Ira Chernus  
PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER

 

FIGHTING TERROR IN THE NATIONAL INSECURITY STATE

Ira Chernus

Every war needs a good story. No one will go out to kill or to be killed without a persuasive story to explain why the bloodshed and sacrifice are necessary. The story need not be true, of course. War stories are rarely more than half-true; in storytelling as in war, truth is the first casualty. The story simply has to be satisfying. Why one story satisfies, while others do not, is the question at the heart of every war.

On September 11, 2001, most Americans wanted to hear the story of World War II. Pearl Harbor had come again, and the fight was on. In this corner: the waving flags, the crowds singing "America the Beautiful," the heroic young people vowing to go when ordered. In that corner: the sneer of bin Ladin on every newsstand, the gas masks and antidote kits, the universal lament: "I no longer feel safe in my own homeland." Only Muslims were surprised when George W. Bush declared a new crusade to rid the world of the evildoers.

Nine days later, in his major address to Congress and the nation, Bush narrated the official story of the war on terrorism. Although he spoke of "a new kind of war," it looked a lot like World War II: Al Qaedaís "goal is remaking the world and imposing its radical beliefs on people everywhere.¼ They follow in the path of fascism, Nazism and totalitarianism¼ Freedom itself is under attack.¼ This is civilization's fight." The evil was easy to explain: "Americans are asking ĎWhy do they hate us?í They hate our freedoms." Bush offered no evidence to back up this explanation for the attacks. But it hardly mattered, since few Americans were looking for evidence. It seemed self-evident that, now as in the past, civilization and freedom are beset by enemies.

If anyone cares to know why they hate us, evidence is easy enough to find. Osama bin Laden, for one, has been telling the U.S. for years why he hates us. He hates U.S. policies that dominate and oppress Muslims. Above all, he hates U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, Islamís holiest land. Secondarily, he hates U.S. bombing and sanctions in Iraq, and (recently, at least) U.S. support for Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. But all this has no place in the official story.

In the peace movementís alternative story, bin Ladenís words matter. There is no excuse for the murder of thousands, that story goes. The murderers must be condemned. Still, their complaints have some validity. Unless we listen to those complaints, more deaths are likely. If we simply strike back, without reconsidering the policies that caused the problem, we only insure that more innocents, including many Americans, will die.

Two very different stories are available. One offers evidence. The other asks for none, because it needs none. Why is the official story, based on no evidence, so much more popular?

Some of the reasons are obvious. The official story puts no responsibility on the U.S. It assumes the U.S. is wholly innocent. So it asks for no self-criticism, much less any change in policies. Moreover, since the official story invokes no facts to support its claim, it can not be falsified, or even disputed. So it puts Americaís righteousness beyond dispute. The world is divided clearly between absolute good and absolute evil. And that requires an inhuman enemy, driven to world conquest out of irrational, inexplicable, implacable evil¾ just like the Nazis of World War II. If this was Pearl Harbor, Bush would be FDR, demanding unconditional surrender, waging apocalyptic war to purify the world.

The flirtation with Armageddon was surprisingly brief, however. By the time Bush pronounced the official story, his administration was already backing away from the idea of destroying terrorism forever. Now terrorism would merely be brought under control, contained at an acceptable level. World War II was no longer the operative story. Its apocalyptic rhetoric and imagery remained. But they took on new meaning because, as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld acknowledged, the new war "undoubtedly will prove to be a lot more like a cold war than a hot war.''

The American public, by and large, accepted this change without blinking an eye. So the power of the official story does not lie merely in its echoes of World War II. There is something about the cold war story that makes it just as satisfying as the "good war" story¾ or even more satisfying.

Certainly the cold war, as much as World War II, offered the clarity of absolute moral dualism. Since the end of the cold war, many commentators have bemoaned the loss of a single paradigm that could unify U.S. foreign policy and the U.S. public. When Bushís speechwriters had him say, "We have found our mission and our moment," they were surely hoping to unite the nation again behind a seemingly clear but open-ended, ongoing mission. No doubt they were also thinking of Harry Truman announcing the cold war, in his Truman Doctrine speech of 1947. They hoped to depict Bush not only as the new FDR, but also as the new Truman: a president widely perceived as weak, overcoming that perception by launching a multi-decade crusade to save global freedom from an insidious international threat.

