Endless War and the Culture of Unrestrained Power
The Washington Post woke up a few days ago and realized that despite everything that has happened since 9/11 -- no successful Terrorist attacks on the Homeland in 10 years, a country mired in debt and imposing "austerity" on ordinary Americans, and the election of a wonderfully sophisticated, urbane, progressive multinationalist from the storied anti-war Democratic Party -- we are still smack in the middle of "the American era of endless war" with no end in sight. Citing the Pentagon's most recent assessment of global threats, the Post notes that in contrast to prior decades -- when "the military and the American public viewed war as an aberration and peace as the norm" (a dubious perception) -- it is now clear, pursuant to official doctrine, that "America's wars are unending and any talk of peace is quixotic or naive," all as part of "America’s embrace of endless war in the 10 years since Sept. 11, 2001."
We are now enduring a parade of wistful, contemplative, self-regarding pundit-meditations on The Meaning of 9/11 Ten Years Later or, far worse, self-righteous moralizing screeds about the nature of "evil" from war zealots with oceans of blood of their unrepentant hands (if I could impose one media rule, it would be that following every column or TV segment featuring American political commentators dramatically unloading their Where-I-Was-on-9/11-and-how-I-felt tales, there would be similar recollections offered from parents in the Muslim world talking about how their children died from the pre-9/11 acts of the U.S. and its client states or from post-9/11 American bombs, drones, checkpoint shootings and night raids: just for the sake of "balance," which media outlets claim to crave). Notwithstanding this somber, collective 9/11 anniversary ritual descending upon us, the reality is that the nation's political and media elite learned no lessons from that attack.
The mere utterance of the word Terrorism (which now means little more than: violence or extremism by Muslims in opposition to American or Israeli actions and interests) is -- at least for America's political and media class -- as potent in justifying wars, civil liberties assaults, and massive military spending as it was in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. And worship of the American military and all that it does -- and a corresponding taboo on speaking ill of it except for tactical critiques (it would be better if they purchased this other weapon system or fought this war a bit differently) -- is the closest thing America has to a national religion.
But it's not merely the existence of ongoing Endless War that is so destructive -- both to the nation perpetrating it on the world and to its victims. Far worse is what is being done to prosecute that war, the transformation of government institutions and their relationship to the citizenry to sustain it, and, most enduringly of all, the mentality that it has spawned and entrenched. Yesterday, The New Yorker's Amy Davidson examined recently emerged evidence that the U.S. and Britain purposely sent detainees to be tortured by their good friend (now known as The New Hitler) Moammar Gadaffi, but it is her last paragraph that really captures the true State of Things -- now more than ever -- in post-9/11 America:
Its dealings in Libya are not the C.I.A.'s only problem; nor is the C.I.A. the only problem. The Washington Post has two new pieces in its "Top Secret America" series that one should read. The first, by Julie Tate and Greg Miller, is on the C.I.A.'s shift away from learning things and toward killing people considered dangerous (and who makes that call?), with analysts becoming "targeters." The other, by Dana Priest and William Arkin, is about the Pentagon's Joint Special Operations Command, which has held some thousand prisoners "in jails that it alone controls in Iraq and Afghanistan." ("We’re the dark matter. We’re the force that orders the universe but can't be seen," a SEAL told the Post.) The "C.I.A." binder in Tripoli included "a list of 89 questions for the Libyans to ask a suspect," the Times said. We should have at least that many -- many more -- for our own government.
That bolded quote from the Navy SEAL (a member of the most sacred and revered religious order) is quite redolent of this infamous Bush-era proclamation, conveyed by Ron Suskind, that became the symbol of the warped neoconservative mind:
The [Bush] aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''
Those who wield true political authority as part of an empire are vested with immense power over other people, but those who exercise that authority as part of wars are more powerful still. That kind of power not only attracts warped authoritarians and sociopaths like moths to light, but it also converts -- degrades -- otherwise normal people who come to possess it. That's not a new development, but rather as old as political power itself. Those bolded quotes are a pure expression of a demented, amoral God complex. That's the mentality that produces Endless War, and Endless War, in turn, breeds that mentality.
This is why there is nothing more dangerous -- nothing -- than allowing this type of power to be exercised without accountability: no oversight, no transparency, no consequences for serious wrongdoing: exactly the state of affairs that prevails in the United States. It's also why there are few things more deeply irresponsible, vapid and destructive than demanding that citizens, activists, and journalists retreat into Permanent Election Mode: transform themselves into partisan cheerleaders who refrain from aggressively criticizing the party that is slightly less awful out of fear that the other party might win an election 14 months away, even when their own party is the one in power. Renouncing the duty of holding accountable political leaders who exercise vast power makes one directly responsible for the abuses they commit. To see the results of that mindset, re-read that paragraph from Davidson about what the U.S. is doing not in 2004, but now more than ever, in the name of Endless War.
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In May, I gave a speech to the annual Bill of Rights dinner of the ACLU in Massachusetts about many of these matters; for those interested, the audio as well as a (very imperfect) transcript of that speech is online here.
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