In June 2011, a 59-year old American salvage diver named Bill Warren announced his plans to sail his 60-metre boat to the Arabian Sea. There, he said, he would use side-scan sonar, the method that located the Titanic, to recover the body of Osama bin Laden from the ocean floor. He hoped to photograph and video the corpse, as well as conduct DNA tests.
And the point of this venture? ‘I’m doing it because I am a patriotic American who wants to know the truth,’ Warren explained. ‘I do it for the world.’ Mr Warren’s interest in the al-Qaeda leader’s corpse might seem extreme. But he’s far from alone in attributing talismanic significance to the body of bin Laden.
Immediately after a US special forces squad raided the compound at Abbottabad, the liberal commentator Peter Beinart offered his political analysis of bin Laden’s death. For Beinart, President Obama’s role in an extrajudicial execution dispelled the ‘wimp factor’ that had bedevilled his administration, rebutting, he said, Republican accusations that ‘Democrats pray at the altar of international institutions and international law’.
It was an interesting choice of words. International law has many sources but the key moment in its institutional legitimisation came after the Second World War, when the victorious powers gave the men (and the occasional woman) responsible for the vilest acts in human history their day in court.
Every argument about the treatment due to captured al-Qaeda members would also have applied in Nuremberg. Osama bin Laden might have murdered thousands but the defendants in 1945 instituted systematic genocide. Yet their trials were not seen as an insult to the survivors of fascism; on the contrary, procedural fairness was understood as fundamental to the provision of justice for the victims. Where bin Laden and his small gang fantasised about restoring the caliphate, Hitler actually ruled most of Europe. Nonetheless, the courtroom was still public and the defendants able to speak on their own behalf, despite the risk of Nazi leaders (who, after all, knew a thing or two about propaganda) using the court as a platform.
It is a remarkable contrast: in 1945, Western liberals saw the international extension of civilised jurisprudence as an achievement; in 2011, they celebrate the political implications of ostentatious illegality. How did we get from Nuremberg to Abbottabad, from public trials to extrajudicial killing squads?
It’s particularly puzzling given that the principles of jurisprudence were not an invention of the new left but are, rather, quintessentially capitalist. Modern law evolved in opposition to medieval justice, on the basis that the arbitrariness of the latter threatened capital accumulation: you cannot conduct business effectively if the document you’ve signed will be reinterpreted according to the whims of some local notable.
So law, in the way we understand it today, developed in parallel with the generalisation of commodity exchange, with the obligations of contract its highest expression. Where pre-modern justice allocated different rights and responsibilities according to rank, the contemporary courts uphold formal equality, individual freedom and the rights of property—that is, the law abstracts real people, with their individual idiosyncrasies, into equals deemed capable of interacting on a level playing field, in a process that parallels the assumptions of the market.
When, then, are the politicians most devoted to market capitalism so casually indifferent to the legal principles that underpin it? Consider US broadcaster Glenn Beck. Over the last years, Beck has built tremendous audiences as a public incarnation of the conservative American Id, alternating between conspiracy mongering (furiously scribbled chalk diagrams charting the forces ranged against the God-fearing white man), bellicose militarism and cornball sentimentality.
Beck’s output extends to stand-up comedy, the political thriller The Overton Window (‘a plan to destroy America, a hundred years in the making, is about to be unleashed … can it be stopped?’) and motivational speeches. But he also founded what he calls the ‘9/12 project’, which, according to its website, is ‘a volunteer based, non-partisan movement focusing on building and uniting our communities back to the place we were on 9/12/2001’—that is, immediately after the terrorist attacks on New York.
On 12 September 2001, the falling towers had just killed thousands of people. New York still smouldered; the rest of the country braced itself for further strikes. It seems, on face value, a strange day to recapture. But what Beck means is that, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the attacks—and the beginning of the war on terror—were widely understood as having restored a fundamentally different, and fundamentally better, America.
‘The day after America was attacked,’ he says, ‘we were not obsessed with political parties, the color of your skin, or what religion you practiced. We were united as Americans, standing together to protect the greatest nation ever created. Our goal is to bring us back to that same feeling of togetherness again.’
