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Captain Ahab’s obsessive hunt for Moby Dick was driven by the thirst for revenge. The great white whale had maimed Ahab – in soul as well as body. Ahab was consumed by the passion to restore his sense of self, and make himself whole again, by killing his nemesis – a compulsion that his wooden leg never let weaken.
America’s “war-on-terror” has become our national mission for restoration. The psychic wound is what grieves us; it inflames our collective passion for vengeance. The physical wound is already healed. By now, it must be memorialized in order for the scar to be seen. It never did impair our functioning. In that sense, little more than a broken toe. In the aftermath of 9/11, there was genuine fear of a repeat attack – something that we now know never was in the cards. Our enemy has been emasculated; the great Satan was shot dead in Abbottabad. Only pinpricks at long intervals from within our midst draw blood.
Catharsis has eluded us, though. We still seethe with emotions. We suffer from the free-floating anxiety that is dread, from vague feelings of vulnerability, from a seeming lost prowess and control. A society that talks casually about ‘closure’ on almost all occasions cannot find closure on 9/11. Instead, it has a powerful need to ritualize the fear, to pursue the implacable quest for ultimate security, to perform violent acts of vengeance that neither cure nor satiate.
So, we search the seven seas hunting for monsters to slay; not Moby Dick himself, but his accessories, accomplices, enablers, facilitators, emulators, sympathizers. Whales of every species, great and small, fall to our harpoons. The dead and innocent dolphins far outnumber them. Fortunes of war.
Since there is no actual Moby Dick out there to pursue, we have fashioned a virtual game of acting out the hunt, the encounter, the retribution. We thereby have embraced the post-9/11 trauma rather than expunged it. That is the “war-on-terror.” That war is about us – it no longer is about them.
Ahab destroyed himself, destroyed his crew, destroyed his ship. He sacrificed all in the quest – a quest for the unattainable. The United States is sacrificing its principles of liberty, its political integrity, the trust that is the bedrock of its democracy, its standing in the world as the “best hope of mankind,” and its capacity to feel for others – including its fellow citizens. America’s Moby Dick has migrated and transformed itself. It now is lodged in our innermost being. To kill its transmuted self is to kill our soul – just as Ahab was sucked into the ocean depths entangled in the very ropes he had fashioned to ensnare Moby Dick.
* * *
The emotional turmoil that underlies everything connected to the “war-on-terror” helps explain its many irrational features. The Pentagon this week sent to Senator Levin, chair of the Defense Committee, a classified document listing our enemies and the war’s targets. They include “al-Qaeda, the Taliban and associated groups.” The Taliban, though, have not killed a single American outside of Afghanistan and we currently are engaging them in talks. As for “associated groups,” that is judged too sensitive information to make public. The rationale: doing so would alert those groups to the fact that they are being hunted, droned, and eliminated by the United States. The absence of the most elementary logic is barely noted. Why? The political class long ago freeze dried its critical faculties when it comes to all WOT matters. The Pentagon itself is fain to admit that the “associated” category covers a myriad of Islamist groups too weak and/or uninterested to pose a threat to the United States. This is a modern day passion play – not a national security strategy.
Those underlying emotions surfaced as a high-powered Security Forum sponsored by the Aspen Institute early in July that brought together officials, journalists, politicos and sundry other members of the foreign policy establishment. Its pep-rally atmosphere is conveyed by these remarks, all of which evoked heavy applause.
John Ashcroft, the former Attorney General who prosecuted the war on terror under the administration of George W. Bush, responded to a question about U.S. over-reliance on the “kinetic” approach of drone strikes and special forces by reminding the audience that the U.S. also likes to torture terror suspects, not just “exterminate” them: “We wouldn’t have so many detainees if we’d relied on the ability to exterminate people…We’ve had a blended and nuanced approach …. for the guy who’s on the other end of a Hellfire missile he doesn’t see that as a nuance…. And maybe there are people who wish they were on the end of one of those missiles.” Moderator Catherine Herridge of Fox News interjected, “You have a way with words.”
Former NSA chief Michael Hayden stressed the importance of Obama’s drone assassinations. “Here’s the strategic question,….People in Pakistan? I think that’s very clear. Kill ‘em. People in Yemen? The same. Kill ‘em.”
Remarked Philip Mudd, the former deputy director of Bush’s Counterterrorism Center, declared: “We don’t smoke [drug] cartel leaders but personally I’d support it,” to loud guffaws from his fellow panelists.
James Jeffrey, the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, was asked: “What could we have done better?” “Probably not too much.”
General Keith Alexander: “The reason we use secrecy is not to hide it from the American people, but to hide it from the people who walk among you and are trying to kill you.” Therefore, the need for the very domestic spying which doesn’t exist according to Alexander and the White House.
Corporations like AT&T, Google and Microsoft collaborate with the NSA because they “know that we’re saving lives,” the General explained. He continued, “And that’s good for business because there’s more people out there who can buy their products.”
“Just seeing us here,” he said, “that inspires [public] confidence, because we’re not a bunch of ogres.”
Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.