Assassination of American citizens by presidential dictate, blanket suspension of habeas corpus indefinitely, massive wiretapping and surveillance with and without warrant, torture as the official policy of the United States government – these are trademarks of the “war on terror” pursued since 9/11. This despite the absence of a single serious attack over the past twelve years and the scattering of a defanged al-Qaida – the only group that once had the potential capability to do us major harm.
The extraordinary trashing of our cherished civil liberties and ethical standards is matched by the stunning acceptance of these actions by our political class, by our professional elites, by the populace. Approval, not just passive acceptance, is the most common attitude. No prominent politician denounces these insults to American principles – except the few who very late in the day ponder the desirability of introducing a tame court review of demands to execute the “kill list” as a fig leaf (when citizens are the targets). The American Bar Association assumes a low-key, guarded pose. The American Medical Association avoids addressing the role of doctors in advising on torture techniques. The long catatonic universities do not bestir themselves. The American Psychological Association collaborated with private consultants in organizing workshops on behavioral change under induced extreme stress. Some anthropologist slap on side arms to provide an escort service for Special Forces in Pashtun villages. The scholarly societies are silent. The think tank and foundation worlds closely follow the score in playing accompaniment to official policies. A couple of established churches make feeble declarations while restricting themselves to a few anodyne homilies.
As for the media, they consistently have been accomplices, giving either active (in most cases) or passive backing to doing “what is necessary” to “safeguard” the American people. Even The New York Times, self-proclaimed pillar of journalistic integrity and defender of our freedoms from government abuse, repeatedly bent its standards to accommodate successive administrations ever ready to break the rules. Transmission belt for the falsehoods that paved the way for the invasion of Iraq, withholder of information about illegal electronic surveillance on the eve of the 2004 election, discrete on Guantanamo abuses, and Johnny-come-lately to the assassination on Oval Office command scandal, the Times and kindred members of the “quality” press have been enablers of the distressing practices of our government at home as well as abroad.
Explanation of this failure by persons and institutions throughout our democracy is imperative. It has not been forthcoming. The “why’ question is an important as the question of the implications from this dereliction. For it forces us to come to terms with the hyper sensitive issues of who we are and what we have become as a society.
Fear and dread, deep and pervasive, are the abiding feature of these times. Existential threats from mysterious forces with no fixed address are most scary because they are not resoluble by focused action taken against a clear target. They gnaw at you as well as frighten you. That produces dread. Dread is free floating fear – it fixes on what might be, thereby magnifying fears of experiencing one more horrific events of the past.
American actions in the ‘war on terror’ have been driven by dread – at home and abroad. Dread that it may happen again, dread of the unknown, dread of the alien. It explains not only the radical thrust of Washington’s conduct in the Greater Middle East but also the dulling of critical faculties. That pertains to torture, kill lists and illegal surveillance as well as the ready resort to military power.
This is all basic psychology. But it leaves unexplained why the effect has endured so long. Why hasn’t it worn off? The reasons are identifiable. For one thing, dread has been assiduously cultivated by leaders who have exploited fear for their own ends – political or ideological. They have been assisted in this dubious enterprise by claques of dogmatists and professional fear-mongers – and by a legion of careerists riding the wave. Moreover, our leaders skillfully have drawn the country into the vortex of shameful misdeeds. By casting every exceptional act as essential to a crusade to protect America, by scorning criticism as un-patriotic, by relentless propaganda, they have tainted and compromised nearly everyone. In effect, a classic “line of blood” has been drawn between Americans on one side of it, and truth/integrity/principle on the other side. That has been the “war on terror’s” historic accomplishment.
Collective betrayal of our ideals, tarnishing our self-identity, has left Americans bereft of the self-respect nurtures virtue and generates the courage to confront lapses. Torture as a demonstrable matter of fact, torture as the official policy of the White House, torture without reasonable cause – has no precedent in America. Nor does assassination. Their routine occurrence in the ‘war on terror’ testifies to the amorality of those managing the country’s affairs. Its tolerance by the public, by Congress, and the accessory role played by the enabling courts before, during and after the fact add up to a national pathology. For decades, Americans looked back on the internment of fellow citizens of Japanese ancestry as an aberration which never could happen again. Now, no such assumption can be made. Imagine this picture: Iranian armies have conquered the Middle East and have reached Morocco; an Iranian armada has sunk most of the country’s Atlantic fleet at anchor in Norfolk; and a few hundreds of thousands of American citizens of Iranian descent live clustered on the Northeastern seaboard. Is there reason to doubt that their treatment would be such as to make them envy the condition of the Nisei during WW II?
