-- -- Yes, it changed everything -- not September 11,
2001, when the Twin Towers collapsed, but November 9, 1989, when
the Berlin Wall fell and left the U.S. at sea, drifting without
an enemy in a strange new world.
Through four decades of the Cold War, Americans had been able
to feel reasonably united in their determination to fight evil.
And everyone, even children, knew the name of the evildoers:
"the commies." Within two years after the Wall fell, the Soviet
Union had simply disappeared. In the U.S., nobody really knew
how to fight evil now, or even who the evildoers were. The
world's sole remaining superpower was "running out of demons,"
as Colin Powell complained.
Amid the great anguish of September 11, 2001, it was hard to
sense the paradoxical but very real feeling of relief that
flooded across the country. After a decade adrift with no foes
to oppose, Americans could sink back into a comfortingly
black-and-white world, neatly divided into the good guys and the
bad guys, the innocent and the guilty. In the hands of the Bush
administration, "terrorists," modest as their numbers might have
been, turned out to be remarkably able stand-ins for a whole
empire-plus of "commies." They became our all-purpose symbol for
the evil that fills our waking nightmares.
Today the very word "terrorist" conjures up anxiety-ridden
images worthy of the Cold War era -- images of an unpredictable
world always threatening to spin out of control. As then, so
now, sinister evil is said to lurk everywhere -- even right next
door -- always ready to spring upon unsuspecting victims.
Historians, considering the last decades of our history, are
well aware that millions of Americans didn't need the attacks of
9/11 to fear that their world was spinning out of control. As
the Cold War waned, profound differences on "values" issues
(previously largely kept under wraps) came out of the closet.
Societal anxiety rose. Many wondered how long a nation could
endure if it had no consensus on "moral matters" and no obvious
authority figures to turn to. Many feared they would lose their
moral anchor in an increasingly confusing and challenging world.
This was the real terror that the Bush administration played
upon when the Twin Towers fell. It took no time at all for the
President to be right on Manichaean message: "We've
seen that evil is real." "It
is enough to know that evil, like goodness, exists." He did
not have to say the rest explicitly, because (with a sigh of
relief and endless rites of ceremonial mourning) Americans
understood it: Goodness exists here in the good old USA. How do
we know? Because evil itself attacked us and we are so firmly
committed to fighting it.
Such circular logic fed public discourse from the springs of
a deeply buried unconscious longing for power, clarity, and
innocence. Once again we could stand tall in the world, the
dazzling hyperpower of hyperpowers. As long as we were fighting
evil, we had to be the good guys. If we weren't so good, why
would we be so determined to fight the supposedly new evil of
Of course, it worked the other way around, too: The only way
to prove that we were good was by hunting out and fighting evil.
If we were to keep on feeling certain that we were the good
guys, a steady supply of bad guys was a necessity -- and the
post-Cold War decade just hadn't done its job providing them. So
it could easily seem more appealing to launch a generational
Global War on Terror that would keep the "terrorists" around
permanently. What better way to keep on proving our virtue than
by combating and containing them forever?
The New Normalcy
The neoconservatives understand all this perfectly well --
and well before September 11, 2001. For years, they had dreamed
of preserving American virtue (and American global dominance) by
flaunting American military might. They just needed an ongoing
series of excuses to do the flaunting. The attacks of 9/11 gave
them their chance.
Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Condoleezza Rice (all
products of the Cold War era) said it clearly in the weeks
following the attack. Their new war would not be a
straightforward World War II-style march to victory. It would be
more like… well, the war they knew, the Cold War, with its
endless string of conflicts, crises, containments, and battles
in the frontier lands of what used to be called the Third World.
And it would be forever.
As Cheney put it, "There's
not going to be an end date when we're going to say, ‘There,
it's all over with.'" And he classically
summed things up this way: "Many of the steps we have now
been forced to take will become permanent in American life. … I
think of it as the new normalcy.'' The neocons were glad to see
the war on terrorism revive memories of the days when -- they
imagine -- we contained the commies, learned to stop worrying,
and loved the bomb (despite all its terror).
It was a strange love that they remembered so fondly. Polls
made it clear that we never really stopped worrying then -- and
polls make it clear that we still haven't now. Now, as then, we
just bury the terror ever deeper and console ourselves as best
we can with the mercilessness of our enemies and the relative
safety of our own neck of the woods.
