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F-16s Over Broadway and the New Shape of Politics

Then comes the realization that US politics have been radically altered by this quintessentially political violence.

Joe Lockard and Joel Schalit

Tuesday, September 11 2001, 9:43 PM

First, there is the horror. Watching video footage of an airplane slam through a World Trade Center tower, one could only weep "Poor people, poor people..." In the attack's aftermath, lower Manhattan had become a war zone. The scale of human suffering is immense. Thousands of families in New York, Washington and throughout the country are in pain today, needing sympathy and comfort. The heroism of New York City's uniformed services, which have suffered such heavy losses, is beyond compare today.

Next, there is the anger. To call these suicide terrorists cowards is wrong: they were not cowards in any physical sense. They and their organization are simply evil bastards and vicious zealots.

And then comes the realization that US politics have been radically altered by this quintessentially political violence.

George Bush provided an initial glimpse of that change when he said "Freedom itself was attacked this morning by a faceless coward, and freedom will be defended." The rhetoric of freedom has been used and abused many times to justify the creation of a national security state. These attacks were not against freedom in the United States: they were against symbols of US power. From nearly its first word of response, the Bush administration cast itself as freedom's defender when its global policies represent the contrary. Freedom belongs to all, not only to Americans.

Advocates of the national security state, whose vision of America relies on fear and restraint of civil liberties, were quick to begin their ideological offensive. Literally before the dust had settled in New York City, Congressman Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) was appearing on the Fox network to denounce expenditures on health and education in favor of massive new budget appropriations for the US intelligence services. Justification has arrived for re-prioritizing military over civilian needs. Today's terror attacks have given neo-Cold Warriors confirmation that they are the defenders of civilization. Not surprisingly, the putative enemies are people of color.

Still, it is too early to properly analyze today's events. At the moment we live in a state of televised emotional angst, with close calls, survival stories, mourners, words of care, and ugly distant jeers. Television has come alive with the real-life aftermath of a 1970s Eric Ambler thriller novel, with no-long wild plots of 747 jumbo jets slamming into the US Capitol.

The television screen is continually rebroadcasting footage of jeering Palestinians flashing victory signs on a street in Nablus. If you have no freedom, a perverse "defense of freedom" can look attractive through the eyes of hatred. For these cheering Palestinians -- and the many more who revile such violence -- the Empire has a very bloody nose today. Another submerged empire, disguised and hidden, has manifested the power of the few and the determined.

In the television screen's background, former Bush administration official Lawrence Eagleberger explains why he thinks today's strikes make sense according to an Islamic point of view. As he knows little of Islam beyond its existence on his threat horizon, his presumption is gross. "Hamas, Islamic Jihad" Eagleburger seems to be saying over and over again, like a film loop, throwing out all the keywords Americans need to start ascribing generalized blame.

There is no need to turn on the news to hear this miserable level of analytic sophistication. Such a horrific tragedy demands more nuanced analysis, to say nothing of a more thorough consideration of who might be responsible for today's killings. But as usual, Americans got the worst kind of soundbite-like signifiers to help them sort out an event which defies over-simplification. The only losers remain the victims, who deserve to have their deaths honored by a little more intelligence, not to mention manifest humanity.

When George Bush asserts that he will find and punish those responsible, he is trying to convince us that he will face, and surmount, the steepest challenge posed by these attacks. After all, the scope of the casualties ranks this disaster as a grand act of war on the fullest scale, and retribution is seen as absolute military mandate. But perhaps a greater, unspoken, challenge for the US military will be coming to terms with the demise of the nation-state as a unit of military and political power. Diplomacy; the bombing of capital cities; treaties; high-level negotiations with beribboned hawks. None of these will work.

These old-guard ritual responses to acts of war presume war partners to be identifiable nation-states, backed by identifiable governments. In today's act of war, however, the value of ritual has changed. The attackers did not care to identify themselves so they could play a prescribed role in a ritual exchange of hostilities. This ritual exchange is no longer valued, just as militaries are no longer exclusive targets. Of the legions of peoples across the world who have reason to hate the United States, those who attacked us today have redefined the discourse of making war by sidestepping such ritual. They have thereby defied the US government's retaliatory response -- for the moment.

F-16s are flying patrol over Broadway, the stock exchanges are closed, and the makeshift morgues are filling. We know only that today's events will have a terrific impact. We shall likely engage with right-wing political forces that seek to take advantage of this atrocity by demanding further increases in defense spending under the aegis of an administration nostalgic for the Cold War, political forces that still see economic growth as tied to the productivity of the old military-industrial complex.

Like their predecessors in the first Bush, Reagan and Nixon administrations, this Bush administration's vision of government is largely predicated on what Herbert Marcuse once dubbed "the warfare state." This is an ideology of government which sees the state's primary role as one of providing security, guided by the notion that there is no better catalyst for jump-starting the economy than a defence boom spurred on by threats to national security. What better excuse to confirm such a worldview than events like this?

It is one matter to indulge such nostalgic critiques of Republican ideology. But we cannot fail to see how anti-utopian today's killings were. Whoever is responsible targeted the two most important symbols of American global hegemony: Wall Street, in the form of the World Trade Center, and the Pentagon. Whoever did this could not be sending a clearer message as to political meaning. American "hyperpower," to quote French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine, is not and will not be universally accepted.

What was absent from the selection of these targets was a sense of the human cost that would be incurred in the process of trying to isolate the primary symbols of American power. Failing to identify any alternate means of engagement, this new ideology of anti-Americanism is self-indulgent because it holds everyone responsible and subject to violence. No sophisticated social theory or political ideology can rationalize or atone for such mass murder.

Murder will out and we shall all learn more. As we do, we shall bring our grief to our politics.

Joe Lockard and Joel Schalit are members of the Bad Subjects collective. Megan Shaw Prelinger contributed to this editorial, and is also a member of the Bad Subjects collective.

Copyright © 2001 by Joe Lockard and Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.