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the price we’ve paid (jonathan raban) September 8, 2006

Posted by Brad Richert in politics.
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Woken by the jarring peal of the phone at 5.58am, Pacific time, I heard a friend’s voice say, “Turn on your TV! Turn on your TV!” Then she hung up. Groggy with sleep, I clicked the remote, and the screen bloomed into a scene of aghast confusion. I was still dopily figuring out the what and where when, at 6.03, the second plane, arrowing at a tilt through a sky of flawless blue, penetrated the strangely pliant flesh of the south tower like a whaler’s barbed harpoon. At the very moment of impact, one could see the plane’s nose-cone simultaneously protruding slightly from the far side of the skyscraper. Was it a bystander, or the cameraman, who shouted “Ho-ly shit!”?–words, inadequate as they were, that now seem so inseparably glued to that astounding instant that I’ve never been able to speak them since.

For the next few hours, with the BBC on the computer screen, CNN on the TV, and the phone ringing off the hook, I felt the world shrinking around me. By mid-afternoon, New York, London, Honolulu, Paris, Seattle, had contracted into one neighbourhood, and when, next morning, Le Monde ran its famous banner headline, WE ARE ALL AMERICANS NOW, the sentiment seemed so obvious as to be hardly worth stating. Now, of course, that headline is remembered only because it is a bitterly sarcastic marker of the enormous distance we’ve all travelled in the five years since that day.

“Since September 11…” we say, as if the attacks were what changed everything. The month is right but the day wrong, because the real metamorphosis has arisen not so much from what Mohamed Atta and his co-conspirators did to us on September 11 as what we’ve subsequently done to ourselves – and continue to do, today, tomorrow, and in the foreseeable future (incredibly foreshortened though that has become). On September 12, still in shock at the extraordinary injury inflicted on the US, we woke to essentially the same world we’d been living in before the phones began to ring. The death toll – then estimated at 10,000-plus – was horrifying, on the scale of a major earthquake or tsunami, but the globe continued to revolve on its accustomed axis, as it does after even the most devastating seismic killers.

On the evening of the 11th, the President of the United States – last seen in a second-grade class at a Florida elementary school, staring numbly at The Pet Goat in Reading Mastery II: Storybook I – read haltingly to camera from a script: “These acts of mass murder were intended to frighten our nation into chaos and retreat, but they have failed. Our country is strong. A great people has been moved to defend a great nation.” On the 14th, he found a voice and a persona when, dressed in a clerical-grey anorak, he visited the firefighters and rescue workers at the ruins of the World Trade Center. As The Dallas Morning News reported the next day: “When he climbed onto the wreckage of a fire truck to speak through the bullhorn, the workers began complaining: ‘George, we can’t hear you!’

“‘I can hear you,’ Bush responded. ‘I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!’ The crowd whooped and then the chant began: ‘U-S-A, U-S-A.’ Bush grabbed a small American flag and waved it high.”

On the 16th, when Bush spoke of “this crusade, this war on terrorism”, the alarming and foolishly inflated language chilled much of the listening world even as, perhaps, it stirred his electoral base of fundamentalist Christians to heroic thoughts of sword and cross, liberating the holy places from Muslim occupation. Presumably unintentionally (unless a Swiftian ironist was at work in some back room in the White House), the phrase echoed Osama bin Laden, who had been calling Americans “Crusaders” in repeated fatwas and speeches since 1998.

But September 18 is the real date to circle. That day, Congress rushed through its Authorisation For Use of Military Force (AUMF), entitling the President, as the nation’s commander in chief, to “use all necessary and appropriate force” against “those nations, organisations, or persons” that “he determines” were responsible for the September 11 atrocities, “…in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organisations, or persons.” It’s the “such” that’s the key, the inclusion of nations, organisations, or persons “of that sort”, which nicely covers, for instance, the invasion of Iraq, the arrest and detention of most of the prisoners now languishing in Guantanamo Bay, possible future military action against Iran, or Syria, or both, and heaven knows what else, since “such” is a term of potentially limitless capacity to make hitherto unguessed-at likenesses and connections.

The sloppily-worded AUMF endowed the administration with unique and wide-ranging powers. It has become the licence for the executive branch to wave at Congress and the judiciary whenever its actions are questioned or censured. On September 18 2001, the delicate balance between the three branches of government, as laid out in the American constitution, was thrown severely out of whack; since that day, one branch, the presidency, has enjoyed an unprecedented primacy over the others, and we’ve been living with the consequences of AUMF ever since.

