Published on Sunday, March 10, 2002 in the Minneapolis Star Tribune
To Keep a Population In Line, Wage Perpetual War Against a Vague Enemy
by Karel Van Wolferen
Has anyone else following the aftermath of Sept. 11 been struck by the similarity to George Orwell's "1984" -- in which a never-ending, faraway war against ever-changing enemies serves as a rationale for political and social repression?
In the past five months numerous Americans, and not a few Europeans, have not dared speak their minds, and many more have not dared to think things through to a point at which the urge to speak one's mind becomes unbearable.
There was no genuine war after Sept. 11 -- there could not have been. And no country, not even one as powerful as the United States after it lost the Soviet Union as its only rival, can hijack such an important concept as war without in the long run bringing disaster upon itself. Orwell, that great beacon of political common sense in the 20th century, educated at least two generations of reasonable observers of political reality in the danger of misusing words in this way.
A huge crime was committed, the biggest mass murder ever seen directly by hundreds of millions all over the globe. A vast police action, backed by emergency powers, to uncover and destroy any network of the guilty -- an action primarily to prevent a recurrence -- would be a rational, responsible strategy.
A war, on the other hand, requires an enemy that can roll over, declare it is ready to surrender and sign a peace treaty. Victory over "terrorism" is not possible in the absence of such an enemy, and the alternative -- the extermination of always-changing, always-new groups using violence to attain their ends -- can never be achieved. The cost of attempting to achieve it can only destroy the remaining reasons for believing in what the United States has long stood for.
If no more terrorist attacks occur, something fervently to be hoped for the sake of all our futures, the American public will probably wake up to the fact that its country is not really at war. All those who still applaud new steps in the "war strategy" will have to come to terms with the fact that, while the regimes of Iraq and North Korea are truly evil, any comparison to the threat of the Axis powers who menaced the civilized world during World War II is the product of minds that have lost themselves in political opportunism of unspeakable indecency.
Americans must wake up to this reality if they are to save what once was truly a shining example to the world. They should remember that the regime in Orwell's dystopia kept the people meek with slogans like "Ignorance is strength."
The world can only hope that the vast majority of decent Americans will save the political system of their country. This is the country, after all, toward which people like myself should feel forever grateful for having preserved political civilization at least twice in the 20th century.
The rest of us can only hope, for all of us, that when this awakening comes, Americans will sober up to a point at which they can undo the developments that have made the current situation possible. Otherwise, the legal and security measures taken in recent months may change the United States into a country that its admirers no longer recognize.
To prevent further decay, they must regain the power they have lost to special interests that have labored to obscure the true national public interest.
They must quell the power of those on the religious right, whose personal insecurities and fear of their lack of control over social realities have led to a pervasive inchoate hatred.
They must reverse the policies that have led to a massive transfer of wealth from the middle class to a minuscule moneyed elite, an elite that has lost all justification for its claims to be an aristocracy of skill, good judgment and concern for the public good.
They must realize how their transnational business bureaucracies, their public officials, their journalists and their professors have promoted a version of capitalism that is, inadvertently, deepening poverty and heightening social dislocation among the least advantaged in the world.
If Americans can do this, they might then join Europeans and others in reversing gears and striving to seize the genuine opportunity that was created when the Berlin Wall came down -- an opportunity to build a more equitable, more peaceful and more humanly rewarding global civilization.
It is a sad sign of the times that I feel impelled to add that what I have just said is not the ravings of a European flushed with anti-American sentiments. The European Union countries may be accused of political spinelessness and irresponsible complacency, but Europeans on the whole cannot be accused of callousness toward the American experience of Sept. 11.
In the week following many stood still, silently, on roads, highways, in supermarket aisles -- or, as I did, sat motionless at their desks for three minutes, in sympathy with . . . no, in shared grief with the victims of the attacks and with their mourning families.
Many Europeans and, as I know for sure from numerous conversations, many Japanese and other Asians, want to say: Americans, please draw back from the abyss that demagoguery has opened up before you, and come back to the world of shared concerns -- a humane world we have been working on, notwithstanding tragic lapses, at least since the Enlightenment. Come back and help re-create a world in which a phrase like Bush's "values dear to our hearts" still has meaning.
An improved global order cannot come about if the label of "anti-American" is automatically and unthinkingly slapped on any serious analysis of antidemocratic trends, of political excesses and abuse when, as so often happens, the United States provides the clearest examples. Cries of "anti-American" amount to intimidation, as do the labels "leftist" and "bleeding-heart liberal" thrown at those whose conscience and intelligence drive them to rethink political purpose amid their country's technocracy and corrupted media.
In all the sadness and anger after Sept. 11, the world expressed a hope that the tragedy might lead to a serious rethinking of America's political and economic purposes.
To support this hope is not to endorse the notion that Americans "had it coming" -- of course, no American action in the world has made the terrorist attacks morally comprehensible. But that does not excuse Americans for failing to rethink national purposes in a world that they dominate.
The hope may still be realized, but only if the millions of Americans of goodwill wake up and speak out.
Karel van Wolferen is the author of "The Enigma of Japanese Power: People and Politics in a Stateless Nation" and professor of comparative political and economic institutions at the University of Amsterdam in Holland.
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