This is the kind of war Bushís advisors know best: dividing the whole world into friends and enemies of freedom, with no neutrals allowed, because (in Bushís words) "we know that God is not neutral"í; supporting police states as "friends of freedom"í; expanding federal powers and military budgets; restricting civil liberties; pursuing demons, abroad and at home, over decades. Once again, the enemy is personified by demonizing individual leaders. Just as Stalin gave way to Mao, Ho, and Castro, so bin Ladin will give way to as-yet-unknown others. And once again, as in the era of Senator Joseph McCarthy, the price of unity is still suspicion of our neighbors (upwards of eight million of whom are Muslim).

Yet despite all this vigilance, national leaders admit that they shall never be able to declare total victory. Asked how we would know when we had won, Rumsfeld replied, "When the American people feel safe." But how can we know when we are safe? Who will decide what counts as safety? The government can declare "victory" at any time. But a terrorist network can go underground for years, then surface one day inside the Capitol or the Statue of Liberty. As the president admitted quite openly, it is "a task that does not end"¾ not because the enemy is so persistent, but simply because permanent victory is ruled out from the beginning. The patriotic flags, placards, and songs are whipping us into another long, twilight struggle (as John F. Kennedy called the cold war), with a shadowy enemy and no victory in sight.

This was the dilemma at the heart of the cold war story. The U.S. could no longer hope to fight an isolated evil, eliminate it, and return home to live happily ever after. The same nuclear sword that could eliminate the enemy was already in the enemyís hand. Even in "limited" wars, the nation had to accept stalemate, not unconditional victory, as the best possible outcome. The Korean war taught this lesson. It also taught Harry Truman the political perils of settling for stalemate in a nation expecting unconditional surrender. As the war dragged on, Trumanís approval ratings steadily declined.

Dwight Eisenhower avoided Trumanís fate by a simple rhetorical maneuver. He called stalemate victory. The U.S. had won in Korea, he announced, because it had stopped communist aggression. Victory now meant not conquering the enemy, but merely stopping the enemy from conquering us, not promoting but preventing change. The new national goal was stability, a code word for temporary control over a situation full of dangers that might erupt again at any time. So Eisenhower warned the nation that the struggle would continue, for all practical purposes, forever; the best to hope for was to contain the enemy, and thus contain our insecurity.

Not only was the cold war enemy forever. It was everywhere. For Truman and Eisenhower, containment depended on U.S. control of events in every corner of the globe. But they soon learned that the task was hopeless. Time after time, measures to reduce risk in one place increased risk somewhere else. So the national security state only perpetuated the prevailing state of national insecurity. The U.S. had become a national insecurity state.

Lyndon Johnson suffered most grievously from the new rules of the insecurity state. Renouncing victory in Vietnam from the beginning, he had no way to justify the massive loss of life. He could promise nothing more than staving off disaster, and even that promise was doubtful. He paid the price. So did the nation. The frustrations of Vietnam reinforced the sense of helplessness and permanent peril. A plummeting sense of unity and security raised fears of uncontrollable change. Those fears have haunted much of American public culture ever since.

From its first days, the war on terrorism fit the cold war mold. Not only is the enemy a permanent fact of life, but every step toward security opens up new risks of insecurity. U.S. policymakers must aid Pakistan to gain its support, perhaps by tolerating Pakistanís nuclear buildup. But this alienates India. So they promise to support Indiaís "anti-terrorism" campaign in Kashmir, which alienates Pakistan. As a price for its support, Russia demands U.S. acquiescence in repressing the Chechen rebellion. This fuels anti-U.S. sentiment in volatile, yet vital, areas like Uzbekistan and Tadjikistan. Arab states will cooperate only if pressure is put on Israel. Does any U.S. administration risk angering Israel?

In the national insecurity state, stability depends on global control. So the inevitable failure to gain full control will become further evidence of eternal instability, hence eternal peril. When allies are alienated by U.S. policies and refuse to cooperate fully in the war, that will become further evidence that the world is indeed a dangerous place, demanding more strenuous efforts at control. When U.S. actions provoke violent counter-actions, that will be seen, not as the inevitable give-and-take of war, but as further evidence of implacable hatred, not of what we do, but of what we are. Within the framework of the national insecurity state, the only available response is to proclaim anew our innocence and redouble efforts at stability and security, which means imposing greater control. Thus the spiral of violence grows higher. Every possible outcome of U.S. policies will end up confirming the premise of permanent insecurity.

