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The Terrorists Have Won: Reflections on a Lost Decade

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CANADIAN VICTIMS OF SEPT 11
AP

We live in a different country now. It is difficult to radically alter a nation's political discourse at every level, yet this is exactly what 9/11 accomplished.

We live in a country that remains unrecognizable from the (brief and somewhat superficial) flourishing of multicultural diversity, tolerance of newness and otherness, and rationality toward policy issues that prevailed in the 1990s. The legislative process, the political parties, the culture industry, higher education, and above all the economy are in an unimaginably distorted and skewed position relative to where they were before 9/11, with no end in sight. The only way "terrorists" or any entity was ever going to hurt America was if America hurt itself -- and in this task we Americans have succeeded beyond anyone's wildest imagination.

We live in a country of zero tolerance -- of humor, irony, wit, political incorrectness, self-deprecation, doubts about empire and exceptionalism -- in public discourse. The presidency has become mainly an instrument of rooting out the least bit of doubt about our own supernatural capabilities in a disorderly and unpredictable world. This can be viewed as a collective escape from the dilemma that was emerging in the late 1990s/early 2000s: how to deal with the rise of the rest of the world, the trainee countries of globalization who'd started overperforming, showing themselves better at the game of capitalist competitiveness than we were.

Terrorism solved this problem once and for all: henceforth, we wouldn't need to act rationally toward the shifting balance of power in the rest of the world, but would just focus on asserting our inherent superiority over and over. We would do this by hunting down individual terrorists beyond the means of law, for example, or by conducting on-the-ground or air warfare against countries suspected of being allied with terrorists -- all decided according to the flawless judgment of our hallowed leaders.

In other words, terrorism provided us with the opportunity for a dramatic revitalization of exceptionalist discourse. We were once again in complete charge of our destiny. In Bush's memorable words, the war was not started at our time of choosing, yet we would fight the long war in different places and at different times according to our own manner of choosing. Before that, we were confronted by a country destined to become minority white by the middle of the twenty-first century, a world that seemed hell-bent on internationalizing legal norms and seeking collective redress for wrongs past and present (ranging from debt forgiveness and reparations to easy availability of AIDS drugs in Africa).

We regained control of this wayward anti-hegemonic discourse by transforming the presidency into a means of imposing our exceptionalist writ over an unwilling world. It was very important to do so by codifying violations of international law with respect to conduct of war and treatment of prisoners, and by establishing zones of jurisdiction (Guantanamo, black sites) outside the reign of any norms except the decisions of unaccountable rulers (hidden at undisclosed locations).

We jerked ourselves free of the growing cosmopolitan/liberal discourse around the world by sinking into a positively medieval vocabulary, which is more or less where we remain today. The resurgence of explicitly medieval torture techniques and of fears about medieval diseases -- various forms of uncontainable plagues such as smallpox and anthrax, and yes, even literally the bubonic plague itself -- must be seen in this context; it is a discourse that is utterly impermeable to liberal analysis.

Hence, televised presidential debates have become contests over which candidate can most prove his or her complete allegiance to the medieval discourse (including denial of science, modern theories of economics, and a realistic international arena where sovereignty is always qualified to different degrees). The thoroughly refuted "ticking time bomb" scenario is a baseline to measure presidential power -- or illusion of power. Will you or will you not assassinate, torture, illegally imprison, deport, do whatever is necessary to prevent the absurd hypothesis from being realized? And no politician, of course, can take a dissident stand.

Terrorists didn't make any of this happen overnight. The groundwork was prepared going back to the second world war, in terms of our militarist aspirations. This had seeped into national consciousness over many decades, and doubts about our superiority in the difficult years of the cold war had finally been resolved after our "victory" over Soviet communism. In the ensuing decade, a fringe element -- the neoconservatives -- found fertile ground in constructing a Manichean black-and-white, good versus evil, project for the twenty-first century. McCain's "national greatness" campaign of 2000, endorsed by Bill Kristol and the Weekly Standard, was a benign reflection of this tendency, which later became malevolent.

America was to use its military prowess for full spectrum dominance -- only the precipitating excuse needed to be discovered, and they didn't have to wait long. Much of this talk about absolute dominance seemed pie-in-the-sky a decade ago, as indeed it is; and its intense unreality explains the degree to which recent war operations have been conducted as if on whimsy -- viz. Rumsfeld's decision to go into Iraq with skeletal forces, clearly not enough to subdue the country, because war itself, in the Pentagon's imagination, had undergone such a revolution that we would have to invest only perfunctory energies to conquer the foe, any foe of our choosing at any time.

