[This essay is an excerpt from SAUL LANDAU’s new book, The Preemptive Empire, published by Pluto Press.]
After 9/11, as much of the world recoiled in shock, the US media began to televise a stupefying loop of images of the infamous day, interrupted by information-bytes provided by the US government. It offered the tritest of historical context for the events. In the newspaper editorials and TV and radio commentaries, the pundits tended to suggest courses for immediate action as if terrorism had no antecedents. The president should immediately avenge the dirty deeds!
Few commented about the causes of the attacks or the significance of the President and Vice President going into hiding at that dramatic moment. Instead, TV news directors endlessly repeated the sci-fi like pictures of the burning tower one and the plane flying into tower two. Then came images of the Pentagon aflame. Citizens stared, mesmerized by the sight of the impossible, and shook their heads in disbelief.
TV directed the public to divide the images into good and evil. New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani took charge as a hero at the site of the catastrophe as Bush began to emerge from his two-day trance.
For most of the country, the virtual had become the real. Yet, the mass media did nothing to channel the population toward dialogue, much less reflection on the events themselves. Instead, TV elicited sympathy for the dead, praise for the heroes and scorn for the villains. Viewers saw the avengers and the rescuers as the good guys and the swarthy males wearing kefiyas on their heads as the black hats. In this way our media (I include here White House and State Department press secretaries) would conduct the post-traumatic orchestra. Few commentators asked: what did these fiends want?
Some leftists talked conspiracy, including a role for the CIA and Israel’s Mossad. I sighed in despair. I thought of the people I knew inside the national security gates of the US and British governments, the opportunists who didn’t have the imagination to hatch such a diabolical plot but who after the events saw the inherent possibilities of expanding their own power and influence. Some of those scheming bureaucrats viewed 9/11 as the chance to adorn the most trivial of their departments’ issues with the sacred drapes of ‘national security,’ which they quickly hung over the windows of routine policies and procedures. They also took advantage of the vacuum of oversight during the traumatic post 9/11 days. Who would monitor them when the President directed all government energy to meet the crisis?
A silent and unseen panic seemed to vibrate through the public, a kind of national anxiety attack encouraged by official pronouncements of impending danger. As the media predictably embellished on all potentially bloody and explosive stories, the ambience for the heightened ‘security’ state reverberated as well through the Halls of Congress.
Without significant debate, the Members, more panicked than the public, passed the UNITING AND STRENGTHENING AMERICA BY PROVIDING APPROPRIATE TOOLS REQUIRED TO INTERCEPT AND OBSTRUCT TERRORISM ACT (25 October 2001), aka the USA PATRIOT ACT, enabling non-elected officials to assume increased bureaucratic control: tightening immigration procedures; legalizing intrusion into personal privacy, including probing of social organizations and their bank accounts; and invasion of telephone and computer messaging. Within months, bureaucracies had created their near-perfect world, one of permanent emergency in which the CIA, FBI and the newly created Homeland Security Department could escalate their anxiety-security game.
Yes, real terrorists destroyed buildings and thousands of people, but the very agencies that failed to prevent the 9/11 acts successfully covered their intelligence lapse by evoking fear. The mysterious and evil Al-Qaeda plotters, government officials repeated, would return. The citizenry now had to contain a fear of epic proportions to add to already mounting anxieties caused by economic recession, like job and healthcare security. Then came the anthrax scare, which also baffled the FBI.
In Washington, DC, as veteran observers have learned, nothing succeeds like failure. Incompetent agencies whose unwieldy size, top heavy hierarchy and inflated budgets now possessed even larger budgets and were managed by the same lethargic, but more powerful, insiders. And the money, as all Washington insiders know, must get spent before the end of the fiscal year.
Most important, since Congress and the Courts had agreed, the citizens could no longer claim certain inalienable rights. The media, which feeds anxiety to the public as its own means of reproducing itself, loved the emergency atmosphere: ‘You better watch TV or you might miss something vital in the daily hysteria about terrorism!’ Security had become incompatible with liberty.
The quotidian salvo of bloody and trivial stories makes concentration hard, the obvious obscure. Indeed, one can read daily newspapers from small towns to major metropolitan areas and watch and listen to the network and local news without ever hearing the obvious fact: a small group of fanatic Muslims successfully attacked the greatest Empire in the history of the world.
But Americans presume they live in a republic. The dictionary defines ‘republic’ as the antonym of ’empire.’ The imperial government availed itself of the confusion and offered a transcendent message to cover the fact that it no longer even wore republican clothes: revenge!
SAUL LANDAU is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. He teaches at Cal Poly Pomona University. For Landau’s writing in Spanish visit: www.rprogreso.com. His new book, PRE-EMPTIVE EMPIRE: A GUIDE TO BUSH S KINGDOM, will be published in September by Pluto Books. He can be reached at: email@example.com