Beyond these certainties lies the possibility of another Vietnam. The potential enemy nations have all learned the lesson of Vietnam. If attacked, their populace would take to the hills, or the urban skyscrapers, and wage guerilla war. U.S. strategists would be strongly tempted to erase the line between enemy soldiers and civilians. The Bush administration took a first step in this direction when it claimed the right to attack not only terrorists, but whole states. From the first, this claim met great skepticism outside the U.S. Even within this country, there is widespread awareness that most civilians everywhere oppose terrorism. There is a widespread demand to have only terrorists, not innocent civilians, attacked.

The greatest pitfall awaiting the U.S. government is not enemy civilians dead, of course. It is American soldiers dead, maimed, and missing in action. Domestic public support for the war could fade rapidly once the body bags and paraplegics start coming home. A nation pursuing the World War II fantasy may not easily tolerate the limitations and frustrations of an ongoing cold war. The fantasy is all the more fragile because so few really believe it. A war begun to unite the nation could easily tear it apart. The next time Bush goes home to Texas, he should visit the final resting place of Lyndon Johnson and ponder deeply. It is LBJís ghost that is waiting in the wings.

The Bush administration, and all those who applaud the new war, may be blind to the pitfalls of a cold war presidency, because they believe that the U.S. won the cold war. Although it was a painful process, they can argue, persistent dedication to a goal paid off in the end. Now that the former communist bloc is securely in the grip of global democratic capitalism, the lands from Algeria to Afghanistan are the last contested area. Isnít it time to finish the job and secure the triumph of the American way? The audacious goal of genuine global control seems so nearly within reach.

But the demise of the communist bloc did not make Americans feel more secure. On the contrary, a chorus of elite voices insisted that it made us less secure, because now the enemy could be anyone, anywhere. Moreover, the war on terrorism is a direct legacy of the cold war. Al-Qaeda and similar Muslim groups were enabled, perhaps even created, by the CIA. The grievances that brought them together were virtually all fallout from the U.S. effort to keep Soviet influence out of the Middle East. The U.S. role as the sole remaining superpower virtually insured that it would become the target of global attacks.

Just as the outcome of World War I sowed the seeds of World War II, and the outcome of World War II the seeds of the cold war, so the outcome of the cold war sowed the seeds of the war on terrorism. And this newest war is already, quite visibly, sowing the seeds of insecurity to come. It may be most useful to view the whole period from the early cold war years through the present war as a single historical era: the era of the national insecurity state. Throughout that era, U.S. policy decisions made in the name of national security consistently breed a greater sense of vulnerability, frustration, and insecurity.

It is not hard to see why. Four decades of cold war enshrined two fundamental principles at the heart of our public life: there is a mortal threat to the very existence of our nation, and our own policies play no role in generating the threat. The belief structure of the national insecurity state flows logically from these premises. If our nation bears no responsibility, then we are powerless to eradicate the threat. If others threaten us through no fault of our own, what can we do? There is no hope for a truly better world, nor for ending the danger by mutual compromise with "the other side." The threat is effectively eternal. The best to hope for is to hold the threat forever at bay.

Yet the sense of powerlessness is oddly satisfying, because it preserves the conviction of innocence: if our policies are so ineffectual, the troubles of the world can hardly be our fault. And the vision of an endless status quo is equally satisfying, because it promises to prevent historical change. If peril is permanent, the world is an endless reservoir of potential enemies. Any fundamental change in the status quo portends only catastrophe.

The only path to security, it seems, is to prevent change by imposing control over others. When those others fight back, the national insecurity state protests its innocence: we act only in self-defense; we want only stability. The state sees no reason to re-evaluate its policies; that would risk the change it seeks, above all, to avoid. So it can only meet violence with more violence. Of course, the inevitable frustration is blamed on the enemy, reinforcing the sense of peril and the demand for absolute control through violence.

The goal of total control is self-defeating; each step toward security becomes a source of, and is taken as proof of, continuing insecurity. This makes the logic of the insecurity state viciously circular. Why are we always fighting? Because we always have enemies. How do we know we always have enemies? Because we are always fighting. And knowing that we have enemies, how can we afford to stop fighting? In the insecurity state, there is no way to talk about security without voicing fears of insecurity, no way to express optimism without expressing despair. On every front, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy; a self-confirming and self-perpetuating spiral of violence; a trap that seems to offer no way out.

It is not surprising, then, that the pattern of insecurity crystallized during the cold war survived that war. The "experts" insisted that now we were less secure. September 11 proved them indisputably right. Now they offer an official story that pretends to see an end to insecurity, but actually promises the endless insecurity of another cold war. And the policies based on that story virtually guarantee that the promise will be fulfilled.