In her book The Terror Dream, Susan Faludi chronicles this feeling, the way that the war on terror began, as she puts it, with a ‘retreat into a fantasized yesteryear’. This was the time of the cowboy, a brief phase in which George Bush’s Texan swagger suddenly became representative of a new way of being. ‘The world has become a global Dodge City,’ syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker explained. ‘Lucky for us, a Wild West sheriff is in charge.’
With Osama bin Laden wanted ‘dead or alive’, the war cabinet at Camp David dined on buffalo meat (‘a frontier menu’) and journalists everywhere obsessed about old western movies. National Review writer Rob Long’s announcement that he’d been watching High Noon ‘every few days since September 11’ was typical, since, as Wayne Lutz of the Tocquevillian Magazine put it, the identification of Bush as a cowboy stirred ‘the cowboy in us all’.
The transformation was spelled out most explicitly by the Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan, who explained how September 11 had not been a political event but a spiritual and a cultural moment that revived the ‘manly virtues’ once embodied in cowboy actors such as John Wayne. ‘I was there in America when they killed John Wayne by a thousand cuts,’ she wrote. ‘A lot of people killed him—not only feminists but peaceniks, leftists, intellectuals, others.’ But, with the war on terror, Wayne was back.
I think he returned on Sept. 11. I think he ran up the stairs, threw the kid over his back like a sack of potatoes, came back down and shoveled rubble. I think he’s in Afghanistan now, saying, with his slow swagger and simmering silence, ‘Yer in a whole lotta trouble now, Osama-boy.’
If, from this distance, Noonan’s rhetoric seems profoundly silly, almost deranged, many ordinary Americans felt a genuine contrast between their everyday life prior to 9/11 and the heightened state in which the war on terror began. If the ongoing emergency allowed individuals to identify with the frontier values of John Wayne and other cowboy stars, it also fostered the togetherness that Beck identified. ‘I don’t know why I’ve been coming here, except that I’m confused’, one young man in Union Square Park told the New York Times immediately after 9/11. ‘Also a sense of unity. We all feel differently about what to do in response, but everybody seems to agree that we’ve got to be together no matter what happens.’
For those of a historical mind, this atavistic reimaging of both nation and citizen brings to mind the almost religious ecstasy that greeted the outbreak of the Great War in Europe, a fevered patriotism experienced as equally transformative.
The descriptions of August 1914 are remarkably consistent across the continent, in Britain and even in Australia. On the one hand, the declaration of war forged social unity. ‘[O]n the streets and avenues,’ wrote Rudolf Binding of the celebrating crowds in Germany, ‘men looked each other in the eye and rejoiced in their togetherness.’ On the other hand, that unity transformed the individuals who were part of it. ‘[W]ar changed men,’ as Walter Schelle put it, ‘and it also changed the relationship between men.’
Where the rhetoric of the war on terror plundered images from Hollywood to describe what had changed, the language of August 1914 drew upon popular literature. Paul Fussell identifies the main English sources as ‘the boys’ books of George Alfred Henty; the male-romances of Rider Haggard; the poems of Robert Bridges; and especially the Arthurian poems of Tennyson and the pseudo- medieval romances of William Morris’. In 2001 the United States dreamed of cowboys and posses, but Britain went to war with a language of self-conscious chivalry, in which the enemy was always ‘the foe’, the battlefield dead ‘the fallen’ and the front ‘the field’.
The Great War did not, of course, emerge from nowhere. A continent-wide war had been on the horizon since the turn of the century, with the major power blocs jostling, increasingly overtly, for commercial outlets and for territory. In that respect, the First World War was the quintessential capitalist conflict, in which the normal competition of the marketplace spilled over to the bloody competition of the trenches.
Yet in the widespread enthusiasm of August 1914 you can also see an inarticulate anti-capitalism—or, at least, a yearning for that which capitalism was displacing. The convulsive ecstasy with which Europe clutched at a pre-modern ethics of chivalry, honour and valour reflected a widespread sense that these virtues had been destroyed by industrialisation, by a modernity that was empty, banal and purposeless. As Rupert Brooke famously explained, war allowed men
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping, Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary, Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move, And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary …
The modern world, with its factories and its technology and its bureaucracy, was soulless and anti-human—‘old and cold and weary’.
