A Time of Deepening Dread: In the Wake of 9/11

It’s being depicted almost universally as “the day that changed America.” But there is qualitative and quantitative change. 9/11 produced no fundamental change in the way that the U.S. government, which Martin Luther King described accurately in 1968 as “the greatest purveyor of violence on earth,” behaves.

Days after the attacks, Condoleeza Rice spoke vaguely about the “opportunities” they might provide. She might have said more clearly: “We can use the fear these attacks have produced among our people to get them to accept an ongoing war against Muslim countries, whom we can somehow link to the Muslims who attacked us. We can use the people’s fear to shred the Constitution, to pursuade them that losses of personal liberty are necessary for national security. We can thus augment the power of the state. We can use our new-found national unity behind an unpopular president who stole an election to bully our allies into supporting our new aggressions.” Because this is what the Bush administration proceeded to do.

Hours after 9/11 Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld scrawled a note, “Gotta go big, sweep it all in, things related and unrelated, Iraq, too?” Translation: “Let’s use these attacks to effect regime change throughout the Greater Middle East. Let’s link 9/11 to Iraq and fulfill President Bush’s dream of toppling Saddam Hussein.” In a meeting of top officials on Sept. 12, Rumsfeld, according to Richard Clarke, then Bush’s counter-terrorism advisor, “said there aren’t any good targets in Afghanistan. And there are lots of good targets in Iraq.” That is to say: “We don’t need any evidence of any connection between the Afghan-based bin Laden operation and Iraq. We can strike at Iraq now, and get away with it.”

At the same meeting, according to Clarke, Bush took him aside and demanded to know whether Iraq was involved in the attacks. When Clarke explained that the professional intelligence community found no connection between the secularist Iraqi regime despised by al-Qaeda as “communist,” and the fundamentalist Sunni group feared and despised by Saddam Hussein, Bush “came back at me and said: ‘Iraq! Saddam! Find out if there’s a connection.’ And in a very intimidating way.”

We all (should) recall what happened after that. In October Congress passed, with minimal debate, the USA PATRIOT Act. The very title (“Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) was designed to put a patriotic face on a massive legal text, which few legislators had bothered to read, that authorized indefinite detentions of immigrants, searches of homes and offices without owners’ or the occupants’ knowledge or permission, and searches of telephone, e-mail, and financial records without a court order. The act was renewed in 2005 and remains in effect, endorsed by the Obama administration.

Meanwhile, from late September government officials and journalists began receiving anthrax letters. Many, including John McCain and the editors of the Wall Street Journal, hinted or insisted that these must have been sent by Iraqi agents. By February 2002 the FBI had ascertained that the anthrax had been produced in a U.S. lab, and it is now clear that Iraq had no anthrax as of 2001. We do not know who was responsible for those letters. What we do know is that they were used to build fear of Iraq, and paved the way for Bush’s attack, in his State of the Union address in January 2002, on the “Axis of Evil” including Iraq, Iran, and North Korea.

It was a deliberate ploy to conflate in the minds of the people of this country vastly dissimilar Muslim targets with al-Qaeda; North Korea was no doubt thrown in to indicate that “terror” rather than Islam was the U.S. target, and to reduce Muslim objections. From that point the administration relentlessly prepared U.S. public opinion for war with Iraq.

That meant sidelining the intelligence community represented by empiricists like Clarke and establishing (in mid-2002) a super-secretive “Office of Special Plans” in the Pentagon which cherry-picked intelligence, procured through such one-time CIA assets such as Ahmad Chalabi, Ayad Allawi, and “Curveball” in Germany, to build the case for war. Vice President and chief neocon patron Dick Cheney, along with his chief of staff “Scooter” Libby (subsequently convicted in the “Plame Affair”), repeatedly visited CIA headquarters to insist that implausible evidence for Iraqi WMD and al-Qaeda links be included in intelligence reports sent to the inattentive, un-inquisitive President Bush.

Juicy pieces of this disinformation campaign (notably the sensationalistic story, almost surely produced by U.S. sources in Italy, that Iraq had attempted to procure uranium from Niger) were disseminated by collaborators in the press (most notably, Judith Miller of the New York Times) by administration officials, then cited by top officials on the weekend interview programs to promote the war cause. (The Niger documents were cited by Bush in a speech in January 2003 but immediately exposed as forgeries by Mohamed ElBaradei and the IAEA. Earlier former diplomat Joseph Wilson, sent by the CIA to Niger to investigate, had ascertained that Niger had never sold uranium to the Iraqis.) The administration backed off, but never apologized or explained, and indeed Cheney’s office sought to discredit Wilson when he went public with his story in 2003. Congress has never investigated, or determined, who forged the letters, and why.