So the preparations were in the works for a number of decades, the election of Reagan being a key milestone, and the end of the Soviet Union being another key one; class ideology had been delegitimized by the liberal elites, the media had entered their final stage of postmodern self-parody, lax educational standards had finally resulted in a dumbed-down, passive populace immune to the charms of active citizenship, the economy had been hollowed out by a globalization policy which didn't seek to redress growing income inequality, the New Deal was hanging on by a thread, and both political parties had converged toward versions of utopian bubble capitalism.

In short, the country was already in the midst of paranoia, delusion, unreality, myth, and fantasy before 9/11; the event just became the perfect accelerator for tendencies already clearly in evidence. This explains the incredible speed with which, say, Viet Dinh was able to formulate the Patriot Act -- similar provisions had been the subject of discussion during the Clinton administration, and advances toward the Patriot Act ideal had been made incrementally throughout the 1990s.

But at last the full template -- along with such fantasies as Total Information Awareness -- became resurgent in the imagination, and it is to this ideal of absolute surveillance -- full spectrum dominance of citizens, if you will -- that we bow since 9/11. Thus, government is supposed to be able to read every citizen's mind -- about any evil intention he or she might bear toward the state and its apparatuses -- or it has failed to do its job. The government, as in a medieval dystopia, is to react to intentions and thought processes, rather than evidence of actual actions -- thus chucking overboard almost a millennium of advances in human rights, whose first premise is that individuals cannot be preemptively judged.

It is a theology of power, in other words, that we're dealing with, and neither political party is in any position to challenge it. A deep-down moderate like Romney (or earlier McCain and Giuliani) has to adapt his rhetoric and actions to this theological discourse, or he has no chance of gaining traction in the Republican party; on the Democratic side too, the allegiance to the theology of absolute preemptive control applies in full force, only it is framed in somewhat more moderate aspirations of immediate victories on the battlefield or tactical advances in the endless fight against evil, rather than, say, George Bush's ambition in his second inaugural address to urgently end tyranny in the world.

One of the signal features of the 1990s was economic pragmatism, the reason why Bill Clinton never lost his popularity even in the midst of trumped-up scandal and media hysteria. Yet empires in their late phase, when they are losing relative economic power, have a difficult time confronting the inevitable movements toward irrationality. What Clintonian globalization was actually doing in the 1990s was giving away certain kinds of power in order to accumulate a different kind of power for the American empire -- it was a brilliant move with more than a touch of genius, but it required full elite participation, and it was always a delicate balance. The losers in globalization had to be convinced that the overall trend was still leaving them better off -- or that at least this would be true for future generations. In this sense, 9/11 was the death-knell of the rationalist, optimist strand in economic thinking, from which we have not begun to recover. This is the greatest casualty of 9/11, because in the absence of economic hope, tolerance toward newcomers and openness toward innovation remain only pipe dreams.

The medieval theology to which both major political parties are beholden, as a direct result of 9/11, has left us caught in an inescapable trap. In a sense, the Republicans are right about jobs -- although as usual they've carried a kernel of truth to the point of insanity -- that government doesn't ultimately create them. Well, of course it does, in the Keynesian short run, when demand is lagging and can only be made up by government intervention, and even in the longer run the government's role in a modern economy is indispensable and permanent and large. But it's the private economy that drives growth in the final analysis, and the things the private economy needs to do in order to regain its healthy functioning are disallowed by current discourse.

In the decade following 9/11, the economy became subservient to political discourse. What it needed, in order to keep growing, was continued large-scale immigration (at both the upper and lower skill levels), further integration with the world, minimal restriction on mobility and opportunity, new safeguards for privacy and autonomy, a reconceptualization of multiculturalism in economic terms, voluntary cuts in military power, preference for diplomacy over covert operations, and increased agreement with emerging global norms to deal with collective issues.

Instead, a drastic and irrevocable rupture occurred. The discourse became closed-minded, mean, petty, fearful, anti-intellectual, selfish, short-term, reactionary, cruel, and barbaric -- downright stupid and illiterate, which is where it mostly remains today. All the illegal paraphernalia of torture and detention and assassination were legitimized as indispensable; yet there comes a time when economic norms bend in the direction of political discourse, when the irrationality seeps into the economy as well.