War meant something else. As the historian Eric Leeds explains, ‘It was commonly felt that with the declaration of war, the populations of European nations had left behind an industrial civilization with its problems and conflicts and were entering a sphere of action ruled by authority, discipline, comradeship and common purpose.’ Peace meant that men and women were atomised, alienated and alone, impersonal cogs in the gears of industry; war offered an organic collectivity in which there would be a meaningful place for everyone. Stefan Zweig noted in Vienna in 1914 that:
… as never before, thousands and hundreds of thousands felt what they should have felt in peacetime, that they belong together; a city of two million, a country of nearly fifty million, felt in that hour that they were participating in a moment which would never recur; and that each one was called upon to cast his infinitesimal self into the glowing mass, and there to be purified of all selfishness.
Such was, pretty much exactly, the sentiment that Beck invited Americans to recapture. ‘Are you ready to be that person that you were that day after 9/11—on 9/12?’ he demanded, sobbing, of the camera.
Like the Great War, the war on terror possessed its own economic logic. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were not a grab for oil in any simple sense. But those nations’ proximity to resources meant they were of intense strategic importance. The neoconservative faction of the American elite had long argued for a more aggressive use of military force to warn off rising powers such as China—this was the case made explicitly in the mid nineties by the Project for a New American Century, a group to which many of the architects of the war on terror had belonged. The Taliban’s relationship with bin Laden made Afghanistan an irresistible opportunity to demonstrate American military force. As for Iraq, the PNAC had long warned that, merely through his survival, Saddam Hussein constituted a challenge to the authority of the United States. Regime change in Iraq—long a neocon dream—would be a shot across the bows of any other nations that thought the Americans were a spent force.
Yet the war on terror only became possible because of 9/11. According to CBS News, within five hours of the attacks Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld discussed with aides the possibility of a strike at Saddam Hussein as well as Osama bin Laden. ‘Go massive,’ he said. ‘Sweep it all up. Things related and not.’ Rumsfeld—and the rest of Bush administration—recognised in the immense public response to 9/11 a political and military opportunity, which they then ruthlessly exploited. But why were the terrorist attacks experienced by ordinary Americans as so transformative?
In 2001, modernity was not new in the way that it had been in 1914. Nonetheless, by the end of the twentieth century, the United States, like most industrialised nations, had undergone decades of neoliberal reforms, a process that had extended market forces to every nook and cranny of human existence in a way that previous eras would not have believed possible. That, after all, is what neoliberalism means: a doctrine of commodification, a theory that holds that everything that can be marketised should be; so its apostles not only privatise any publicly owned utilities but aggressively create markets in realms previously deemed off limits, from our sexuality to the air we breathe.
Because neoliberalism recognises no domain from which the market should be excluded, it has always been about more than the economy, as Margaret Thatcher famously recognised. ‘Economics are the method,’ she explained, ‘but the object is to change the soul.’ And changed the soul has been.
The generation of 2001 could share with the generation of August 1914 a sense of values and meanings disappearing before the autistic logic of the cash register, a vague feeling of collective identities dissolving, leaving millions of citizens alone in the crowd. The experience of 9/11, the beginning of the war on terror, provided an overwhelming contrast to isolation, fragmentation, to the collapse of established authorities, an answer to the widespread yearning for meanings and belief.
‘The heroic feeling that a commercial age had slammed into the museums burst out, bright and living.’ That was the Prussian novelist Ernst Jünger writing about 1914—but it might equally have been a newspaper columnist or cable pundit discussing the mood in 2001. For what’s most remarkable about the right-wing responses to 9/11 is that they’re—sometimes explicitly—pitched as a critique of US society. Beck, for instance, wants to take Americans back not to 9/10 but to 9/12—the day after rather than the day before the towers fell, implying, quite astonishingly, that the attacks improved the country.
Similarly, Noonan writes of joining a crowd of New York professionals cheering macho construction workers, the modern cowboys, as they head off to work on Ground Zero. She pitches her appreciation of John Wayne’s masculinity as explicitly a critique of the bloodless sybarites around her (‘Investment bankers! Orthodontists! Magazine editors!’) and the prosperous but empty society that spawned them. The death of Wayne, she said, had led to an America that was like Wayne’s hapless sidekick in John Ford’s movie, Barry Fitzgerald—a ‘small, nervous, gossiping neighborhood commentator … who wanted to talk about everything and do nothing’.
