An Anniversary Card

If the war on terror is a war unlike any other, why are we fighting it the same way we fought the others?

9/11/02

My modest contribution to the 911 diary industry began a year ago on 9/12/01, and was initially posted to this web site on that date. Today, in spite of events I should follow in the news, I can not stand to watch the tv. Hearing it in the distance is like listening to the American media during the latter Clinton years. Yatta yatta yatta Monica Lewinsky yatta yatta yatta 911. The tale has devolved into pure repetition, too brainless to attend. The anthropological data is beyond redundant. We can mouth the platitudes along with the media commentators and politicians, like over-memorized elementary school poetry. I'll leave it to archivists to monitor the tv tonight, and take notes on the minutiae of the Bush gang’s frightening blitz to convert the pain of our 911 victims into a murderous grab for Iraqi oil. I think I've got the picture. I'll wait for the comic book.

Today I savored my September Harper’s, the liberal rag that is perhaps the only substantive voice confirming my sanity here in the hinterlands of darkest America. Mark Slouka’s “A Year Later” so closely resembles the stuff I wrote 24 hours after the event that if I put both transcripts together and hold them up to the light, the differences produce only a slight moiré pattern. It was nearly the same with parts of Kingsolver’s piece, except I am not a feminist and I am not hopeful. It’s lonely living apart from your time. The only thing in my headlights is events themselves, the unfolding of historical maya, and the insane effort to second guess it.

We are in Condition Orange, a national color-coded alert level which only its inventors understand or consult. The 911 anniversary is today. Those who have studied the terrorist mind know that this would be the perfect time for them to try another attack. They skipped New Year’s Eve on Times Square, the Fourth of July and the Birthday of Christ, so it is likely they will use today’s auspicious date to deliver their Message of Hate. The arch villain Osama might characteristically disrupt the Ground Zero ceremonies by rising up out of the New York sewers atop a gigantic rubber duck to spray us with West Nile Virus while Batman is over at the Pentagon. If you thought your tv meteorologist was making up stories, check out these guys.

Why would al-Qa’eda spend a dime to hit us again so soon? The World Trade Center hasn’t finished collapsing yet. Our society is coming apart so nicely that further attacks might be unnecessary.

The conviction of our unique preeminence in God’s Wonderful Plan is perfectly consistent with both the assumption that we are important to the “terrorists” and our willingness to unilaterally blow away thousands of innocent Iraqis to materialize the bloated fictions of the American myth. Only on American network television are we important to the terrorists. We are part of a larger metaphysical problem of godlessness and infidelity which has always been with them, and which they have always opposed. And we are also not so important to the deity that our national security or our very existence justifies the unprovoked mass murder we are about to commit, or that we will appropriate the power to shelter ourselves from present or future danger in this way.

The ceremonies in New York are, I’m sure, an orgy of solipsism. They will read the names yet again. They will interview the survivors, lionize the firefighters, dedicate statues and memorials. They will sing anthems and recite prayers. They will buttress and reaffirm and shore up and rebuild the colossal concern for themselves and their proprietary virtues that brought this first of many disasters upon them to start with. Will they read the names of the thousands of Nigerians killed last year in Muslim violence? Are they aware that these people even exist? No, but they're ready to set the world on fire for the sake of this handful of our innocent victims. Can you imagine what the Third World, long accustomed to slaughters infinitely more ghastly than 911, makes of our full year of self indulgent puling? American strength? I should probably be stoned for saying this, but we are acting like crybabies! Its a nasty god damn world out there. We helped make it. Now we have to grow up and live in it.

Here in Teletubbyland, most of us picture Iraq as an armed camp with the evil Saddam Hussein at its center and the evil Republican Guard in an evil circle around him. In fact Iraq is a fairly modern (if newly impoverished) society with mosques and schools and businesses, public airports, stores and factories, movies and stamp collectors and grocers and plumbers and parks and apartments and kids playing in front of their houses.* They all are loyal to their country and correctly understand America to be the cause of their economic ills. The proposal this week is to bomb our way through this circle of misguided patriots (the Iraqi people) and the evil Republican Guard and pluck out their top guy. Do a regime change. Get rid of the weapon-zo’-mass-destruction. Install a pro-Western democracy and then somehow patch everything back together with no hard feelings. I guess Iran will be next, and Libya, and Sudan and Syria, in order of the size of their oil reserves. It’s getting to be quite an extensive protectorate, but not, apparently, beyond the administrative skills of Cheney & Co., knowledgeable as they are in the art of empire building.

* An elementary school teacher interviewed in Bagdad was asked whether she had been
given a procedure to follow in case of an American attack. She said if the Americans
attacked during school hours she would try to get the children back to their homes.

