Monday, September 11, 2006

Public Memories of 9/11: Tragedy Then Farce Five Years Hence

Also published on Blogcritics:

Two full weeks it has taken me to come to terms with the memory of 9/11 since its five year anniversary.

Like many Americans, I can remember the shock I felt watching television that September morning in 2001. The shock partly came from the fact that the U.S. mainland had never been the site of a war in the 20th century, and here were images of disaster explained through the lexicon of war. The media ensured the shock would not be short-lived; it was emblazoned in my mind/our minds thanks to the images of the planes crashing into the towers and the towers crumbling to their base, traumatizingly repeated ad nauseum on our TV and computer screens, and in our newspapers and magazines, all the more confusing since their mediated state resembled years of well-watched Hollywood disaster flicks. This repetition of such “push button” images filled the sign 9/11 with fragile emotional material. Mentioning it may call forth unspeakable horror, inconsolable grief, insatiable anger, and exploitable fear and patriotism. It is a volatile sign that need not even be the object of an imperative, such as those older battle cries, “Remember the Alamo!”; “Remember the Maine!”; or “Remember Pearl Harbor!” And it has been endlessly exploited by some of the most well-known politicians in America.

9/11 has been exploited to justify a war in Iraq motivated by more than the will to fight global terrorism. It has been exploited to gain political ground by both parties and their multiple minions in media organizations. And its exploitation is evidence of a political culture where civil exchange and respectful reason-giving have become quaint notions in exchange for communication war based on military propaganda and commercial sector PR and marketing.

Minutes after the twin towers were hit, politicians (they also happened to be mainly Republicans) saw an opportunity to bury American Federal social programs. The suggestion was, on the one hand, that the U.S. had become vulnerable to attack because of lack of resources channeled toward military security (forget about the largest military budget in the world) and siphoned away to social programs that from this perspective do not work and are abused by people who don’t really deserve them. On the other hand, “social programs” were immediately targeted as budget fat that had to be trimmed to support a lean, mean, re-beefed up national security state as a matter of immediate priorities.

Just as quickly, 9/11 became the grounds for Republican claims that Democrats had been lax on defense in favor of social programs and for Democrat claims that Republicans themselves were guilty of a dereliction of duty in view of reports that the Bush administration had ignored evidence that Al Qaeda was planning an attack, which was dodged and parried before being sent back to Clinton’s doorstep (a strategy recently renewed in the fifth-year anniversary 9/11 films). Very quickly there were signs that 9/11 was a memory and a sign which would be the site of endless political struggle.

Rumor Bombs of 9/11 for Iraq

The most offensive exploitation of 9/11 for political agendas has without doubt been the Iraq War. This use of 9/11 has taken many reprehensible forms, from rumors of Iraq/Al Qaeda links on 9/11, to Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq which would allegedly be used to commit mass murder even worse than 9/11. These stupendous acts of political opportunism have snowballed into repeated degradations of freedom and public life generally.

The speech that launched a thousand bombs and burned the towers of Baghdad was Bush’s 2003 State of the Union, which used inaccurate intelligence to claim Iraq was building nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. This was the most public case for an invasion of Iraq and its strength mostly lay in its asserted connection to 9/11.

In the same speech heavily loaded with misleading information (that if not deliberately was certainly carelessly used), he launched the rumor bomb that Saddam Hussein had close ties to terrorists, had aided Al Qaeda, and would very likely play a role in future attempted terrorist attacks on American citizens. In his own words, “Evidence from intelligence sources, secret communications, and statements by people now in custody, reveal that Saddam Hussein aids and protects terrorists, including members of al-Qaida. Secretly, and without fingerprints, he could provide one of his hidden weapons to terrorists, or help them develop their own.”

star wars gulf IIThe Iraq/Al Qaeda rumor bomb was repeated in similar forms and circulated near and far in American media and cyberspace. As recently as one day after the fifth anniversary of 9/11, White House press secretary Tony Snow claimed that Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda leader al Zarqawi had a “relationship.” This came a week after a bi-partisan Senate Intelligence Committee report noted that while Hussein had once met al Zarqawi, Hussein had attempted to locate and capture Al Zarqawi. To state there was a “relationship,” just like Iraq/Al Qaeda “links,” was deliberately misleading and is the near equivalent to claiming Al Qaeda had a relationship with the U.S. or Bush, simply because their agents were in the U.S.

