Remembering the American 9/11
The following essay was written on October 8, 2001, and originally posted here on ed-rex.com. It was somehow lost during the site's evolution, but I managed to recover it thanks to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine, god bless its cybernetic soul, and where you can still find a facsimile of the original, in all of its primitive glory. More details about the essay's origins and rescue are here.
2001: The End of History?
September 11 - Everything Isn't Different
October 8, 2001, TORONTO — October's brief days are cut by hard, cold light, the nights by cold rains promising winter; nervous managers acknowledge the hysteria of the dot-com boom and send employees into the streets by the tens of thousands. And meanwhile, the drums of war throb in the electronic background of your life and mine; in the moral aftermath of New York, the smug sanctimony of George W. Bush - the blood of retarded children suddenly washed clean and forgotten - beams out as a siren-call of Hope for Western Civilization. Suddenly, death having ravaged the heretofore untouched bounds of the North American illusion, bloody outrage is disguised as frightened morality; cruel vengeance is demanded by a populace that still does not believe any future killing will occur closer than the phosphorescent vapours on their expensive colour television sets or as .jpg files to furtively download during sleepless, nervous nights.
"This time, they've gone too far," said one friend, only days after September 11. A battle between Western liberty and oriental despotism; a war against terrorism. The usual arguments are propounded: we must surrender our Liberty (how much can be decided later, by journalists and politicians and policemen; already earnest hands regret the excesses to come, warning against the arrant citizens who might take exception to a dark face or, worse, a covered one, while dipping pens in inkwells of the left and right in their hurry to arm the police and soldiers with more money, more wiretaps and intercepted email while urging mere citizens to understand that Identity Cards and genetic testing will not be abused, that such measures are necessary, that our governments are to be trusted (always), if we are keep the far more important freedoms than conscience or protest - that we may once again conveniently take to the skies and that truckloads of cigarettes and munitions and oil can cross our border with efficient impunity.
"terrorism: the systematic use of terror esp as a means of coercion"
— Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition
After a month of diplomacy and propaganda, the counter-attack has begun. Backed by such comrades in arms, beacons of democracy and Western values like Afghanistan's Northern Alliance, Russia and Pakistan, along with the usual NATO suspects, the United States rained missiles and bombs on a country the CBC reported to have 12 miles of functioning railroad tracks. The War Against Terrorism has begun in earnest; we are reminded it is not a war against Islam, or even against the Afghani people; rather, it is a war "against terrorism", specifically, against "al-Qaeda terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan," according to this morning's Globe and Mail.
That truth is the first victim of war is a long-established truism, but the specific truth being trampled upon in the patriotic rush to support the American action - that this is a war against a set of terrorists who had the effrontery to kill Americans on American soil - masks a lie that was nearly as widespread prior to the 11th of September. Namely, that to judge us by our words and actions, we North Americans don't really give a shit about terrorism or terrorists - indeed, we tacitly support it and have done so for decades.
Off the top of my head and going back only 30 or so years, the United States government has directly or indirectly been responsible for: the indiscriminate bombing of civilians in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos; death squads in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and Chile; the overthrow of (often democratically elected) governments in many of the above-noted countries as well as Greece, Indonesia and the Philippines. Sadam Hussein, Manuel Noriega and the Taliban themselves were all at one time or another clients of the United States.
But this isn't meant to be a history lesson. Nevertheless, an awareness of history is necessary to understand what is happening now and why the "war on terrorism" will fail, though the present Afghan regime will likely fall - to be replaced by another gang of barely-literate, Koran-thumping thugs who will doubtless show as much gratitude for their Western partners as the aforementioned Manuel Noriega or the Albanian nationalists in what was once the Yugoslav Republic of Kosovo.
And meanwhile, despite the rhetoric, there is no true understanding that an Afghani peasant's life is, in fact just as valuable as a New York secretary's. To the West the truth is just the opposite: the Afghans are dirty and poor and ignorant; they are dark-skinned, speak a different religion and don't, quite, pray to the same God; and they are very far away. No handicam-totting doctor's video will show up on CNN when the last apartment block in Kabul explodes in a blast of rubble and bodies. No blood-drives will distract us from lunch for those people.
The point is: there is no moral high ground in the present situation. (Well, arguably, there is one; of which more anon.) "We" are at war, not to "end terrorism", but to end terrorism that threatens us. And so, thuggish dictators in the region will be wrapped in the embrace of imperial pragmatism; and so, Islamic fundamentalism will be squashed harder, making inevitable the emergence of more "terrorists", to surprise us, a year, or five, after the Taliban have been chased into the mountains of Central Asia.
The defeat of the Taliban regime will be neither moral nor even, pragmatically, a victory; the psychology of this war is the same that has been fighting the "war on drugs" for the past 30 years. In this "war", too, particularly problematic actors will be chased down, with occasional, very publicized successes, while others will be trained and financed to act as our agents until they, too, are declared "terrorists", whether because they have turned on the hand that bred them, or because they have simply become too much of an embarrassment.
Meanwhile, here at home, our so-called intelligentsia reveals its fundamental insecurity, its shame that we are not, after all, citizens of the United States of America. Our borders are too porous - the terrorists used Canada to enter the United States! We must give up control of our borders to those American authorities who allowed them to live and work and train to become pilots south of the 49th parallel; we must issue mandatory identification cards; our Prime Minister is an embarrassment because he has not also announced the falling of the sky.
All that has changed is our naivety, now replaced by an all too familiar tribal urge to band together against the Other; if that means innocents in other lands must suffer, so be it. If that means we must now put away our freedom of conscience, so be it - bring on the identity cards, allow the police to tap phones, open mail and intercept email with impunity! If we must surrender some, lesser freedoms, in order to safeguard the more important right to shop with impunity, so be it.
Welcome to the 21st Century indeed. Welcome to the end of history and, apparently, to the end of irony, also.