Sunday, September 11, 2005


To begin with, no, damn it, the world did not change after 9/11. If I hear that one again, I'm going to start throwing things. (Note to CSIS: no extraordinary rendition, please. I was being metaphorical.) Here's how things stayed the same.

The US declared war on "terrorism." But an indefinable enemy has been the stock-in-trade of that nation for as long as I can remember. It used to be "communism." (Remember the original 1956 version of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers?" That was one of the prime epics of the Cold War. Now it's terrorists. Search the country for pods.) But whatever the enemy, we're under attack. Civil liberties? Hey, there's a war on. Never mind Ben Franklin, the likely author of the following, oft-misquoted apothegm: "Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety."

Guess what? Americans aren't getting much of either. But it's never been about liberty or safety. It's been about class and race and privilege from the get-go: Bush going to Biloxi to do photo-op hugs, complete with fake "rescue" efforts, studiously avoiding New Orleans survivors for "security" reasons. On vacation, strumming his guitar while New Orleans drowns.

Do Americans feel safe? No. Are they free? Ask Jose Padilla: the Fourth Circuit federal court, led by a man on Bush's short-list for the Supreme Court, ruled that Bush could personally jail him on his own say-so, and habeus corpus be damned. Ask the inmates of Guantanamo, or those sent off to other countries to be tortured. Ask the citizens of New Orleans, contained in their hell-hole by police and the National Guard, not permitted to walk across bridges to safety, not permitted to leave the Superdome, denied life-saving supplies by FEMA, the federal agency supposedly deployed to help them. Kris Kristofferson nailed it: for too many in America, freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.

The US used 9/11 as an excuse to make war on two more countries. But the US has been invading other countries for decades, directly or by proxy, under one pretext or another. They can’t seem to go ten years without a war. Why? Besides being habit-forming and good for business, it's about geopolitical influence and resources. War is what imperial nations do. Nothing new there. Read Machiavelli:

A Prince ought to have no other aim or thought, nor select anything else for his study, than war and its rules and discipline; for this is the sole art that belongs to him who rules, and it is of such force that it not only upholds those who are born princes, but it often enables men to rise from a private station to that rank. And, on the contrary, it is seen that when princes have thought more of ease than of arms they have lost their states.

Some young men from Yemen and US ally Saudi Arabia committed an atrocity within the gated community that is the US. Result? The US went to war--in Afghanistan and Iraq. The somnambulists of whom too much of North America is composed think that makes great sense. They're still confident that those will-o'-the-wisp WMDs will be found. That democracy is coming to Iraq. They still think that Bush is Da Man.

The US military, indeed, has become expert in the art of war. It has supply chain issues down to a fare-thee-well. The administration can deploy troops anywhere in the world, and keep them well-fed and well-armed while mowing down the latest crop of barefooted peasants. But it can't seem to get help to New Orleans in time to save the lives of their own citizens. As the satirist Tom Lehrer sang, back in the days of desegregation (but his words apply more recently), "To the shores of Tripoli/ But not to Mississipoli." Or Louisiana.

Police and security agencies have been/are being given what some regard as unprecedented powers to snoop, hold without bail and so on. In Canada, the Liberals are bringing in legislation to allow the police and CSIS to monitor email and cell phone conversations. But unprecedented? Not at all. Extraordinary powers are nothing new. How quickly we forget the imposition of the War Measures Act in 1970, or, earlier on, the internment of Canadian citizens--Japanese, Italian, Ukrainian, you name it--not for being enemy sympathizers, but for "security" reasons. Again, there’s nothing new here, except the technology.

No, the world hasn’t changed. But perhaps some people have become more aware that there is a world out there. There is no Fourth World, Third World, Second World, First World--just one planet, and everything is connected. The US is not situated on the moon, above it all, but is very much a part of the world in which it throws its weight around. It took the tragedy of the Twin Towers to wake a lot of people up to that inescapable fact, to re-think, and to understand, finally, that all actions have counter-reactions, and all effects have causes. Whether it is Iraqi kids dying because of sanctions, Palestinians killed or displaced in that cage called the West Bank, Afghan and Iraqi civilians being slaughtered by the tens of thousands now, or ordinary Americans being massacred in an office building in New York in 2001, it’s all tied together in one bloody global package.

The trick is to figure out how, instead of reacting blindly. We need to be able to separate moralizing and sympathy from analysis. That was what Machiavelli did in 1505, and his very name, for that reason, has become synonymous with evil in the minds of many. But he was talking about the way things are, not what they should be; he was discussing power and its exercise while others talked of honour, faith and other values that had absolutely nothing to do with what was actually going on.

We run the same risk when we attempt to look analytically at 9/11. We are accused of being unfeeling (this from conservatives, whose empathy was so palpable during Katrina), or even in league with fundamentalist Islam. There is a blindness akin to macular degeneration that takes hold in a period of crisis: we are able to see only the vague outlines of things, heavily veiled by the metaphysical categories of Good and Evil; details cannot be made out. Those who sift among the wreckage for clues are suspect. We want to see things in black and white. Good guys versus bad guys. God versus the devil. Binary thinking is comforting, or, if not comforting, at least readily accessible to those desperately looking for meaning in such events.

Some accuse those whose sympathies lie with what is labelled "the Left" of merely reversing the polarity, and they’re not always wrong, but such accusations are a fairly broad brush and I don't find them generally very convincing. We don't, after all, support stoning women for adultery, public amputations, hanging gay teenagers, or any of the other delights imposed by fundamentalist Islamic regimes. Indeed, the targets here, if not the specific punishments, are far more redolent of conservatism. Being critical of US foreign policy is a very far cry indeed from embracing the mediaeval world-view of Osama bin Laden.

But be critical we must, and it does no dishonour to the innocent victims in the World Trade Center to be so. The distinction between civilian and soldier has effectively disappeared: somehow every human being has been drafted into a war that most do not believe in or begin to comprehend. It’s that old Left binary, perhaps, hideously perverted: "If you aren't part of the solution, you’re part of the problem." Or Bush's more biblical rendition: "If you’re not with us, you're against us." Yet most people would simply like to be left alone, to live in dignity and peace. Binary thinking has condemned them instead to lives of fear and deprivation.

If there is one lesson to be learned from 9/11, we need a new paradigm. We can't go on like this. We are all net losers in the current voguish war on terrorism. We lose our security, our liberty and too often our lives in the lose-lose scenario now being played out. While Halliburton snaps up the reconstruction contracts in Iraq (and New Orleans), and Bush practises his guitar licks, and a favoured few wax fat and happy amid the ruins of the world, and moral idiots like bin Laden and Abu Hamza al-Masri capitalize on prevalent misery and despair, running around pretending that their hatred is religious devotion, everybody else pays for it in one way or another.

The wretched of the earth find themselves imprisoned in something resembling, at least metaphorically, the New Orleans Superdome: contained by a perimeter of armed guards, too many without sustenance in an atmosphere of dread and violence, but where ordinary people rose to the occasion, remained civilized, stood up to the armed gangs, and demanded to be treated like human beings.

We need something like this to happen world-wide. No one can stop this game by raising the ante. There is no winner-take-all. Corporate globalism and instantaneous communications have bound us together inextricably, placing the rich and the poor, the privileged and the damned, side-by-side. Something has to give. Out of such necessity, will a new way of thinking emerge?

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