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Balancing Freedom and Security

Insults to Our Intelligence

by ANDREW LEVINE

George W. Bush was never at a loss for something idiotic to say.  Still his speech to a joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001 was exceptional.

He said that the World Trade Center and Pentagon had been attacked nine days earlier because: “They hate our freedoms – our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.”

Bush had no need to remind the assembled legislators who “they” are; the anti-Muslim narrative that is now so familiar had been under construction for years.  “They” are crazed Muslims, and Al Qaida is their vanguard.

It became more acceptable than it had been to say that, or to intimate it as Bush did, as images of the Twin Towers falling were broadcast over and over again.  From then on it has only gotten worse.

There was, and still is, grumbling about “political correctness,” but that doesn’t seem to have stopped anybody.  Neither has it stopped violence against Muslims and persons mistaken for Muslims.

Needless to say, when they attacked Washington and New York, Al Qaida could have cared less about our freedoms.  They still don’t.  What they cared about was the dignity of the peoples with whom they identify.  9/11 was about avenging decades of oppression and disrespect.  And it was an act of defiance.

As such, it was misguided and criminal, but it was not about hating freedoms.  What they hated was what the West had done, and is still doing, to the Muslim world.

The great German Social Democrat August Bebel famously called anti-Semitism “the socialism of fools.”  Al Qaida’s politics is the anti-imperialism of fools.

Its progressive aspect is warped beyond recognition not just by its immorality, which in its disregard of innocents almost rivals the American empire’s, but also by their adherence to ways of thinking and being that humankind long ago outgrew.

By construing real world historical phenomena in a theological frame, Al Qaida, along with its offshoots and imitators, misconceives what it is fighting for and against.

In doing so, its militants make things worse for themselves, for the peoples they purport to fight for, for genuine anti-imperialists everywhere, and for everyone who values the freedoms Bush says they “hate.”

For this, “the West” has much to answer for.  Intent on turning back Soviet influence and on quashing secular nationalist resistance to imperial domination, the empire’s stewards and their local collaborators, including the government of Israel, did all they could to revive long dormant strains of theistic zealotry in the historically Muslim world.

Adherents of all the so-called Abrahamic religions – not only Islam, but Christianity and Judaism too — are susceptible to similar manipulations.

Fortunately, Christianity has become nearly defunct in those parts of the world where it was once exceptionally violent and intolerant.  The fact has yet to register fully, but it is plain to anyone attuned to the ambient culture of the West that the Christian God is dead.   Religious strife in early modern Europe and then the advent of enlightened thinking did Him in.

However, the news has yet to register completely throughout Christendom – especially in parts of Africa and Latin America, and in the most benighted quarters of the United States.

But the process of God’s demise is in motion, and there is no turning it back.  It helps speed matters along that there is no mischievous super-power urging the remaining faithful to cloak their grievances in a Christian guise.

God’s death is even more complete in Jewish circles – outside a few self-segregated orthodox sectors with high birth rates and a determination to retain eighteenth century eastern European lifestyles.   For all the rest, faith in the Jewish nation has replaced faith in God.

It is no longer news that nations are “imagined communities.”  The Jewish nation is more imagined than most – since there is no common land or language (if there were, the Zionist project would have been unnecessary) and claims for common descent are more than usually dubious.

Judaism was the only real link joining together Jewish communities in distant parts of the world.  Now Zionism is.   In Prophetic terms, this would count as a form of idolatry, a distinctively modern form inasmuch as it makes a nation-state its God.

Most Zionists and nearly all the Jewish faithful before World War II agreed that Judaism and Zionism are at odds, though the two did peacefully coexist and many Jews straddled both camps.  It has only been since the Six Day War in 1967 that they effectively fused or, more precisely, that Zionists won over all but the most extreme orthodox sects.

From that point on, it has become clear that this nationalist-religious confection can underwrite a level of violence and intolerance equal to anything the other Abrahamic religions currently sustain.  The victims of the four and half decade long occupation of the West Bank and Gaza can attest to that sad fact.

The formerly subaltern status of Jewish communities in the Christian and Islamic worlds restrained extreme expressions of religious zealotry.  But when, as in occupied Palestine, the shoe is on the other foot, Judaism falls into line with the others.

The West does not care, though, because settler violence and Israeli domination of a subject people do not challenge the empire’s designs; indeed, just the opposite is the case.  Insurgent Muslims are a different story.  This is why “they”, not militant Christians or Jews, “hate our freedoms” – that and because, unlike their Christian and Jewish counterparts, there are no powerful domestic constituencies that champion their cause.

However thanks to Bush and his éminence grise, Dick Cheney – and then thanks to Barack Obama, his continuator-in-chief — “they” are getting their way or rather they are getting what Bush said they wanted.  The irony is palpable.

The original Al Qaida hardly exists any longer; this at least is what the Obama Administration claims as it pats itself on the back – not that its reported demise keeps Obama’s drones away from Afghanistan or Pakistani tribal areas.

Perhaps, as the propaganda mill would have it, its offshoots in the Arabian Peninsula have taken its place.

More likely, they are being trotted out to keep opposition to the Bush-Obama surveillance state at bay, and to keep fear alive.

If it is all smoke and mirrors, let us hope that this latest manipulation of terror threats is quickly exposed.  For the Obama Administration, that would be a magnificent humiliation.

But even if there is substance to the sound and fury the Administration is putting out, no one is claiming that Islamist militants are strong enough to wreak havoc in the United States itself or anywhere else outside their home turf.

In other words, even the most ardent terror mongers effectively concede that “they,” the ones who “hate our freedoms,” have lost every battle.

