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A Holy Day in the Empire

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Tuesday we officially mourned Empire’s Heroes Day.

I mourn all who die senselessly, and with special sadness those killed in politically motivated massacres, including our own 9/11. But overall, few of the victims of political slaughter are Americans. In the past fifteen years, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, for example, have suffered far worse than anything that has happened to us since at least World War II. Hundreds of times more people died in the Rwandan genocide than in 9/11. Are Rwandans’ lives less precious than Americans’?

Among those Americans who do die senseless, violent deaths, over 40,000 a year are killed by motor vehicles. A comparable number are killed by guns, whether by murder, suicide, or accident. Over 14,000 are murdered here each year. That’s over 80,000 victims since the far-more-mourned 3,000 of 9/11.

Are we asked to change our whole way of life because of gun or car deaths? We haven’t given up driving. Then why give up civil liberties? We don’t exactly “wage a war” on small-time murderers. Then why a “war on terror”?

The victims of this war are the same dark-skinned people whose deaths we ignore in order to sacralize our own, far less numerous ones. Even anti-war rhetoric suffers from this fault. We have lost close to 4,000 in Iraq? The Iraqis have lost hundreds of thousands. Despite valiant estimates, a more precise number is not really available, because, after all, “we don’t do body counts.”

Although most Americans would disagree with this no-count policy if they realized it existed, that doesn’t necessarily mean that most truly object to it. A substantial minority of Americans quite openly don’t care about “their” lives. Others want very much to believe they care, without actually doing or even thinking much about it. For them, it would be discomfiting to know the true scope of the slaughter we are causing. Both of these factions are happy not to know. Since the days when we waged primitive biological warfare on our own continent’s natives with our Old World diseases, Americans have been part of an imperial project.

Tuesday was the #1 day to celebrate how horrible it was when we lost those 3,000 lives, HERE—unbelievably—in America itself, Land of the Fortress, home of global dominance. Well, it WAS horrible. Unbelievably, gobstoppingly horrible. I only wish it ranked high among the list of massacres in human history. If only, if only. It doesn’t even come close to the top hundred.

If only killing 3,000 civilians and turning lower Manhattan into a toxic dust storm really WERE the defining atrocity in human history, not only would history be cheerier, but we could legitimately treat 9/11 as the decisive event of our times. We would still have no right to kill thousands of other, mostly equally innocent people to avenge it, but we could honestly argue that it changed everything.

But it was NOT high in the history of atrocities, and it did NOT change everything. What changed everything wasn’t 9/11 itself but the quasi-religious spin that was put upon it. Like the chronicles of the Old Testament, the events of that day are no longer to be treated as an empirical sequence subject to open-ended historical debate, but as a sacred narrative. As James Meigs wrote in Popular Mechanics, “We as a society accept the basic premise that a group of Islamist terrorists hijacked four airplanes and turned them into weapons against us.” In other words, what happened is not a matter of individual opinion but a collective catechism that only outsiders to our society could reject.

With the enshrinement of this dogma, 9/11 was made into a religious epiphany (its purpose to wake us from evil), the dead into martyrs, and the “war on terror” into a holy war. Real people died on that day, not holy martyrs, and many of their loved ones question the consecrated account of how their loss occurred. But it was not the real events of 9/11 that brought about the “war on terror,” on whose altar so many have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our new national religion, adopted in its wake, did that. Thus the Ann Coulters of the world can slime the real people while righteously demanding that wars be fought in the name of national victimhood.

Funny how it took 9/11 to make all this happen. Why don’t we speak of the Rwandan genocide as the event that “changed everything”? Unfortunately, there are only two possible answers:

1) That event killed only blacks.

2) That event did not happen in the heart of the Holy Empire.

For those who think ALL human life is precious, that ALL people deserve the fullest protection possible against violence of any kind, there is no alternative to opposing an Empire that holds life as cheap as ours has, not just under Bush but across its history, from Native Americans to Filipinos to Japanese to Vietnamese to East Timorese to Angolans to Guatemalans to Iraqis. It follows that the Empire cannot sanction such universal compassion. High-minded talk, yes, as long as everyone knows it’s only for show. When the metal hits the road, or the napalm hits the flesh, everyone knows it’s only the American lives that are treated as sacred.

To dissent from this position is unpatriotic. I am not being ironic here. It really is—because if your homeland is an empire, you cannot be a patriot of a non-empire. You can care deeply about its people and future, but you cannot Defend the Nation without defending the empire.

Our nation IS an empire, whether we like to admit it or not. By now most people in the world realize that our empire is a disaster. Here’s hoping, on the sixth anniversary of the greatest psy-op of our time, that in six more years most Americans will have woken up too.

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Michael Lubin served on the first democratically elected governing board in the history of KPFA, the nation's oldest listener-sponsored radio station. There, he was a founding member of the pro-democracy listeners' (more...)

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