On 11 September 2001, history took a perverse turn. It was not a good way to begin the new millennium at all. Like a lightning flash, the Al-Qaeda network struck at the twin symbols of American pride, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Three thousand people died, mostly Americans but many from other lands too. It was an appalling and audacious pedagogical act. In the luminescent glow of the flames of the Towers, the Islamic jihad imagined that evil westerners would see the truth of their corrupt regime. Osama bin Laden and others in the network aimed to goad the US into a reaction that would both enflame Muslim opinion and expose the decadent, autocratic rulers of some Islamic countries. The latter could easily be portrayed as pawns of the west (like Saudi Arabia, Jordan or Egypt). This would then make way for the seizure of power by the Islamic jihad in these countries.
Perhaps an apocalyptic “clash of civilizations” (Huntington’s execrable phrase) could even be unleashed. One cannot underestimate the “cult of death” that has some of these militants in its grisly grip, and the element of insanity in imagining the total unravelling of the USA. Still, this message resonated in an Islamic world painfully aware of US hatred of Arab nationalism in the Middle East and willingness to permit Israel to get away with murder. Together, US-Israel defies the entire world. The humiliations to Arabs heap upon each other. They pile high into the heavens. The US does not worry about Israel’s defiance of UN resolutions (like the infamous 242) and the rules of the Geneva Convention year after year. Palestine persists as an enduring space of injustice.
Another message, however, resonated in the USA. The US governing circle of right-wing hawks sensed that they were now playing a different game. The bipolar world of the Cold War had dissolved. In that jittery time, nation could face off against nation. One thinks quickly of just how close the USA and the Soviet Union actually came to unleashing nuclear weapons over Cuba in 1962. Now, in contrast, non-state agents can wage destruction at levels previously thought unimaginable. This may be the nub of the “something new” about 11 September. This supranational vision of dubious moral and spiritual content chooses not to work through normal political methods and mechanisms. Rather, they possess the means of violence and the militants are spread throughout a diffuse network across national boundaries (Marwan Bishara speaks of entering the “era of asymmetric conflicts”). They appear to be accountable to no nation-state. They are not subject to international law and treaties. Al-Qaeda has plenty of money: they are high-tech and media savvy, they are vicious, nihilistic warriors, and they managed to thoroughly freak out the USA. Al-Qaeda’s propaganda proceeds through the deadly deed. Their vile pedagogy worked its intended effect on a significant disenchanted segment of Arab peoples and fed the McCarthy-style paranoia amongst many Americans: from 9/11 to the present moment.
September 11 presented the USA with a fantastic learning moment. Although it is utopian to imagine that any nation can use a traumatic event such as 9/11 to be critically self-reflective, the social learning trajectory was certainly skewed away from thoughtful consideration of the root causes of terror. The USA should have reflected deeply on their actual role in the world (it isn’t pretty). Americans could have turned their society into a mega-study circle—but they did not. Most people in the Arab world believe official US is synonymous with arrogant power; they are not the only ones. No, the USA turned away from reflection with a vengeance and donned the togas of Alexander and Caesar.
The liberal dissenting novelist, Gore Vidal, called his 2001 collection of essays on the US The Last Empire. The right-wing, belligerent journalist Charles Krauthammer told the New York Times that: “People are coming out of the closet on the word ‘empire.’” He argued that “Americans should admit the truth and face up to their responsibilities as the undisputed masters of the world.” It was any old empire he had in mind: “The fact is, no country has been as dominant culturally, economically, technologically and militarily in the history of the world since the Roman Empire.”
Tagging the USA as a twenty-first century Rome does not seem too farfetched. Like Rome, the USA boasts of having the best trained army, the finest and snazziest equipment and the biggest military budget the world has ever seen. The budget is bigger than the next nine countries put together. The USA can deploy troops anywhere on the planet at lightning speed. Certainly, the USA does not exactly have “formal colonies,” but it was a colonizing and conquering nation from its inception. The USA governing elites stole the land from Amerindians, massacred them when necessary and pushed westward to build the nation (similar to Rome’s drive to empire-build in the Mediterranean and northward). What really makes the USA into Rome, DC today is their over 150 military bases in other countries around the world. Chalmers Johnson, author of the popular Blowback: the Costs and Consequences of American Empire (2000), thinks that military bases numbering in the hundreds are today’s version of the imperial colonies of old.
