Tuesday, September 12, 2006


Maybe from down in Tribeca or Battery Park it looked majestic, but from midtown Manhattan, where I found myself on business yesterday, the two shining beams of light rising up from Ground Zero seemed tepid, reminding me that, outside of Tokyo perhaps, Manhattan is the number one source of light pollution in the night sky. A more visible reminder that yesterday was the fifth anniversary of the attacks was the presence of every off-duty fireman in the New York region, all in uniform (sort of, a lot of the jackets & shirts were literally falling off) wandering in & out of the bars. Seeing that many snockered firemen was surreal. I turned on the news on the fancy flatscreen TV in my room at the Westin Times Square, but watching Bush & Rumsfield & Cheney & Tom Ridge work their respective crowds so cravenly sickened me, so I shut it off. I couldn’t even turn the sound off & just appreciate how the letterbox presentation stretched all of their features just a little.

I hate being right, sometimes. I got into all kinds of trouble in the fall of ’01 when I noted on a listserv that I thought a war with, or for, Afghanistan was inevitably the consequence of U.S. soil having been attacked. I couldn’t think of any president in history who would have responded otherwise. The populace would have torn an incumbent limb from limb who didn’t do exactly that. But I also wrote that being led into war by the worst president in American history, not only the least competent, but the most shallow, dishonest & malevolent as well, was not the prescription for a happy outcome. Boy, was that an understatement! Not only have the Taliban resprouted like a perennial that just lay fallow in the soil through a winter because we failed to follow through with the nation-building basics – roads, schools, electricity, hospitals, economic alternatives to harvesting opium, etc, etc, etc – that remain a prerequisite for success in even the most narrow, reactionary terms. But, to go further, we’ve positively rewarded al-Qaeda by giving them a huge bonus called Iraq, complete with its own failed state. As a result we have given them resources (in Iraq, al-Qaeda controls everything west of Baghdad), intensive training, and a means for motivating every disaffected young Muslim in the world. And we tossed in uncritical cheerleading for Israel’s insane adventure in Lebanon because there wasn’t enough salt in that wound already.

Even if one imagined that the neocon fantasy of a democratic Iraq would transform the Middle East, there is no way to accomplish this and ravage the public trust at home by continuing to transfer wealth in our society to the superrich. Bush lost Iraq – irrevocably – because he was never really committed to winning it. The problem for his successor, regardless of their party, is that al-Qaeda really is going to benefit enormously from having an even bigger, potentially wealthier (all that oil!) failed state to call its own, regardless of what jerry-rigged parliament is put in place. Which means that the world will be a nastier, more brutish place. And I don’t expect the next president, again regardless of party, to do much to improve the current assault on civil liberties. Presidents in war time want to get their hands on every lever of control they can conceive of – it was Lincoln who suspended habeas corpus, after all; Roosevelt who authorized the work on the atomic bomb.

I first heard someone say with certainty that they thought the two main opponents in the next world war would be the U.S. and Islamic fundamentalists in 1989. The speaker was an anthropologist who served on the flood control commission of what was then called Leningrad. Islamic fundamentalists had, after all, defeated the Soviets in Afghanistan. Defeating the other superpower didn’t seem such a challenging prospect from that point of view. His point was that I should see the collapse of the Soviet system as a (partial) consequence of that defeat. I’m still not sure that I'd go that far, but the rest of his prediction has been true enough. An enemy that doesn’t believe in a state is like capturing mercury with chopsticks. I know only this – Iraq will continue to be a source of trouble because we made it so. Worse yet, there is no way we can be part of the solution. All we can do is to stop pouring gasoline on that fire.

So the empire has dug itself a hole over these last five years. One from which it just might not be able to climb out. Especially with an infrastructure in such decay & global warming moving well beyond the point of no return. The 21st century is going to be one hell of a ride, but I don’t think you’re going to be able to call it the American Century – we had ours & now we’ve squandered it.


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