Thus the Duke’s return signalled, for Noonan, the death of the neurotic and empty world of the twenty-first century, in the same way as Brooke turned from ‘the sick hearts’ and ‘half-men’ of his day. Unfortunately, the sentiment of 9/11 proved as transitory as the patriotic fervour with which the Great War began. If, in 1914, war could be hymned as a redemption, the promise of August dissolved into the actuality of the trenches and the realisation that, rather than restoring preindustrial values, war intensified the alienation of modernity.
At the front, volunteers who’d dreamed of sabres and cavalry charges, men who sought to duel with ‘the foe’ on ‘the field of battle’, confronted a mechanised combat in which the enemy was invisible and the task of the soldier less to act than to endure. The characteristic experience of battle in the Great War was, after all, not the bayonet charge but the artillery barrage, to which the individual could only respond by cowering helplessly in the mud.
Combat did not transform the little people of the cities into heroes but instead diminished them, in a depressingly familiar fashion. ‘The men who through daring chivalry,’ noted Ernst Toller, ‘had hoped to rescue their spiritual selves from the domination of material and technical forces discovered that in modern war of material the triumph of the machine over the individual is carried to its most extreme form.’
You can see a similar contradiction working through the aftermath of 9/11. The wars launched by President Bush were as neoliberal as the administration itself, deploying vast numbers of private contractors from Blackwater and other mercenary outfits. The army relied not on John Wayne and Gary Cooper but on poor kids from rural towns, for whom military service offered a slightly better paid version of the hazardous and dead-end jobs they had in peacetime.
‘Be all you can be,’ the army invited—and most recruits quickly discovered they couldn’t be very much. Patrolling occupied Iraq was not like a gun fight in the OK Corral, in which the participants heroically took charge of their own destiny as an ‘army of one’, but rather involved, like all modern war, large stretches of tedium and unthinking obedience, interspersed with rare moments of terror and agony.
If the army in the Great War was a factory, the highly technological twenty-first- century military worked like a modern corporation, in which the average soldier was as powerless as any cubicle jockey at IBM, with very little idea what was taking place and even less ability to do anything about it. More importantly, very few Americans experienced battle directly. For all the talk of common purpose, the war on terror involved no shared sacrifice. Famously, when asked what ordinary people should do, Bush suggested that they go shopping—that is, engage in the kind of empty consumerism to which 9/11 had briefly presented an alternative.
Not surprisingly, rather than cementing social unity the war on terror fostered a political polarisation: while the pointless carnage in Iraq and Afghanistan eventually spurred more and more people into opposition, the dizzying sums invested in defence coincided with a domestic economy increasingly faltering. If an intuitive revulsion at neoliberalism turbocharged the patriotism of 9/11, that patriotism—or the ends to which it was put—turbocharged neoliberalism, with President Bush using his second term to widen the already staggering gulf between the American rich and the American poor, even before the arrival of the global financial crisis.
That is why, over the course of the last decade, the rhetoric of populists such as Beck has become increasingly desperate and violent, as the war on terror brings not High Noon but 9/10, albeit in an America that’s ever more indebted and divided. Fundamentally, their project rests upon a vicious circle, starting wars to paper over the social contradictions that those wars then accentuate. Hence the enthusiasm for killings over trials.
In 1914, the purification anticipated by Brooke, the turn back to honour and away from the cold and weary modern world, was explicitly brutal. It was battle that offered the alternative to a meaningless society, it was war that would redeem individuals and nations in the face of the decadence of peace. On the one hand, the fleshless abstraction of a world of ‘sick hearts’ and ‘half-men, on the other, the gory immediacy of hand-to-hand combat. As the soldier-poet Julian Grenfell explained in ‘Into Battle’:
And life is colour and warmth and light, And a striving evermore for these; And he is dead who will not fight; And who dies fighting has increase.
The same sentiment could be found after 9/11. Faludi quotes Philip Weiss’s account of male bonding in the month after the attacks.