But that is just what most Americans expect, in any event. Caged inside the logic of the insecurity state, they can see no other possibility. So the official story hardly seems to be one option among many. Its premises and conclusions seem so necessary, so inevitable, that no other story can be imagined. For huge numbers of Americans, the peace movementís alternative story is not mistaken. It is simply incomprehensible, like a foreign language, for it assumes that we can take steps to address the very sources of insecurity. That denies the most basic foundations of the prevailing public discourse. Quite naturally, then, the majority embraces the only story it can understand. The story is persuasive because the alternative seems to be having no story at all.

The official story prevails by default, as the nation faces the prospect of further war around the world. Yet that is only half its power. The other half comes from the paradoxical consolation it provides as we look back to what happened here at home, on September 11, when four hijacked planes crashed headlong into the national insecurity state.

The cold war is long over, the Reds are long gone, and now the twin towers are gone, too. But the national insecurity state still stands. Indeed, it stands stronger and taller precisely because the towers are gone. Our sense of insecurity has grown. But it is not fundamentally different in kind. The attacks did not create a pervasive sense of insecurity. Rather, the insecurity that was already pervasive shaped the dominant interpretation of and response to the attacks.

The first response was the nearly universal cry: "Pearl Harbor." But "this was not Pearl Harbor," as National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice recognized. There is no rivalry between great nation states. No foreign nation has attacked the U.S. No long-standing diplomatic and economic maneuvering preceded the attacks of September 11, 2001. Why, then, did they so quickly evoke the imagery of December 7, 1941? The common thread was not a hope for redemption, but only a conviction that the nationís very existence was threatened.

In 2001, that judgment is debatable, to say the least. Assuming that the attacks were indeed the work of a Muslim splinter group, such groups have been trying to attack U.S. interests for a quarter-century or more. One massive act of destruction, as horrendous as it was, hardly constitutes evidence of their overwhelming power. Nor is there any real evidence for Bushís charge that these groups aim to impose their "radical beliefs on people everywhere¼ and end a way of life." Yet evidence is irrelevant in the national insecurity state. The fear comes first, before any evidence that it is warranted. How do we know that our existence is threatened? Because it is so obviously threatened! QED.

This circular argument seems to be confirmed by the expressions of fear that have filled the mass media since September 11. They are certainly sincere. Yet it has become almost obligatory to say, "Life will never be the same because now, for the first time, we feel vulnerable." Most who say this can still remember, if they care to, the long cold war years of living on the brink of nuclear annihilation. Many are old enough to recall the Cuban missile crisis. Even more can remember the Reagan administrationís serious plans to fight a nuclear war. Are we really more vulnerable now, or only vulnerable in a different way? Are we really less secure than the days when one push of the button could trigger a thousand September 11ís? True, the September 11 attack was actual rather than merely potential. Yet the scale of the potential attack we feared for so long was so much greater than the actual attack. Why should so many say that the actual attack marked a quantum leap in national anxiety?

The notoriously poor historical memory of Americans is only part of the answer. A larger part is the need to contain this new eruption of disorder within a familiar meaning structure. The study of human culture shows, over and over, that anxiety can be held in check, if not banished, by the way people talk about it. People can feel relatively secure amidst the most extraordinary disruption and anxiety, as long as they have familiar words that put the disruption into some larger, dependable, enduring order. The lifeline of security is a language that affirms the enduring truth of the prevailing discourse and worldview.

Today, the discourse of the national insecurity state is the nationís most familiar structure. How natural, then, to reaffirm the fundamental truth of that discourse, especially when its truth seems to be so empirically proven. Certainly, there is a very real danger of more attacks on U.S. soil. But the magnitude of the danger is measured by cultural needs rather than empirical considerations. In the insecurity state, universal cries of alarm, massive preparations for future attack, and protestations that life is fundamentally changed all show how little has really changed. They serve to confirm the basic premise that danger is eternal and unavoidable.

The name of the danger changes from time to time; for now, its name is "terrorism." But the underlying reality remains the same. In the face of a massive shock to our cultural assumptions, that promise of continuity is immensely reassuring. This is the paradox that keeps so many millions trapped in the insecurity state. In order to feel culturally and psychologically secure, one must feel physically and politically insecure.

