Ira Chernus  
PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER

 

THE UNITED STATES AND ISRAEL:

FIGHTING TERROR IN THE NATIONAL INSECURITY STATE

Ira Chernus

 

Just days after the tragedy of September 11, a political cartoon captured what many people were thinking, with a picture of Uncle Sam trudging through rubble in shoes labeled "Israel." Since then, it has become almost obligatory to lament, "Now, for the first time, I feel vulnerable in my own homeland." For many, it seems just as obligatory to support a war on terrorists and to be more sympathetic to Israelís struggle for security. In wartime, a metaphor like "standing in Israelís shoes" can be more powerful than a bullet or a bomb.

But a metaphor can be more easily misguided than the Pentagonís vaunted "smart weapons." Every Israeli knows just how badly those shoes hurt. 53 years of resolute war against terrorists have not given Israelis the security they crave. Sadly, Israel is still plagued by national insecurity. Indeed, the longing for security is so pervasive, and the policies so self-defeating, that Israel can be called a national insecurity state. Emulating that model will hardly give Americans the security we crave. If the shoes pinch terribly, does that mean the original owner was walking in the right direction? It is more likely that there is something wrong with the shoes. It may well be time to find another pair.

Still, the metaphor holds unexpected truth. The Israeli model can illuminate the unique features of the U.S. dilemma after September 11. Perhaps it can also move both nations a step closer toward genuine security.

It is no coincidence that Israel has become a national insecurity state. Nor can it be blamed solely on Israelís opponents. The roots of the problem lie in the discourse of Zionism. The first great Zionist writer, Leo Pinsker, said that anti-semitism "can never die." Wherever Jews live among foreigners, he insisted, they will be hated. But he charged that the Jews themselves were the real problem. After centuries of anti-semitism, they had "no real self-love and no national self-respect." They would feel good and right about themselves only when they took control of their own political fate.

Pinsker's followers agreed that there was something abnormal about Jewish life. Two millennia of powerlessness taught the Jews to accept and even embrace their weakness, the early Zionists lamented. Jews had embraced insecurity as a permanent fact of life. The Zionists aimed to overcome that psychological infirmity by making the Jews a "normal" nation. For them, that meant not merely having a land and government of their own, but exercising a "normal" degree of national power on the stage of world history. They expected that power to bring psychological as well as political security. But whenever they exercised their new-found power, they insisted on their innocence, too. They denied that their own actions had any part in engendering conflict. So nothing they did could end the enemyís persecutions. This strengthened their embrace of the very powerlessness that was, in their view, at the heart of their insecurity.

The horrors of the Holocaust heightened the dilemma. Never again, Jews vowed, would they be victims. Perhaps more importantly, never again would they let themselves feel like victims. Israel set out to show the world that this shameful era had ended forever. Yet even the great military victories of 1967 and 1973 did not set the psychological fears at rest. The renowned Holocaust theologian, Emil Fackenheim, once told an audience that Israel might be destroyed by its enemies. Still, he said, Zionism would have fulfilled its goal because then the Jews would go down fighting. Today, many Jews continue to see a show of power as the only route to "real self-love" and "national self-respect."

Five Israeli-Arab wars and 34 years of Jewish rule over the Palestinians have proven that when Israel fights, it will not "go down." Militarily, its existence is secure against every plausible threat. Yet the old idea of insecurity still triumphs over present reality. The early Zionists assumed that Jews in conflict with non-Jews would always be insecure. They could not imagine a Jewish state with such predominant power that its existence would be absolutely assured, even if it remained in conflict with its neighbors. Most Israeli Jews today, haunted by a fear of powerlessness, still can not believe in that assurance. Still trapped in the roots of Zionism, they act as if the threat to their national existence is an immutable fact of life. So they remain in a state of national insecurity.

The United States, too, was a national insecurity state long before September 11, 2001. 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. In that sense, we are indeed in Israelís shoes, though we got there by a very different route.

By coincidence, the U.S. became an insecurity state just as Israel was being born, for in those same years the cold war was born. The cold war forced Americans to give up the cherished goal of destroying the enemy and ridding the world of evil. The same nuclear sword that our side wielded was already in the hands of the enemy. Even in "limited" wars like Korea and Vietnam, the nation had to accept stalemate, not unconditional victory, as the best possible outcome.

When the Korean War ended in stalemate, President Eisenhower declared victory, simply because the enemy had no won. Victory now meant not conquering the enemy, but merely stopping the enemy from conquering us. Victory meant 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. Containment depended on U.S. control of events in every corner of the globe. But 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. In the 1960s, the frustrations of Vietnam reinforced the sense of helplessness and permanent peril. The U.S. had become a national insecurity state.

