I hate to be the one to bring up a very unpleasant subject, but let me begin with a question… Do you recall the reasons that the Sept. 11 terrorists gave for their rampage, the one that killed so many, did so much damage and led the U.S. government to unleash fury on the world and also its own citizens?
They, and Osama bin Laden, cited three factors: U.S. sponsorship of Israeli settlements, U.S. support for the kept regime in Saudi Arabia and the decade of sanctions against Iraq.
Because the U.S. went to war against Iraq following the attacks, hardly anyone thinks of the previous 10 years in which the U.S. punished Iraq with cruel sanctions that led to multitudes of deaths, particularly of children. This was in the name of stopping an Iraqi program to build weapons of mass destruction — except that no evidence that such a program existed ever came to light.
The terrorists saw themselves as retaliating for something that most Americans don’t even begin to understand and hardly even know about at all. This is not an excuse for the attacks but a window into understanding the motives behind them. How can we prevent future such terrorism if we don’t examine the thinking that led to the attacks in the first place?
Yet there is something about war that has the effect of wiping out the memories of all that came before. Especially in the U.S., the perception prevails that it always happens in a vacuum. The short history is always the same: There we were, minding our own business, when suddenly some bad guys from abroad started threatening our way of life, so of course, we had to smash them.
As proof of this, I invite you to examine a remarkable collection of essays published in 1976 in a book called Watershed of Empire, edited by James J. Martin and Leonard P. Liggio, with essays by Murray Rothbard, Justus Doenecke, William Neumann, Lloyd Gardiner, Robert Smith and others. The subject is the lead-up to World War II. Spy Briefing Books has a nice stock of this book that is so truth-telling that it will probably never be reprinted (hope you catch the irony). It turns out that this war didn’t just happen, either; it was preceded by years of saber rattling and a push for dollar imperialism that produced a pushback from Germany and Japan.
I’m now looking at the headlines on Iran. The parallels with the Iraq case are preposterously close. Israel is promising some kind of military action against Iran, not to stop an existing weapons program, but to prevent one from being started. The Obama administration says that it won’t intervene or stop an attack and further pledges continued alliance with Israel, come what may. The U.S. has already imposed sanctions on Iran and is prepared to ramp those up (and we know from experience just how well this part of the world responds to our sanctions!). Plus, U.S. bases in the region are spreading.
Not only are the conditions that led to Sept. 11 in place yet again, but they are also arguably heightened relative to what they were the first time around. Does anyone believe that this is good for peace and domestic tranquility here at home? Has anyone seriously considered what this could bring about on the domestic front? I guess not, since, apparently, we learned absolutely nothing from Sept. 11 except for the need to put all airline security in the hands of government and prevent me from carrying a corkscrew on the plane.
No one really expected Sept. 11. No one expects the current sanctions and war talk about Iran to inspire suicide bombers or some other unthinkable act of violence here at home. The event doesn’t have to be huge. It can be small and local. And if it does happen, I suppose we will once again assure ourselves that “they hate us for our freedom,” and then proceed to tighten the screws further on the domestic front. No amount of security theater will be too much on the fateful day.
Seriously, it is worth considering just what would happen to this country in the wake of another large-scale terrorist attack. Where are the limits of statism? What would our own government be willing or unwilling to do this time? What part of the Bill of Rights will matter under these conditions? These are unthinkable thoughts precisely because any close observer of our existing political moment understands the implications. It will be the end of what freedoms we have remaining.
Already, we all put up with a level of militarization that would have been unthinkable a generation ago. Washington, D.C., is a fortress. Every government building is managed as if the people outside are preparing an attack. Hardly anyone even remembers a time when the local police seemed more like an extension of the civic order, rather than a separate and heavily militarized caste. The truth is that the whole of the “security regime” has been more than ready to spring into further action at a moment’s notice.
For goodness sake, the U.S. attorney general gave a speech at Northwestern University in which he argued for the Obama administration’s position that the government can hunt down and kill American citizens, without any of the legal niceties that are generally considered a sign of civilized governance. Such talk would have been unthinkable a decade ago.
Yes, I know, only “conspiracy theorists” draw attention to these points. The rest of us are just supposed to pretend as if government is a wonderfully benign force in the world, serving us as we ask them to do as part of the great social contract. Surely, there is no plot to grab more power, take more money, shred what’s left of the Constitution or otherwise violate our human rights under the phony pretense of making us more secure or bringing justice to bad guys around the world.
Following Sept. 11, there was a feeling of complete helplessness that swept over the proponents of peace on earth. The state was on the march, and there was nothing to stand in the way. Finally, after a few years in which our lives were transformed and freedom faded, things settled down. There is something about the tenor of this drumbeat on Iran that makes me wonder: Has this been the calm before the storm?