The Fog of War

In the Fall of 2001, I was teaching a large, introductory Political Science course. On September 12th, I went to class, but decided to set aside my prepared lecture in order to discuss the events of the day before. After some discussions about the attacks, the likely perpetrators, and the already-emerging references to Pearl Harbor and the opening battle of a war, I stopped the discussion to pose a scenario. "Imagine," I said, "that a small group of angry men spend months, possibly years plotting an attack on largely symbolic targets that represent the object of their hatred. They intend to kill many people in a spectacular, almost surreal attack. They know they will die in the attack, but they are more interested in the shock, mayhem, fear, and disbelief the will instill within the general public. They will have shown that, ultimately, the powerless have real power."

"Does this scenario ring a bell?" I asked.

One of my students raised her hand and replied, "It sounds a lot like Columbine."

Of course, that was precisely the answer I hoped my scenario would provoke. This exercise provided us an opening to try to begin to understand what was going on, while already we seemed to know everything we needed to know: this was the opening of a war. Yet, as the weeks went on, we were exposed to a strange array of very confusing rhetoric from the White House. Were the attacks an act of war (the references to Pearl Harbor were ubiquitous), or was it a criminal act? Were the terrorists war criminals — like the political leadership of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan — or were they simply "outlaws," or more abstractly, "evildoers?"

Of course, so much has happened since then: the "global war on terror" and its centrality in U.S. policy has evolved and changed so dramatically over the past four years, sometimes it is difficult to notice how daily events, little and small, have brought us to where we are today. Today, we are debating the scope and implications of presidential authority during "wartime." The first act in this long production began, as I recall, in November 2001, when the Bush administration first articulated its policy that it would constitute military tribunals for "unlawful combatants" captured in Afghanistan. The White House argued that such detainees were not technically prisoners of war, and therefore the prohibitions of the fourth Geneva Convention against trying (and, presumably, executing) prisoners during the course of a war did not apply. When we noticed that no tribunals had actually been convened, we discovered a new twist in the policy: that the President had the right to hold such people indefinitely, without charging them with a crime if he so chose.

Then came the revelations about Abu Ghraib, followed by stories about the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, and the practice of "extraordinary renditions." Congress then demanded a prohibition against any form of torture by the military or any other officials of the U.S. government — such as the CIA. President Bush signed the bill but attached a "signing statement" to it, saying essentially that his duties as Commander-in-Chief, rather than as Chief Executive, will be the final determinant of whether and how the law will be executed. Finally, we were treated to the revelations that the NSA had been empowered by a secret order of the President to electronically surveil communications emanating from or received by persons within the United States itself.

The daily piling of developments in the "war on terror," one after another, can render our wider undertanding of the "big picture" next to impossible. This is why I was so pleased to open the New York Times on Saturday and read a very brief but provocative Op-Ed by Joseph Ellis, "Finding a Place for 9/11 in American History." In it, Ellis wonders whether the 9/11 attacks really threatened our existence, or in the more common formulation, "our very way of life." He posits a few questions, not to offer "definitive answers, but to invite a serious debate about whether Sept. 11 deserves the significance it has achieved." Ellis' piece touched upon something that had been bothering me for some time, but I never could quite put my finger on it. Each day brings another new thing, and we chew on it and discuss it, and wait for the next shoe to drop. But we don't often step back and see where we've come from, or where we have been. Ellis has invited a serious debate. I will accept his invitation, for I think it is long overdue.

Ellis' piece recounts past wars and the "lamentable, excessive, even embarrassing" overreaching of government authority meant to counter the threats: the Alien and Sedition Acts; the supsension of habeas corpus during the Civil War; the "red scare" of 1919; the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II; and McCarthyism during the Cold War. Those wars, Ellis maintains, constituted genuine threats to the nation or its "way of life" (especially the Cold War). In other words, they generated far better and more sane foundations for governmental overreach. The "war on terrorism" simply doesn't make the grade — which makes the overreaction to it by the Bush White House seem that much more execessive and unnecessary.

Obviously the U.S. invasion of Iraq — right or wrong — qualifies as a "war." But, in my mind, and despite the fact that 9/11 may have been a catalyst, reason or excuse to do it, it is only linked rhetorically with the "war on terror." The invasion and aftermath qualifies as "war." And on this point, I will go no further, for my argument is about 9/11 and the war on terrorism.

If we take a cue from David Campbell, author of Writing Security, the search for the self-in-other and its demonization is as American as "Mom, Apple Pie, and Chevrolet." In the enemy-other, we need to have some kind of identification, and know the threat, because ultimately, the threat is, well, us. The enemy we find in the wars we have fought in the past contains, or is driven by, enemies whose aim we can understand, for it is the fear of living under their subjugation that drives our will to fight them. Nazism and Communism, as the two most obvious examples of world-wide conflict (which, we are told, is what this current war is all about — a "clash of civilizations") whose masters we feared. We could identify with Nazism because it was, indeed, so close to home in so many ways. Consider the vitriolic radio broadcasts of Father Caughlin during the 1930s. Similarly, we understood Communism in the same vein: a State organized around the deprivation of Enlightenment-era liberties in the pursuit of a greater social utopia.

Campbell did an excellent job of dispelling the realist myth that what we were trying to achieve in our policy of "containment" was merely the bottling up of the Soviet military threat: the massing of Soviet troops along the armistance lines of World War II that would later come to be known as the Iron Curtain. Campbell's close examination of the secret National Security Council directives during the early days of the Cold War revealed that the protection of the American "way of life," extravagantly flourished with rhetoric, sat at the heart of the policy of containment — rather than a military standoff.

Now, if you read any State Department paper or assessment of the threat posed by al-Qaeda, you will see embedded within it many elements of a purported "ideology." The idea here is to transform a wild-eyed, fanatical form of terrorism into something we can fear, and indeed, respect, for we know it well. Along the overgreased Axis of Evil we slip and slide into the irrendentist goal of the greater Umma, or Islamic state, stretching from Morocco to Indonesia.

Actually, the Umma is merely a community — a premodern social community sharing common values like we might find in a small town in Michigan that breeds separatist Americans. This is not an ideology — a concept that is entirely modern, for it weds ideals with institutions for instantiating them in a modern reality.

My point here is simply this: I am highly skeptical that "radical Islam" qualifies as an ideology, or that our "fight" against it qualifies as a "war." This is, and should be considered as, a police-action to round up fanatical people who have perpetuated and continue to perpetuate crime. This is little different from the Timothy McVeighs of the United States (and there are quite a few of them), or of people who do drive-by shootings for whatever ends they deem so important to their identity and way of life. And if this is not a war, then war-powers do not exist. And if war-powers do not exist, we have real cause for alarm at a President who would claim them, and a Congress that refuses to protest in the slightest.

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~ by de cive on February 1, 2006.

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