recent poll tells us that only 14% of Americans feel safer
now than they did five years ago. Seventy-nine percent expect
another attack on U.S. soil within the next year, and 60% think
it's likely in the next few months. Four out of five say that
"we will always have to live with the threat of terrorism,"
though only one in five admits to being "personally very
concerned about an attack" in his or her own area. A Florida
woman captured the prevailing mood when she told a reporter:
"When I stop to think about it, I don't feel very safe. But then
again, on a day-to-day basis, I feel fine." As
Rep. Peter King, chair of the House Homeland Security
Committee, put it: "It's like we live in two parallel
Those words should sound awfully familiar to anyone who lived
through the Cold War years. The war on terrorism has revived the
Cold War mindset, in which we are all citizens of a national
insecurity state. The terror of impending annihilation from a
vast, conspiratorial, and evil enemy has again become the vague
backdrop of everyday life. To assure ourselves of our absolute
goodness, we must see the enemy as absolute evil; not a
collection of human beings bent on harming us, but a network of
monsters bent on -- and capable of -- destroying us utterly. In
other words, Cheney's "new normalcy" is but a version of an
older, deeper apocalyptic terror. Every loss -- of a diplomatic
conflict or an economic tussle or a pair of skyscrapers -- is
once again framed as a portent of looming doom for the nation.
Any successful attack upon us, we are told, could bring down the
curtain of Armageddon.
Here's the irony. Unlike the nuclear-armed Soviet Union in
the Cold War years, terrorists cannot actually threaten to
obliterate our country or destroy the planet. But each
apocalyptic warning of war to the death by the Bush
administration only hastens another kind of loss -- the loss of
the American imperial power they so prize.
Even if actual extinction doesn't threaten, when it seems to,
a nation, like an animal, is tempted to fight back with no holds
barred. That's the attitude Bush and the neocons have tried to
inculcate since 9/11. It's the only attitude, they insist, that
can save America's military might and moral fiber. Indeed, for
hard-core neocons, the main point of their global-war-on-terror
policies is to revive this very Cold War mentality.
Yet those policies have obviously backfired terribly. The war
on terrorism was supposed to build a new American century -- a
unipolar world in which the U.S. would reign supreme. But every
day it looks more and more like the 21st century will be the
multipolar century, with any number of powerful nations and
regional groupings successfully challenging U.S. economic,
diplomatic, and military preeminence.
Bush and his neocon advisors certainly don't bear all the
blame for an American imperial decline. But their utter
misreading of the nature of U.S. military power and their lack
of interest in economic and diplomatic realities has certainly
hastened along a process that, in some fashion, was bound to
The United States reached the peak of its power in the late
1940s. The meat-grinder of World War II had chewed up all the
other great powers and their colonial empires, too. In the
ensuing decades, as the others recovered and once-dominated
nations like China and India broke free and gained traction, the
world moved inevitably toward a multipolar future.
Cold war presidents from Truman to Reagan hastened the
process by building up U.S. allies like Germany and Japan in
order to stave off the evil empire. And they sometimes even
heeded the call of those allies to refrain from using military
force (or too much of it anyway), lest a global war be
triggered. Empowering our allies, while keeping them militarily
subservient, actually helped them grab a bigger slice of the
global economic pie, encouraging the rise of multipolarism. Big
mistake, the neocons declared as, after 9/11, they set the Bush
administration on an aggressive course of unilateralism, aiming
at their dream of a New-Rome-style unipolarism.
Looking back, it's easy to see what a big mistake they made
-- even in their own terms. Their unilateralism and militarism
accelerated to near warp speed the decline of U.S. power and
influence around the world. Every military blow or threatened
blow only multiplied American enemies; every shock-and-awe
action only created more opposition, even from increasingly
standoffish allies. In the years to come, for an economically
weakened "last superpower," there will be more and more
occasions, on more and more fronts, when the U.S. will meet its
match and have to back down. None of these will spell doom for
us. But in context of the national insecurity state, they're
likely to be framed as apocalyptic defeats, harbingers of the
end time itself, and, above all, good reason to fight back
blindly with all our might.
This is the vicious circle from Hell. The Bush
administration's aggressive policies weaken U.S. power. Then its
officials try to frighten the public into supporting the very
same aggressive policies. We were stuck in a similar cycle, only
half-recognized, throughout the Cold War years, and there's no
end in sight. So far, it looks like not much has changed at all
But we don't have to stay stuck. There's nothing inevitable
about history. Some 160 years after the French Revolution,
Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai was asked how that event had
changed the world. "It's too soon to tell," Zhou replied
impishly. Five short years after 9/11, it's way too soon to tell
if the attacks of that day actually "changed everything," or if
they changed much of anything at all.
Already, there is a growing awareness that the Bush Global
War on Terror is doing more harm than good. Even from the
foreign policy elite we can hear (though still often faintly)
voices saying it's time to call it off. For now, the talk is
narrowly focused on our imperial well-being -- the weakening of
U.S. power and interests around the world.
Perhaps, as losses mount, Americans will eventually see the
more important truth: Simplistic moralism and a pervasive fear
of apocalyptic disaster weaken our society here at home. They
make every step toward positive change look like a looming
danger and that plays right into the hands of conservatives who
are dedicated to preventing the change we need so badly. If the
failed war on terror eventually teaches us this lesson, 9/11
will turn out to be the day that did indeed change everything