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The Terrorist Syndrome

Paul James: Mainstream Western responses to global violence involve disturbing reassertions of nationalistic parochialism.

We are all struggling with how to respond to the attack on New York and Washington. At least in the first few days afterwards it was understandable that the recorders of this ‘day of infamy’ resorted to iconic images, clichés and apocalyptic prose. It was an awful day. Surpassing the images of Independence Day and Armageddon, and going beyond the ‘reality’ of Hollywood special effects and cinematic thrill-rides, mass death moved onto the streets where actual people work. It was nothing less than an act of shocking terror.

Americans have long watched from a distance as living persons have been terror-bombed in towns such as Beirut, Belfast, and Nairobi, or in Hiroshima (1945), Hanoi and Haiphong (1972), Tripoli (1986), Baghdad (1991), Basra (1999) and Belgrade (1999). However, this time it has come home with a vengeance. Just listing a few of the cases brings home the issue in a second way. All of the instances listed from Hiroshima to Belgrade involved US forces conducting acts of terror from a distance against a US-defined evil Other. In all cases the US government knew that civilians would probably die, and in all cases they argued that it was simply necessary.

If news commentary and letters to the paper are anything to go by, even by mentioning the fact that the United States has itself acted as purveyor of terror, I will be immediately taken out of context and wrongly assumed to be saying that the 11 September attack was the deserved outcome of a history that goes back decades. Not so. Nobody deserves to be terrorised. Rather, my sympathy lies with the thousands of demonstrators who marched through New York City on the weekend after the terror, concerned about the plans of the US government.

What I am saying, firstly, is that nothing excuses acts of barbarism, but secondly, that barbarism knows no boundaries of proclaimed good and evil. As George W. Bush declares war on a network nobody is sure was involved, and as the missiles begin to hit Afghanistan, it is possible that the terror we have already experienced will be repeated and repeated across the globe. Afghanistan may be only the beginning. The obscenely named Operation Infinite Justice opened the possibility of self-confirming, escalating hostilities from both sides. That it has hastily been renamed Operation Enduring Freedom underscores the Nineteen Eighty-Four Ministry-of-Love-style use of language. This is not a comic-tragic naming in the way the strategic invasion in 1983 of peaceful little Grenada by a handful of Ronald Reagan’s crack troops was called Operation Urgent Fury. This time, unless the current direction changes radically, it will involve the tragic undermining of freedom — perhaps with a glimmer of positive rethinking of US policy towards Israel and Palestine.

Operation Enduring Freedom opens the possibility of a globally continuous state-of-war in which the enemy is both abstract entity (terrorism) and particularised ‘evil’ Other (bin Laden, with new figures of evil named as the situation unfolds). We find ourselves in a ‘post-war’ condition where the enemy no longer carries the status of national sovereignty or national territory; where the targets are defined on the run and the theatre of operation can be named without justifying evidence; where the state-at-war can rename the terms and conditions of a post-liberal society of hyper-surveillance; and where fine risk assessment and increased insecurity are two sides of the same coin.

Despite this real possibility of a horrific new kind of postnational state of war, it has supposedly become unpatriotic to doubt that American military action is both necessary and just. The rubbish that has been reported in the press is extraordinary.

Why, at a time when war seems to be going beyond old-fashioned nation-state conflict, is criticism defined in nationalist terms as un-American, or even un-Australian? Understanding the mainstream response to the attacks takes us deep into the heart of Middle America. On Saturday night, one week after the attack, the world watched as Hollywood and MTV mourned the tragic loss of life that occurred in attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon. The program, a telethon fundraiser entitled America: A Tribute to Heroes, was broadcast to 210 countries. Tom Hanks, boy-next-door and star of Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster war movie Saving Private Ryan, opened the evening in a low-key manner. He named the brave souls who reacted to the hijacking of Flight 93 and intoned their last words, ‘We’re going to have to do something’. Celine Dion sang ‘God Bless America’. The evening ended with the now iconic video-image of the US flag flying silently over the debris of the collapsed towers. No commentary. No introductions. No credits. It was almost moving.

I wanted to mourn, but throughout the entire program there was not an off-key note, not an unscripted moment that called for self-reflection about the consequences of massing a war machine to strike at an unverified enemy. Perhaps my response is unfair given that it was a ‘tribute’, but unfortunately the unease was confirmed at every turn by the words of the mourners. Clint Eastwood, affecting the same expression he wore in In the Line of Fire (1993) spoke with gravelly intensity about ‘ultimate triumph’:

It was the twenty-first century’s day of infamy. It was a day that will live in the annals of courage and patriotism. Tonight we pay tribute to those who were lost and those who survived the fire and the fate that rained down upon them, and the heroes at ground zero who had life and death wear an indelible badge of honour. We celebrate not only them, but all our fellow Americans, for the intended victims of this attack were not just on the planes, and at the Pentagon, the World Trade Centre. They were wherever else they roam the sky. The targets were not just the symbols of America but they were the spirit of America. And the intended victims were all three-hundred million of us. The terrorists foresaw a nation fearful, doubtful, ready to retreat. Oh, they left us wounded, but renewed in strength. And we’ll stand and will not yield. The terrorists who wanted three hundred million victims, instead are going to get three hundred million heroes, three hundred million Americans with broken hearts, unbreakable hopes for our country and our future. In the conflict that’s come upon us, we’re determined as our parents and our grandparents were before us to win through the ultimate triumph — so help us God.

