Tuesday, September 19, 2006


Mark Lilla, in TNR Online, on the domestic political scene since 9-11:

I do not recognize my country today. It walks, it talks, but its eyes are glassy and vacant. I am not one of those who blames the Bush administration for this; our government is a symptom of our condition, not its cause. Several thousand people died in the attacks of September 11, but the changes in our political atmosphere that followed bear little understandable relation to the emotions of mourning, rage, revenge, or even fear. Objectively seen, those attacks did nothing to change the balance of power in the world, as an invasion or assassination might have. The bastards got lucky; that is all. But, like a trauma victim who suddenly sees his surrounding environment as alien and hostile, the United States reacted to those events by disengaging itself from reality, internationally and domestically. Mental disengagement combined with military engagement--a recipe for disaster....

[After] the planes struck, what happened next on the international scene is a matter of public record. What happened within the United States is less well understood abroad. To hostile foreign observers, the United States has simply reverted to type, revealing its true face as a brutal imperialist monster. From the outside, it looks like we are being driven by greed for oil, or hatred of Muslims, or blind loyalty to Israel, or contempt for the international community---we know the litany. From the inside, the last five years of U.S. history look very different. We are still a nation in shock--hardly capable of conceiving an imperial strategy, let alone pursuing it. That is why we still have no real strategy for dealing with the genuine threat of radical Islam, or for securing our cities and ports. When the decision to invade Iraq was being made, there were long, serious debates in the British House of Commons, which anyone with a satellite dish could watch on BBC. No such display could be found on U.S. television because no such debate took place in the U.S. Congress. The president was given carte blanche. And American reporters, like adolescents at play, donned military uniforms and joined the troops as "embedded" observers, gushing over the display of firepower. The nation slept.

While it slept, the clock of U.S. politics turned in reverse, back to the mindset of the cold war and the culture wars of the '60s and '70s. All sorts of strange types emerged from under their rocks to exploit September 11--neoconservatives longing for a war that would restore "American greatness" through militarism, legal anarchists who started rewriting the constitution, evangelicals who sensed the opportunity to launch a counter-revolution against all the cultural changes of the last four decades. None of these groups represented more than a fraction of Americans, but, together, they found the ear of a transformed president and of his political advisers, who knew how to exploit them in return. The level of American political debate sank to a new low and is now fixed on symbols--"values," "strength," "family," "security," "life," "freedom"--that bear little relation to contemporary American reality or the world situation. The '90s were a period of political maturation in United States, but, in the face of trauma, the nation has regressed to an infantile state. That includes Bush's many critics, who peddle Vietnam-tinged fantasies of a new antiwar movement and hope to revive adversarial press of the Watergate era. A reader of U.S. newspapers can be forgiven for thinking he is living in 1973.

This week will be taken up with commemorations of those who lost their lives on September 11, as it should be. But, when those ceremonies are over, we should also observe a moment of silence for the America that existed just before that September morning, and which now lies in a coma. We are destined to see that America again, if only because reality has a way of intruding into even the deepest sleep. But the wake-up will be hard. An entire nation will find itself on the floor, its knees bruised, its nose bloodied, the furniture in disarray, wondering just what the hell happened.

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