The United States nowadays is a country of false bravery. Its self-image of daring individualism persists even as timid conformity relegates it to the realm of legend. Persons whose inquisitive dedication to the truth challenges convention about public matters are shunned. Worse, they are punished. For they threaten to expose sins – of omission or commission – we cannot allow ourselves to admit.
We cannot because to do so means undermining the national myths and legends that sustain us – as a people and as individuals. Of course, all societies live by myths and legends. They abbreviate the universe for us. That is a crucial contribution to maintaining the emotional and mental stability that allows us to function. Humans have only so much tolerance for the truth. Considerations of convenience and comfort are the main reason. Both dictate sublimation and avoidance in the shameful aftermath of the terror decade.
In America, cognitive dissonance among those with some awareness of the national predicament is handled not by resolution, but rather through coping mechanisms. They keep inconsistencies below a certain pain cum embarrassment threshold. That artless strategy has proven viable in part because Americans, beguiled by their leaders and the country’s entire political class, have learned to live in a virtual reality. The actual and the imagined have become fused so that the former has no clear precedence in its hold on the individual and collective mind. The mythic and the real are interchangeable. Thus, Zero Dark Thirty and Argo. Thus, the fabricated yet fabled hero David Petraeus; countries manufacture the heroes they need – and that they are prepared to pay the price for. Thus, the ‘success’ of the surge in Iraq. Thus the solemn pronouncements that judgment on our tragic adventures there and in Afghanistan must “await the verdict of history.” – just as the historians’ jury is still out on Krakatoa.
Moreover, a collectivity of the self-worshipful militates toward the same outcome. In America today, a vague patriotism, itself an abstracted form of national self-worship, is the only sealant that bonds otherwise separate egoists. Its effect is made all the more powerful by the common experience of being accessories to the shameful acts of their government. This phenomenon is at once cause and reinforced effect of our flight from information and knowledge. A queer feature of contemporary American life is the equation of ignorance and freedom. New information is instinctively seen as a threat instead of something carrying possible value to be embraced. For it asks engagement, some mental effort, – and it promises the pain of owning up to behaviors we cannot stand contemplating.
Most people, therefore, find it intolerable to admit either that their earlier judgments about the necessity to go to war (and of all those other things) or that they had been so easily and completely duped. Why are the facts of how a substantial majority of Americas are being bamboozled unwelcome? One reason is that seeing them for what they are entails revelation of distressing realities. Those realities include participation in one’s own deception. After all, it is well known that the stubborn resistance of a buyer of counterfeit art to admitting that he has been duped is in proportion to how much he has paid.
Things that happen to unexceptional nations are not supposed to happen to America – an America born under a lucky star. For many, the Star of Bethlehem. When mishaps do happen, they sow disquiet, incomprehension and a search for scapegoats. The planets are out of alignment. That is something frightening and quite dreadful. The “war on terror” bears several unpalatable truths: our attempt at putting the Iraqis on the path to peace and prosperity has failed – America is thwarted; the Iraqis and Afghans are not grateful and most of the world dislikes/hates us – Americans expect and need to be loved for our natural virtue; the terrorist threat is still there to bedevil us – America is unnaturally unsafe; Americans have been deceived by two consecutive Presidents – the bond of trust central to our civic religion has been broken; we torture and we abuse others – America’s moral leadership is gone; we have subverted our own liberties – we have panicked in an unmanly manner. Taken together, these failures and transgressions are a heavy load on the collective national psyche. An America that is not able, that is not moral, that is not smart, that lies, that lies to itself – that America is incompatible with the myths that sustain us. Therefore, better that the truth not be told.
We have been living in a morbid fear for whose release we will sacrifice our freedoms, – a people whose timidity in acknowledging their failings is fear by another name.
Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.