America’s Orwellian War

NYTimes Syndication

     Has anyone else following the aftermath of September 11 been struck by the similarity to Orwell’s 1984 – in which a never-ending far-away war against ever changing enemies serves as a rationale for political and social repression? In the past five months numerous Americans, and not a few Europeans, do not dare speak their minds and many more do not dare to think things through to a point where the urge to speak one’s mind becomes unbearable.
     There was no genuine war after September 11. There could not have been. And no country, not even one as powerful as the United States after it lost the Soviet Union as its only rival, can hijack such an important concept without in the long run bringing disaster upon itself. That great beacon of political common sense in the twentieth century, George Orwell, educated at least two generations of reasonable observers of political reality in the danger of using words wrongly in this way.
     A huge crime was committed; the biggest mass murder ever seen directly by hundreds of millions all over the globe when Manhattan’s tallest towers collapsed into a grave of molten steel. A vast police action, backed by emergency powers, to uncover and destroy any network of the guilty, primarily to prevent a recurrence, would be a rational and responsible strategy. A war, on the other hand, requires an enemy that can roll over, declare it is ready to surrender and sign a peace treaty. Victory over “terrorism” is not possible in the absence of such an enemy, and the alternative: extermination of always changing and always new groups using violence to attain their ends can never be achieved. A political program that nevertheless attempts this can only destroy the remaining reasons for believing in what the United States has long stood for.
     If no more terrorist attacks occur, something to be fervently hoped for the sake of all our future, the American public will probably wake up to the fact that their country is not at war. All those who still applaud new steps in the “war strategy” will have to come to terms with the fact that, while the regimes of Iraq and North Korea are truly evil, any comparison to the threat of the axis powers who menaced the civilized world during World War II is the product of minds that have lost themselves in political opportunism of unspeakable indecency. Americans must wake up to this reality if they are to save what once was truly a shining example to the world. They should remember that the regime in Orwell’s dystopia kept the people meek with slogans like “ignorance is strength”.
    The world can only hope that the vast majority of decent Americans will save the political system of their country. This is the country after all, toward which people like myself should feel forever grateful for having preserved political civilization at least twice in the 20th century. We must hope, for all of us, that when this awakening comes Americans will sober up to a point where they can undo the developments that have made the current situation possible.
    The legal and security measures taken in recent months may change the United States into a country that its admirers no longer recognize. But the rot goes deeper. To prevent further decay, they must regain the power they have lost to special interests that have labored to obscure the true national public interest. They must quell the power of those on the religious right, whose personal insecurities and fear of their lack of control over social realities have led to a pervasive inchoate hatred. They must reverse the policies that have led to a massive transfer of wealth from the middle class to a minuscule moneyed elite; an elite that has lost all justification for its claims to be an aristocracy of skill, good judgment, and concern for the public good.
    They must also realize how their transnational business bureaucracies, their public officials, their journalists and their professors have promoted a version of capitalism that is, inadvertently, deepening poverty and heightening social dislocation among the least advantaged in the world. Americans might then with Europeans and others attempt to reverse gears, repair the damage, and strive to seize the genuine opportunity that was created when the Berlin Wall came down — an opportunity to build a more equitable, more peaceful and more humanly rewarding global civilization.
     It is sad sign of the times that I feel impelled to add that what I have just said are not the ravings of a European flush with anti-American sentiments. The European countries and their Union may be accused of political spinelessness and irresponsible complacency, but Europeans on the whole cannot be accused of callousness toward the American experience of September 11. In the week following many stood still, silently, on roads, highways, in supermarket aisles — or, as I did, sat motionless at their desks for three minutes, in sympathy with … no, in shared grief with the victims of the attacks and their mourning families.
     Many Europeans and, as I know for sure from numerous conversations, many Japanese and other Asians, want to say: Americans please draw back from the abyss that demagoguery has opened up before you, and come back to the world of shared concerns — a humane world we have been working on, notwithstanding tragic lapses, at least since the Enlightenment. Come back and help recreate a world in which a phrase like “values dear to our hearts” still has meaning.
     An improved global order cannot come about if the label of “anti-American” is automatically and unthinkingly slapped on any serious analysis of anti-democratic trends, of political excesses and abuse when, as so often happens, the United States provides the clearest examples. Cries of “anti-American” amount to intimidation, as do the labels “leftist” and “bleeding heart liberal” thrown at those whose conscience and intelligence drives them to rethink political purpose amid their country’s technocracy and corrupted media.
     In all the sadness and anger after September 11, the world expressed a hope through much commentary that the tragedy might lead to a serious rethinking of America’s political and economic purposes. To support this hope is not to endorse the notion that Americans “had it coming” — of course, no American action in the world has made the terrorist attacks morally comprehensible. But that does not excuse Americans for failing to rethink national purposes in a world that they dominate.
     The hope may still be realized, but only if the millions of Americans of goodwill wake up and speak out.