24 September 2001.
News from Tashkent, Uzbekistan comes to us that US military aircraft
landed at a military airport yesterday. The first installment of bombers
is poised to blast Afghanistan from the map, to render the region into
the parking lot of Lyndon Johnson's fantasy. Iraq will perhaps bear some
of the brunt of the attack, since, as Stratfor (the intelligence forecaster)
puts it "Iraq is very convenient for an air attack" and "extending the
list of nations that supported the attackers [even without evidence]
from one to two would solve a number of problems for the United States."
Three aircraft carriers are in the vicinity of the Persian Gulf, and
supply ships have entered the final stages of their journey into the
The Saudi's say that they will not permit the US to use the retooled
Prince Sultan Air Base south of Riyadh for retaliation against Afghanistan.
During the Gulf War, in public the Saudis and the US said that these
bases would not be used, but during the war, US planes took off from
Arabia to conduct missions in Iraq. Similar things might happen when
the bombs begin to rain. Four and a half thousand US military personnel
sit at Prince Sultan, including a host of aircraft. The 5th Fleet is
in Bahrain, Yemen says that the US can refuel, and Kuwait's airports
are always open for their liberators.
B-52s and B-1s are in the air, ready to drop an enormous payload, as
RC 135 fuel tankers fly along for air-support along with a set of surveillance
crafts. Some estimates tell us that over two hundred planes are on hand
for the assault.
Diego Garcia and the bases in the Gulf are on alert, as, perhaps, is
The Pakistani government, afraid of the outcome of the assault, has
moved two brigades of its 16th Division from the Umarkot-Panaoqil sectors,
along the border that divides it from Gujarat and Rajasthan in India.
Eager to do its bit for the alliance, the Hindu-Right led Indian government's
foreign minister Jaswant Singh announced, "India had no intention to
add to the complexities that the Government and people of Pakistan were
faced with." The convoluted grammar perhaps reveals the ambiguous sensibility
of the government, otherwise eager to use any opportunity to put Pakistan
on the margins of US policy.
The drums of war could not be any clearer.
And yet, many of us in the US remain shrouded in that classic American
The demand for revenge comes without any consideration of the long-term
costs of our actions. If profits can be posted each quarter without any
sense of the long-term human consequences of our economic actions, why
can't our armies and state department act on the short-term as well?
Why do we have to wait, when we can just act? Why does the long-term
hinder our short attention span? Why doesn't the military, like our children,
suffer from ADD?
In 1822-23, G. W. F. Hegel ignored the Napoleonic wars that tore Europe
up around him to hold forth for four hours a week on the philosophy of
history. He concentrated his discussions on the "oriental world" (too
much of either civil society or of state, an excess of things), on the
Greek and Roman worlds (the correct, if primitive, balance between the
people and their state) and the "German or Modern world" (perfection
incarnate in the Prussian state). In a few pages he brushed off Africa,
for whom "history is in fact out of the question," and America. The Americas,
by whom he meant the Native Americans, are "like unenlightened children,
living from one day to the next, and untouched by higher thoughts or
aspirations." These enlightened thoughts are the privilege of Europe,
but not necessarily the European immigrants to the Americas. America,
he said, is "a land of desire for those who are weary of the historical
arsenal of the old Europe." For this reason he hoped that "America will
abandon the ground on which world history has hitherto been enacted." In
other words, that America would recreate social relations, untrammeled
by the weight of history, and offer a new sense of reality for the world.
But Hegel fears that this will not be so. Not because America will become
Europe, but because in "North America, the most unbridled license prevails
in all matters of the imagination." Reality will give way to fable. The
land itself, the "geographical basis" haunts the minds of the migrant
Europeans and others who follow them, and makes them fly, like the Amerindians
before them, into the imagination. If Hegel dismisses Africa for its
lack of Consciousness (Spirit or the Geist), he dismisses America because
Consciousness only enters as Imagination.
Or as Innocence. Hegel's generally unreliable text (for it is filled
with gross and untutored generalizations) points us to a prevalent mythology
that comes to us at the origins of the European colonization of the Americas
- the myth of innocence. The persecuted Europeans flee the guiles of
Old Europe to make a place that does not replicate its complexity, deviousness
and intrigue. They arrive in the Americas, wide-eyed and curious, desperate
for a new life. These settlers do not care for the artificiality of feudal
manners so they inaugurate a world of forthrightness, frankness and independence.
Hardy, courageous, tough - this is the self-image of the colonial settlers.
A century after Hegel, Edith Wharton will both represent and skewer
this conceit in her novel, the Age of Innocence (1920), a book on the
dream-time of a people who resist the pangs of adolescence by enacting
maturity and blinding themselves from the world's evils.
The genocide of the Amerindians, the slavery of peoples from Africa,
the widespread disruption of anti-colonialism in the name of anti-communism
- this is the legacy that is lost by America's innocent amnesia. In March
1968, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders tendered its
report on the uprisings of the decade, and it offered an indictment that
covers this general sense of amnesia: "What white Americans have never
fully understood -- but what the Negro can never forget -- is that white
society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created
it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it." Our
inability to deal with racism is certainly a consequence of the innocent
amnesia of whiteness, the grave desire to represent racism as the touchiness
of the oppressed or as the province of an isolated group of Aryanists.
