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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 4/22/15

The War on Terrorism Targets Democracy Itself

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George Orwell's nightmarish vision of a totalitarian society casts a dark shadow over the United States. The consequences can be seen clearly in the ongoing and ruthless assault on the social state, workers, unions, higher education, students, poor people of color and any vestige of the social contract. Free market policies, values and practices with their emphasis on the privatization of public wealth, the elimination of social protections and the deregulation of economic activity now shape practically every commanding political and economic institution in the United States.

Public spheres that once offered at least the glimmer of progressive ideas, enlightened social policies, non-commodified values, and critical dialogue and exchange have been increasingly militarized - or replaced by private spaces and corporate settings, which maintain ultimate fidelity to increasing profit margins. Citizenship is now subsumed by the national security state and a cult of secrecy, organized and reinforced by the constant mobilization of fear and insecurity designed to produce a form of ethical tranquilization and a paralyzing level of social infantilism.

Democracy cannot serve, as it has, as a pretext for abandoning civil liberties, democratic values and any semblance of justice.

Chris Hedges crystalizes this premise in arguing that Americans now live in a society in which "violence is the habitual response by the state to every dilemma," legitimizing war as a permanent feature of society and violence as the organizing principle of politics. (1) Under such circumstances, malevolent modes of rationality now impose the values of a militarized neoliberal regime on everyone, shattering viable modes of agency, solidarity and hope. Amid the bleakness and despair, the discourses of militarism, danger and war now fuel a war on terrorism "that represents the negation of politics - since all interaction is reduced to a test of military strength war brings death and destruction, not only to the adversary but also to one's side, and without distinguishing between guilty and innocent." (2) Human barbarity is no longer invisible, hidden under the bureaucratic language of Orwellian doublespeak. Its conspicuousness, if not celebration, emerged in the new editions of American exceptionalism ushered in by the post 9/11 exacerbation of the war on terror.

To read more articles by Henry A. Giroux and other authors in the Public Intellectual Project, click here.

In the aftermath of these monstrous acts of terrorism, there was a growing sense among politicians, the mainstream media, and conservative and liberal pundits that history as we knew it had been irrefutably ruptured. If politics seemed irrelevant before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, it now seemed both urgent and despairing. But history cannot be erased, and those traditional public spheres in which people could exchange ideas, debate and shape the conditions that structured their everyday lives increasingly continued to appear to have little significance or political consequence. Already imperiled before the aftershocks of the terrorists' attacks, democracy became even more fragile in the aftermath of 9/11. Almost 14 years later, the historical rupture produced by the events of 9/11 has transformed a terrorist attack into a war on terror that mimics the very crimes it pledged to eliminate. The script is now familiar. Security trumped civil liberties as shared fears replaced any sense of shared responsibilities. Under George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, the government lied about the war in Iraq, created a torture state, violated civil liberties and developed new antiterrorist laws, such as the USA Patriot Act. The Bush administration imposed a state of emergency that justified a range of terrorist practices, including extraordinary rendition and state torture, which made it easier to undermine those basic civil liberties that protect individuals against invasive and potentially repressive government actions. (3)

Under the burgeoning of what James Risen has called the "homeland security-industrial complex," state secrecy and organized corporate corruption filled the coffers of the defense industry along with the corporate-owned security industries - especially those providing drones - who benefited the most from the war on terror. (4) This is not to suggest that security is not an important consideration for the United States. Clearly, any democracy needs to be able to defend itself, but it cannot serve, as it has, as a pretext for abandoning civil liberties, democratic values and any semblance of justice, morality and political responsibility. Nor can it serve as a pretext for American exceptionalism and its imperialist, expansionist goals. The philosopher Giorgio Agamben has rightly warned that under the so-called war on terrorism, the political landscape is changing, and that "we are no longer citizens but detainees, distinguishable from the inmates of Guantanamo not by an indifference in legal status, but only by the fact that we have not yet had the misfortune to be incarcerated - or unexpectedly executed by a missile from an unmanned aircraft." (5)

Under the regime of neoliberalism, with its warlike view of competition, its unmitigated celebration of self-interest, and its disdain for democratic values and shared compassion for others, any notion of unity has been contaminated by the fog of misguided patriotism, a hatred of the other now denigrated as an enemy combatant, and an insular retreat into mindless consumerism and the faux safety of gated communities. With the merging of militarism, the culture of surveillance and a neoliberal culture of cruelty, solidarity and public trust have morphed into an endless display of violence and the ongoing militarization of visual culture and public space. (7) The war on terror morphed into a legitimation for state terrorism as was made clear by the willingness of the Obama administration to pardon the CIA torturers, create a "kill list," expand the surveillance state, punish whistleblowers and use drones to indiscriminately kill civilians - all in the name of fighting terrorists. Obama expanded the reach of the militarized state and along with Democratic and Republican Party extremists preached a notion of security rooted in personal fears rather than in a notion of social security that rallied against the deprivations and suffering produced by war, poverty, racism and state terrorism. The war on terrorism extended the discourse, space, location and time of war in ways that made it unbounded and ubiquitous, making everyone a potential terrorist and the battlefield a domestic as well as foreign location, and a foreign as well as a domestic policy issue. Obama has become the master of permanent war, seeking to increase the bloated US military budget - close to a trillion dollars - while "turning to lawless violence.... translated into unrestrained violent interventions from Libya to Syria and back to Iraq," including an attempt "to expand the war on ISIS in Syria and possibly send more heavy weapons to its client government in Ukraine." (6) Fear became total and the imposition of punitive standards included not only the bombing, abduction and torture of enemy combatants, but also the use of the police and federal troops for drug interdictions, the enforcement of zero tolerance standards in public schools, and the increasing criminalization of a range of social behaviors that extended from homelessness to violating dress codes in school.

