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America — "Fighting the war on terrorism on the domestic front"

[translated from GegenStandpunkt: Politische Vierteljahreszeitschrift 4–01, Gegenstandpunkt Verlag, Munich]

"The nation is at war. This war has two fronts: one is abroad, in Afghanistan; the second is here, defending the homeland." (White House spokesman, press conference October 24, 2001)

When the most powerful nation on earth gets ready to "defend" its "homeland," it doesn't fool around. No matter that one cannot speak of war in the true sense of the word, namely, of a military threat to U.S. territory, which seriously puts Americaís might to the test; America simply takes the terrorist attack as a declaration of war on the invulnerability of its might, and jumps into action. It pulls all the stops of patriotic propaganda to rally the people around the point of view that it is war and one has to behave oneself accordingly. And it doesn't take much cheerleading on the part of the rulers of the land of the free to get their citizens charged up. The typical American suffers no pangs of conscience over, for example, whether the bombing of Afghan cities conforms to the intrinsic good and humanitarianism of the American national character; such sentiments would be downright anti-American.[Note 1] Both people and leadership are thoroughly convinced that the attacks constituted not only a political crime but also nothing less than a sacrilege committed against Godís own country, requiring a "response" of corresponding vehemence. The national "response" to terrorism is not simply executed — with a wave of arrests, anti-terror laws and something resembling a war-time supervision of air traffic. It is publicly celebrated — on all TV stations and in the middle of the citizensí cozy daily life. With its "war on the home front," America demonstrates to the whole world that it canít be matched even in matters of patriotic feeling. Matchless in its shock over the attacks, but also in the pride and courage with which it overcomes these hard times for the nation. Fighting terrorism with patriotic shows, preparing for war with sentimental national festivities — such propaganda would turn the like of Goebbels green with envy.

"Pearl Harbor"

American patriots have to think back a bit to recall an event that got the country similarly wound up and shocked. What the recent strikes have in common with the earlier Japanese attack on a U.S. naval base is, even according to historians, most definitely not a common cause but rather the sense of outrage that, in view of the injury to the most precious of national values, tends to afflict true patriots. As would be expected of proper nationalists, Americans unanimously interpret the destruction of two skyscrapers and a part of the Pentagon as a wound to their national pride. The fact that this reaction is rather out of all proportion is a consequence of the very special status of the nation itself. The actual damage to property and human life feeds this wounded pride with evidence; the way in which the attacks were carried out symbolizes the forbidden, i.e., the truly unthinkable, and thus underscores the horror of the event. Otherwise, Americans are fairly inured to the everyday production of corpses in Godís own country and do not unite in rage and sorrow over every little school shooting, tornado or plane crash.

In this instance they do unite. The site of the catastrophe becomes a national shrine and is duly dedicated Ground Zero. Citizens of all classes and walks of life feel compelled to go on pilgrimages to this site of unspeakable horror and to express appropriately muttered and stuttered disbelief and shock into any available TV camera. How grand to be allowed to publicly demonstrate just how deeply oneís whole personal emotional life has been affected by the attack on the ideal collective, the nation one is honored to be a member of. The search and rescue work along with the clean-up at ground zero follow the script of a Hollywood disaster movie: on the one hand inconceivable evil that threatens the foundations of the nation, on the other hand the masses of courageous flag-wavers from the ever-ready mayor to the lowest paid garbageman — all working relentlessly and heroically to save innocent victims, deeply and personally committed and united in the fight for the good cause. As in a bad movie, personal sorrow and the nation's loss commingle without differentiation, the catastrophe transforms a racist into a national hero, etc., etc.…

"United we stand" is the call to arms under which the nation in distress ignores all its real conflicts and comes together. The accusation of hypocrisy would be groundless, as this call has its roots in the rather indestructible conviction of every U.S. inhabitant — from the ghetto dweller to prairie farmer — that they, as Americans, have been extraordinarily blessed in this world, no matter the hard knocks of everyday life to their material well-being. It is beyond the imagination of the average American that there might be anyone on Godís green earth who does not envy them for belonging to this nation and who doesnít harbor the secret desire to somehow take part in the pursuit of "happiness" that this country affords. It is all the more unfathomable that anyone could inflict such dreadful harm on his wonderful country with all its cuddly inhabitants.