‘What do you think we should do?’ I said to one friend. ‘Go over there and ice ’em,’ he said. We shook hands. At a birthday party, a biker told me about off-the-books assassination squads that roam free in mountains in the Far East. We both grunted with approval. A third friend and I drank red wine before his stone fireplace and talked about how some action was required. An artist, but he seemed to be saying, ‘Love it or leave it,’ and I found myself agreeing.
A comparable urge to violence simmers beneath Noonan’s folksy prose. Her effete New York friends gush over the brawny hard hats—but she’s quick to assure the reader that their admiration has nothing to do with class. No, the construction workers are commendable because they are ‘tough, rough men’. To illustrate, she tells another anecdote about an American diver whose wife is menaced by a shark. ‘Do you know what the man did?’ she asks. ‘He punched the shark in the head. He punched it and punched it again. He did not do brilliant commentary on the shark, he did not share his sensitive feelings about the shark, he did not make wry observations about the shark, he punched the shark in the head.’
On the one hand, intellectuals with their feelings and their postmodern snark; on the other, real men given to punching sharks in the head. Such is the contrast of 9/11: ‘he is dead who will not fight’, as Grenfell would have it.
In 1945, in the wake of the Second World War, the Truman administration could insist on proper trials for Nazi war criminals. Back then, American liberals understood ‘exceptionalism’ as a contrast between a New World prepared to defend the rule of law even for fascists and an Old Europe mired in backwardness. But that was a different era and a different America, in a context in which the United States had emerged from Europe’s wreckage as the greatest economic and military force in the world. Prosperity fostered social stability, and it also fostered a national confidence evident in ventures such as the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe, a feat of social engineering on a scale unthinkable today.
If the Nuremberg trials coincided with the beginning of a long capitalist boom, the killing of Osama bin Laden came with the United States socially fractured and massively in debt, with huge pools of intractable unemployment, and facing the real possibility of a double-dip recession. In that context, violence becomes a constant temptation—one way to foster, however temporarily, a renewed public unity. Consider the following extraordinary dialogue about the death of bin Laden between cable host Chris Matthews and the editor of the online journal Politico, Jonathan Martin:
MATTHEWS: It seems to me that this president is—and I mean this positively—cold-blooded. I think people who are chief executives of this country and have all the firepower before them, they have to be willing to use it, or they shouldn’t take the job. It’s very simple. If you’re not willing to use our military power, if you’re not willing to kill people when you have to, you shouldn’t take that job. This president is not a wimp about using power. In fact, I dare say he is pretty cold-blooded. He went after the pirates. He—he actually called for the contract. He called for the hit. He did it again here.
MARTIN: […] But this does I think provide a problem for Republicans on the issue of this narrative. What you touched on, Chris, the notion that he is somehow weak or, you know, unwilling to sort of use force, he doesn’t like violence. He’s sort of the faculty lounge guy who is unfamiliar with the U.S. military. He has a ready response for that now for the next year and a half. He can say, well, you can ask Osama bin Laden about how soft I am. You’ll find him at the bottom of the Arabian Sea.
MATTHEWS: Yes, I think he’s the man that shot Liberty Valance.
Matthews had previously swooned over President Bush’s masculinity during the notorious ‘Mission Accomplished’ speech (‘I mean, he seems like—he didn’t fight in a war, but he looks like he does …’). With bin Laden’s death, Matthews transferred the familiar cowboy rhetoric from Bush to Obama, explicitly on the basis that the new president was a cold-blooded killer—and that this was all to the good. Equally remarkably, Martin joined in, praising Obama for not being a man who ‘doesn’t like violence’. Liking violence, apparently, is also to the good.
We’re back in the realm of killing as redemption, with Obama’s willingness to use force transforming the enfeebled elitist of yesterday into a heroic figure from the frontier—the Man who Shot Liberty Valance, no less. This is what Beinart meant by dispelling the ‘wimp factor’: by authorising an extrajudicial killing, Obama demonstrated he was a shark-punching cowboy and not an effete urban intellectual.
It’s true that, in some senses, the retreat from judicial norms is contrary to the interests of the US elite. Modern capitalists do not want to operate in the Wild West.