These are all types of spin, which I have elsewhere explained as “rumor bombs” (go here for lengthy discussion of this rhetorical strategy called "the rumor bomb"). In short rumor bombs are intentionally vague claims, difficult to ultimately refute in their slipperiness, intended to obfuscate or distract, console or agitate, while circulating widely without news media subjecting them to critical scrutiny. Iraq/Al Qaeda links and weapons of mass destruction were both very effective rumor bombs whose explosions were so powerful that large portions of the American population still believe that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, that they were found, and that there were Iraq/Al Qaeda “links” (February 2005 and July 2006, September 2006)!

Also included in that infamous 2003 State of the Union was the exploitation of loyal asset Colin Powell. “Secretary of State Powell will present information and intelligence about Iraq's illegal weapons programs; its attempts to hide those weapons from inspectors; and its links to terrorist groups,” Bush promised.

However, more recently former Sec. of State Powell has described that speech as a “blot” on his record; has said he felt “terrible” about it when he learned he was “misled” about much of the information on which his presentation to the U.N. relied; and has said he was “devastated” to learn that intelligence agents did not come forward to announce their shared uncertainty on several counts.

9/11 and Iraq in Presidential Address since 2003

While his 2003 State of the Union address remains the most notorious exploitation of 9/11 to wage war in Iraq, there is hardly a televised presidential address since then where 9/11 has not been exploited to further the Iraq War agenda. Each State of the Union Address since 9/11 has recalled that tragic day, using its memory emotionally to promote particular controversial policies, above all the war in Iraq. In 2004, Bush began, in a now common pattern, with 9/11 and then moved on to Iraq. “Our greatest responsibility is the active defense of the American people. Twenty-eight months have passed since September the 11th, 2001 -- over two years without an attack on American soil -- and it is tempting to believe that the danger is behind us.” Ditto for 2005. How about 2006?

"Terrorists like bin Laden are serious about mass murder -- and all of us must take their declared intentions seriously. They seek to impose a heartless system of totalitarian control throughout the Middle East, and arm themselves with weapons of mass murder. [….]Their aim is to seize power in Iraq, and use it as a safe haven to launch attacks against America and the world."

At the 60th anniversary of D-Day in Normandy, France, Bush went so far as to equate 9/11 with Nazi attacks and Iraq with World War II (via an emotional, Private-Ryanesque description of D-Day sacrifices) only to punish his local audience for deserting their “friends” in the Iraq War.

Unsurprisingly, Bush’s Second Inaugural Address last year took the familiar form. Bush invoked 9/11 biblically for some of his audience as a “Day of Fire” which “came” almost supernaturally, only to go on and once again transfer that affective reservoir of hurt, anger, and vengeance to the Iraq War, which was a campaign, he claimed, to defeat tyranny and propagate freedom.

Law and Ethics Abandoned for…9/11?

The exploitation of 9/11 to justify Iraq is even more offensive when one considers how it relates to wide-ranging ethical and legal violations.

A couple of months after Bush’s second inauguration, in March 2005, it was reported that the Bush administration used thousands of taxpayer dollars to further exploit 9/11 and promote the Iraq war and other issues in ever more creative ways. This time it took equally unethical forms such as creating so-called “fake news” segments or “video news releases” (VNRs) and paying columnists, all of which was simply PR-staged reporting.

The use of 9/11 to support the Bush administration’s war policies is also troubling in view of the judgments of those policies by the Supreme Court. The Court has more than once ruled Bush administration policies as illegal under the U.S. Constitution and the country’s obligation to honor the Geneva Convention on war crimes. In July 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “United States courts have jurisdiction to consider challenges to the legality of the detention of foreign nationals captured abroad in connection with hostilities and incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay." On June 29, 2006, the Supreme Court struck down the Bush administration’s plan for military commissions to judge prisoners suspected as Al Qaeda operatives. As the Washington Post put it: “Brushing aside administration pleas not to second-guess the commander in chief during wartime, a five-justice majority ruled that the commissions, which were outlined by Bush in a military order on Nov. 13, 2001, were neither authorized by federal law nor required by military necessity, and ran afoul of the Geneva Conventions.”

Degrading Freedom

The manner in which the Bush administration has exploited 9/11 for Iraq (first directly and then more loosely and desperately) had been accompanied by an exploitation of the very meanings and practice of freedom and politics.

In that much-discussed State of the Union Address for 2003, Bush insisted that the American military has been and would be deployed paradoxically to fight for peace and to export freedom. “We seek peace. We strive for peace. And sometimes peace must be defended,” he announced in support of his preemptive war policy. He continued, as he has many times since, by repeating the sacred term “freedom.”