The twin towers of the World Trade Center are gone, but the insecurity state still stands. Indeed, it stands taller and stronger precisely because the twin towers are gone. Despite the cries of "Pearl Harbor," the nationís flirtation with a World War II Ėstyle crusade was very brief. "This was not Pearl Harbor," National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice acknowledged. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld admitted that the new war "undoubtedly will prove to be a lot more like a cold war than a hot war.''

In President Bushís words, the war on terrorism is "a task that does not end"¾ not because the enemy is so persistent, but simply because, as in the cold war, permanent victory is ruled out from the beginning. 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. 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.

The nation is bound together less by a common commitment to victory than by a common conviction of victimization. There is almost a palpable eagerness to feel vulnerable. Many Americans who cry, "We are vulnerable for the first time," are old enough to recall the Cuban missile crisis. Even more can remember the Reagan administration serious plans to fight a nuclear war. Are we really less secure now than in the cold war 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 threat of World War II magnitude and 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. 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.

The dominant responses to September 11 suggest that the national insecurity state was already the foundation of our public culture long before that day. The universal cries of alarm, massive preparations for future attack, and protestations that everything has changed all show how little has really changed. As in the four decades of cold war, 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 contain the assault of evil forever.

So 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 premise of our public culture: danger is eternal and unavoidable.

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 efforts 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 and powerlessness. if our policies are not relevant to the problem, there is nothing to negotiate. Since the U.S. will not contemplate policy changes, the only remaining course is to follow Israelís example: heighten the nationís guard and use force to control all sources of threat. The many warning flags marking the perils of this course are disregarded, because the national insecurity state offers no alternative.

In this sense, too, the U.S. is in Israelís shoes. Both are entrenched in the logic of the insecurity state. That logic flows from two fundamental principles: there is a mortal threat to the very existence of our nation, and our own policies play no role in generating the threat. If our nation bears no responsibility, then we are powerless to eradicate the threat. 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 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, while protesting its innocence. 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.

Despite this common pattern, the U.S. is not really in Israelís shoes. Israel was founded as a national insecurity state. It had no other pattern available. But the U.S. was founded by colonial Calvinists. Though hardly the most secure or self-confident group, they also had a profound hope. More than modern Israel, they drew consciously on the biblical vision of Godís chosen people leading the world to redemption. While Israel was founded largely to escape from a wrong state of affairs, the discourse of the United States often focused on progress toward a right, even perfect, state. The war on terrorism shows how the now-hollow language of redemption can be used to legitimate the insecurity stateís violent acts of revenge.

But that language has been used for far better purposes: the Bill of Rights, universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery, social security, and much more. It proved its virtues in the civil rights movement, inspiring hope for a genuinely better future.

To get beyond the distortions of the national insecurity state, though, we may have to learn another lesson from the civil rights movement. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., taught, the essence of violence is not the act of physically striking another, nor even trying to coerce and control another. Before the effort to coerce and control can begin, one must first see oneself standing apart, fundamentally separate from the other. That is the fundamental misperception at the heart of all violence. Taken to its extreme, it leads to apocalyptic dualism and the national insecurity state.

In fact, as King taught us, we are not passive victims of history. We can not be isolated from the dynamics of history. We are always already embedded in a network of relationships. Whatever happens, we can never take full responsibility, for we can have no total control. Yet we always bear some responsibility.

This is very difficult for most Americans to understand. The Calvinism in our cultural roots leads us to see ourselves as disconnected individuals stretched between perfection and damnation¾ a vision bound to stir insecurity. The Jewish state may have more resources to escape the trap of insecurity, if it looks back to its own religious heritage.

The medieval Kabbalah provided a stunning vision of all reality interwoven in what King called "an inescapable network of mutuality." The Baal Shem Tov applied that metaphysical vision to human relationships in memorable words: "If a man has beheld evil, it was shown to him in order that he learn his own guilt and repent. For what is shown to him is also within him." In 1938, in Germany, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel applied these very words to the mounting Nazi horror. He explained: "We have failed to fight for right, for justice, for goodness. As a result we must fight against wrong against injustice, against evil."

A Jewish state guided by the hopeful biblical vision of redemption, as it developed in the United States, might learn to apply this Jewish wisdom. A Jewish state guided by this wisdom might escape from the trap of the national insecurity state and find its way to genuine peace. Spiritually as well as politically, that might help the United States find its own way out of the trap of the national insecurity state. It is not our responsibility to complete the task, but neither are we free to desist from it.


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