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Sunday, October 15, 2006

Our Opinion

The Man Who Murdered America: Some Thoughts on September 10, 2001


This edition marks our fifth anniversary. The most significant change—and, in our belief, improvement—to this experiment has been our expansion into traditional publishing, here in the United States and, very soon, in Greece, as part of an ambitious joint venture with Estia, Greece’s oldest and most prestigious publishing house. Meanwhile, we are working continually to improve the site and to offer more services to our readers and supporters—which leads us to the most important point we want to make in this brief message, namely, that we genuinely thank everyone who has encouraged, assisted, and worked with us during the last five years. We hope you will continue to do so in what we look forward to being the many years ahead.
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It is important…that the habits of thinking in a free country should inspire caution in those entrusted with its administration, to confine themselves within their respective constitutional spheres, avoiding in the exercise of the powers of one department to encroach upon another. The spirit of encroachment tends to consolidate the powers of all the departments in one, and thus to create, whatever the form of government, a real despotism. A just estimate of that love of power, and proneness to abuse it, which predominates in the human heart, is sufficient to satisfy us of the truth of this position. The necessity of reciprocal checks in the exercise of power, by dividing and distributing it into different depositaries, and constituting each the guardian of the public weal against invasions by the others, has been evinced by experiments ancient and modern; some of them in our country and under our own eyes. To preserve them must be as necessary as to institute them….
In offering to you, my countrymen, these counsels of an old and affectionate friend, I dare not hope they will make the strong and lasting impression I could wish; that they will control the usual current of the passions, or prevent our nation from running the course which has hitherto marked the destiny of nations. But, if I may even flatter myself that they may be productive of some partial benefit, some occasional good; that they may now and then recur to moderate the fury of party spirit, to warn against the mischiefs of foreign intrigue, to guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism; this hope will be a full recompense for the solicitude for your welfare, by which they have been dictated….. —George Washington, Farewell Address, 1796

The words of the Founders—Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin—are so cruel to us today precisely because they indict our degraded consciences, as individuals and as a nation. The young Republic to which Washington bade farewell has finally, after 210 years, succumbed to that fury of party spirit, those mischiefs (indeed, machinations) of foreign intrigue, and, above all and most tragically and deadly, those impostures of pretended patriotism against which he so lucidly warned his fellow citizens—we repeat, fellow citizens—present and future. How did it happen, and when? Where were we all? What were we doing (besides checking the stock tables, negotiating that house sale, trying to get our three-year-olds into Harvard and Stanford) as “the spirit of encroachment” systematically subdued us and, finally, thoroughly cowed, we conceded a free country’s “habits of thinking” to the man in the flight jacket, strutting as only false (or lunatic) soldiers do, announcing “mission accomplished,” that is, the “real despotism” that is now our political providence and, shamefully, constitutional dispensation?

To be honest, we don’t know. We have no idea (or, at least, no ready-made theory) for how things went so desperately wrong, so quickly, and with such apparent unconcern on the part of those who were its primary victims: the citizens of this country. There’s that word again. We are, of course, achingly conscious of the fact that even to use it nowadays—when “consumer,” that verbal charm whose ritual incantation defines the magical artifice of twenty-first-century American “freedom”—is to provoke universal ridicule. But it may be that it tells us all we need to know about our country’s destiny, which is to say our own. Once upon a time, before we became a people, we “Americans” were, like our cousins in the Old World, subjects. Our Declaration of Independence, however, made it clear to mankind—for whose opinions we then still maintained a decent respect—that that was no longer acceptable, and that we would henceforth be subject only to ourselves. By all indications, we’ve currently chosen—under the paradoxical impulse of “individual” sovereignty—to become subjects again, albeit not to monarchs or even ruling elites this time, but, as Washington so presciently understood, to an amorphous, indefinite, but nonetheless all-encompassing and, to cite his own description of the peril, real despotism, defined principally—as all despotisms are—by fear.

It has been five years and a month since September 11, 2001. The problem with the existential tyranny with which that date has now been invested, and which accretes to it daily, is that it hides—camouflages, distorts, diminishes, erases—our history. Only now can we fully grasp the malign consequences of the perverse notion that everything changed that day. What does it mean to say that “everything changed” on September 11? Most simply, that September 10, 2001—and every day that came before it back to July 4, 1776—should be excised from our national memory and repressed from our national consciousness. It is now as clear as the sky above New York City on the morning of September 11 that whatever is left that is most valuable about and germane to the American experience resides in the facts of life, and in our expectations as a people, that we took for granted on September 10, 2001. And while to contemplate that day might soon prove more painful than to reflect on the one that followed, let us at least have the honesty, the courage, to attempt it.