In this way the normal American citizen transforms his leaders' imperialistic declarations of war — on a whole world of states deemed guilty of anti-American activities — into his very own personal rage over how incredibly evil must be the people who would want to inflict damage on the best of all worlds — i.e., on himself as America personified. "We Americans are really just a bunch of nice people who want to live in peace, and then something like this" —in such a simple and boundlessly ignorant manner does the normal patriot reinterpret the circumstance that the imperialistic endeavors of his rulers really generate anti-Americanism abroad. The phrase, "the American way of life," the supposed target of the terrorist strikes, is not just a phrase. Cloaking America's insistence on world supremacy by claims of cultural supremacy is rather the mindset that exactly fits the state's plans to come down hard at home as abroad. As such the American government does not go after just any old enemy of the state. Its anti-terror activities are really meant to defend the birthright of every ordinary American to live as a free American, meaning: to be left unmolested by foreigners reacting with hostility to the global machinations of their own government. And this is something all those affected should take to heart, because on this question, the nice American citizen is not to be trifled with. Consequently it is time for the government to take action. Long forgotten are the recent national divisions over lustful presidents and vote-snatching by presidential candidates. In light of this horrific act, committed with hostile intentions by an aggressive foreign power against God's own country, internal conflicts disintegrate into nothingness. Thereís lots to do, so letís get going!

The war on terrorism becomes a national duty and pastime

The government goes about its end of the business with the requisite thoroughness. The point is to track "them" down and smoke "them" out by whatever means necessary. To begin with, a wave of arrests is called for in which U.S. agencies easily make the transition from suspicion to prevention. As a precaution, over one thousand persons of relevant age from relevant Arab countries are put behind bars, suspects or not. The FBI is not hard-pressed to produce grounds for arrest. Fortunately many foreigners always have one leg on the wrong side of the law, i.e., as "participants" in a labor market in which their illegal status goes along beautifully with the national interest in cheap labor. Such a fine piece of the accepted "American way of life," now to be put to other uses. Such foreigners can now be locked up for "petty" transgressions and grilled — we will see what this is good for. The public accompanies these government activities with respectfully critical commentary. Once again the comparison to the second World War is dusted off, namely to the internment at that time of Japanese-Americans as potential enemies of the state. The comparison is meant, not as criticism, but as an indication of the seriousness of the situation, in which constitutional concerns are totally out of place. If "the enemy" just is invisible, but of known character, origin or even race, then state racism is acknowledged as the appropriate response. For these reasons the question has to be allowed — in any case in the opinion of the nationís thinkers —as to whether or not torture should be raised to the level of permitted government practices, in view of the stubbornness of fanatics who cannot be bribed into betraying their cause by either money or the offer to commute sentences.

American lawmakers find the current state of the law to be too restrictive in relation to the desire to register every suspicious movement smacking of terrorism. By means of a new "counter-terrorism law," they grant law enforcers new freedoms, "substantially increasing the authority of prosecutorial and security agencies to tap telephones, check internet traffic and practice other forms of control in pursuit of terrorist activities" (International Herald Tribune, October 24, 2001). The effective use of state power in the fight against hostile activities calls for the law to be broadly and thoroughly equipped for the surveillance and control of all its citizens, since among them under the guise of normalcy are hidden those intending to take over the country. U.S.A. P.A.T.R.I.O.T. (Unifying and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) is the acronym the U.S. government bestows on this legislation — another quaint American notion! Apparently American lawmakers do have a sense that their laws conflict somewhat with the democratic ideal of protection of the citizens' rights to privacy from the state, rights the power of the state would be obligated to respect. Under the banner "patriot" they therefore offensively conjure up a pseudo state of emergency that justifies and legitimatize the law. Not a thought is wasted on the possibility that these drastic measures could be directed against normal, law-abiding citizens. Instead the U.S. government puts a positive spin on its insistence on total surveillance of all its citizens: it calls for unity amongst patriots from all walks of life; they, acting together, are to defend themselves against foreign enemies. Seen in this light, the government is only carrying out the mandate of all American-friendly people, who above all should be and want to be protected from everything anti-American. Thatís how it is in war! One's private activities are no longer just private; instead, they are part and parcel of the fight against terror, because since September 11, they take place in a corner of the world named "home front."