The war on terror has come home as poor neighborhoods are transformed into war zones with the police resembling an occupying army. Of course, terrorism is part of US history and its legacy points to the lynchings of thousands of Black men and women in the first half of the 20th century, the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, and the more recent torture of Black men by the Chicago Police Department in the 1960s. Not only has this legacy been forgotten, its most poisonous effects have returned with a vengeance. Racism is now normalized just as it is being loudly proclaimed across the country that we live in a post-racial society, a statement that suggests both a tragic state of self-delusion and a mass psychosis. The most lethal expressions of racism have become commonplace as Black men and boys, such as Eric Garner and Tamir Rice, are repeatedly beaten and killed by the police. (8) As Jeffrey St. Clair has pointed out, one index of how state terrorism and lawlessness have become normalized is evident not only by the fact that the majority of Americans support torture, even though they know "it is totally ineffective as a means of intelligence gathering," but also by the US public's growing appetite for violence, whether it parades as entertainment or manifests itself in the growing demonization and incarceration of Black and Brown youth and adults, Muslims, immigrants and others deemed as disposable. (9)

It should come as no surprise that the one issue the top 2016 GOP presidential contenders agree on is that guns are the ultimate symbol of freedom in the United States, a "bellwether of individual liberty, a symbol of what big government wants and shouldn't have." (10) Guns provide political theater for the new political extremists and are symptomatic less of some cockeyed defense of the Second Amendment than they are of a willingness to maximize the pleasure of violence and build a case for the use of deadly force both at home and abroad. As Rustom Bharacuha and Susan Sontag have argued in different contexts, "There is an echo of the pornographic in maximizing the pleasure of violence," (11) one "that dissolves politics into pathology." (12)

The current extremists dominating Congress are frothing at the mouth to go to war with Iran, bomb Syria into the twilight zone and further extend the reach of the US empire through its over bloated war machine to any country that questions the use of US power. One glaring example can be found in the constant and under analyzed televised images and stories of homegrown terrorists threatening to blow up malls, schools and any other conceivable space where the public gathers.Notions of democracy increasingly appear to be giving way to the discourse of revenge, domestic security, stupidity and war. The political reality that has emerged since the shattering crisis of 9/11 increasingly points to a set of narrow choices that are being largely set by the jingoistic right-wing extremists, the US Defense Department and conservative-funded foundations, and fueled by the dominant media. War and violence now function as an aphrodisiac for a public inundated with commodities and awash in celebrity culture idiocy. This surrender to the pleasure of violence is made all the more easy by the civic illiteracy now sweeping the United States. Climate change deniers, anti-intellectuals, religious fundamentalists, the love-America-uncritically crowd and others who exhibit pride in displaying a kind of thoughtlessness exhibit a form of political and theoretical helplessness, if not corruption, that opens the door to the wider public's acceptance of foreign and domestic violence.

Other examples can be found in the militarized frothing and Islamophobia perpetrated by the Fox News Network, made concrete by an almost fever pitched bellicosity that informs the majority of its commentaries and reactions to the war on terror. Missing from the endless call for security, vengeance and the use of state violence is the massive lawlessness produced by the US government through targeted drone attacks on enemy combatants, the violation of civil liberties, and the almost unimaginable human suffering and hardship perpetrated through the US war machine in the Middle East, especially Iraq. Also missing is a history of lawlessness, imperialism and torture that supported a host of authoritarian regimes propped up by the United States.

Capitalizing on the pent-up emotions and needs of an angry and grieving public for revenge, fueled by an unchecked Islamophobia, almost any reportage of a terrorist attack throughout the globe further amplifies the hyped-up language of war, patriotism, surveillance and retaliation. Similarly, conservative talking heads write numerous op-eds and appear on endless talk shows fanning the fires of "patriotism" by calling upon the United States to expand the war against any one of a number of Muslim countries that are considered terrorist states. For example, John Bolton, writing an op-ed for The New York Times insists that all attempts by the Obama administration to negotiate an arms deal with Iran is a sign of weakness. For Bolton, the only way to deal with Iran is to launch an attack on their nuclear infrastructure. The title of his op-ed sums up the organizing idea of the article: "To Stop Iran's Bomb, Bomb Iran." (13)

The dominant media no longer function in the interests of a democracy.

In the current historical moment, the language of indiscriminate revenge and lawlessness seems to be winning the day. This is a discourse unconscious of its own dangerous refusal to acknowledge the important role that democratic values and social justice must play in a truly "unified" rational response, so as to prevent the further killing of innocent people, regardless of their religion, culture and place of occupancy in the world. Instead of viewing the current crisis as simply a new and more dangerous historical conjuncture that has nothing to learn from the past, it is crucial for the US public to begin to understand how the past might be useful in addressing what it means to live in a democracy at a time when democracy is not only viewed as an excess, but as a liability to the wishes and interests of the new extremists who now control the US government. The anti-democratic forces that define US history cannot be forgotten in the fog of political and cultural amnesia. State violence and terrorism have a long history in the United States, both in its foreign and domestic policies, and ignoring this dark period of history means that nothing will be learned from the legacy of a politics that has indulged authoritarian ideologies and embraced violence as a central measure of power, national identity and patriotism. (14)

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Henry A. Giroux currently holds the McMaster University Chair for Scholarship in the Public Interest in the English and Cultural Studies Department and dis the Paulo Freire Distinguished Scholar in Critical Pedagogy. His most recent books are America's Addiction to Terrorism (Monthly Review Press, 2016), and America at War with Itself (City Lights, 2017). He is also a contributing editor to a number of journals, includingTikkun, (more...)

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