What is most agonizing about the memory is that it seems like yesterday. And yet, if the past is a foreign country, our most recent past seems like another world. Think back on it and it almost takes on the dimensions of a utopian delusion, a hallucination so enticing that we waken from it all sweaty from the sheer seduction of the vision. Spare a thought for September 10, just an ever-so-brief five years ago, and the sheer ugliness of the country today hardly seems possible.

Among the more salient features of the American landscape before the “Long War” descended upon it like the premature evening of a permanent eclipse was that, among New Yorkers, Rudolph Giuliani had been written off as a failed, even a dismal, mayor and, among Americans, the man in the Oval Office had approval ratings in August 2001 ranging from the low 40s to just above fifty percent: unheard-of unpopularity for a newly installed president still in his “honeymoon” period, but understandable given the fact that he had conspicuously engineered his appointment to the office since he could not succeed at being elected to it. (By Mid-September, George Bush’s approval soared to a range of 85 percent to the low 90s—unprecedented in the history of presidential polling.) This is the least of it, however. Men and women come and go; it is nations, societies, that remain, for better or worse. What now seems truly remarkable about the country that existed a mere half-decade ago was what we can only describe as its constitutional fortitude.

It has now been forgotten—the facts have been actively suppressed by the American government, and its supporters, today—that the United States was once a critical voice in the adoption and extension of international law. An original signatory to all four Geneva Conventions, it was also, more to the point, the central force behind the Nuremberg Tribunal, which later—again supported strongly by the United States—led the United Nations to adopt the seven Nuremberg Principles in 1950. These principles state that:

I. Any person who commits an act which constitutes a crime under international law is responsible therefore and liable to punishment.

II. The fact that internal law does not impose a penalty for an act which constitutes a crime under international law does not relieve the person who committed the act from responsibility under international law.

III. The fact that a person who committed an act which constitutes a crime under international law acted as Head of State or responsible Government official does not relieve him from responsibility under international law.

IV. The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him.

V. Any person charged with a crime under international law has the right to a fair trial on the facts and law.

VI. The crimes hereinafter set out are punishable as crimes under international law:

a. Crimes against peace:

i. Planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances;

ii. Participation in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of any of the acts mentioned under (i).

b. War crimes:

Violations of the laws or customs of war which include, but are not limited to, murder, ill-treatment or deportation to slave-labor or for any other purpose of civilian population of or in occupied territory, murder or ill-treatment of prisoners of war, of persons on the seas, killing of hostages, plunder of public or private property, wanton destruction of cities, towns, or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity.

c. Crimes against humanity:

Murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation and other inhuman acts done against any civilian population, or persecutions on political, racial or religious grounds, when such acts are done or such persecutions are carried on in execution of or in connection with any crime against peace or any war crime.

VII. Complicity in the commission of a crime against peace, a war crime, or a crime against humanity as set forth in Principle VI is a crime under international law.

It is not accidental that the current government of the United States has waged such an unrelenting campaign against the International Criminal Court. Even the most peremptory reading makes clear that the US government—and everyone under its authority during the last few years—has serially violated all of the Nuremberg Principles, and is therefore liable for the consequent crimes. We will let others adjudicate the legal issues, however. It is the moral ones that concern us here. Below are two photographs. The first is little known and shows GI corpsmen paying tribute to a dead German soldier during the Battle of Normandy, in accordance with the principles of the Geneva Conventions. The second is instantly recognizable and notorious in every corner of the globe. Since there is hardly a human being on the planet who doesn’t know what this picture depicts, suffice it to say that the unfortunate victim of this appalling violation of those Conventions, Satar Jabar, was not even arrested by American troops on suspicions of being a terrorist, let alone an enemy combatant. No, he ended up as he did for an alleged carjacking (a crime, we can’t help but comment, that before the Americans arrived in Baghdad, was more common in Los Angeles than in the Iraqi capital).

But D-Day was then, and Abu Ghraib is now. And torture was once what was done to innocent people behind the “Iron Curtain”—or, at worst, what “our sons-of-bitches” did to their own people. We might have trained them at the School of the Americas in the excruciating achievement of “Libertad, Paz y Fraternidad” (to echo that institution’s Orwellian motto), but we at least tried to keep our own hands clean. But real despotism is hands-on. Not that we still don’t subcontract human indignity: extraordinary times call for extraordinary renditions, after all. But we now understand the importance of direct involvement. Fear is an extremely fungible commodity, easily exchangeable for silence, complicity, and the esprit de corps of the torture unit.