This is the sense in which the citizen is asked to make his own modest contribution. He is supposed to be vigilant and report whatever seems suspicious; the government sets up a hotline for its citizens to report suspicious incidents and to supply leads for the pursuit of terrorists. And suspicions abound, everything from neighbors who arenít sociable, to beards and head scarves; no wonder the authorities are swamped with thousands of reports to sort through. This is, however, a matter that the citizen is expressly enjoined not to take into his own hands. The government has to warn patriots against taking revenge themselves, not least because such activities disrupt official investigations, and could leave a bad impression with Arab partners in the anti-terror coalition. It is no secret to the authorities what kind of mental state they incite in their well-mannered citizens; they donít bother concealing a certain understanding for disconcerted travelers who refuse to sit in the same plane with Arab-looking passengers. Nevertheless, the officially proclaimed xenophobia needs to be executed in an organized and orderly fashion, something only state power can do.

Other activities of citizens in this sphere are less appreciated by the authorities. It is not particularly welcome, for example, when citizens board a plane carrying some weapon or other and then afterwards triumphantly point out that they passed checkpoints undetected, thus drawing attention to glaring deficiencies in airport security. Despite their need to control anything and everything, the U.S. authorities would still not dream, even under these circumstances, of contesting the right of its citizens to bear arms and proceeding with broad sweeps to gather up private weapon collections. The current agenda is not really about intensifying government attempts to fight or even prevent the everyday murders and homicides that are so much a part of the "American way of life." With its war on terrorism, the state appeals outright to patriotism as a deep, private feeling, for which the possession of weapons, i.e., the constitutional right of every American to self-defense, is the direct, practical expression. In light of the "terror threat," the nation imagines itself a single, gigantic militia that needs its weapons when times get tough.

Anthrax — the new threat

Since 9–11 the threats to the nation have been of a somewhat different nature. Someone makes it his business to infect public personalities and places by sending Anthrax spores through the mail. A full-blown terrorist attack, however, never materializes. A few people die and public buildings are closed for a little while. On the one hand, the government systematically investigates the matter by securing relevant material; the FBI is charged with finding the culprits, and gets to work on it. Right-wing hate groups are suspected. Without embarrassment, high-ranking FBI officials let out how campaigns of vengeance against hated political and media big shots are in general not incompatible with the American national character. The evidence offered to the public points to U.S. laboratories as the source. The press writes this all down verbatim and presents it straightaway to its audience.

On the other hand, none of this prevents the politicians from simultaneously and repeatedly suggesting that they could well "imagine" a "connection" to al Qaeda, Iraq, etc. They wouldnít want to miss the opportunity to interpret these events as yet more evidence of just how sinister the terrorist threat is. All thatís required is to say good-bye to the real facts and instead paint a picture of the general danger of bio-warfare. At present, there are in fact no "findings" of any kind anywhere to be found to the effect that someone or other is planning such an attack; that does not, however, detract from the purpose of the exercise. It is this very lack of purpose — as measured by the standards of real warfare — in an indiscriminate mass poisoning, as brought to the imagination in scenarios of contaminated reservoirs or subway tunnels, that is optimally suited to demonstrate to the masses just how unpredictable the terrorist threat is.[Note 2]

