A Plea for Hysteria


US attitudes towards Iraq, both pro-war and anti-war, suffer from a distressing lack of hysteria about an event of vastly underestimated importance. The event was called 9-11.

9-11 didn’t just challenge America’s hegemony; it challenged its sovereignty. Sovereignty is what defines a state, and political philosophers generally agree that it involves at least one hard-nosed requirement: a monopoly on the use of force in a geographic area. States that meet this requirement may of course be illegitimate–perhaps most are–but they are still states.

Naturally the monopoly is never complete: even in Switzerland or Canada, there is lots of unauthorized violence. But the monopoly must be substantial. Switzerland or Canada could never suppress all the violence occuring within their borders, but they could suppress any particular instance of it if they tried hard enough: nobody could withstand the government authorities. And the basic feeling is that Switzerland or Canada can handle any serious violence–riots, mini-insurrections, gang wars–unless another state intervenes.

The attempts to portray 9-11 as a crime which the US has inflated into a geopolitical excuse are misguided. No crime of the sort judicial systems address has ever had such stature. A few more such attacks, and you would no longer have a sovereign state. Yet thousands of intelligence chiefs and rebel leaders all over the world must have said: “Hell, I could get twenty guys together with box cutters… .” And by now, they must be pretty damn sure they could get away with it, too. 9-11 raised a faint but distinct possibility that the US might, with bad enough luck, collapse, in years rather than decades. Even without post-A-bomb style disintegration, one wonders whether the economy would withstand three or four or twenty times more security and hunkering down.

I suspect everyone knows this, but perhaps they do not know they know it, or know that everyone knows it. It adds new meaning to “the whole world is watching.” Its simple lessons are better understood from the much-scorned perspective of adolescents than from the analyses of experts.

Think of America as a strutting street thug, a high-school dropout. Someone sneaks up on him, beats the crap out of him, and walks away. Our thug has lost respect. He swears up and down the block, to all his friends and enemies, that he knows exactly who did this–call them, say, the Mullah Omar and Osama Bin Laden–and he will get them, good. He gets a few buddies together and strides into the hostile home turf of his enemies. He yells a lot, he talks trash, he breaks down a few doors, stomps through some houses, beats on a few scrawny punks and a few bystanders … but no Mullah Omar or Bin Laden.

People are starting to laugh at him, and not only behind his back. Bin Laden is taunting him. He has lost respect. Since he has always claimed to be the toughest of the tough, and made many enemies, if he doesn’t regain it, he may get worse than a beating. His survival may be at stake. Respect is everything: he cannot fight off all his enemies if they lose their fear of him. So he has to do serious damage to someone, anyone–it’s not the same as getting Bin Laden, but it’s the best he can do. How about this Saddam Hussein guy?

And that’s why the US is invading Iraq. Is it why the US thinks it’s invading Iraq? I have no idea. People delude themselves even in secret meetings. But the US can muscle its way into any oil goodies it wants without war, and it does not need to cow an Arab world already cowed almost into the ground. It doesn’t need to get anything, and it won’t; Iraq is a can of worms. It needs to prove something, the same thing the thug needs to prove; its ferocity and aggressiveness. Iraq is really the only place it can do this, because Saddam Hussein is the goldilocks’ choice of enemies: not too powerful, like North Korea, not too weak, like Libya, but just right, and an international pariah to boot.

Much of this is quite reasonable. Why shouldn’t the US try to survive? (No matter what it has to atone for, it can’t do it in pieces.) Why shouldn’t it do whatever it takes to make all those intelligence chiefs and anti-American movements scared again? But it’s too reasonable, not nearly hysterical enough. The US thinks, consciously or unconsciously, that it has room to breathe, that it can put on a show of force and its enemies will cower. It thinks, let Bin Laden laugh; his turn will still come.

But our turn may come first. Before 9-11, no one, with the possible exception of Bin Laden, dreamed 9-11 was possible. (Personally, I think he was stunned: who could count on four planes even taking off on time?) Now everyone knows it is. How many people will try to follow it? to top it? And what if they succeed? People who worry about the disintegration of Iraq should wonder what the disintegraton of the United States would look like or, short of that, a United States many times more raging and desperate than it is today. No one should welcome the prospect.

And that’s just why what the US needs right now is more and better hysteria. You might be forgiven for thinking that the US is hysterical enough already. But it isn’t scared enough about the right things. What the US really experiences today is structured, petulant paranoia, alternating between the vindictive, obviously ineffective persecution of minorities and trips to the hardware store. If the US could really face the extent of its vulnerability, it wouldn’t be playing with its color-coded alerts or bullying a basket-case dictatorship. It would obsess, day and night, about its real enemies and its really catastrophic humiliation. It would be in a veritable panic to make good on its vow to get Bin Laden and the Mullah Omar, as well as root out their allies. It would realize that the reason it has failed to get them is simply that it isn’t strong enough.

This is the central fact of the post-9-11 world, and it is only by denying it that the US staves off salutary hysteria. A strong country, having found that a few white folks with Afghan cannon fodder won’t do the job, would have sent maybe half a million troops into Afghanistan and, with or without permission, into Pakistan. These troops would have had to fight, on the ground, and many thousands of them, perhaps, would die. One can hardly imagine the US even contemplating such action.

US weakness is also manifest in its strategies, or rather in the strategies it pretends to itself it is following. Whatever the administration may believe, the push against Iraq does not implement a policy of pre-emptive strikes against potential threats, because such a policy would focus on the biggest threats first, or at least on substantial ones over insubstantial ones. Iraq isn’t any substantial threat to the United States. And the US, it is clear, would never dare to implement such a policy against serious potential threats, like North Korea or China. The US is too weak to do that, and it doesn’t want to admit it, even to itself.

Were the US to realize just how weak it is, it be scared enough to take the measures it really needs to take for its own survival. It would understand that it cannot do without genuinely useful allies–not British twits, or Israeli goons who are happy to drag America down with them.(*) The allies it needs are not simply governments. They are the people, not everyone but many of them, who live in predominantly Muslim countries like Pakistan, Iran, Indonesia, Egypt, Syria, Jordan (who first warned the US about 9-11-style attacks), the Gulf States, and Turkey. With substantial popular support, the governments of these countries could and would destroy violently anti-American terrorist organizations; without such support they cannot. And for enough people to become inclined to oppose, not fundamentalism, but anti-American terrorism, there would of course have to be a huge shift of sentiment in the Islamic world. The only thing that could bring this about would be an equally huge shift in US policy. The only thing that could stop anti-American terrorism would be American opposition to Israel.

MICHAEL NEUMANN is a professor of philosophy at Trent University in Ontario, Canada. Neumann’s book What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche has just been republished by Broadview Press. He can be reached at: mneumann@trentu.ca

*Is the US invading Iraq to provide a smokescreen for Israel’s expulsion of the Palestinians? I’m amazed at the wild optimism of those who think Israel is so weak as to need a smokescreen, or indeed help, for anything it decides to do to in the occupied territories.

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