Ira Chernus  


Since 9/11: The Invisible War


Two years ago, on 9/11, they told us that life would never be the same. Everything had changed, because we were now in a war against terrorism. Unless you’ve been to the airport lately, you may feel like not much has changed at all. The war on terror has been largely invisible.

That’s just the point, our leaders say. In order to keep America safe, we have to keep this war invisible. Maybe so. But I suspect the war is so invisible mainly because its real targets are not Al Qaida and other supposed terrorist groups.

At home, its real targets are Middle Easterners, Muslims, and aliens of all kinds. It gives the nation another chance to draw the reassuring, though illusory, line between "us" (the native-born, the white, the trustworthy) and "them" (the foreigners, the people of color, the dangerous kind). It lets America mount the kind of crusade against aliens we seem to need periodically, to make us feel virtuous and secure.

Abroad, the real targets are countries in oil-rich regions of the Middle East and central Asia. There, the U.S. is invisibly building up a huge permanent military presence stretching from Tadjikistan to the Horn of Africa (and now perhaps even to Liberia). Guns and planes under U.S. command now surround Iran and Syria, the last two Middle East states resisting U.S. hegemony. (If Pakistan proves unreliable, we will count on India, our new partner in fighting terrorism, to complete the circle.) For the Pentagon, that may be what this war is really all about.

That, and the explosion in the U.S. military budget, which robs badly needed dollars from human services every day. Unless you hang out with peace activists, that distortion in our national priorities goes undiscussed and remains invisible, too. Bush’s latest request for $87 billion, most of which would go to the military, is getting some attention, as Democrats look for election-year issues. But Senate majority leader Tom Daschle has said publicly what we all could predict. There will be no real public debate. After the Dems shoot off a few salvos of verbal attack, they will give the president all the money he wants.

The most far-reaching, and most invisible, change since 9/11/01 is a change in the prevailing idea of what government is all about. In the early 20th century, the progressive era and the New Deal created a popular vision of the federal government as an agency to improve life for all Americans. From the late 1930s through the 1980s, that vision was eclipsed by a very different view: the government as a shield to protect us from shadowy enemies who are lurking everywhere, at home and abroad.

During the 1990s, we were beginning to recover the progressive view. As late as the campaign of 2000, the big issues were how government could improve education and health care. It was all about the quality of life. On 9/11, that concern collapsed as suddenly as the twin towers. Now, with virtually no debate or even notice, we have returned to the cold war idea of government as the great protector against evil, the guarantor of national security.

A few voices in the public square still assume that the federal government is our way of joining together as a society to help each other out and make life better for all of us. They can just barely be heard amid the shouts of fear, the cries of alarm, the call to arms and mobilization for war. These dissenters to the gospel of national security are targets for all sorts of assaults, mostly with words, though sometimes with tear gas and rubber bullets.

Nevertheless, dissent abounds. There is a continuing flow of criticism against the patriot Act. That criticism has effectively stalled the right-wing drive to pass a son of patriot Act

The most visible dissent was the unprecedented mobilization against war last winter. No, it did not stop the war in Iraq. But it may well have stopped the wars the Bush administration hawks would like to wage in Syria and North Korea. And it fueled the criticisms that now have pundits warning Bush not to take re-election for granted.

Two years after the twin towers fell, we need the dissenters more than ever, to help us see what this war is really all about. If the true nature of the invisible war could be made visible, millions of Americans would realize that it has little to do with keeping them safe. They would refuse to enlist in the war, or pay the bills, or vote for the warmakers. The greatest memorial we can give the victims of 9/11 is to speak the truth.