This is one way to understand the mass illegalities in mortgage lending -- a parallel process was happening openly and transparently in the political realm, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo were fine, so what did it matter in banks and financial institutions? Financial instruments by themselves, no matter how complicated, are not at fault. It's a reductionist simplification to accuse financial instruments for the collapse, as though they were out-of-control demons no one understood or could manage in the end. Yet legitimate innovation merged into illegality and absurdity -- and partly this was because innovation was blocked off at its true sources and origins.

Perhaps the greatest reason for the economic collapse -- the most underestimated reason -- is that social norms hardened. If we make it difficult or impossible for smart (or merely hardworking) immigrants to immigrate, if we choke off the entry points, then at some point the results will be evident for all to see. Much of the innovation in information technology in the 1990s came from immigrants, as everyone knows. Yet under the current administration, it seems that ICE almost goes out of its way to punish educated immigrants who have been present in the country for a long period of time, cavalierly breaking up families, intact and healthy social units, for the sake of rectifying its own inept bureaucratic mistakes, or elevating petty technical violations to fatal issues of national security.

This is not coincidental, but a deep reflection of where we are in this late stage of national disintegration. We as a nation are making it a point to mete out the harshest possible punishment to the most educated and promising immigrants, whether they're of high school or college age and merely want to continue in school or get good jobs, or whether they're older immigrants who have already contributed significantly to this country's social capital. There are no technical errors in the new theological discourse. God -- or ICE or the State Department -- does not make errors.

So we have frozen innovation (all the energy is going into wars and "homeland security"), we equate immigrants with terrorists, we operate lawlessly by accelerating illegal wars in two or three countries at a time, we make internal mobility as difficult as possible with absurd screening at airports (again, to make sure there is never a single error, even if the restrictions help grind the economy to a halt), we make every kind of movement and opportunity subject to irrational whims and the greatest possible bureaucratic resistance, we take punishment of the working class's errors of judgment to the most extreme levels (making bankruptcy impossible even as financial institutions are allowed to maximize their opportunities to entangle people in debt), we achieve the highest-ever levels of income inequality, and we expect the economy to keep buzzing along, generating the same prosperity it did during the 1990s and earlier?

At some point, the whole delusion has to come to a stop, at some point the violent and irrational discourses merge and the space business and science and technology and culture and education require becomes impossible to grant, and the whole thing collapses.

And the theology of both parties forbids precisely the correctives that might return social life to normality. For instance, there must be zero tolerance on immigration (not a single immigrant should ever be allowed any form of forgiveness or amnesty, ever!), there must be no admission that some form of risk from terrorism has to be accepted as part of the normal order of business (despite knowing that zero tolerance injures the health of social and political interaction), and there must be no tolerance of any bad Chinese product ever entering our sacred soil or any realistic endorsement of globalization, since globalization has merged in the public's mind with the ease of travel and mobility that led to 9/11 or can lead to other catastrophes like SARS and dirty bombs and other nightmarish visions of apocalypse.

Never in their wildest imaginations could the terrorists -- and who, in the end, are they, except flimsy fabrications in an impenetrable global network of empire? -- have ever imagined that the country would turn on itself, its most precious values, precisely the things that made it great, to the extent that in ten short years it would become a ruin of its past glories (yes, much of this was real, despite our national failings on race and class). We needed, at a crucial turning point at the start of the millennium, extremely intelligent leadership to guide us to the next stage of global cosmopolitanism. Instead, endlessly reactive, we persist in a low-grade mean fascistic fever, ever prone to instant escalation to high fever (the proverbial red alert) at the least prompting of the next demagogue to come along, whether it's Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann or some other medieval inquisitor yet to find his or her way to the media megaphone.

We are caught in the darkest bunker hole of Bush and Cheney's imagination (they won!), and there is no known escape. The terrorists have already gone home, their job is done, the lights are dimmed, and even the computers are turned off. Meanwhile, we "commemorate" 9/11 as a crucial element in the mythology of national greatness, while the perverse psychological reactions set off by this inglorious event define and mold us for the future. It is actually the worst disaster to have ever befallen this once sweet and mostly harmless nation of individualists and entrepreneurs and freethinkers and pragmatists and eccentrics.

Anis Shivani is the author of My Tranquil War and Other Poems (forthcoming, 2012), Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies (Nov. 2011), The Fifth Lash and Other Stories (forthcoming, 2012), and Anatolia and Other Stories (2009).