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To me, perhaps the most unspoken national level tragedy marked by September 11 is the fast waning of Pax Americana. The worst hit victim is the democratic ideals many of us cherish and uphold. Paradoxically, most of the actions taken by the political administration in the aftermath were rationalized and professed as the protection of democratic ideals. But then, neither the actions, nor many of the parties who formed the International Coalition, can be remotely considered democratic in nature.
How do others view American greatness today? I have had the chance to be in Europe, Asia, and (should I even acknowledge this?) the Middle East (Ok, Ok, it was a one-day unscheduled stopover) since the horrifying event, and of course I have communicated with people from all over the world via email. I have heard innumerable sympathies for those who died on 9-11 and for their families, but I haven’t heard a lot of support (actually, any) for the American governmental actions from people (none of them representatives of any government) who live in other countries. Bad sampling and methodology? Perhaps; but you will agree it is uncanny how there is a very cohesive community in this aspect spanning different kinds of political and economic structures. What I have also heard are pitiful sighs about America having lost its image. They also talk about shameless governance and a blatant disregard for ethical conduct. Do they still want to come to the US? Of course, but they also want to migrate to Canada, Australia and different parts of Europe. Life, along with it aspirations, does not come to a screeching halt even with major tragedies. Do they envy American wealth and power enough to try and bring it down destructively? No, if that was indeed the case, then the underclass of every society would be rampaging the wealthier sections, and the wealthy would not have enough left for others to feel envious.
The above are viewpoints. My academic prediction of American greatness, assuming current conditions, would include the following:
A movement away from true democratic ideals in practice, without a corresponding change in the label (a pretension that the system continues)
Increased legitimization and rationalization of racism, with particular emphasis on ethno-religious characteristics
A drop in the professional and technical category of immigrants; increased number of immigrants in peripheral positions
An economy that further dichotomizes the wealthy from the poor
Even bigger government
Let me elaborate briefly on these issues, at times necessarily in an overlapping fashion. What you have to judge is whether this is the kind of greatness you would like to stand by, for whatever reason.
Make absolutely no mistake about it–overall, the United States of America is still the great nation that it was; I dare say perhaps greater today under duress, save for some super patriots (pseudo patriots, as one CounterPunch reader remarked in an email to me) lost in the zeal and thereby part of those who lost track of the ideal. The concept of nation that I refer to here of course implies only the people and its culture. I am afraid that I cannot make the same kind of remark of greatness about the current American system, powered by a political machinery that is bent on war mongering and incapable of fixing a crumbling economy.
When the political economy of a society becomes dysfunctional, the system comes to a crisis, and what might eventually occur in an evolutionary fashion given time infinity unnoticed by most as citizens adapt to “regular” problems, is hastened revolutionarily. Theoretically, and what we have observed in practice, each system has an inception, a movement towards a peak level (not the same for different systems), and then (typically) a slow movement towards entropy. In a subsequent cycle, a new system replaces the old. What survives is the nation. The Greeks, Egyptians, Chinese, and the British still exist as a nation (and as a society) today; only that their global dominance is now no more than of historical relevance. No human devised system is perfect, and therefore, the tendency is first toward greatness, and once that has been achieved or recognized by others as being so, the tendency is toward negative entropy and managing homeostasis. Under normal conditions, the system falters periodically, but not to a point where it crashes. That is, until the political economy becomes irreversibly dysfunctional.
Ever since the United States came into being, democracy and capitalism has remained the professed and acceptable institutionalized political-economic goals. The face of the nation changed, though, mainly with shifts in immigration patterns and with technological growth. Still, democracy and capitalism, a bad marriage in itself but who stayed in the union for the sake of the kids (that is another story), served its purpose through all of the demographic kaleidoscopic movements. Today, we may still characterize our political system as democratic, but can do so only marginally. A very simple comparison to the American democratic system about a hundred years ago versus the contemporary brand would evidence this remark. Of course, I tread thin ice here.
