The whole point of a terrorist attack is to terrify and to provoke. On those terms, last week's terrorist attacks in Paris which claimed the lives of 20 people including the attackers was a tremendous success. Around 4 million people turned out to demonstrate against the attacks across France, and thousands more around the world joined them. This attack will almost certainly alter French politics, exactly how is not clear, but the far right xenophobic National Front is sure to pick up some more votes. There is already a wave of nationalist fervor sweeping the French public, even among the left (I saw the same thing here in New York after 9/11). Predictably, the very human and very idiotic tendency to generalize from the particular is causing mosques and Islamic centers across France to come under attack. I remember security already being very tight at tourist spots in Paris when I was there in July. I saw soldiers (a lot of them) in the crowds at the base of the Eiffel Tower with very serious guns drawn and on display for all to see. Now, 10,000 more troops are to be deployed in Paris to secure the city. The attack on Charlie Hebdo was intended to intimidate and in that it will succeed. Artists and writers around the world (including me) will always think twice before publishing anything that might provoke anyone with strong opinions and a gun collection. The already spineless American corporate media will shed several more vertebrae in the wake of this attack.
And yet for all the horror and outrage that attacks like these cause (and they really are horrible and outrageous), I have to ask, are these types of attacks existential and mortal threats to the USA and to Europe? I would argue no they are not. Compared to what the USA faced before in World War II and the Cold War, Islamic State and Al Qaeda are pipsqueaks. They can injure the USA and make it bleed, but unless they have the full force of a modern advanced industrialized state behind them (which they don't), they can't kill the USA. Al Qaeda and IS (along with Boko Haram in Nigeria which massacred hundreds last week in attacks that were barely noticed in the world press) are savage thugs whose leaders I strongly suspect take sadistic pleasure in the very public atrocities that they commit. We shouldn't forget that the Germans and the Japanese that we faced in World War II regularly and frequently vivisected people, and unlike Al Qaeda and IS, they really were mortal threats to the USA.
Islamist terrorists may not be a mortal threat to the USA or to Europe, but no politician of any persuasion would dare ignore them The first duty of any state is to protect its inhabitants. That's the whole reason we willingly pay taxes and obey laws no matter how onerous or unjust. Political leaders have every interest in preventing such public massacres from ever happening. Their efforts to do just that have dramatically altered life for all of us in the West.
This is a picture of New Year's Eve celebrations in Times Square in 1938, a year full of foreboding and tension with war on the near horizon (Japan had already invaded China in 1937). The USA was in the midst of the second dip of the Great Depression. And yet, look at all the people crowding the Square from sidewalk to sidewalk and even blocking traffic. There was a lot of public drunkenness, fights, petty crime, and pickpocketing at those old mass street parties, but they were largely spontaneous gatherings of people who spilled out of bars to watch the Ball drop.
Here is a picture of New Year's Eve in Times Square in 2014, a dramatically different event. Instead of locals spilling out of neighborhood bars to ring in the New Year, the crowds these days are mostly tourists from around the world. Unlike the drunken crowds of old, these crowds are sober teetotalers with remarkably capacious and continent bladders. Drinking is forbidden in the Square and people must go to outdoor corrals and stay there for the duration. If they leave for any reason, even to answer the call of nature, then they will not be admitted back into said corral. Note the heavy police presence in this photo and how organized everything is compared to the photo from 1938. Far from being spontaneous, New Year's Eve in Times Square these days is a thoroughly and carefully planned event. At least in part, this is a consequence of the Age of Terrorism.
A big New Year's Eve event must be sirloin steak to a terrorist; a huge crowd of people and live television coverage. Terrorism is a creation of the age of television and live internet broadcasting. History is full of sectarian massacres, but none was more public and witnessed by more people than the September 11th attacks of 2001. Millions around the world watched the murder of almost 3000 people and the destruction of a major public landmark in real time for the first time. I wonder if the impact of similar attacks would have been quite the same in the age of radio and newspapers. The only thing we in the USA have to compare it to is the Pearl Harbor attacks of 1941; a military attack by one large industrialized state upon another, not a series of hijackings by a stateless organization of fanatics armed only with box-cutters.
