Yes, it changed everything — not September 11, 2001, when the Twin Towers collapsed, but November 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell and left the U.S. at sea, drifting without an enemy in a strange new world.
Through four decades of the Cold War, Americans had been able to feel reasonably united in their determination to fight evil. And everyone, even children, knew the name of the evildoers: “the commies.” Within two years after the Wall fell, the
Amid the great anguish of September 11, 2001, it was hard to sense the paradoxical but very real feeling of relief that flooded across the country. After a decade adrift with no foes to oppose, Americans could sink back into a comfortingly black-and-white world, neatly divided into the good guys and the bad guys, the innocent and the guilty. In the hands of the Bush administration, “terrorists,” modest as their numbers might have been, turned out to be remarkably able stand-ins for a whole empire-plus of “commies.” They became our all-purpose symbol for the evil that fills our waking nightmares.
Today the very word “terrorist” conjures up anxiety-ridden images worthy of the Cold War era — images of an unpredictable world always threatening to spin out of control. As then, so now, sinister evil is said to lurk everywhere — even right next door — always ready to spring upon unsuspecting victims.
Historians, considering the last decades of our history, are well aware that millions of Americans didn’t need the attacks of 9/11 to fear that their world was spinning out of control. As the Cold War waned, profound differences on “values” issues (previously largely kept under wraps) came out of the closet. Societal anxiety rose. Many wondered how long a nation could endure if it had no consensus on “moral matters” and no obvious authority figures to turn to. Many feared they would lose their moral anchor in an increasingly confusing and challenging world.
This was the real terror that the Bush administration played upon when the
Such circular logic fed public discourse from the springs of a deeply buried unconscious longing for power, clarity, and innocence. Once again we could stand tall in the world, the dazzling hyperpower of hyperpowers. As long as we were fighting evil, we had to be the good guys. If we weren’t so good, why would we be so determined to fight the supposedly new evil of global terrorism?
Of course, it worked the other way around, too: The only way to prove that we were good was by hunting out and fighting evil. If we were to keep on feeling certain that we were the good guys, a steady supply of bad guys was a necessity — and the post-Cold War decade just hadn’t done its job providing them. So it could easily seem more appealing to launch a generational Global War on Terror that would keep the “terrorists” around permanently. What better way to keep on proving our virtue than by combating and containing them forever?
The New Normalcy
The neoconservatives understand all this perfectly well — and well before September 11, 2001. For years, they had dreamed of preserving American virtue (and American global dominance) by flaunting American military might. They just needed an ongoing series of excuses to do the flaunting. The attacks of 9/11 gave them their chance.
Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Condoleezza Rice (all products of the Cold War era) said it clearly in the weeks following the attack. Their new war would not be a straightforward World War II-style march to victory. It would be more like… well, the war they knew, the Cold War, with its endless string of conflicts, crises, containments, and battles in the frontier lands of what used to be called the Third World. And it would be forever.
As Cheney put it, “There’s not going to be an end date when we’re going to say, ‘There, it’s all over with.’” And he classically summed things up this way: “Many of the steps we have now been forced to take will become permanent in American life. … I think of it as the new normalcy.’ The neocons were glad to see the war on terrorism revive memories of the days when — they imagine — we contained the commies, learned to stop worrying, and loved the bomb (despite all its terror).
It was a strange love that they remembered so fondly. Polls made it clear that we never really stopped worrying then — and polls make it clear that we still haven’t now. Now, as then, we just bury the terror ever deeper and console ourselves as best we can with the mercilessness of our enemies and the relative safety of our own neck of the woods.
A recent poll tells us that only 14% of Americans feel safer now than they did five years ago. Seventy-nine percent expect another attack on
Those words should sound awfully familiar to anyone who lived through the Cold War years. The war on terrorism has revived the Cold War mindset, in which we are all citizens of a national insecurity state. The terror of impending annihilation from a vast, conspiratorial, and evil enemy has again become the vague backdrop of everyday life. To assure ourselves of our absolute goodness, we must see the enemy as absolute evil; not a collection of human beings bent on harming us, but a network of monsters bent on — and capable of — destroying us utterly. In other words, Cheney’s “new normalcy” is but a version of an older, deeper apocalyptic terror. Every loss — of a diplomatic conflict or an economic tussle or a pair of skyscrapers — is once again framed as a portent of looming doom for the nation. Any successful attack upon us, we are told, could bring down the curtain of Armageddon.
Here’s the irony. Unlike the nuclear-armed
Even if actual extinction doesn’t threaten, when it seems to, a nation, like an animal, is tempted to fight back with no holds barred. That’s the attitude Bush and the neocons have tried to inculcate since 9/11. It’s the only attitude, they insist, that can save
Yet those policies have obviously backfired terribly. The war on terrorism was supposed to build a new American century — a unipolar world in which the
Bush and his neocon advisors certainly don’t bear all the blame for an American imperial decline. But their utter misreading of the nature of
Cold war presidents from Truman to Reagan hastened the process by building up
Looking back, it’s easy to see what a big mistake they made — even in their own terms. Their unilateralism and militarism accelerated to near warp speed the decline of
This is the vicious circle from Hell. The Bush administration’s aggressive policies weaken
But we don’t have to stay stuck. There’s nothing inevitable about history. Some 160 years after the French Revolution, Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai was asked how that event had changed the world. “It’s too soon to tell,” Zhou replied impishly. Five short years after 9/11, it’s way too soon to tell if the attacks of that day actually “changed everything,” or if they changed much of anything at all.
Already, there is a growing awareness that the Bush Global War on Terror is doing more harm than good. Even from the foreign policy elite we can hear (though still often faintly) voices saying it’s time to call it off. For now, the talk is narrowly focused on our imperial well-being — the weakening of
Perhaps, as losses mount, Americans will eventually see the more important truth: Simplistic moralism and a pervasive fear of apocalyptic disaster weaken our society here at home. They make every step toward positive change look like a looming danger and that plays right into the hands of conservatives who are dedicated to preventing the change we need so badly. If the failed war on terror eventually teaches us this lesson, 9/11 will turn out to be the day that did indeed change everything.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, a novel, The Last Days of Publishing, and in the fall, Mission Unaccomplished (Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch interviews.]