Lesson number one in Rome’s instructional guide for imperial success is making everyone else realize you have more military strength than they do. Lesson number two has to do with the centrality of technology to world domination. The Romans had their highways to zip their troops around. These roads helped them commercially, too. Today, the USA has its information highway. The Internet was devised by the American military. Now it is has evolved mind-boggling surveillance instruments as the basis of their economic and political hegemony around the world. Lesson three, understood by Rome, was that a world power had to practice both “hard” and “soft” imperialism. The softer version involves a cultural invasion: convincing the invaded that their culture is inferior to yours. The US culture industry—what Benjamin Barber calls McWorld—offers the invaded a package deal of action videos, mostly violent films, blue jeans, Nike shoes, fast foods and Coke.
Well, not exactly togas and warm baths, but one gets the point. The final lesson from the instructional manual is to rule other countries through puppets and clients in the Middle East (the old Shah of Iran is a decisive example) and places like Chile (General Pinochet did the job). Seldom does Rome, DC every ally itself with democratic forces and tendencies with its dominion. One recalls that Richard Nixon, upon hearing that Salvador Allende was going to assume power, immediately sent out instructions for his overthrow. The last thing the hawks around George W. Bush (Wolfowitz, Perle, Rumsfeld, and Cheney) wanted was a democratic Iraq. The last thing the neo-con war crazies hovering around Obama (the entire Congress) desire is a democratic anything.
From its founding, America has cast itself as a kind of redeemer nation unlike other nations (see E. Tuveson, Redeemer Nation: the Idea of America’s Millennial Role (1968) and J. Axtell, The School Upon a Hill: Education and Society in Colonial New England (1974)). The first emperors—Alexander the Great and the Roman Caesars—created myths of their descent from the gods. Alexander was “great” because he was descended from semi-divine beings. Augustus declared himself a son of a god. He raised a statue to his adoptive father, Julius Caesar, on a stage alongside Mars and Venus—not bad company. The USA engages in the same sort of myth-making. The Puritans came with an “errand in the wilderness” to build the New Jerusalem. They had no doubt that eradicating the indigenous people was within their god’s will, part of the divinely-promised land. David Noble (Beyond the Promised Land: the Movement and the Myth  observes: “Thus begins the deeply rooted ideological and psychological association of the US with the mythological chosen people of Israel, an association that remains at the core of American self-identity” (p. 36). From the Puritan “city upon a hill” to “Manifest Destiny” to “America the exceptional nation”, the Light from Above has been beaming down on America’s path through the world. America has crafted its identity as God’s New Israel. Indeed, Noble (2005) makes the striking observation that the state of Israel would be “unthinkable were it not for the enduring resonance of the Hebrew mythology that both inspired the Zionists and ideologically inclined their British and US patrons, who had long ago rooted their own experiences in the same stories” (p. 39).
Former President George W. Bush used religious language in every speech. A noxious phrase like the “axis of evil” only makes sense within a mythological belief system that splits the world into good (God-like) and bad (Satan-like). That is, we are good, the rest are bad, by definition. Splitting the world into “good” and “bad” lays the basis for malignant and cynical relationships between nation-states and global civil society in a unipolar world. These days Obama proclaims that “America is exceptional” every chance he gets. He can only do this because the myth of America as Promised Land is still taken-for-granted. It’s part of the USA’s DNA. “America the exceptional” is a secularized version of the Promised Land myth.
