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By David Podvin
When terrorists attacked the United States in 2001, they were not operating under the illusion that leveling some buildings and killing some people would bring the world’s only superpower to its knees. According to Al-Qaida strategist Ayman al-Zawahri, he anticipated that instead of reacting to the aggression America would overreact, and in the process of prioritizing their own personal safety above all other considerations Americans would self-destruct.
The gambit was predicated on the theory that this is not The Greatest American Generation, but rather a generation of cowards who would eagerly sacrifice anything and everything in order to save their own sorry asses. From al-Zawahri’s perspective, the average American is a consumer instead of a patriot. He contends that Americans are decadent infidels who spend their children’s inheritance on themselves, then ship the progeny off to die for the principle of affordable gasoline.
The terrorist leaders knew that in the wake of 9/11 the United States military would pursue them, and that there would never be a shortage of young American patriots willing to die for their country. They also believed that the typical citizen of the United States has become egocentric to the point of being easily manipulated, both by foreign enemies and domestic demagogues.
The game plan was to provoke Americans into hysteria, then sit back and watch George W. Bush do the rest. In Bush Al-Qaida has found an ideal foil, someone who responds with visceral predictability. Since the events of 9/11, Bush has attenuated liberty at home and alienated nations abroad while strengthening the most radical elements of Islam. This is exactly what Osama bin Laden predicted would happen, and it is exactly what he wanted.
Even if bin Laden were killed tomorrow, he has already succeeded by maneuvering America into a position of greater belligerence and corresponding weakness. The terrorists are in this war for the long haul, and it appears as though time is on their side. Three years after 9/11 and following the American conquest of two defenseless little countries, Al-Qaida has more members worldwide than it did before Bush launched his crusade of reprisal.
Eventually, Al-Qaida will strike the United States again, and it will be easily done. Republican politicians benefited immensely from the terror attacks, so they have left America’s borders wide open to the trespass of anyone who wants to smuggle weapons of mass destruction into the country. Over the last three years, Bush has given more taxpayer dollars to Halliburton than he has spent safeguarding nuclear power plants and other asset rich targets for terrorism. Even after all the Hessian-style blather about “homeland security”, the United States remains pitifully vulnerable to attack.
But the terrorists are in no hurry. While the physical action gets all the attention, it is the diplomatic arena where Al-Qaida is making the largest strides. In responding to the events of 9/11 by implementing policies that assert American dominance of the world, Bush has achieved the longstanding right wing wet dream of making the United States an international pariah. Where once the world looked to America for leadership, now it cringes in fear.
Most Americans have no idea how dependent they are on foreign good will; if China and Japan were to stop buying United States Treasury bonds, the federal government would immediately default on its obligations, creating economic chaos. This is a major reason why Al-Qaida has increasingly made Asia its base of operations, seeking to lure the clueless Bush into another ham handed military misadventure that hits the Chinese and Japanese close to where they live.
The current conflict between the terrorists and the United States has elements in common with the Cold War, including the McCarthyism that is now dominating American politics and worldwide trepidation of the next evil action that might be taken by either combatant. The major difference is in the nature of America’s enemy: Theodore Roosevelt once described the Russians as being “amazingly stupid and inept”. This time, the foe is shrewd, and they understand us better than we understand them. As a result, the United States is becoming the most recent historical empire to be outmaneuvered by a militarily inferior foe.
The American people have ruled the international roost for a long time now, and a majority of citizens have come to believe that the United States is entitled to do anything in the name of self-defense. Public opinion has supported the concept that countries posing no threat to America should be attacked and their people should be killed based on the mind reading ability of a leader who has yet to demonstrate book reading ability.
The zeitgeist is fear. By referencing 9/11, the Federal Treasury can be bankrupted, even if it is really being emptied to reward GOP campaign contributors. By invoking the terrorist threat, the Bill of Rights can be shredded, even if that accomplishes nothing more than implementation of the Republican Party platform. By speaking ominously about the subversives amongst us, opposition to conservative policies can be reclassified as treason. Most sadly, the freedoms that were purchased by the blood of true patriots can now be abandoned in the name of security. Once, Americans preferred to live free or die. Today, in a nation mostly populated by narcissists, freedom is widely viewed as an impediment to safety, something to be cast overboard when the sea gets too stormy.
In such a nation, it is unsurprising that George W. Bush is viewed by most citizens as being admirable - narcissists tend to admire people like themselves. Bush believes that sacrifice is an essential part of life, and that all sacrifices should be made by other people on his behalf. The same view prevails among a majority of voters who believe that other people should underwrite their government benefits and that other people’s children should die in order to fill their SUVs. There are many decent Americans who place the interests of our nation above their personal well being, but these patriots are outnumbered by a substantial margin.
The terrorists who have declared war on the United States represent a legitimate threat to this country, yet it is a finite threat. While the jihadists are truly evil, they do not have the ability to invade and occupy this land. Although they can destroy buildings and kill people in America, they cannot destroy freedom and kill democracy…. only we can do that by allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed by panic.