But we should recall that regime change in Iraq and Afghanistan was originally intended to install free markets and liberal governments upholding the rule of law, conditions in which, all other things being equal, business can best flourish. Instead, the neoconservative adventure has increasingly come to depend on corrupt and brutal client states, reliant on torture and repression. That was not part of the plan—but it has been accepted by the United States as necessary to salvage something from the disaster that was the Bush presidency.
In the same way, the Obama administration might, in an ideal world, defend fair trials as an important component of liberal democracy. In the current political conjunction, however—in the context of a deeply fractured nation, sunk in the economic doldrums—spectacular violence serves an obvious political purpose.
Of course, the execution of bin Laden, despite generating brief scenes of fist pumping outside the White House, could not produce any genuine social cohesion in the America of 2011. Abbottabad was no 9/11 or 1914 but rather a brief gunfight in a foreign country about which most Americans know almost nothing. As always, once the killing was done, the promised transcendence dissolved into a familiar emptiness. Bin Laden was dead. So what followed? Would the wars end? Would the jobless find work? Would ordinary people be in any way safer or more prosperous or more in control of their lives? The answers are obvious. But instead of facing up to them, it’s easier to fixate on corpses.
Thus, for some on the Right, the killing of bin Laden didn’t render the al-Qaeda leader dead enough. If his death had proved disappointingly prosaic, perhaps numinosity could be found in his corpse. Hence in the weeks following the Abbottabad operation, the pundits began obsessing over bin Laden’s body. ‘Show photo as warning to others seeking America’s destruction,’ tweeted Sarah Palin, in what became something of a campaign from the Right.
Eventually, images of the corpse were, indeed, shown to selected politicians. Senator James Inhofe was one of the lucky few. ‘One of the shots went through the ear and out through an eye socket, or through the eye socket and out through the ear and exploded, that was the kind of ordnance it was,’ he told the press. ‘That caused the brains to be hanging out of the eye socket.’
But, for some, second-hand reports were not enough. ‘Every American has a right to walk right up to bin Laden’s corpse and view it,’ wrote one of the bloggers working for conservative activist Andrew Breitbart. ‘… bin Laden’s naked, bullet- riddled corpse should be put on display in lower Manhattan for all the world to see. The entire body should be digitally scanned, inside and out—and made available for everyone to take his or her own picture.’
In lieu of that delightful prospect, many other bodies can be broken open, and Republicans turned almost immediately from the bin Laden operation to a debate about whether or not his death had been made possible by that torture to which almost the entirety of the GOP is now committed. Spectacular violence will remain central to political culture into the foreseeable future until the construction of a genuine alternative to neoliberalism.
It’s noteworthy that the solution purportedly offered by war presents, in a dialectically inverted fashion, the traditional values of the Left. Military conflict and political violence appeal amid the moral emptiness of contemporary capitalism precisely because they seem to offer solidarity, companionship, collectivity and purpose. These are, of course, all legitimate aspirations, and the deep yearning for them speaks to the need for a leftist political program that offers more than slick managerialism and corporate economics.
The Great War culminated in social rebellions all across Europe, as millions of ordinary people sought an alternative to the endless death of the trenches. But, for some, violence was all that seemed possible thereafter. ‘That was a laugh,’ said the veteran Friedrich Wilhelm Heinz, on being told that the conflict was over. ‘We ourselves are the war. Its flame burns strongly in us. It envelopes our whole being and fascinates us with the enticing urge to destroy.’ Heinz’s fascination with the urge to destroy led him, predictably enough, to a postwar career as a Gruppenführer of the SA.
Salvage diver Bill Warren is not a Nazi. Yet, like Heinz, he cannot accept that the war might be over, that bin Laden’s death signals any kind of end. And, in that image of Warren’s boat trawling the Arabian Sea in search of decaying remains, we have the war on terror in a nutshell.
There is a disturbing familiarity in Heinz’s rhetoric, not only in the outpourings from an increasingly unhinged Republican Party, but also in the columns of respectable commentators who casually call for fresh invasions and new occupations. It’s already been a long descent from Nuremberg to Abbottabad but there’s no limit to how much further down we can go.
Copyright Jeff Sparrow 2011