These myths, fuelled by a militaristic Christianity lusting for the end time big bang, the most powerful lobby on earth, the Zionist lobby (American Israel Public Affairs Committee [AIPAC]) and its affiliates and a muzzled war-hungry media, enable American rulers to preach the idea that America’s role is to be the virtuous leader of the world without getting much objection in the public sphere. The American Empire is always well-intentioned no matter what it actually does. However, the USA has actually behaved like a ruthless and dirty Empire throughout the twentieth century. Between 1945 and 1967, US military intervened in the Third World every year. Such interventions, says Ronald Barnet in The Roots of War (1972), have “all the elements of a powerful imperial creed…a sense of mission, historical necessity and evangelical fervour.”
In a speech on “Culture and imperialism” delivered at York University in Toronto on 10 February 1993, Edward Said proclaimed that the USA wants to bring about a world subject to the rule of law. However, it is the USA that “organizes the peace and defines the law. The United States imposes the international interests by setting the ground rules for economic development and military development across the planet.” He observed that the “Gulf intervention was preceded by a string of interventions in Panama, Grenada, Libya, all of them widely discussed, most of them approved, or at least undeterred, as belonging to ‘us’ by right. As Kennan puts it, ‘American loved to think that whatever it wanted was just what the human race wanted.’”
Now, in the aftermath of 9/11 and marching relentlessly to the present fiasco of US-engineered coup in the Ukraine (as part of a multipronged plan to de-stabilize and fragment Russia), the US Empire (Rome, DC) is in a very snarly mood. The Empire (of chaos, according to Pepe Escobar) appears ready and willing to strike everywhere there is a glint of someone standing in the Empire’s way. Empires do not obey laws; they make them—if they are not to their purpose, they abrogate them. The world has watched with dismay and considerable alarm as the USA has adopted a unilateral course in global politics. They opted out of the Kyoto Accord. They want to inspect others’ weapons arsenals. They will not allow United Nations’ inspectors to do the same on their own shore. They defy the International criminal courts. They toy with the United Nations Security Council. The USA told the world that if “they weren’t with America, they were against it.” In the aftermath of 9/11, the US governing elite clamped down on internal security, introduced racial profiling, arrested scores of innocent citizens and mugged the media.
The USA gave itself the right to invade any country they wanted if they thought it harbored “terrorists” (a terrorist seems to be anybody who defies the Empire’s plans for global domination). They declared the right to make pre-emptive strikes (which violates the UN Charter), throwing the sovereignty of nation-states, the basis of international order, into disarray (the US bombing of Bosnia prepared the way for the doctrine of pre-emption). The media got on board in the run-up to the March, 2003 invasion of Iraq. They beat the warm drums and bred panic (and have not stopped since). Once the second Iraq war started, journalists were embedded in military units and told the world about the exploits of the virtuous Empire. Hawks flew off their perches and winged around accusing other countries (Richard Perle took on all of Europe) of being moral cowards. Meek Canada was dressed down by the US ambassador and France’s Chirac made into a laughing stock in US beer halls. Since then, the mugged media has done the Empire’s nefarious bidding. Just witness the colossal cave-in of the Academy and mass media in the fabrication of the Ukraine narrative as Russian aggression. The Chosen Ones have decided that there will not be peace in the Ukraine: the hawks are sharpening their claws and the media practicing rhetorical submission.
Have the leaders of the US and Europe gone totally bonkers? It seems so.
The US Empire has become unhinged from disciplining its actions according to universal principles of morality, adherence to international law and diplomacy as means of resolving conflict. The formidable American philosopher, Elizabeth Anderson, wrote in 2011 that: “The attacks [on the World Trade Center and Pentagon] were used to rationalize a massive expansion of the national security state, an unwarranted war in Iraq, a quagmire in Afghanistan, torture and abuse of prisoners, extraordinary rendition of terrorism suspects, indefinite detention of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, and the use of cluster bombs and drone attacks that has resulted in massive civilian casualties.” The light from above has been vanguished.
Dr. Michael Welton is a professor at Athabasca University. He is the author of Designing the Just Learning Society: a Critical Inquiry.