Against this threat, it is evident that once again decisive action by the state is the only answer. The U.S. is not negligent on this front either. It stockpiles appropriate amounts of antibiotics; it even clashes with a well respected German pharmaceutical company that is not quick enough to acknowledge the difference between South Africa's patent-threatening and thus doubtful claims for cheaper AIDS drugs and the justified U.S. demand for an inexpensive supply of anti-terrorist preventive drugs. The Anthrax letters are supposed to prove two things: on the one hand just how "faceless," "unpredictable" and "threatening to every American citizen" is the danger the nation is dealing with; on the other hand, they demonstrate the authoritiesí resolve and energy in going about overcoming this threat. Under the first point of view, it is appropriate to emphasize the seriousness of the situation, not to exclude any possibilities, and to continually warn of new attacks; the situation the nation finds itself in is damned serious, and no citizen is to forget this, even for a minute. Under the second point of view, it is stressed how the authorities obviously have everything under control and are taking precisely those measures appropriate to stave off every possible danger the citizens could imaginably face. This propaganda campaign is therefore not entirely free of contradiction, so that for the time being, the press is at a complete loss as to whether it should incite or reassure its audience in support of the stateís mission. Its members voice complaints about "contradictory" and "confusing" information released by different government agencies. Where is the clear message that they can in good conscience serve up to their readers in the morning news? Does the president really have everything under control? Doubts are expressed: the death of two postal workers is the occasion for critical questions as to why the Capitol and White House were evacuated and decontaminated but not the central post office through which contaminated letters were sent. Could it be — God forbid! — that there is a double standard when it comes to the safety of all Americans? Should the assertion of the highest, national, collective purpose lead to first and second class citizenship? This is how nationalists criticize.

How paranoia unifies the nation

In the midst of peace the U.S. government stirs up a kind of war hysteria; in practical and ideological ways it puts the country and its citizens into a state of national self-defense; it continually invokes an enemy said to threaten the whole, normal life of the citizen, making emergency measures necessary. At the same time itís business as usual; the stock market and economy have their ups and downs, companies hire and fire, interest rates rise or fall; even a WTO summit takes place, of course allegedly in the spirit of a newly found sense of unity but at which, nonetheless, the usual haggling occurs over quotas, duties and subsidies; and the normal American citizen, terror or not, must see to it that he brings home the bacon. Thus this national propaganda has all the makings of a political construct; it speaks to the pure will of the nation to wipe out terrorism as the "last remaining" threat in a world managed by the U.S.. The people are made familiar with the new will of the nation: as a condition of life they have to serve body and soul. For this purpose, old habits are resurrected straight from the completely familiar arsenal of political paranoia that appears to be an integral component of the national consciousness of the mightiest nation in the world. Hard to believe that enlightened America would have seen through and intellectually overcome the cross-examinations of the Committee on "Un-American Activities" as an evil smothering of critical voices, and McCarthyism as the product of a fanatic run amok. In the guise of a fight against terror, the everyday customs of an America embroiled in battle against the rest of the world celebrate a joyous comeback.

In this way the American government assures that its citizens take the challenge to the nation personally, and in the right way. This works out so well in this instance, not least because at last the good American can once again find himself personally engaged in this war. Gone is the need to understand the contorted web of reasons of the kind presented for the wars in Somalia, Bosnia or Kosovo. Now "American boys" are finally not fighting for lofty values such as world order or human rights; this war does not have to be elucidated as an unfortunately necessary service to foreign peoples whom "we" simply cannot leave to their fate despite their obstinacy. In this case the issues are simply the freedom and security of all Americans, at home as well as in Afghanistan — and the compensation for what was done to the nation. Consequently even the bit of reservation exhibited by American nationalists in connection with recent U.S. wars for which no real national purpose could be readily discovered simply vanishes. Now the war is a matter of oneís own personal patriotism, and the unity of people and state is perfect in a way that only a democratic society can achieve.

Notes

1.Something, by the way, that the few critics of the war have also gotten to feel physically: "security risk" is one of the kinder aspersions they have gotten not just to hear.

2.This obviously stands in stark contrast to the extremely methodical poisoning of entire regions and sections of the population by agent orange or coca herbicides. These projects count as fully "rational."


© GegenStandpunkt 2002