In the wake of 9/11, the Bush regime tested the willingness of the people to accept drastic curbs on privacy rights. From January 2002 to August 2003, Adm. John Poindexter, who had been implicated in the Iran-Contra scandal during the Reagan administration, was Director of the “Information Awareness Office” of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. With its logo depicting a pyramid topped by an all-seeing eye, this office sought to obtain unprecedented rights to violate rights to privacy. It was dissolved due to popular protest but what former Soviet KGB chief Yevgeny Primakov called the “Sovietization” of the U.S. continued. (Primakov stated in 2004 that Homeland Security had hired former Markus Wolf, former head of East Germany’s Stasi surveillance apparatus, as a consultant.)

For the Bush administration, 9/11 was a license to expand surveillance of U.S. citizens, to kill, and to lie on a colossal scale to justify the killing. There was (and is) a coherent philosophy behind all this. First of all, a rejection of rational objective thinking.

An unnamed Bush aide (probably Karl Rove) told the New York Times’ Ron Suskind in October 2004 that people like Suskind were “in what we call the reality-based community,” by which he meant “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.

“That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

This celebration of myth, reminiscent of the Nazi attack on rationalism and cultivation of Big Lies to attain goals — this positive advocacy of irrationality in order to manipulate a gullible public — found a ready audience. Studies of self-defined conservatives, Bush’s base, find that they’re uncomfortable with nuance. They prefer simplicity to complexity, particularly when it comes to the understanding of science, history, and politics. They are most comfortable with “us vs. them” paradigms, whether it’s them against liberal academia, the “lamestream (non-Fox) press,” scientists warning of global warming and explicating biological evolution, abortion and gay-rights advocates, or Muslims.

Neoconservatives in the Bush administration, with Rumsfeld’s deputy Paul Wolfowitz most conscipuous among them, knew they could exploit both fear and ignorance in pursuing their project: the transformation of the Middle East to enhance the position of Israel.

Step 1: Announce (as Bush did, in a well-received speech to Congress on September 20, 2001) that “the U.S. will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.” That justified the attack on the Taliban, that xenophobic Afghan Pashtun operation that (however vile) showed no interest in a global jihad, sought cordial relations with the U.S. (and was, in fact, receiving U.S. aid to eradicate opium production and being praised by Colin Powell for its success in this connection as of early 2001). No matter that the Taliban was not operationally connected to bin Laden, tolerated according to the Pashtunwali code as a guest, had probably been unaware of al-Qaeda’s plans for a U.S. attack, and was actually negotiating as Bush spoke about deporting bin Laden.

This statement was a signal that the U.S. would deliberately blur any distinctions among its widening set of targets, from the Palestinian Authority’s Yasser Arafat to the Iranian president Ahmad Rafsanjani (then cautiously pursuing a rapprochement with the U.S. that had been welcomed by Colin Powell’s State Department) to the secular/Baathist Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. The message to the masses was: all these Muslims are the same. The fact that Bush was simultaneously insisting that the U.S. was not anti-Muslim did not reduce the efficacy of this campaign to tar widely dissimilar forces in the Muslim world with the same brush.

The fact is the only thing these disparate targets had in common was a hostility to Israeli occupation of Arab land and the U.S’s slavishly pro-Israel policies.

Step 2: Declare, to the the entire world, in the same September 20 speech: ”Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” Clearly echoing the words of Jesus in Matthew 12:30, this statement was designed to rally people in this country around an extreme nationalist pole and to strike fear into the hearts of anyone hesitant to accept U.S. leadership after 9/11. Embattled Yemeni President Saleh has said frankly that his government’s decision to accept U.S. and advisors was determined by this threatening declaration. Just like Pakistani president Musharraf’s decision to capitulate to all U.S. demands in September 2001, including those egregiously violating his nation’s sovereignty, came after Richard Armitage of the State Department threatened to “bomb you back to the Stone Age” if Pakistan was uncooperative.

European commentators began with some alarm to describe U.S. policy and statements as “Manichaean,” that is, simplistically positing the U.S. as the force of “good” in the world versus ambient “evil.” At a European security conference in 2002, Paul Wolfowitz was asked what the administration meant by the strange term “Axis of Evil.” (Obviously Iraq, its long-time foe Iran, and North Korea did not form any sort of geopolitical or military axis!) His cryptic response: “You’re either for or against us.” The French and Germans soon decided they were not for a U.S. assault on Iraq, correctly reasoning that it was based on lies and opportunism. Hence the temporary vilification of France by the U.S. Congress and press.

9/11 did change the U.S. But not because it allowed (even in the face of demonstrations on a scale unseen since the Vietnam War) it to follow up the invasion of Afghanistan with the disastrous invasion of Iraq, resulting in the slaughter of hundreds of thousands. This is all quite normal in U.S. history. U.S. administrations have lied their way into wars from at least 1898 to the present; from the USS Maine incident to the Tonkin Gulf Incident to the threat against U.S. medical students in Grenada in 1983, use of disinformation against the U.S. public to acquire support for has been the norm.