Our history of white privilege is actively forgotten, that history of
white suburbanization through federal assistance, of the creation of
white equity, and of the immense amount of values appropriated without
wages from a determinate set of peoples whose descendents for the most
part are capital poor.
The black book of US violence does not by itself produce "fascism with
an Islamic face" (as Christopher Hitchens puts it in the recent Nation),
for the Islamicists have their own dynamic and their own historical agency.
The US is not alone culpable for 9/11, indeed no one of the "Chomsky-Zinn-Finkelstein
quarter," in my estimation, is arguing that "the chickens are coming
home to roost." The stakes of the argument, on the other hand, are that
the claim of the innocence of the US state is a blanket denial of history,
that the US colluded with these right-wing forces, indeed gave them strength
to demolish the left in their societies, funded them, trained them. Of
course these groups had their own agendas, their own schemes, and they
too used the US for their own ends. Now the ends collide: the US is addicted
to oil, indeed it curtails its famous desire for democracy when it comes
to its friendship with the most authoritarian allies, the Saudis and
the other oilogarchies (UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, etc). The Taliban's brand
of Wahabbism is horrendous, but the Saudis' monarchy is no better, although
our oil addiction will prevent any indictment of the latter. The addiction
to oil means that the US props up these withered monarchies and acts
in cahoots with them when they suppress their own people. Such a policy
creates distress, anger and frustration. Groups such as the Egyptian
Islamic Jihad emerge from anger at a regime that is beholden to Europe-US,
which squelches the dreams of freedom of its own people, even as this
nationalism rejects anti-colonialism for a form of Islamicist fascism.
The Taliban, for instance, is not against the oil-pipeline concession,
but it is eager to get the best return for its land rather than bow down
to Unocal ("The Spirit of 76") and turns to Bridas from Argentina for
the deal. Fascism is comfortable with business, even Islamicist fascism.
[Aside: as Bridas and Unocal tried to lobby the Taliban, both turned
to sources that show us how integrated the Taliban are to international
sleaze and underworld terror - Bridas went with the head of Saudi intelligence,
Prince Turki Faysal, while Unocal worked with the Saudi Delta Oil Company
(whose head, Badr al Aiban, has the ear of King Faud of Saudi Arabia,
a man with some measure of influence in the world of the social decay
of orthodoxy) as well as with former US Ambassador to Pakistan and pipeline
to the Taliban, Robert Oakley. The Taliban is not so isolated and madcap
as the media sometimes claims.]
Of course no amount of anger justifies the terror of 9/11. But why do
people, like Hitchens, get incensed when we recapitulate the main points
of the oil-blood soaked history of the US in west Asia? Why does he suggest
that when the "Chomsky-Zinn-Finkelstein quarter" outlines US barbarity
that this is a justification for 9/11? The history of US-Taliban-bin
Laden itself does not excuse the madness of 9/11; although it gives a
measure of proportion to such asinine statements that the US lost its
virginity on that day, or that the US state is as innocent as the cultural
conceit of its population.
At Durban, during the World Conference Against Racism, the US abandoned
ship when talk of reparations took center stage. The Europeans, being
less keen on innocence, but no more forthright about its history, said
clearly that any real apology for racism or any categorization as slavery-colonialism
as "crimes against humanity" would bring forth expensive lawsuits. The
US, being innocent, left as a defender of Israel, without too much comment
on its own state racism. Within the press stateside there was that recurrent
saw about why the descendents of the slavers, who are themselves innocent,
should pay for the crimes of their forefathers. Or, indeed, can't we
all feel proud of our own separate and multicultural histories: the right-wing
racist t-shirt with the confederate flag says its best, "you have your
X, and we have ours." Innocent of oppression, the US can be shocked that
in this time of grief anyone would want to make us remember the past.
The guns are on their way to wreak havoc in southern Asia. An acquaintance
says to me that he doubts that the US will actually fire on Afghanistan,
or if the bombs fall they will be strategic and only directed at Bin
Laden's camps. There is that automatic faith in the goodness of the system,
the desire to see evil in a few people (Bin Laden, Kissinger, Mother
Teresa), but to feel assured that in the end the goodness and innocence
of America will shine through. Such an attitude is naïve only in
that it is in denial of history, of the recent past of violence unleashed
without care for human life - the 100,000 dead in Dresden, the 100,000
dead within minutes in Hiroshima, the hundreds of thousands dead in Cambodia
and Vietnam, the half a million dead in Iraq.. numbers make death clinical
and distance our capacity to empathize with those bodies.
Our remembrance of things past is not geared toward a justification
of the madness of 9/11. Like all progressive historians, I am concerned
that our innocent amnesia will not allow us to see why such a thing happened,
indeed to render those who did those acts outside understanding. Such
an attitude means we can do little to combat such vast acts of terror,
since we can then only take recourse in some manner of prayers that the
irrational madness does not strike again.
Our reaction too should be guided by the reasons for 9/11 and not just
our grief for those dead. To go after bin Laden and his cohorts is to
deal with the symptom of an international problem whose name is oil,
and whose energy is able to satisfy the voracious appetite of the moneymakers.
As the engines of the bombers warm up, as we get ready to take to the
streets in protest against the inevitable war against the planet, let
us refuse the conceit of American innocence. Anything is better than
Associate Professor and Director, International Studies Program
214 McCook, Trinity College, Hartford, CT. 06106.