Real Battles and Empty Metaphors
September 10, 2002
Since last Sept. 11, the Bush administration has told the American people that America is at war. But this war is of a peculiar nature. It seems to be, given the nature of the enemy, a war with no foreseeable end. What kind of war is that?
There are precedents. Wars on such enemies as cancer, poverty and drugs are understood to be endless wars. There will always be cancer, poverty and drugs. And there will always be despicable terrorists, mass murderers like those who perpetrated the attack a year ago tomorrow -- as well as freedom fighters (like the French Resistance and the African National Congress) who were once called terrorists by those they opposed but were relabeled by history.
When a president of the United States declares war on cancer or poverty or drugs, we know that "war" is a metaphor. Does anyone think that this war -- the war that America has declared on terrorism -- is a metaphor? But it is, and one with powerful consequences. War has been disclosed, not actually declared, since the threat is deemed to be self-evident.
Real wars are not metaphors. And real wars have a beginning and an end. Even the horrendous, intractable conflict between Israel and Palestine will end one day. But this antiterror war can never end. That is one sign that it is not a war but, rather, a mandate for expanding the use of American power.
When the government declares war on cancer or poverty or drugs it means the government is asking that new forces be mobilized to address the problem. It also means that the government cannot do a whole lot to solve it. When the government declares war on terrorism -- terrorism being a multinational, largely clandestine network of enemies -- it means that the government is giving itself permission to do what it wants. When it wants to intervene somewhere, it will. It will brook no limits on its power.
The American suspicion of foreign "entanglements" is very old. But this administration has taken the radical position that all international treaties are potentially inimical to the interests of the United States -- since by signing a treaty on anything (whether environmental issues or the conduct of war and the treatment of prisoners) the United States is binding itself to obey conventions that might one day be invoked to limit America's freedom of action to do whatever the government thinks is in the country's interests. Indeed, that's what a treaty is: it limits the right of its signatories to complete freedom of action on the subject of the treaty. Up to now, it has not been the avowed position of any respectable nation-state that this is a reason for eschewing treaties.
Describing America's new foreign policy as actions undertaken in wartime is a powerful disincentive to having a mainstream debate about what is actually happening. This reluctance to ask questions was already apparent in the immediate aftermath of the attacks last Sept. 11. Those who objected to the jihad language used by the American government (good versus evil, civilization versus barbarism) were accused of condoning the attacks, or at least the legitimacy of the grievances behind the attacks.
Under the slogan United We Stand, the call to reflectiveness was equated with dissent, dissent with lack of patriotism. The indignation suited those who have taken charge of the Bush administration's foreign policy. The aversion to debate among the principal figures in the two parties continues to be apparent in the run-up to the commemorative ceremonies on the anniversary of the attacks -- ceremonies that are viewed as part of the continuing affirmation of American solidarity against the enemy. The comparison between Sept. 11, 2001, and Dec. 7, 1941, has never been far from mind.
Once again, America was the object of a lethal surprise attack that cost many -- in this case, civilian -- lives, more than the number of soldiers and sailors who died at Pearl Harbor. However, I doubt that great commemorative ceremonies were felt to be needed to keep up morale and unite the country on Dec. 7, 1942. That was a real war, and one year later it was very much still going on.
This is a phantom war and therefore in need of an anniversary. Such an anniversary serves a number of purposes. It is a day of mourning. It is an affirmation of national solidarity. But of one thing we can be sure. It is not a day of national reflection. Reflection, it has been said, might impair our "moral clarity." It is necessary to be simple, clear, united. Hence, there will be borrowed words, like the Gettysburg Address, from that bygone era when great rhetoric was possible.
Abraham Lincoln's speeches were not just inspirational prose. They were bold statements of new national goals in a time of real, terrible war. The Second Inaugural Address dared to herald the reconciliation that must follow Northern victory in the Civil War. The primacy of the commitment to end slavery was the point of Lincoln's exaltation of freedom in the Gettysburg Address. But when the great Lincoln speeches are ritually cited, or recycled for commemoration, they have become completely emptied of meaning. They are now gestures of nobility, of greatness of spirit. The reasons for their greatness are irrelevant.
Such an anachronistic borrowing of eloquence is in the grand tradition of American anti-intellectualism: the suspicion of thought, of words. Hiding behind the humbug that the attack of last Sept. 11 was too horrible, too devastating, too painful, too tragic for words, that words could not possibly express our grief and indignation, our leaders have a perfect excuse to drape themselves in others' words, now voided of content. To say something might be controversial. It might actually drift into some kind of statement and therefore invite rebuttal. Not saying anything is best.
I do not question that we have a vicious, abhorrent enemy that opposes most of what I cherish -- including democracy, pluralism, secularism, the equality of the sexes, beardless men, dancing (all kinds), skimpy clothing and, well, fun. And not for a moment do I question the obligation of the American government to protect the lives of its citizens. What I do question is the pseudo-declaration of pseudo-war. These necessary actions should not be called a "war." There are no endless wars; but there are declarations of the extension of power by a state that believes it cannot be challenged.
America has every right to hunt down the perpetrators of these crimes and their accomplices. But this determination is not necessarily a war. Limited, focused military engagements do not translate into "wartime" at home. There are better ways to check America's enemies, less destructive of constitutional rights and of international agreements that serve the public interest of all, than continuing to invoke the dangerous, lobotomizing notion of endless war.
Susan Sontag, a novelist and essayist, is author of the forthcoming "Regarding the Pain of Others.''
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company