If democracy represents equal voice, equal status, and equal participation, then each of these tenets, previously scratched (sometimes badly) by normal and regular societal operations, are severely wounded today. What we despised in the former Soviet Union–a government larger than life, a strong military presence and an even stronger military budget, an obsessive concern with how citizens think, what they say in public, what they read, threatening any differences in opinion with punishment, contemplating harm to family members of those who disagree, religious persecution, and rampant injustice to humanity in the name of liberty and security–is quite true of the United States today. With the state of the economy the way it is, the long lines for toilet paper are not far away. The lines for bread will form a couple of blocks away, if you please. It appears to me that we are in a phase preceding a major systemic shift. The really bad news is that we will continue to call this new system “democratic”, and do much in the way of protecting it, holes in the bag and all. This potential systemic shift does not foretell good news for the masses, and all who favor true democracy should necessarily oppose that. A much more viable and much more easily achieved target is to seek a reversal to the freedoms that were promised to us as a birthright, or that were voiced to us as we raised our right hands to pledge allegiance to the United States as newly naturalized citizens.
An obvious connection to the loss of democratic ideals is the way the US government is dealing with terrorism. The political machinery behaves as if all defines terrorism exactly in the same fashion. From the Coalition governments’ perspective, terrorism does not require an academic definition; rather, all it requires is an identification of who are terrorists. The bulk of the American media is their spokesperson. They consistently and persistently identified the terrorists for the rest of the world–they are Muslims. They have also spread the malformed images that not only are all Muslims terrorists; they are bearded Arab men who are fundamentalists that run repressive regimes. The fact of the matter is, all Arabs are not Muslims (there are significant numbers of Arabs who are non-Muslims), all Muslims are not fundamentalists (the majority of Islamic adherents are moderates), and all fundamentalists are not terrorists (fundamentalism exists in all kinds of religions and adherents do not necessarily carry out terrorist activities–maybe I tread thin ice again here?). Beards and repression–well, these are part of any societal arrangement, including the US.
Once we define terrorism as who it is and not in terms of what it is, there are at least two severe shortcomings that necessarily follow: one, it stereotypes and includes as terrorists those who may belong to the same or similar religious-ethnic backgrounds but are not engaged in activities that are terrorist; secondly, it excludes those who are not part of the religious ethnic groups defined as terrorists, but are engaged in terrorist activities. Chomsky in his book 911 indicates the US Defense Department does have a working definition of what terrorist activities are; however, at the same time, it does not either profess or relay it openly since it may in essence define itself and coalition members as terrorists alongside the very people they pursue. It is easier to lay out an ethno-religious profile so that the enemy is easily identifiable visibly (not by what they do, but by who they are). Obviously, this has ramifications in the status reduction of otherwise legitimate and law-abiding citizens, and who are faced with racism carried out in the name of patriotism; racism that is sanitized and guiltless; racism that becomes institutionalized. Common services (purchasing supplies, renting a car, buying insurance), employment, health services and a host of others can have changed rules to operate by. In other words, racism can be institutionalized in a fashion that it was never before. Innocent people are bound to suffer, and at times perhaps even rationalized as collateral damage. Please be assured that I firmly believe those who do engage in terrorism must not be tolerated and must be brought to justice.
In the current situation, where the enemy has been defined in terms of ascribed status, rather than on the basis of their actions, a greater loss of civil liberties, not only because of routine prejudicial attitudes but arising from newly instated laws and agencies, can be expected. It is curious that the Homeland Security agency needs to spend additional billions for enhanced security without making the average citizen feel any more safer than what s/he felt 60 to 80 billion dollars before. As for the Terrorism Bill, it provides a carte blanche right to law enforcement agencies to detain indefinitely anyone suspected of being associated with terrorism without legal counsel. This Bill, when first introduced, met with challenges from civil rights groups, but “sneaked” through a couple of weeks later when all the hullabaloo over the debate died down. By any definition, this takes away from the true democratic ideals, but does not seem so in times of crises because it is so necessary to pursue the enemy. In times of crisis, citizens are more likely to agree to regulations that would otherwise be dismissed as a threat to core societal ideals. However, regulations, once created, hardly vanish once the circumstances that led to its creation vanish (Is there still a ban on married men flying on Sundays in Burdoville, VT?). It may not be too far off to remark that the US government has become, or on its way to become, as big as the dictatorial governments it once so vehemently criticized, and some which so paradoxically form part of the coalition to protect democracy against terrorism.