In a couple of weeks, there will be congressional elections, which the Democrats will win, or not. In either case, nothing will change, precisely because “the habits of thinking in a free country” have been conceded to the torturer—the essential concession for making a despotism real. In the nation whose parents and grandparents came to maturity believing that the only thing to fear was fear itself, fear has not only become the dominant political protocol but the very grammar of political discourse, codifying that pretended patriotism that has replaced American habits of thinking and, invariably, free—that is, fearless—speech.

Which is why the systematic dissolution of public education—and the social, and even attempted legal, privileging of private education in a republic that was based on the notion that, to quote the University of Virginia’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, no “tax can be called that which we give to our children in the most valuable of all forms, that of instruction” (Note to Elementary School Act, 1817)—is such a critical element in the project to suppress democracy. And why it is part and parcel of the bizarre and perilous assault on science: an attack previously unimaginable by any president in a country that always prided itself on its innovation and practicality and empiricism, and where most men and women echo, again, Jefferson’s political insight that “Science is more important in a republican than in any other government” (Letter, 1821). But this is all of a piece: destroy public education, strike at science, and you hit at the very heart of those “habits of thinking” without which a democracy is merely a formal constitutional shell covering the actual corruption of the body politic underneath.

In his Farewell Address, Washington also warned Americans to “cherish public credit” as a “source of strength and security.” Indeed, he continued, “One method of preserving it is to use it as sparingly as possible, avoiding occasions of expense by cultivating peace….” He then cautioned those who were charged with the treasury to bear in mind always their responsibility to future generations by “avoiding…the accumulation of debt, not only by shunning occasions of expense, but by vigorous exertions in time of peace to discharge the debts…not ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burthen which we ourselves ought to bear.” George Bush inherited a nearly $6 trillion, projected 10-year, and nearly $300 billion actual, budget surplus from Bill Clinton, which, through tax cuts planned even before assuming office and barefaced manipulation of events after September 11, he immediately (and strategically, in order to carry out his designs) proceeded to turn into a $4 trillion, 10-year deficit, and actual shortfall this year of $400 billion—including the Social Security surplus that has been continually raided over the last five years to pay for, among other things, the Bush subsidies of the top 1 percent of taxpayers (a term that, in this instance, we use loosely).

The obvious, premeditated consequence of George Bush’s economic policies, and especially of his fanatical opposition to the principle of equitable taxation—on which every Republican president of the twentieth century has agreed almost as consistently as every Democrat, from Theodore Roosevelt to Mr. Bush’s own father, who famously raised taxes in order to reduce the deficit despite his campaign pledge not to do so—has been the largest deliberate redistribution of income from bottom to top in the history of the United States (and, arguably, the world). Never before in this country has such a massive flow of wealth been purposely directed by the White House from the vast majority of Americans to such a tiny fraction of a fraction. This relentless class war of the very few against the very, very many has been waged with such cynicism and audacity that it borders on sheer social vengeance. Once of its consequences—hardly unintended, in our opinion—has been a uniquely American form of ethnic cleansing. And if there are some readers who think we are wildly overstating the case, we refer them—just as one example—to the new demographic facts by which an “act of God” was transformed by the Bush administration into a policymaking tool: today, according to the New York Times (see “New Orleans Population Is Reduced Nearly 60%,” Adam Nossiter, October 7), the population of New Orleans has dropped nearly 60 percent from 454,863 to 187,525, of which whites now make up 44 percent and blacks 46 percent, as opposed to the pre-Katrina breakdown of 67 percent black and 33 percent white. An act of God, indeed.

Once upon a time, of course, Americans would have cared. They no longer do. Or, rather, they understand the concept of criminal co-conspiracy. They know that the man who brazenly sits in the White House today, after two stolen elections, murdered the United States of America that they inherited. They know that the sneers and smirks—those singular public expressions of his contempt for them, and for the country’s laws and, most of all, for its moral history and meaning—are the signs, not merely of his lack of remorse but, more to the point, of his vast self-satisfaction in how thoroughly he has implicated them in his crimes. “The necessity of reciprocal checks in the exercise of power…has been evinced by experiments ancient and modern; some of them in our country and under our own eyes,” Washington counseled. While one man can murder a country, and a people, in other words, he cannot do so without countless accomplices: the very definition of a real despotism.

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