Listening with the Third Ear

Listening with the Third Ear

Echoes from Ground Zero

The preemptive war in Iraq is over, and the Bush doctrine has been vindicated. Or has it? The attacks of September 11, 2001, and the Bush government’s “War on Terror” have both united and divided Americans. And as readers of this journal know, the doctrine of preemptive attack has even deepened splits within the dissenting left. It is not yet clear which disputed criteria-which ethical, political, and legal languages-will win control over the evaluation of the new intervention and its consequences. But the widest split of all is the one that has opened up between the United States and the rest of the world.

September 11 changed the political landscape. Everyone agrees on that. The arguments are about what that change really consists in. For Mitchell Cohen, it has to do with the gravity of global threats and our awareness of them: “The threat of terror is real. Anyone who scoffs at it will lose moral and political credibility-and ought to.” (Dissent, Winter 2003) Parts of the left and of the peace movement have been denigrated or dismissed in these pages by contributors advancing some version of this argument.

Although I think I agree with Cohen’s claim, I cannot do so without directing some critical questions to its formulation. For whom is “terror” a real threat? How must one acknowledge the “reality” of that threat? In whose eyes, exactly, do scoffers lose “credibility”? I know that Cohen can define these terms coherently and has deployed them carefully and responsibly, in complex and cogent arguments. But I cannot help thinking that his position on intervention in Iraq, as well as a great deal of the debate in these pages, is caught in a post-9/11 American psychology of fear. It may have credibility in America, but from an internationalist perspective, it lacks a necessary distance.

There is an implicit “we” in Cohen’s claim and in these pages, and this “we” marks the point at which self-critique stops. The usually unacknowledged “we” is that of “we Americans.” It is not merely a matter of recurring calls for “leftist patriotism” on the model of the Second World War or condemnations, subtle or not, of “anti-Americanism.” It seems rather to mark a limit imposed on internationalist premises: a limit on the ideas of universal justice and solidarity. I don’t claim that every contributor to these pages shares this limiting “we,” or that those who do share it do so to the same degree. But it is legible in every recent issue, and I ask my fellow leftists to consider it as a possible problem.

The threat of terror is real. But it was not the material reality that was changed by September 11, so much as a shared (U.S.) perception of existing threats that then itself became a new (U.S.) political reality. That political reality is a constraining one f...