If we run into any problems keeping all those diverse Islamics under control, we can always seek advice from our friends the Israelis. A country the size of Israel can accomplish a tightly organized police state, since (except for a confusing hybrid of “Arab-Israelis”) their society is already religiously homogeneous and small enough that their cities and settlements can be easily walled in. Even so, they are less safe than countries without enemies. They have decided that a state of constant, nerve-racking alert and an acceptable rate of bus bomb fatalities is a small price to pay for the luxury of belligerence.

Americans prefer living on the outsides of ghettos, so that is going to be a problem. The number of checkpoints that will be required to keep the ill will at bay is already staggering, and we have hardly begun to immerse ourselves in the sea of assassins up ahead. As the technology of terrorism ratchets inexorably upward to the really devastating car bombs of the future, we might start giving some thought to solving instead of aggravating the problem. It isn’t impossible, after all. Canada doesn’t have a problem. Denmark doesn’t have a problem. They can go wherever they wish without body cavity searches. Nobody is mad at them. We could do what they do.

I don’t know how to make this sound intelligent, but John Lennon was right. Love is the answer. Terrorism is hatred in motion, and love is the only antidote. There is nothing romantic or poetic or bleeding heart liberal about the idea. The Golden Rule is not urging you to be nice, it is warning you to be smart. The absence of enemies is what makes life in Costa Rica and Sweden and Holland and Australia and Czechoslovakia so much more safe and business-friendly than in places where everybody around you wishes you were gone. All a terrorist needs to stay dangerous is a grudge and a rock. Like coyotes, their response to eradication programs is to multiply. Live terrorists are the relatives of dead terrorists. You can’t cut a hole out of a blanket. Forget the weapons. There is no end of ammonium nitrate, and as Einstein accurately predicted, there is no keeping of nuclear secrets. It is the proliferation of people with anti-American issues that has to be addressed. How do we accomplish a reduction in the burgeoning numbers of those people by sending our death squads into their villages to make sure thousands more have personal reasons to despise us and work for our destruction? We are not going to make them afraid. They no longer care if they die.

The non informative character of the word terrorist lies in that it is intended as an invective rather than a useful definition of the species of modern Muslim guerilla fighter we are beginning to encounter. All warriors exist to terrify and kill. Today’s terrorist is somebody with burning issues and creative weaponry. There is no moral invective implied in my purely facetious use of the word. I am no student of warfare, so I don’t distinguish between combatants by measures of their relative legitimacy or the moral correctness of their methods of homicide. War is a necrosis whose parts don’t interest me.

We do, however, intend some distinction between “the terrorists” and what we perceive as an honorable tradition of soldiery, even apart from the fact that our dumbed down, funnybook brains would today vilify any enemy soldier as a terrorist. Their rules of engagement seem indiscriminate and unfair to us. (According to the western tradition, you don’t get to sack the city until after you have defeated its army.) The targeting of civilians, although all soldiers do it, is philosophically okay with them, and strikes us more as a cowardly intent than the isolated pathology of a Lieutenant Calley. So the distinction, if we might look at it dispassionately, is worth a look.

A Palestinian terrorist is not a species of soldier, i.e. he or she is not paid by a government to attack and defend. He is one who has acknowledged that it is the Israelis he hates, and not, by proxy, their soldiers only. (Osama bin Laden made this shocking declaration, that killing all Americans was okay because America was a democracy. He did not mean that he hated democracy, but more precisely that as a free people we stand responsible for our elected leaders and their deeds.) We hire soldiers to do our active hating for us, and to receive the active hatred of our adversaries. A terrorist is a kind of Luther in the Reformation of Modern Hatred. He is unwilling for the exchange of animosity to become an empty ritual, a performance reserved exclusively for a class of trained professionals. In his mind, every man is a priest of wrath, and none are innocent or sheltered from the duty of their blood. A terrorist is therefore not a soldier but a civilian warrior, a representative of his culture, mandated by no other imperative than to annihilate and punish the totality of his enemies, and not their hirelings and mercenaries only. His own probable immolation guarantees the purity of his deed and effects his transformation into the most fearful thing his foes can imagine - an unimpeachable agent of death for whom the ultimate deterrent of mutual assured destruction is both an acceptable bargain and his very technique of warfare.

Over time it is possible, believe it or not, to get people to like you and forgive you. The technology of peace is cheap and effective. People don’t strap explosives to their bodies and hurl themselves at you if they come from places where Peace Corps volunteers are projecting our best face and sharing the things we are actually uniquely good at to achieve all that universal dignity and prosperity we say we believe in. We look much less undignified when we are gracious and charitable and respectful than when we are surly and ignorant and defensive and terrified. More friends, fewer enemies, less crime, more love. It’s the path not taken, the road untried. It is a pleasant, inexpensive place we could try to get to that offers security, prosperity and spiritual peace.

*****