The most fateful and clever decision made by George W. Bush’s administration in the days just after September 11, 2001, was the decision to call the American response to terrorism a war. So much becomes possible in a war that would hardly bear to be thought of under any other name. National security would not justify a design for civilian spying on civilian neighbors. International self-defense would not immediately suggest public discussion of the torture of prisoners. Police action would not answer for the shooting-on-sight of looters in a conquered city where the invading army has found itself overstretched. Not that all of these policies have been put into practice yet. The spying program was actively promoted by the Bush administration, but, under a strenuous barrage of criticism and ridicule, it went tactically dormant and is now pursued in the secrecy that befits it. The legitimation of torture was a lively topic whose finer points some lawyers were drawn to debate last year with suitable realism and expertise. The exemplary killing of Iraqi looters by American soldiers was the fastest to be ditched of all these ideas, but its advocate, Paul Bremer, is still in office as I write at the end of May, and its time may come again.
Many things that would have shocked us a year ago no longer shock us today. And that is a terrible sign. Each new measure requires for its acceptance a new debasement of public morale, and rarely in recent months have the public or our lawmakers mounted a sustained challenge. A degree of skepticism, it is true, still greets the more outlandish proposals from the attorney general. But the skepticism seldom warms into controversy; it is held back by a mixture of fear and self-distrust. And as we wait and watch, we are being hardened for the extreme measures that another calamity may conjure up. The string of bombings in Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Pakistan, which the conquest of Iraq did nothing to deter, may forebode a domestic incident about which the administration can say, “This is what we warned you about.” And then the clampdown-because it is a war.
That we were already at war, that we had been so before we recognized the fact, that we still would be in the future, even when events did not show the face of war-this presumption gave an immense advantage to the administration in the lead-up to the congressional debate that authorized the president’s design for preemptive war in Iraq. We had been told, after all, by the vice president only days after the World Trade Center bombings, that this was a war some of whose battles would be hidden, some conducted in open view, the whole always progressing of course, but the mass of available knowledge always overshadowed by the necessarily larger mass of secrets. This was the context in which many Americans and perhaps the majority in Congress understood Iraq as a sequel to Afghanistan.
War gives the meaning and justifica...
For just $19.95 a year, get access to new issues and decades' worth of archives on our site.
Print + Online
For $29.95 a year, get new issues delivered to your door and access to our full online archives.