On the same day that Bush talked of the coming “crusade”, Vice-President Dick Cheney told the host of Meet The Press how the new war was going to function. “We… have to work sort of the dark side… We’re going to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussions… It is a mean, nasty, dangerous, dirty business out there, and we have to operate in that arena.” So it was to be cloak and dagger stuff, top secret, with the administration “working the dark side”, out of view of the people. Secrecy has its own romantic allure, and in the shaken and frightened mood of America that September, there was reassurance in the idea of the White House going undercover, stealthily prowling on our behalf in Cheney’s arena of shadows. Barely a voice was raised to suggest that a secret presidency might not be entirely compatible with the basic principles of American democracy. On the “You’re either with us or against us” principle, enunciated by Bush in November 2001, the few liberals who spoke out against the new-style covert administration were condemned out of hand as siding with terrorists.

The threat of terrorism yet to come gave the White House an unimpeded freedom to act on its own discretion that most US presidents have probably dreamed of, but is more often exercised by dictators, benevolent and otherwise. Such extravagant presidential liberty can only be maintained in a democracy so long as the threat is not just real, but immediately palpable to the electorate. The enormous quantity of ugly hardware that has shown up on the streets of American cities in the last five years serves a dual purpose: it supposedly protects us from acts of terrorism and daily reminds us of the danger we are in.

Some time in early 2002, a nondescript rectangular grey box, with a tall vented pipe and a radio antenna, appeared on a telephone pole in my neighbourhood in Seattle, and I drove past it several times before I figured what it was – a device for sniffing pathogens in the air, like anthrax or ricin, and reporting back to headquarters, wherever they might be. The conspicuous presence of the box alarmed me a lot more than any of my previous thoughts of chemical and biological attack, and I was glad to see it gone a few days later – no doubt moved to another neighbourhood to put a small shiver down their spines (apparently these boxes cost $25,000 apiece and are consequently in rather short supply). So it is with all the blast shields and concrete barriers, security checkpoints, metal detectors, X-ray machines, and the new generation of “smart” video surveillance cameras, described, in rather too wide-eyed prose, by a reporter for The New York Times a couple of years ago: “Sophisticated new computer programs will immediately alert the police whenever anyone viewed by any of the cameras placed at buildings and other structures considered terrorist targets wanders aimlessly in circles, lingers outside a public building, pulls a car onto the shoulder of a highway, or leaves a package and walks away from it. Images of those people will be highlighted in colour at the city’s central monitoring station, allowing dispatchers to send police officers to the scene immediately.”

So, too, the TopOff (short for “top officials”) exercises, which are mounted by the Department of Homeland Security in order to prepare “first responders” to deal with a terrorist attack. These multi-million-dollar pieces of experimental street-theatre travel from city to city and involve actors, dripping stage blood, stumbling around among overturned vehicles, corpses wearing “Role Player” sashes, blazing tyres, broken glass, severed water mains and the rest of the horror-show scenery.

Such measures are here, we’re told, to keep us safe–and also to scare our socks off. For the unique power of this administration depends on Americans staying frightened of another September 11 – or worse. Every actual terrorist event – the Bali bombing, the Madrid train bombings, the London Tube and bus bombings, the Mumbai train bombings, the 10 August revelation of the alleged London-and-High-Wycombe plot to down transatlantic airliners – strengthens the presidency’s hand against the other two government branches. The first American consequence of the news from London last month was the announcement by Alberto Gonzales, the US Attorney General, that the administration would stand firm on military tribunals – otherwise, kangaroo courts – at Guantanamo, in the face of the latest Supreme Court ruling in its disfavour.

The reality of terrorism and the manufactured illusion of terrorism now bleed seamlessly into one another. The sporadic attacks launched by real terrorists have so far been insufficient to keep the attention-deficit-prone electorate in lockstep with the presidency, so phantoms have to be continually summoned from the deep in order to juice-up the fear level and justify administration policies. When facts fail, fiction is always at hand to fill the breach, and White House speechwriters appear to believe that no story is as good as an old story retold, however slender its basis. Just last week President Bush, speaking to a captive audience of veterans at an American Legion convention in Salt Lake City, said once again that Iraq “is the central front in our fight against terrorism… If we give up the fight in the streets of Baghdad, we will face the terrorists in the streets of our own cities.”

“The terrorists” used once to mean the dubious entity of al-Qa’ida. Now it’s an umbrella term, spread ever wider to shelter an astonishing variety of administration-designated bad guys: Hamas, Hizbollah, Kashmiri separatists, the Taliban, Ba’athist insurgents, Sunni jihadists, the Mahdi Army, the governments of Iran, Syria, North Korea. It’s like Falstaff conjuring ever greater numbers of enemies heroically fought off: two, four, seven, 11 men in buckram… So Bush multiplies terrorists, and counts them by the million. Now they surround us on every flank and quarter, and if we don’t fight them abroad (the traditional resort of domestically weak presidencies), we’ll find ourselves combating them, hand to hand, on Walnut and Jackson in our own home town.