Also, it is no secret that the US (among other countries) has been a favorite refuge for those who seek relief from economic and political persecution, religious persecution, and those who seek the western style higher education. Typically, these individuals would work toward some degree of assimilation and at being effective participants as they continue to live in the US. No doubt that a larger number of the working and lower class groups have formed the bulk of immigration from the non-western nations (helped, in large measure, by the Diversity Visa Program), but that has not prevented the influx of the more professional and technical groups. For the former group, economic gain is the primary focus, whereas intergroup and social relations are very much peripheral and not of concern unless it affects their conditions directly. For the latter, after gaining some sense of stability, it is precisely the issue of their own social status that is central to their participation and existence in the US.
In an environment where social status is determined more on the basis of ascription, and not on achievement, the US becomes less and less attractive as a place to migrate. In other words, an inflation of current attitudes can certainly affect inversely the desire of the professional and technical workforce to migrate to the US. A quick forecast would clearly imply that a drop in this category of immigrants would have acute and detrimental effects on the economy. The group which is satisfied with dead-end jobs, and whose primary motive is economic gain, would not see much of a statistically significant difference in the migration patterns. Ultimately, this results in lowered numbers of immigrants who have the ability to be upwardly mobile, but maintains (perhaps increases) the numbers of those who are locked into a caste-like system.
Recently, the US Attorney General announced that the Justice Department is granting FBI field offices more authority to launch undercover terrorism investigations, shifting such responsibility away from the agency’s headquarters in Washington. The changes allow the FBI to gather information on individuals even if they are not under criminal investigation. The techniques would include monitoring Internet sites, as well as libraries and religious institutions (why not simply say mosques?). A closer look at this reveals some extremely disturbing trends. The main issue is not the use of authority, but the abuse of it. Paradoxically, in the pursuit of freedom and security, this new authorization limits these same things for some segments of the population. One may wonder how this ties in with, for example, the principle of freedom of religious pursuit, and particularly in the case of Muslim children, whether or not they will grow up in a society where they feel less than equal, even persecuted? There are Muslim children in the US who carry the names Osama, Jihad, and Islam. Do they have to become Sam, Jared, and who-knows-what for avoiding stereotypes and a legitimate identity made sacrilegious?
What can we do? In addition to being educated political activists, it is equally important that all of us become more culturally relativistic, and recognize that people are products of their own environments and that competing perspectives do and should exist. That is the essence of democracy. This is not to say that there should not be any limits on tolerance, but that differences of ideology alone cannot be the source of conflict. Even then, the goals will not be achieved, for imperfection and diversity are innate in the nature of human beings, but at least we will be moving in a logical direction. We must defend the democratic core values for the sake of social stability and cohesion by believing in them, professing them, and by acting accordingly.
The outcome of these prescriptions should see better conditions for the world, for nations, for communities, and for individuals. These, then, will allow us to live in a world that does not headline warfare and conflict as the most important global events, but rather something that is not so unpleasant. It will also leave a legacy for future generations that may not arrive otherwise. And, this seemingly utopian condition is far from being unachievable.
Am I predicting gloom and doom? Not at all. The magic of a democratic system (what’s left of it) is that the common people can truly effect a change in the only fashion that they always could but many a times choose not to–vote. The magic of the human spirit is that, becoming aware of potential catastrophes we can devise ways to avert the same.
As Democracy breathes heavily in the Intensive Care Unit, attended by fewer caregivers than necessary, while South Carolina is busy banning tattoos, and as Russia provides a helping hand to Iran to build a second nuclear reactor, what we are left with is guarding Karzai, president of a country reduced to less than nothing, first by years of Soviet occupation, and by the more recent high-tech metamorphic ability of US weaponry; guarding Karzai, personification of the democratic condition in the US today; guarding Karzai with Special American Forces wearing t-shirts and jeans, armed with heavy automatic artillery, true to the Rambo form. Surely, we have more and better purposes to serve other than guarding Karzai. I know he must be happy, with perhaps a little bit of apprehension of friendly fire in times of dissension.
Our captain has initiated the silent self-destruct sequence of the US Enterprise, and cannot do much about reversing it. Shouldn’t surprise anyone; he’s no Captain Picard.
Dr. Ansar Ahmed is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Baldwin-Wallace College.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.