I think that Americans, around their dinner tables, in barber shops, in bars and around the proverbial water cooler, have had the sort of conversation that takes place in part one of this fascinating roundtable dialogue in Sunday’s New York Times magazine. (It is the same issue that contains Bill Keller’s reflective essay that I discussed in this post.) That conversation would be about the rationale for war–specifically the invasion of Iraq in 2003–and whether it was merited as a legitimate response to a perceived threat, or equally for moral, humanitarian reasons (taking out a brutal dictator). That said, I’m not sure to what extent people have properly grasped the Bush Administration’s conflation of 9/11 with the actual stated reasons for the Iraq invasion.
That gets us into the second part of the Times conversation, which I am going to quote from extensively. It’s about the national security apparatus that has been constructed in response to 9/11. Are Americans fully cognizant of it? Do they care? I have no idea, but there sure hasn’t been much public reckoning of it yet. Below are some excerpts that illustrate why it’s important that reckoning take place.
Michael Ignatieff: The most obvious consequence of 9/11 to me has been the creation of a new national security state, to rival the one created at the start of the Cold War. It is an archipelago beneath democratic scrutiny, and it has done liberal democracies real damage: rendition, torture, detention without trial, GuantÃ¡namo, military tribunals. Its justification is that it has prevented an attack on the homeland. But this is a strange kind of justification: the absence of apocalypse is held to justify a permanent state of emergency, extending indefinitely into the future. So the first question might be, with Bin Laden dead, what dismantling of this apparatus becomes possible? What enhanced oversight becomes necessary if we are not to perpetuate a permanent emergency?
Ian Buruma: …one reason Americans have allowed this to happen, I think, is that they bought into Dick Cheney’s paranoid world view, initially at least, the idea that we are in an existentialist war with terror, that Islamofascism, or whatever one wishes to call it, is a deadly threat to our existence. This is why it is so important to be clear and honest about our reasons to wage war. My opposition to the war in Iraq was not because I have a moral objection to taking out a tyrant. But the government was shifty, not clear about its reasons, and often lying about them. This damages our democracy. The same is true in Libya, I fear. Humanitarian intervention has become a fig leaf for revolutionary war, to topple a regime.
Paul Berman: Let me return for a moment to Michael’s original point [about the new national security state]. I do think there is an enormous problem of oversight. It derives from a systematic mendacity, which got its start under Bush in regard to the Iraq War, but I’m afraid has not come to an end. So we find ourselves fighting in Libya, Yemen, in Pakistan, in Somalia “” fighting in various ways “” and there is very little public recognition or discussion of this. This is an immense problem: political and moral.
Ian Buruma: But surely intellectuals, including, if I may say so, Michael and yourself [Berman], are complicit in that government mendacity. You both took the view at the time that you disagreed with most of Bush’s policies, but you were in favor of the war in Iraq, whatever Bush’s reasons. This makes light of the government’s stated reasons for war. If we accept war, just because we might like some of the possible results from it, we end up encouraging, or at least condoning, mendacity.
As I implied above, I don’t think we’ve fully grappled with the mendacity part. Longtime readers of this blog know that I’m not a fan of the ends justify the means rationale. So for example, when combatants in the climate debate resort to mendacious tactics to advance their side, I take objection. As Buruma says, “just because we might like some of the possible results from it, we end up encouraging, or at least condoning, mendacity.”
But back to the subject of this post. Here’s a fitting coda from the Danger Room’s Spencer Ackerman:
When Barack Obama ran for president, his national security team told me, in an extensive series of interviews, that a major focus of his presidency would be to confront what they called the “politics of fear” “” the national-security freakout that led to counterproductive post-9/11 moves like invading Iraq. But since coming to power, Obama has accommodated himself to the politics of fear far more than he’s confronted it.
Obama deserves credit for ordering the raid that killed bin Laden. But presidents don’t ever give up their power without a fight.
Only when citizens make it acceptable for politicians to recognize that the threat of terrorism isn’t so significant can the country finally get what it really needs, 10 years later: closure.
That can’t happen until we have an honest conversation about the politics of fear.
UPDATE: I’ve just become aware of this related, excellent post. Here is an excerpt:
We owe it to our veterans and to ourselves not to continue to blindly walk the path of the trajectory of 9/11, but to pause and reflect on what changes in the last ten years have been for the good and which require reassessment. Or repeal. To reassert ourselves, as Americans, as masters of our own destiny rather than reacting blindly to events while carelessly ceding more and more control over our lives and our livelihoods to the whims of others and a theatric quest for perfect security.