Nowhere is the ambition of this administration so eloquently displayed as in the peculiar institution of Guantanamo Bay, which is the very model (to loosely quote WS Gilbert) of a modern military dictatorship. Bush, who, in the 2000 presidential debates denounced the idea of “nation building”, has, at Guantanamo, constructed a tiny offshore statelet, answerable to no laws except those dictated by the White House and its military and intelligence agencies. Here is detention without charge, trial, or access to lawyers. Here – by all accounts – the line between legitimate interrogation and torture has repeatedly been crossed. Here is one small world that, in every ascertainable particular, is the polar opposite of the United States as the founders conceived the nation: no checks or balances, no Bill of Rights, nothing except the unbridled exercise of executive-branch power.

The administration has treated Guantanamo as an exceedingly precious possession, tigerishly protecting it from the intrusions of the judiciary. Time and again, the Supreme Court has ruled, or tried to rule, that the camp’s detainees have rights under American law. Time and again, the Attorney General and his crew of adminstration lawyers have managed to find an escape route in the small print of the ruling. On each occasion, Bush loyalists, in Congress and elsewhere, have angrily denounced both the judgment and the judges who formed the “liberal” majority in the court. In March this year, the recently retired Supreme Court justice, Sandra Day O’Connor (herself a Republican and a Reagan appointee to the court) warned that such attacks could be seen as the first signs of a slide into dictatorship. As Nina Totenberg, the legal correspondent of National Public Radio reported: “Pointing to the experiences of developing countries and former Communist countries where interference with an independent judiciary has allowed dictatorship to flourish, O’Connor said we must be ever-vigilant against those who would strongarm the judiciary into adopting their preferred policies. It takes a lot of degeneration before a country falls into dictatorship, she said, but we should avoid these ends by avoiding these beginnings.”

Coming from a middle-of-the-road Supreme Court justice, this was a remarkable measure of the extremity of these times, articulating as it did the fear of many Americans that the United States under the Bush administration is inching towards the kind of regime on view at Guantanamo Bay.

Warrantless wiretapping, detention without trial, the most secretive presidency on record, rupture between the branches of government… Terrorism has supplied the pretext for all of this, but none of it has flowed inevitably from the events of September 11. “Mass murder” was the President’s first call on that appalling day, and had the jihadists continued to be treated as mass murderers, the United States would have retained the warm sympathy and enthusiastic cooperation of the rest of the civilised world. But the administration, supported by a loyal Republican majority in Congress, and armed with the carte blanche of AUMF, chose another far more dangerous, lonely and audacious route.

Five years on, we’re mired in the bloody wreckage of Iraq (and the rising chaos of Afghanistan). The US is increasingly isolated from its traditional allies. At home, Americans are more bitterly divided than at any time since the Civil War. A small but growing minority of Muslims are telling British pollsters that they admire the jihadists. Osama bin Laden is still free, making regular broadcasts to his followers. As the “global war on terror” has proceeded, governments – in Britain as in America – have erected around us all the necessary machinery of the security-and-surveillance state.

This is an anniversary so cheerless that any straw is worth clutching at. Here’s a straw: in the most recent polls, the number of Americans who believe that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the September 11 plot, which stood at 80 per cent in 2002, and 64 per cent early in 2005, has now slipped to the high twenties – roughly the same numbers, give or take a percentage point, as those of the conspiracy theorists who believe that the Bush administration planned the atrocities, or at least allowed them to happen, in order to further its imperial ambitions in the Middle East. Bush’s presidential rhetoric has never been so widely disbelieved. The fiction that in Iraq we’re fighting terrorists abroad to stop them attacking us at home is increasingly being recognised for what it is. The administration’s renewed efforts to conflate every militant Islamic organisation across the globe into a single homogeneous force, the terrifying equal of Nazism, fascism, and Soviet Communism, is at last beginning to ring hollow in the ears of a distinct majority of Americans. The President’s approval-ratings (between 36 per cent and 38 per cent last week) suggest that he is now very nearly down to his unshakeably faithful core base.

Were the Democrats to gain control of the House of Representatives and/or the Senate in the November mid-term elections (not very likely but certainly possible), that would at least restore the separation of powers, allowing a Democratic legislative branch to check and balance the Republican executive. Unless and until that happens, the Bush administration is likely to go on using the images and memories of September 11 to reinforce and justify the enormous boost of power it received on September 18. What further discord this turbocharged presidency may engineer here and in the larger world between now and January 2009 is the stuff of international bad dreams.

September 8, 2006

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