Thus the problem¾ the fear of terrorist attack¾ becomes the solution. The film of the towers bursting into flame is shown over and over again. The sheriffs stockpiling gas masks and anthrax vaccine are interviewed over and over again. "Experts" explain "the psychology of the terrorist" over and over again. All of this has a ritualistic quality, for it serves much the same function as every ritual. It acts out the basic worldview of the insecurity state, confirming that it endures in the face of a massive challenge.

The dominant response to the tragedy in the U.S. also confirms that our own policies play no role in evoking the danger. This message takes ritual form in prayer meetings, civic gatherings, charity drives, and the Bush administrationís humanitarian gestures for starving Afghans. All enact the essential goodness of Americans. Even the most benign and laudable responses to the tragedy¾ the national pride in heroic rescue efforts, the outpouring of generous contributions, the genuine concern for the welfare of Muslim- and Arab-Americans¾ are seized and twisted in the overpowering cultural grasp of the national insecurity state. As symbols of innocence, all reinforce the basic assumption that the U.S. is powerless to affect the sources of continuing insecurity.

Bush has often stated the logical corollary of innocence. if our policies are not relevant to the problem, there is nothing to negotiate. In other words, the U.S. will not contemplate policy changes that might lead to any fundamental change in political or economic power relationships. Therefore the only remaining course is to heighten the nationís guard and use force to control the behavior of would-be attackers.

Much of the response to the tragedy reinforces these interlocked assumptions of powerlessness and innocence. The cries of alarm and defensive preparations create the impression that the nation is circling the wagons and hunkering down for a long siege, because there is nothing else to do. The ubiquitous American flag becomes a symbol, not of abolishing evil, but of banding together to withstand the assault of evil forever. Yet there is almost a palpable eagerness to feel vulnerable. The new sense of national unity comes less from a common commitment to victory than from a common conviction of victimization.

Powerful vestiges of the crusading spirit do remain. There is still a longing for unconditional triumph over the foreign foe. The constant allusions to Pearl Harbor, FDR, and World War II express these longings. More importantly, they create the illusion that genuine security is still possible. It is disconcerting to live amidst insecurity and even more disconcerting to acknowledge it openly. So the story of the "good war" is evoked endlessly, because it would be so reassuring to be able to wage another "good war." But the gestures of apocalyptic hope have a peculiarly forced, artificial quality, as if the public is trying to draw the last vestiges of living marrow out of an increasingly dead husk.

The symbols, rituals, and mantras of the redeemer nation serve a very different role when public culture no longer really believes in the redemption. The problem is defined in apocalyptic terms. But no apocalyptic solution is available, nor even suggested. Talk of hope for security still elicits powerful images of the peril we hope to be secure from. But talk of peril is simply talk of peril, not a prelude to hope. There are no safe homes we can return to, for we must assume that the enemy, in one form or another, will always be at our gates.

Political leaders and pundits offer only an endless horizon of unflagging efforts to maintain relative stability. In an inherently unstable world, made less stable by a superpower pursuing control, this is indeed "a task that does not end." All that once symbolized hope for the Kingdom of God on earth (whether in religious or secular form) now locks us into a future of inconclusive struggle and mounting anxiety. And the more we are convinced that insecurity is perpetual, the more we will resist fundamental change.

That, of course, is the ultimate point. The prospect of another long, twilight struggle returns our culture to the certitude of simplistic absolutes. It erases the uncertainties of the Ď90s. It reassures us that nothing has really changed and nothing need ever change. It offers the best reason to go on resisting change. All of the preparations for and acts of war, all the warnings of and protections against future attacks, all the patriotic singing and flag-waving, all the gestures of hope that things will be better in the future, indeed all the dominant cultural responses to the attacks¾ all are now representations of the overriding conviction that security is still an impossible dream, that the future will not be fundamentally different from the present.

In a society so fearful of change, where constant change provokes widespread despair, the conviction of unchanging insecurity engenders a strange kind of confidence. Millions now look ahead with more hope precisely because they can now believe that there is nothing really new to hope for. They cling to the insecurity that justifies their resistance to change. They take comfort in knowing that the explosions of September 11, which we are told changed everything, could not shake the foundations of the national insecurity state. The official story of the war on terrorism gives them that perverse comfort.

For years to come, we shall live in the shadow of the tragic deaths of September 11, 2001. As long as the official story prevails, death will be piled upon death, and suffering upon suffering. The national insecurity state affords no prospect beyond death and suffering. So this war pushes us further into the shadow of the most tragic death of all: the death of hope for a better, a more peaceful, a genuinely secure future.


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