Will Democracy Come to the USA?

In what must count as one of the most perplexing forms of political correctness yet, US football commentators recently announced that in the wake of the WTC bombings they will remove all the militaristic and violent metaphors which normally saturate their narration of the game. The New York Times reports that the major television networks have discussed an approach to language that will avoid the war metaphors prevalent in football and are planning productions that will mute or eliminate percussive graphics, blaring music and animated football robots. That this is occurring at the same time as the US government prepares itself for a huge demonstration of military might against Afghanistan, and potentially any other country who is ‘against us’, as President Bush put it, represents the bizarre split between the internal policies of the United States and its engagement with the outside world. Caught between a very real trauma and the absence of satisfactory explanations for the attack on the WTC, it is perhaps understandable that the majority of US citizens have gathered to endorse the actions of their barely legitimised president, even if his premature call to war seems directionless from even the most generous of perspectives. Polls show nearly 90 per cent electoral support for Bush, while his ‘with us or against us’ speech of 21 September received almost unanimous endorsement from Congress and the mainstream media. Yet this internal coherence masks an increasingly anti-democratic trend within the United States itself.

The massive support for Bush has generally been understood as having a historical precedent in the sense that ‘US citizens always unite in times of war’. Putting aside debates about what kind of war this really is, it is important to recognise the potential dangers that lie behind this apparent unity. To state it bluntly, the principle of democracy said to be under siege from terrorism is itself rapidly being undermined in the United States. Since the attacks the already narrow space in US politics for liberal or dissenting thought has been further reduced through various devices. Firstly, through the lack of critical scrutiny by the mainstream media of the actions and statements of the US government. Secondly, in the work of conservative thinkers who have used the tragedy to attack both Left traditions in the United States and contemporary anti-globalisation forces. Thirdly, the attempt to counter terrorism by strengthening governmental surveillance and arrest powers to unthinkable levels. Importantly, the way the United States as a state is seeking legitimation through the notion of ‘security’ also works to enact a depoliticisation of the state itself.

John Leonard was largely accurate when he described the shortcomings of the US media’s representation of the war on terrorism as the ‘lack of any meaningful dissent from the tom-toms’. Certainly, there has been no shortage of gung-ho advocates for Bush’s war. On the Fox news channel Bill O’Reilly pleaded for the US government to ‘bomb the Afghan infrastructure back to rubble’, and also called for Iraq and Libya to be bombed for good measure. But more depressing than such aggressive posturing is the almost complete lack of critical distance shown by the mainstream US media. On the David Letterman Show, legendary CBS news anchorman Dan Rather said of Bush: ‘[He’s] the president, he makes the decisions … wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where. And he’ll make the call’. With sentiments like this, and Dan Rather is merely representative, there is no need for the government to impose the kind of media restrictions used in the Gulf War.

This lack of space for dissent makes it easy for the political Right to attack those who have dared to question US policy. Under the conditions established by the almost uniform media coverage of the terrorist attacks and their aftermath, even the mildest call for debate can be pilloried as ‘anti-American’. For instance, David Horowitz in ‘Bin Laden’s American Blood Brothers’ (salon.com) denounces the entire critical left tradition as simply a ‘privileged radical’s view of America — their facile defamation of our country’s power and wealth, their ready appeasement of our mortal enemies …’ He goes on to blame the Left for enabling the recent terrorism to manifest itself. Hence it was ‘liberal self-hatred masquerading as a concern for human rights [which] was the primary reason why it was so easy for a complicated and lethal attack to be planned and carried out without coming to the attention of American intelligence agencies’.

Similarly, a wide-ranging piece in the New Republic by Peter Beinhart manages to indict everyone — from French farmer and activist Jose Bove, to Michael Hardt and Toni Negri’s new book Empire — for creating the conditions which led to terrorism. Beinhart calls for a halt to planned anti-globalisation demonstrations in Washington, and argues the time has come for the anti-globalisation movement to choose sides. ‘[D]omestic political dissent is [now] immoral without a prior statement of national solidarity.’

Such statements echo Bush’s ‘with us or against us’ speech. They effectively close the democratic practices they purport to protect. Even mild questions, such as concerns about repeating the mistakes of the past — as when Dick Cheney suggests putting on the payroll ‘the dark side’ of humanity in order to fight terrorism — are ruled out within a discourse that subsumes all criticism under a call for national unity.

The lack of critical dissent within the mainstream media has also helped create the ground for a different kind of assault on democracy, the creation of laws which grant enormous surveillance and arrest powers to law enforcement agencies. The Combatting of Terrorism Act currently being fast-tracked through both houses of government gives the executive branch the power to engage in warfare without the need to obtain congressional approval, which as Joel Skoussen argues, creates powers ‘which the founders of this nation would have vigorously rejected’. Compare the entire year it took to pass Clinton’s anti-terrorism bill after the 1988 bombing of US embassies in East Africa to the present legislation, which may be passed within a few weeks of the attack on the WTC. Other aspects of this legislation relax the restrictions on obtaining access to private e-mail and internet use, and expand the conditions where wiretapping is legally acceptable. In addition, non-US citizens suspected of involvement with terrorist activities will be able to be detained without a court order.

It is unlikely that any of the new laws being proposed would have prevented the acts of 11 September. Certainly, if passed they will restrict the civil liberties of those residing in the United States. But there is another potential consequence: in expanding legal/governmental power to new levels, the government may well provoke the activity of terrorist groups within the United States. The militia and anti-government groups that rose to such prominence in the 1990s may gain increased membership as the things they oppose — big government and the loss of civil liberties — are strengthened in an attempt to prevent foreign terrorism.

The Bush administration’s pledge to ensure the nation’s security has larger implications for state democracy beyond these specific instances. Extending the logic of the ‘war on terrorism’ and considering the support from other Western nations, we arrive at a situation where security becomes the basic principle of state activity and the primary criterion of political legitimation. This has the potential to create an endless cycle where security and terrorism form a symbiotic relationship, each legitimising the other (‘infinite justice’). Furthermore, as Giorgio Agamben has noted, and as we have already seen, the notion of security is predicated on a state of exception — that of the state which must be secured. Constituting this exception enacts the depoliticisation of society, and is anathema to democracy, rather than consistent with it.

Simon Cooper is an Arena Publications editor.

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