Thursday, 20 October 2011

Did history really start on 9/11?

The word in White House at the time was that it did, and it goes some way towards explaining why the lessons of history were so spectacularly ignored in the years that followed.

The point is made in a thoughtful book "Cultures of War: Pearl Harbour/Hiroshima/9-11/Iraq" by John Dower of MIT. It throws an interesting light on the selective amnesia in the US regarding the way the intelligence services didn't see 9/11 coming any more than they did Pearl Harbour. The shock and awe that was subsequently unleashed on Japan and later on Afghanistan (and Iraq, which had nothing to do with 9/11) was designed to persuade the enemy with incomprehensible levels of violence that resistance was futile. But was it really necessary to nuke two Japanese cities? And did we actually have to give in to Stalin's pressure and wipe Dresden off the map, with its large population of refugee women and children? Dower calls it a revolution in moral consciousness at the time, i.e. the end justifies the means.

I believe that levels of violence used in war - in so far as they exceed the "civilised" needs of combat - reveal a lot about the fear and outrage felt by the side that is inflicting it. 9/11 was the first serious "bombing" of an American city. Until then, the Americans had done the bombing. The "American innocence outraged" was an opportunity too good to be missed by the born-again Bush administration: it launched a war against "evil".God was now on its side. The rest we know. The fact that it is all ending in tears is a depressing testimony to US foreign policy and the faith-based politics that drive it. Unfortunately this is neither the end nor the beginning.

The war on terror has militarised the national reflexes of the world's most powerful state to the point where its friends are feeling uncomfortable. A 'theology of national security' has a firm grip on the system of government. The Patriot Act has made Americans subject to interference in their private lives that would not be tolerated in most European countries. Where is this war going to stop? What is its objective? When will we know whether it has been won or lost? The answer is of course 'never'. Society has simply changed. Civil rights have been rolled back. And the line between political dissent and unpatriotic behaviour is getting blurred.

But let's get back to history. This is not the first time the US has declared a war on something that can only end in the triumph of good over evil and is therefore unlikely ever to be brought to a close. Richard Nixon is widely credited with starting the War on Drugs in 1971, legitimising military and foreign intervention in the fight against drugs. In actual fact, the US crusade - and this time the term is used in its specifically christian meaning - goes back to the end of the 19th century. It was then that America joined the European powers in the great colonial adventure. The difference was that superior American christian morality - superior also to that of the Europeans that is - had to be seen and felt to assist the US in fulfilling its Manifest Destiny in the Pacific. That was when domestic anti-opium laws were extended to the newly acquired Philippines. This made the Philippines possibly the first experiment in global drug control measures which were to ultimately result in the system we have today.

Then as now, Christian morality, the national interest, and a biblical faith in might being right makes drug issues as difficult to debate in the US as terrorism. In both cases the response has been catastrophic, for the US and for the other countries involved.

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