This mantra has been repeated, following the political communication strategy of “staying on message,” no matter how intentionally vague that message is, right up to the fifth anniversary memorial address on 9/11. “One of the strongest weapons in our arsenal is the power of freedom. The terrorists fear freedom as much as they do our firepower,” Bush assured us. Then he denied we were all actors in an epic clash of civilizations, only to go on and reassert that we in fact were involved in such a Manichean clash. “We are now in the early hours of this struggle between tyranny and freedom. Amid the violence, some question whether the people of the Middle East want their freedom, and whether the forces of moderation can prevail.”

You would never know by listening to Bush and other politicians (Democrats too) that freedom is one of the most notoriously debated and complex ideas in the history of political thought. Politicians make it strategically ambiguous so that individuals can attach their own definitions to the glittering generality that freedom is good.

But freedom hardly applies to the dead. Dead for freedom.

Free: Better Off Dead

It is worth noting what has become of many of the Iraqis who were to be liberated in the name of 9/11 and American security (at once a moral and a practical, necessary offense/defense project). Iraq Body Count estimates between 43,387 and 48,174 Iraqi civilians are now dead since the American invasion--almost fifteen times the number of Americans who perished on 9/11!

Study: Before/After War Iraqi Death RatesAccording to a compilation of other scientific studies, compared to the death rate before the war, the rate now points to around 250,000 excess deaths since the beginning of the war. This is, of course, to say nothing about the sacrifice of American lives in Iraq. The total number of dead American soldiers in Iraq has now exceeded the number of innocents killed in the attacks on 9/11.

Similarly, the attachment of freedom and civility to the U.S. has been strained, if not completely discredited, by American military practices of torture and an unclear understanding of how far up the ladder of command its sanction extended. In 2003, Bush attempted to make a case for war in Iraq to the American people by characterizing Hussein as a torturer: “International human rights groups have catalogued other methods used in the torture chambers of Iraq: electric shock, burning with hot irons, dripping acid on the skin, mutilation with electric drills, cutting out tongues, and rape.” What despicable irony that part of bringing “freedom” to Iraq and fighting a war on terror has brought revelations of torture executed by Americans on suspected and known terrorists imprisoned in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and Afghanistan. More recently, in his fifth anniversary of 9/11 memorial address, Bush attempted to arouse renewed support for his policies by calling them a “struggle for civilization.” In his topsy-turvy world, freedom is death and torture is civilized when Americans are doing it.

Making Politics a Dirty Word

It is no surprise, then in this theater of infowar, that the Bush administration would do all it can to all but outlaw criticism and debate. Bush has repeatedly played the national unity card, a sub-card to his trump of national security, as a means of distracting publics, repelling criticism, and furthering his policy agenda.

Instead of respecting a political culture of debate and disagreement (even if not a mythical purely rational one), Bush (like Democrats, it must be said, though he has taken the sad game to a whole new level) tries to shut down discussion/debate and a civic process of responding to critics and those who disagree with him. The game is to avoid discussion/debate altogether. One goal of the game is to avoid such debate by quarantining it in academic journals (what academic will try to tell us that the entire system of academic journals is not built upon the notion?), areas of communication Goodnight has called the technical sphere of argumentation. They want to cut lines between technical, public and personal spheres of argument, leaving public/civic life in an anemic state, sucked nearly dry of its blood of civil critical exchange. Leave rational-critical debate to the eggheads and their specialist journals. Public life is no place for it. At what cost to the quality of that public life?

In fact, one of the Bush administration's latest strategies (which Democrats too have used in the past) is to malign the term "politics" altogether. This is the anti-political political culture that the U.S. has become. At a mid-term campaign stop in Arkansas shortly before the anniversary of 9/11, Bush shamefully pleaded, "These are important times, and I would seriously hope people would not politicize these issues that I'm going to talk about." When the claims that debate and dissent are political and the implication is that such a thing is bad and opportunistic, we have reached the endgame of politics. It’s pure information war for the allegiance of an almost completely infantilized citizenry, which fortunately does not always work.

It would be one thing if the administration and its many elves had “just” deliberately and accidentally misled their own people, but they often exploited 9/11 in the process. Sadly, in remembering those whose lives were ruthlessly cut short on September 11, we are also compelled to memorialize the prolonged death of an American political culture that hardly respects civil engagement, honest reason-giving, and, ultimately, the citizenry itself.

"How dare you, Mr. President, after taking cynical advantage of the unanimity and love, and transmuting it into fraudulent war and needless death, after monstrously transforming it into fear and suspicion and turning that fear into the campaign slogan of three elections? How dare you -- or those around you -- ever "spin" 9/11?" (Keith Olbermann)

Iraq War
Rumor Bomb
cultural memory

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