Like many sincerely religious people, the members of al Qaida are primitives who yearn to coerce the world back into the Dark Ages. There is no excuse for their depravity, no grievance that justifies their inhumanity. They present a very real challenge that requires a strong American leader and a stalwart American public, but it is hard to have one without the other, and the United States is currently lacking both.
Our commander-in-chief is a swaggering weakling, just as cruel people invariably are weak. From his early days of blowing up frogs with firecrackers and tormenting siblings with a bb gun, Bush has embraced the fundamental conservative premise that equates being a bully with being strong. He is gutless, as he proved when he sent another American in his place to fight a war that he supported, and as he proved again by cowering in a bunker when he should have been standing tall in the Oval Office.
However, in a representative democracy, the fact that Bush is a coward may entitle him to four more years. If the American people were brave, we would have responded to 9/11 by insisting on the preservation of the freedoms that we were given by our forefathers. Following the attack on America, a real Patriot Act would have expanded rather than contracted liberty as a statement that this country refused to be intimidated. Instead, our elected representatives followed the will of the people, and the people were preoccupied with safety rather than liberty. Consumed by fear, Americans eagerly ceded freedom, thereby emboldening terrorists who seek to convince the world that this nation’s commitment to its stated precepts is merely rhetorical.
The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon presented the American people with a severe test of national character, and thus far the American people have failed that test miserably. There was never a question about whether the U.S. military had the ability to defeat and occupy Afghanistan and Iraq. The issue was whether Americans would respond to their shattered illusion of invulnerability by wisely embracing the Constitution or by mindlessly waving the flag.
It was never a contest. Following 9/11, the Bill of Rights has been largely shunted aside while the Stars and Stripes has been brandished as a weapon with which to silence those who contend that liberty is at least as important as security. This sad situation is the consequence of teaching children that their allegiance should be to a piece of cloth rather than to a set of principles.
The American people have been inculcated with unquestioning nationalism instead of being instructed in patriotic critical thinking. This brainwashing has created a variation on the master race theme. The natives of the world’s lone superpower disagree with each other on many things, but on one point there has formed a national consensus: Americans consider ourselves to be the greatest people in the whole, wide world.
We are wrong. American citizenship in no way confers superiority, either personally or collectively, nor does it assign inferiority as posited by some people who are hostile to the United States. Americans are merely human beings, with all the chivalry and depravity that entails. We are just like other people. No better. No worse.
Defeating terrorism requires that the counterfeit machismo that is currently being lauded as strength must be supplanted by the truly intrepid act of confronting the real world without flinching. As the GOP demonstrated with surrealistic flair at its convention, conservatives view reality as being the enemy of the state – from the right wing perspective, truth exists to be tortured as though it were an Iraqi schoolgirl. Republicans acquire and maintain power by crafting fictional scenarios in which their corruption is portrayed as being heroic and anyone who notices that they are corrupt is tarred with the mark of sedition.
The first step for America in regaining its soul is to repudiate the cynical deceivers who seek to keep the public in a state of perpetual hysteria. Such vigilance will require better judgment on the part of the electorate than it showed during the Cold War when right wingers repeatedly gained the presidency by invoking the haunting specter of the communist bogeyman. The challenge for liberals is to find a way to persuade the average American that there is a significant difference between reason and treason even as the Republicans forcefully insist they are one and the same.
Americans tend to be as good as our leaders. When we have been led by those who appealed to the better angels of our nature – the brave statesmen who took moral positions on slavery and suffrage and civil rights – the citizenry has risen to the occasion. Conversely, when our leaders have chosen to exploit the repulsive side of the human condition, the American people have demonstrated a propensity for ugliness that has included renouncing basic decency and committing atrocities with unrestrained zeal.
Today, America has a leader who is ruthless in the literal sense of the term: “less” meaning “without”, and “ruth” meaning “goodness”. Bush starts unnecessary wars and violates the Geneva Conventions and steals on behalf of the wealthy and lies with superhuman frequency. If the American people were doing their jobs as citizens and vigilantly monitoring the activities of their chief executive, he would have already been impeached and convicted and sent back to Texas where being a degenerate is widely viewed as virtuous.
Instead, Bush is competitive in his quest for a second term. While the Democrats travel the high road that usually leads to the political graveyard - all the while congratulating themselves on their superior civility – the former Texas governor is betting everything that the way to win the votes of the American people involves manipulating their fears and exploiting their prejudices.
The current campaign is a contrast between truth and lies, which is a match-up historically dominated by the latter. The Democratic Party is confident that this time will be different, that this time most Americans will ignore demagogic appeals to their base instincts and behave as rational human beings. Meanwhile, the Republicans are certain that they recognize unthinking herd animals when they see them.
Thanks to our forebears, who placed a higher value on having a free society than on protecting their own lives, the United States will soon be conducting another presidential election. The outcome of that race will reveal whether this country is finally ready to confront terrorism in a manner consistent with our stated ideals. Americans failed to respond patriotically following the terror attack in 2001, opting instead to indulge in mass hysteria that is always accompanied by a reduction of human rights.
On November 2, this generation will have one more opportunity to defend the precious freedom that we did not earn and that we therefore lack the right to surrender.
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