The 9/11 attacks dramatically altered life and politics in the USA. In that respect, those terrorist attacks were a huge success, probably the most successful of them all. The point of the attacks was to provoke the USA into military action, and it succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of the planners of the attacks. We have only recently extricated ourselves and our forces from 10 years worth of heavy fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our operations there were certainly not victorious. We failed at almost all of our objectives in these places. The fault lies not with our military, but with the political leaders who created the policies that put American soldiers in these places. Our invasions of countries that were not responsible for the 9/11 attacks, our catastrophic mismanagement of the occupation of Iraq, our abandonment of our own laws and principles for the treatment of prisoners of war culminating in the Abu Ghraib scandal created far more terrorism than it suppressed.
The terrorism we face now is the consequence of decades of policy in the Middle East that was simply imperial. Ever since oil was discovered in Saudi Arabia in 1938, American policy in that region was about one thing only and that was keeping the flow of this vital natural resource open and uninterrupted. The world's oldest constitutional democracy found itself in the very awkward position of supporting some of the world's last feudal monarchies along with some brutal military dictatorships; anything to keep the oil flowing. We are still in that position, cultivating ties with Saudi Arabia and Qatar even though we know that they bankroll the very terrorists that threaten us.
Installation by Christian Boltanski, 1980s
It looks as though terrorism is about to succeed in another of its chief objectives, to create so much fear in their targets that they turn upon themselves, upon each other, and against their own constitutions.
The September 11th attacks created the single greatest moment of national unity since the Second World War. I saw it for myself here in New York. I remember East Village punk bands doing fundraisers for the families of dead firefighters. The gay ghettos of Chelsea and Hell's Kitchen
waved American flags and rainbow flags together. Even the shopping carts of the homeless sported little American flags. Instead of seeing opportunity in this outpouring of nationalism, the Bush Cheney Administration pursued some of the most divisive policies in American history. They used the attacks and the terrorist threat to marginalize the political opposition into silence and to cow their critics in the press. Dissent of any kind was called treason; "Why do you hate America?" "Why do you support the terrorists?" were very effective rhetorical questions that bullied into impotent silence anyone who still thought that politics was about reasonable discourse.
The Bush Cheney administration and the Patriot Act created the National Security State that we live with now. Data mining and communications monitoring have effectively vacated the 4th Amendment to the Constitution. A clear majority of Americans support the use of torture to extract information from prisoners of war and from terrorism suspects. These policies (partially and perhaps only temporarily halted by the Obama administration) violate military codes of conduct, the 8th Amendment, the 1949 Geneva Conventions (which we initiated and played a large part in writing), and the UN Human Rights Charter (which we also initiated and helped write). It seems to me that if we are determined to pursue these policies, and to join the ranks of the torturing nations, then the proper thing to do would be to rescind our ties to those treaties and to repeal the 8th Amendment. It is better to do that, and to make those laws all over again if we should ever come to our senses than to allow them to become vacant hollow shells without any force or meaning.
A certain amount of restriction and surveillance these days is inevitable and necessary, but where does reasonable precaution and judicious protection end and paranoia begin? When do we begin forgetting who we are and what we are about as we face our fears?
Unless human nature changes radically and quickly, I think it is inevitable that these policies will be used to silence political opposition in the future. I could see Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Independents, left, right, center, and anything else applying policies meant to deal with terrorism to intimidating political opponents. It would be so easy to brand one's opposition as terrorists or terrorist enablers and to send them off to Guantanamo or to a network of secret prisons, maybe waterboard a few to make an example. There's little now to stop anyone from doing just that. The courts are thoroughly politicized and our corporate media is so compliant that it might as well be a state propaganda agency. I think that as long as the National Security State exists, this outcome is inevitable. The question is not if, but when.
The NSA with its monitoring and data-mining, the eagerness of frightened people across the board to forget themselves and their principles and support policies of secrecy and intimidation that properly belong to police states, the worshipful exploitation of the military, the militarization of the police, the attempts to silence all criticism of security forces, these are Osama Bin Laden's greatest and most durable legacies.
Piranesi, print from the Carceri or Prisons cycle, 1761
I should point out that in the wake of the September 11th attacks in 2001, not only was there a wave of nationalism, there was also a wave of xenophobia. Mosques and Islamic centers were attacked around the USA in 2001. The little mosque up the avenue from where I lived in New York was locked up tight for at least 6 weeks after the attacks. Its congregants were simply too frightened to pray together. There were attacks on non-Muslims, especially on Sikhs. Idiots came to the conclusion that because they wear turbans and beards then they must be terrorists. There were attacks on businesses in Chinatown. I remember seeing a long line of people waiting patiently outside a printing shop in Chinatown for free printed American flags to put up in the windows of their homes and businesses to ward off possible attacks.