By a generalising shift, expressed first in the words of US politicians, it becomes an attack on all of us, an attack upon civilisation. Doubt has become unpatriotic because the nation of America feels that any disloyalty begets social disintegration. This is the response of an insecure nation undergoing change. In this context, only clichéd reversions to the Manichean Cold War rhetoric of the kind ‘if you’re not with us, you’re against us’ seem adequate to the momentousness of the new situation. America: A Tribute to Heroes, Clint Eastwood’s set-piece and Celine Dion’s rousing and sentimental rendition of ‘God Bless America’ take us into the fears of mainstream American culture. They also take us back to an earlier filmic attempt to understand a different war — the film Deer Hunter (1978): the war, Vietnam. The last scene of Michael Cimino’s film closes on a few friends in a small Pennsylvania town pub trying to make sense of their ravaged lives. In wan unison, but growing in volume, they sing ‘God Bless America’. The final scene is stopped in freeze-frame as they raise their glasses in hope. As the video cover says, ‘it’s more than a requiem for their dead comrades; it’s an anthem for a living American tradition of making mistakes, rueing them and starting afresh’. America, the land of the brave and the free, having forgotten the lessons of that war, redefines itself yet again as the land of transcendent promise.

It is significant that Vietnam is the one war that cannot be named at this time. The concept of the ‘Vietnam syndrome’ originally referred to the pathology of a nation that believed itself to have lost the war out of weakness of will. However, in the years since that war, the concept, if remembered, has taken on a new reality. Rather than it being pathological to be obsessed by weakness, it is now necessary never to be weak. It has been renamed in terms of what has long been called ‘American exceptionalism’. Richard Nixon wrote an entire book claiming that America really won the war — it lost the peace, he said. And dozens of popular cultural moments in the meantime have confirmed this sense. During the TWA hostage crisis in 1985, President Reagan quipped into the microphone during a sound test that ‘… after seeing Rambo last night, I know what to do next time’. Life and fictional renditions intermingle. In these times, when the rules of war are being rewritten, the mainstream American sense of its own exceptionalism is continuous with the past. There are lots of counter-examples to these themes, but it can be argued that they continue to dominate mainstream thinking and practice. One continuing theme involves a ‘mythical tribute’ to the regeneration of peace through violence. It is the peace that always comes after the conflict, like the freeze-frame at the end of Deer Hunter or Three Kings. From the Indian wars, the War of Independence to Vietnam and Kosovo, ‘peace’ is always the backgrounded but transcendental moment that links the community of fate across time. A second theme is the essential virtue of acting to defend Truth, Infinite Justice and the (American) Way. Defence always requires action. Despite the failings (or heroism) of any one particular individual or institution in the United States, or even of the state itself, there is always an active figure of redemption. President Bush knows that he might be making a mistake in the particularities of his actions, but (connecting the two themes) given that an outsider has cut across the peace of the community of fate, he has no choice but to act. He will be forgiven for acting wrongly, but not for acquiescing to an outsider’s attack on American soil.

This brings us to a third theme, the ambiguity of an abiding sense of home soil and the projection of a frontier that has no boundaries. Having its roots in an expansionist ideology called the doctrine of Manifest Destiny first proclaimed in 1845, American national interest has long been defined in terms that treated extensions of its frontier as part of its civilising mission. With the first two themes we can, for example, rewrite them with Australian examples from Gallipoli to the doctrine of ‘forward defence’. However, with this third theme of sacred soil/extended frontier the United States has an accentuated fear of the unbounded movements of others that goes beyond the fears that even mainstream Australia has evinced recently over the Tampa refugee crisis. The old domino theory and the necessity of defending the world against communists in Vietnam, was reborn against drug runners in Panama, against Arab expansionists in Iraq, and now against terrorists in Afghanistan. Australia follows the United States into crusades (sorry, I should not use that term ‘crusades’ any more). By contrast the government feels that it simply has to be there. Notwithstanding the occasional recurrences of American ‘isolationism’, the norm is for US leaders to feel an overriding pressure to act in the world.

One way of carrying this baggage of the past into the new global disorder has been to project violence from a distance. The US war-machine has increasingly been remade around weapons of mass projection. The only lesson learned from Vietnam was not to get so many young compatriots killed and wounded: 58,000 Americans dead and 300,000 wounded. We should also remember that over one million Vietnamese died. Working forwards from the bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, weapons of mass projection are defended as increasingly calibrated responses, precisely targeted, and directed as much against infrastructure as against personnel. Many Americans know from the long-term effects in Iraq and Kosovo that people continue to die long after the projection of terror has stopped; however the political decision-makers equally know that the destruction of ways of life is quickly submerged in the complexity of immediate events.

With the attack on New York and Washington, cultures and structures continuous with the past have been overlaid by something new. The United States has been attacked by a group of people who apparently have no home and no name. Moreover, they are persons prepared to put their bodies on the line. It means that the abstract war-machine projecting power from a distance will not in itself work. In one respect the coming war means going back to days of Vietnam when Americans too died in embodied combat. In other respects, as I have been concerned to say, we are in new and changing territory. Despite all the facile suggestions that Bush has shown intelligence and restraint — mostly because he does not know what to do as winter comes to Afghanistan and it becomes obvious that a cruise-missile solution will not work — we face a ‘war’ of secret missions closed even to the managed scrutiny of the world’s media, a combination of strategic abstract strikes and brutal embodied incursions. In their pretensions at least, they make up a totalising campaign that reneges on prior concerns about either Just War proportionality or the rights of those who have not been proven guilty.

A positive future will entail rethinking the mechanisms of global justice, including an international court of law and UN peace-keeping forces. It will entail nation-states rethinking their responsibility to the world. And it will entail a basic questioning of the culture of abstract global ‘peace’ that has brought us so much misery.

Paul James is an Arena Journal editor.