And war, itself, is the norm. In my lifetime, the Vietnam War, the invasions of the Dominican Republic, Grenada, and Panama, the first Gulf War, the attack on Serbia, the Afghan and Iraq wars. Even the presidents who haven’t drawn the country into all-out war have felt free to deploy military force anywhere to obtain their objective (Gerald Ford attacked Cambodians in the Mayaquez Incident; Jimmy Carter attempted a raid on Iran). As H. Rap Brown once put it, “Violence is American as cherry pie.”

9/11 didn’t change this country because it produced a (continuing) wave of repression. This too is par for the course. The systematic harassment, round-up and deportation of certain immigrant and minority communities is in the tradition of the Palmer Raids during World War I and the Japanese-American internment camps of World War II. There is no qualitative change here.

But the magnitude of change — the sudden, sweeping alteration of law; the proliferation of illegal activities by government symbolized by the massive horde of documents amassed by the Vice President’s office (which Cheney has continued to refuse to submit to the National Archives in accordance with law); the expansion of the “war on terror” to include fronts in undeclared wars from the Philippines to Yemen and Somalia — this was unprecedented. It was unprecedented for a vice-president of the U.S., whose citizens have tended to prefer their wars short and successful and who ultimately rebel against indefinite commitments, to declare that the war beginning in 2001 would not end in “our lifetimes” –that is, to commit the next generation in this country to a vaguely conceived war against “terrorists” (who include, according to the State Department, anyone from radical Irish nationalists to Nepalese Maoists, to anyone using violence opposed by the world’s “greatest purveyor of violence”).

I don’t recall the weeks and months after 9/11 as a period of “America transformed,” of unity in the face of grief. For me it was a time of deepening dread.

The syrupy patriotic music played at regular intervals on cable news channels, the repeated images of the smoldering Twin Towers didn’t move me towards nationalist self-pity. I knew too much about why people around the world hate U.S. policies, aggressive wars, sanctions, support for dictators such as those deposed recently in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen. The ubiquitous U.S. flags, fluttering continuously in the background of our TV screens as if by edict, didn’t cause me to revise my assessment of the global meaning of that symbol. Indeed I thought it terrifying.

Local governments everywhere were competing to saturate neighborhoods with the flag. A type of warped patriotism, like the Nazi German variety, was being deployed perhaps as never before to drum up support for war. Most people, I suppose, had no problem with this, reasoning that it merely expressed love of country and national unity in a time of crisis. I felt differently. I kept remembering Grace Slick’s comment, in the notes to the Jefferson Airplane’s 1969 Volunteers album: “Don’t point that flag at me.”

As we drove through a Boston neighborhood, I asked a colleague of mine who had grown up in Shanghai whether she had ever seen anything like this. “Not even during the height of the Cultural Revolution,” she replied, had she ever seen such a massive propaganda campaign. Because that was what it was. When Bush in 2002 led the nation’s school children in the Pledge of Allegiance (stating, in a context of round-ups and deportations, that they believed they lived in a nation “with liberty and justice for all”) he was joining in a well-coordinated effort to inflict a certain form of aggressive nationalism on these innocents. I thought it nauseating (and was proud to later learn that my daughter in high school had refused to participate but sat quietly in her chair in protest).

Inevitably the wave of extreme chauvinism receded. When it became clear that there were no WMD in Iraq, nor any appreciable al-Qaeda ties, Bush’s ratings dropped. When what the neocons had depicted as a “cakewalk” turned into a bloody, protracted war, they dipped further. Still, he won a second term. And while an electorate weary of two wars and seeking change brought Barack Obama to power, largely due to his putative opposition to the Iraq War, it found more of the same.

The legacy of 9/11 includes the ongoing cowardice of the entire political class. Obama said he’d shut down the torture camps; he hasn’t. He said he’d end “special renditions.” He hasn’t. He claims to have withdrawn all combat troops from Iraq (pursuant to the Bush-era agreement with Baghdad). He hasn’t. He has vastly expanded the Afghan War, repeatedly attacked Pakistan, and gone to war without congressional authorization but legislators’ approval and complicity with Libya, a nation that had under Gaddafi maintained cordial ties with U.S. intelligence and corporations.

There is no glory, heroism or honor in the U.S. response to 9/11, that “day that changed America.” Only shameful opportunism, cowardly use of lethal power, and effective Goebbels-like deployment of fear.

Gary Leupp is a Professor of History at Tufts University, and author of numerous works on Japanese history. He can be reached at: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu. Read other articles by Gary.