Nine-Eleven Retrospective

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

The process of transformation is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event – like a new Pearl Harbor.

- Project for a New American Century, Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategy, Forces, and Resources for a New Century (September 2000)

Today’s terror attacks were major atrocities…that this was a horrendous crime is not in doubt.The primary victims, as usual, were working people: janitors, secretaries, firemen, etc.It is likely to be a crushing blow to Palestinians and other poor and oppressed people.It is also likely to lead to harsh security controls, with many ramifications for undermining civil liberties and internal freedom…In short, the crime is a gift to the hard jingoist right, those who hope to use force to control their domains…The prospects ahead are even more ominous than they appeared to be before the latest atrocities.

- Noam Chomsky, September 11th, 2001

Think about “how do you capitalize on these opportunities?”

- Condaleeza Rice, White House National Security Adviser, to the United States National Security Council, September 12, 2001.

Through the tears of sadness, I see an opportunity.

- George W. Bush, September 14, 2001

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.

Street will speak on “The Media and Its Role in Shaping the Electorate’s Opinions,” Tuesday September 14th, 7 PM, at the Hothouse Town Forum, The Hot House, 31 E. Balbo, Chicago, IL (312-362-9707).

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.Street can be reached at [email protected]


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