The citizen must agree to bear the burdens of imperial wars and government-induced production of waste, a critical device of economic management.He has been whipped into line by the fear that we will be overwhelmed by an external enemy if we let down our guard” (Chomsky, For Reasons of State, 1970, p.xxxvii).

In the official public and mainstream (corporate) media version of this apparently permanent war, the virtuous, freedom-loving and benevolent United States engages in a noble effort to protect its own people and indeed the world from the evil scourge of terrorism.In the real version, the Bush administration and its super-privileged clients and allies atop the world’s leading military and incarceration state use the threat of terrorism as cover and pretext for policies that deepen inequality and repression at home and expand imperial power abroad. These policies and practices assault basic domestic civil liberties and roll back social and economic protections in a nation that is already the most unequal in the industrialized world.They undercut real and potential social programs to expand an already massive subsidy of gargantuan high-tech defense corporations.They expand and camouflage US support for state terrorism conducted by nations like Israel, Russia, China, Indonesia and other states whose murderous actions against indigenous and occupied peoples are routinely described in benign and supportive terms by US policymakers and dominant US media. They directly terrorize millions in Middle East, including the people of Iraq. These policies and practices increase not just the social and economic insecurity but also the direct physical homeland insecurity of the American people.

Taking brutal advantage of a terrorist attack it helped create and failed to prevent, the American power “elite” is edging “the world’s greatest democracy” closer and closer to something like fascism. A second Bush II administration looms ominously on the near horizon, with ugly plans for most of humanity, at home and abroad.

Paul Street’s book EMPIRE AND INEQUALITY: AMERICA AND THE WORLD SINCE 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2004) will be available in late September 2004.

2. Why Didn’t They Attack Sweden?
By Paul Street
October 30, 2004

What do Osama bin-Laden and the owners and top editors of the gigantic corporate media outlet the Chicago Tribune have in common? They both want George W. Bush to return for a second term. The Tribune’s masters want Bush back because they are Republicans who see the Crawford Chickenhawk and his jingoist, ultra-regressive “posse” as more consistent with their interests and world view than the smarter corporate imperialist from Massachusetts and the (more liberal) people around the second candidate.

Osama wants Bush back because Dubya’s imperialist wars on Afghanistan and especially Iraq, initially launched in the name of a “Crusade” (smart, George), have been a recruiting dream for extremist “anti-American” Islam, creating untold masses of enlistees in the war on the West and especially on the US.

My sense is that bin-Laden’s speech was distributed at this historical juncture partly with the expectation that it would give Bush a needed boost.

It’s pretty absurd that bin-Laden’s appearing live and healthy and discussing the 2001 jetliner attacks on television works to Bush’s advantage. The president refused to do anything while national security operatives gnashed their teeth trying to warn him about the terrible events that were about to occur and did occur on 9/11. Bush very probably missed numerous opportunities to nab ultimate Evil Other Osama as White House attention shifted to the real and longstanding imperial objective: deepening uniltateral US control of Arab oil supplies and global oil markets by toppling the weak Saddam regime and taking over Iraq. Osama bin-Laden became “Osama bin-Forgotten” so the American masses could be instructed that Saddam was the new Global Public Enemy Number One.

But that’s the way it is in the infantilized public political culture that has been crafted by and for corporate power in the US — a culture where large swaths of the electorate vote on the basis of which candidate they’d like to “have a beer with” and which one has the less bitchy wife; where high paid political consultants craft advertisements based on animal fears going back to pre-historic times (appealing to our Stone Age fear of wolves and other beasts), and where a leading elected official holds office partly on the basis of his big shiny biceps and shames those who dare to tell the truth about current U.S. unemployment and poverty as “economic girly men.” It’s all quite repitilian, suitably enough in a country whose president rejects the notion of evolution.

Anyway, the convergence of interest between Osama and Chicago’s leading newspaper is evident in today’s Tribune, where the top story proclaims in big bold letters “BIN LADEN WARNS U.S.” Osama’s picture is right above the headline. Right below the headline is a much bigger and regal picture of Bush, speaking behind the presidential seal and in front of Air force One. There’s a much smaller picture of Kerry in the middle of the page, under the smaller headline “Bush, Kerry defiant after threat.”

Of course, totalitarian and imperial realities are such that neither of the candidates can even remotely acknowledge that bin-Laden actually made some decent points, as he often does, even if he happens to be a blood-soaked butcher who wants to restore Medieval doctrine and structures (something that hardly disqualified him from receiving US support in a distant and forgotten era called the 1980s).

Listen, for example, to this line from bin-Laden: “Security is an important element of human life, and free people do not give up their security. Unlike what Bush says — that we hate freedom —- let him tell us why didn’t we attack Sweden, for example.”

Good point. To get a sense of the basic accuracy of this argument and the general rational intelligence of much of what bin-Laden and his crowd say, I recommend conservative Catholic CIA analyst and Middle Eastern expert “Anonymous”’ book Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror (2004). “Anonymous” has been following bin-Laden’s every utterance closely for years and is convinced that OBL is actually quite sharp and that he has achieved legendary status among millions of Muslims because he perceptively articulates their widespread sense that—imagine—the Islamic world is under vicious assault from the imperialist West, led of course by the US, and that this is assault calls for the launching of a purely defensive Muslim jihad against the invaders.

And listen to how Anonymous of the CIA describes US policy in the Middle East, providing some context for the popularity of defensive jihad in the Arab states:

“Professor Telhami’s accurate depiction of America’s non-credibility in the Muslim world encapsulates the consequences of a half century of U.S. Middle Eastern policy that moved America from being the much admired champion of liberty and self-government to the hated and feared advocate of a new imperial order, one that has much the same characteristics as nineteenth-century European imperialism: military garrisons; economic penetration and control; support for leaders, no matter how brutal and undemocratic, as long as they obey the imperial power; and the exploitation and depletion of natural resources.”

See also page 4 of my book Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (www.paradigmpublishers.com), where I write the following: “if bin-Laden and his followers and supporters [are] driven by hatred of American freedom and democracy, why were they on the side of the US in the late 1980s, when America enjoyed at least as much domestic freedom and democracy as in the summer of 2001, if not more? And if bin-Laden and the rest were so angry at the internal freedom and democracy of ‘infidel’ Western nations, why were Canada, Denmark, Holland, Sweden, New Zealand, and Switzerland (to name a few non-Islamic democratic states) right to be much less worried about major atacks from al Qaeda…[where] in many respects…democratic institutions were and are healthier and more developed..? The answer, of course, is to be found in American foreign policy.”

Osama bin-Laden’s tape told the American people in a reasonably matter of fact way that they will continue — with either Bush or Kerry in the White House — to face the threat of catastrophic terrorist attack as long as they permit their masters to retain an aggressive imperialist foreign policy vis a vis the Middle East, an imperialism that is openly acknowledged by a mid-level CIA Analyst but which can’t be acknowledged by the only two presidential candidates who matter under the American “winner-take-all” elections system. There’s nothing mysterious or hard to follow or all that surprising (given US foreign policy) in bin-Laden’s statements on US behavior and the American people; there never has been. And the only acceptable response in the “mainstream” political culture, of course, particuarly on the eve of the election is to say in essence that “nobody is going to tell us that we can’t occupy their territory and kill their people and support autocratic regimes that help us steal their natural resources. This is freedom, by God and we will kill those who dare to fight back.” We will flex our biceps until we blow ourselves up altogether it seems to me.

Paul Street is an urban social policy researcher in Chicago, Illinois.

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