Real Battles and Empty Metaphors
last Sept. 11, the Bush administration has told the American people
that America is at war. But this war is of a peculiar nature.
It seems to be, given the nature of the enemy, a war with no foreseeable
end. What kind of war is that?
are precedents. Wars on such enemies as cancer, poverty and drugs
are understood to be endless wars. There will always be cancer,
poverty and drugs. And there will always be despicable terrorists,
mass murderers like those who perpetrated the attack a year ago
tomorrow - as well as freedom fighters (like the French Resistance
and the African National Congress) who were once called terrorists
by those they opposed but were relabeled by history.
a president of the United States declares war on cancer or poverty
or drugs, we know that "war" is a metaphor. Does anyone think that
this war - the war that America has declared on terrorism - is a
metaphor? But it is, and one with powerful consequences. War has
been disclosed, not actually declared, since the threat is deemed
to be self-evident.
wars are not metaphors. And real wars have a beginning and an end.
Even the horrendous, intractable conflict between Israel and Palestine
will end one day. But this antiterror war can never end. That is
one sign that it is not a war but, rather, a mandate for expanding
the use of American power.
the government declares war on cancer or poverty or drugs it means
the government is asking that new forces be mobilized to address
the problem. It also means that the government cannot do a whole
lot to solve it. When the government declares war on terrorism -
terrorism being a multinational, largely clandestine network of
enemies - it means that the government is giving itself permission
to do what it wants. When it wants to intervene somewhere, it will.
It will brook no limits on its power.
American suspicion of foreign "entanglements" is very old. But this
administration has taken the radical position that all international
treaties are potentially inimical to the interests of the United
States - since by signing a treaty on anything (whether environmental
issues or the conduct of war and the treatment of prisoners) the
United States is binding itself to obey conventions that might one
day be invoked to limit America's freedom of action to do whatever
the government thinks is in the country's interests. Indeed, that's
what a treaty is: it limits the right of its signatories to complete
freedom of action on the subject of the treaty. Up to now, it has
not been the avowed position of any respectable nation-state that
this is a reason for eschewing treaties.
America's new foreign policy as actions undertaken in wartime is
a powerful disincentive to having a mainstream debate about what
is actually happening. This reluctance to ask questions was already
apparent in the immediate aftermath of the attacks last Sept. 11.
Those who objected to the jihad language used by the American government
(good versus evil, civilization versus barbarism) were accused of
condoning the attacks, or at least the legitimacy of the grievances
behind the attacks.
the slogan United We Stand, the call to reflectiveness was equated
with dissent, dissent with lack of patriotism. The indignation suited
those who have taken charge of the Bush administration's foreign
policy. The aversion to debate among the principal figures in the
two parties continues to be apparent in the run-up to the commemorative
ceremonies on the anniversary of the attacks - ceremonies that are
viewed as part of the continuing affirmation of American solidarity
against the enemy. The comparison between Sept. 11, 2001, and Dec.
7, 1941, has never been far from mind.
again, America was the object of a lethal surprise attack that cost
many - in this case, civilian - lives, more than the number of soldiers
and sailors who died at Pearl Harbor. However, I doubt that great
commemorative ceremonies were felt to be needed to keep up morale
and unite the country on Dec. 7, 1942. That was a real war, and
one year later it was very much still going on.
is a phantom war and therefore in need of an anniversary. Such an
anniversary serves a number of purposes. It is a day of mourning.
It is an affirmation of national solidarity. But of one thing we
can be sure. It is not a day of national reflection. Reflection,
it has been said, might impair our "moral clarity." It is necessary
to be simple, clear, united. Hence, there will be borrowed words,
like the Gettysburg Address, from that bygone era when great rhetoric
Lincoln's speeches were not just inspirational prose. They were
bold statements of new national goals in a time of real, terrible
war. The Second Inaugural Address dared to herald the reconciliation
that must follow Northern victory in the Civil War. The primacy
of the commitment to end slavery was the point of Lincoln's exaltation
of freedom in the Gettysburg Address. But when the great Lincoln
speeches are ritually cited, or recycled for commemoration, they
have become completely emptied of meaning. They are now gestures
of nobility, of greatness of spirit. The reasons for their greatness
Such an anachronistic borrowing of eloquence is in the grand tradition
of American anti-intellectualism: the suspicion of thought, of words.
Hiding behind the humbug that the attack of last Sept. 11 was too
horrible, too devastating, too painful, too tragic for words, that
words could not possibly express our grief and indignation, our
leaders have a perfect excuse to drape themselves in others' words,
now voided of content. To say something might be controversial.
It might actually drift into some kind of statement and therefore
invite rebuttal. Not saying anything is best.
do not question that we have a vicious, abhorrent enemy that opposes
most of what I cherish - including democracy, pluralism, secularism,
the equality of the sexes, beardless men, dancing (all kinds), skimpy
clothing and, well, fun. And not for a moment do I question the
obligation of the American government to protect the lives of its
citizens. What I do question is the pseudo-declaration of pseudo-war.
These necessary actions should not be called a "war." There are
no endless wars; but there are declarations of the extension of
power by a state that believes it cannot be challenged.
has every right to hunt down the perpetrators of these crimes and
their accomplices. But this determination is not necessarily a war.
Limited, focused military engagements do not translate into "wartime"
at home. There are better ways to check America's enemies, less
destructive of constitutional rights and of international agreements
that serve the public interest of all, than continuing to invoke
the dangerous, lobotomizing notion of endless war.
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