Nevertheless, thanks to Bush and Obama, they have won the War on Terror.  They have won it twice over.

They have won, first, because “terrorists” refuse to go away.  This is because drones and assassins continually create a fresh supply; “collateral damage” works that way.

And they have won – at least on Bush’s terms – because even if “they” never cared about “our freedoms,” our freedoms have become a casualty of the perpetual war regime that targets them.

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From the moment the Patriot Act was enacted to keep “them” at bay, the public has been bombarded with prattle about “balancing” security interests with rights and liberties, including some that are Constitutionally protected and that were therefore formerly infrangible.

The idea is that when security and liberty interests are at odds, as they are in a world where “they hate our freedoms,” trade offs must be made.

This rationale is an example of a kind of sophistry that Obama apologists have perfected; they fabulate imaginable but implausible scenarios that make their desired conclusion follow as if by logical necessity.

In this respect, the case for trading off rights and liberties for the sake of security is like the lesser evil case for voting Democratic that Obama supporters, lacking anything more positive to say, advanced before the last election.

Then the claim was that when confronted with bad choices, logical voters should opt for the one that is the least bad.

However by now it should be clear to all but the willfully blind that what is right about that argument does not imply automatic support for Democrats over Republicans.

The reason is not just that Democrats are sometimes not the lesser evil or that they are often not less evil enough.

What matters more is that lesser evil voting, in an electoral system like ours, encourages a race to the bottom in which, as they say, the scum rises to the top.  How often has it seemed that the choices can’t get worse; and then they do?

Similarly, if security and freedom are at odds, trade offs between them, based on assessments of risks and benefits and a host of other political and psychological considerations are called for; it is only logical.

But just as it is not always clear which candidate is the lesser evil or what is the best way to vote all things considered, it is not always clear what the relevant tradeoffs are or how, if at all, they are at odds.

Torturing someone to stop a ticking time bomb may make sense even if it does violate that person’s right not to be subjected to cruel and degrading punishment.  But exceptional cases make for bad policies, and cases that make the kind of “balancing” we hear so much about nowadays reasonable are rare indeed.

Leave aside the plain fact that Islamist terrorists pose a far less severe threat to national security, on any plausible understanding of that concept, than a host of other factors – including environmental and economic activities that the government could eliminate or at least ameliorate, but that it encourages instead.

Leave aside too the equally plain fact that the threat of Islamist terrorism, such as it is, would be better addressed by changes in American foreign policy than by throwing free speech, due process and privacy rights aside.

The more important point is that it is those freedoms, the ones George Bush said “they” hate, that are and always have been America’s greatest asset, and that are therefore the foundation of America’s appeal to its own citizenry and to the world.  There is no sounder basis for security than that.

Despite what Bush thinks, “they” are moved neither by envy nor by an irrational hatred of moral and social progress.  What moves them is what the American empire does to those whom it holds in its grip.

One might think otherwise, given the God-inflected zealotry of Islamist militants; but that would be to take them at their word.

No doubt, their piety is sincere but, like most believers within the Abrahamic fold, they are most likely deceiving themselves.

Zionism’s usurpation of Judaism is an extreme example, but it is fair to say, in general, that faith these days has more to do with identity politics than with atavistic eruptions of attitudes and feelings that the old time religions once authentically promoted.

All but the most benighted believers know, or ought to know, that God has long been dead.  But, for a variety of psychological, social and historical reasons, they nevertheless deceive themselves; they practice their religion in bad faith.

Are militant Islamists any different?  Probably not.  But it suits all sides to maintain the illusion.

Zealotry with a theistic tinge is useful to proponents and practitioners of the anti-imperialism of fools; it enables them to justify themselves to their own satisfaction and the satisfaction of the peoples in whose behalf they purport to act.

And it is vital to our security agencies that we think that, but for them, religious zealots would make 9/11-style murder and mayhem the new normal.  It is good to be needed, and better still to seem indispensable.

However the game cannot go on forever.  On the Western side, the pretense is already crumbling.

The latest episode, the first of the post-Snowden era, is particularly unsettling — and not just because the timing, coming when Congress finally has begun to investigate the NSA, almost invites “conspiracy theorists” to conclude that “our” spies and “their” militants are in cahoots.

If we believe what we are told, there has lately been “chatter” of the kind that preceded the original 9/11.  It suggests that something unspecified but spectacular is about to be hatched out of Yemen.

As if to boost the morale of the plotters, Obama then launched a murderous drone attack on that country, just as the United States and its more prominent allies, like the UK, closed down their diplomatic missions, not just in Yemen but throughout the entire region.

The obvious inference for Islamist militants to draw is that chatter is mightier than the sword, mightier even than hijacked airliners; that they can bring the world’s only super-power to its knees with just a phone call or a text message.

But the whole story is too weird to be believed.

Does anybody really think that Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula’s operatives don’t know that their chatter is overheard, that it all goes directly to Langley and Fort Meade?

Surely they knew that long before the world first heard of Edward Snowden.  On the off chance that somehow they didn’t, that their leaders are unusually slow, they could hardly fail to know it now.

Thanks to Snowden, everyone everywhere now knows that, in the Age of Obama, Big Brother sees and hears it all.  Why would “they,” the ones who “hate our freedom,” be the only people left on earth still in the dark?

It is almost as if Obama and Company want to see how much they can insult the American people’s intelligence.

Or maybe they think they don’t need a logical or even a plausible case to scare Americans into acquiescence.

Most likely, it is the latter.  Sadly, they might be right.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).