Once upon a time, I studied the Chinese martial art of Tai Chi — until, that is, I realized I would never locate my “chi.” At that point, I threw in the towel and took up Western exercise. Still, the principle behind Tai Chi stayed with me — that you could multiply the force of an act by giving way before the force of others; that a smaller person could use the strength of a bigger one against him.
Now, jump to September 11, 2001 and its aftermath — and you know the Tai Chi version of history from there. Think of it as a grim cosmic joke — that the 9/11 attacks, as apocalyptic as they looked, were anything but. The true disasters followed and the wounds were largely self-inflicted, as the most militarily powerful nation on the planet used its own force to disable itself.
Before that fateful day, the Bush administration had considered terrorism, Osama bin Laden, and al-Qaeda subjects for suckers and wusses.
Before that fateful day, the Bush administration had considered terrorism, Osama bin Laden, and al-Qaeda subjects for suckers and wusses. What they were intent on was pouring money into developing an elaborate boondoggle of a missile defense system against future nuclear attacks by rogue states. Those Cold War high frontiersmen (and women) couldn’t get enough of the idea of missiling up. That, after all, was where the money and the fun seemed to be. Nuclear was where the big boys — the nation states — played. “Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S.…,” the CIA told the President that August. Yawn.
After 9/11, of course, George W. Bush and his top advisors almost instantly launched their crusade against Islam and then their various wars, all under the rubric of the Global War on Terror. (As Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld pungently put the matter that September, “We have a choice — either to change the way we live, which is unacceptable, or to change the way that they live; and we chose the latter.”) By then, they were already heading out to “drain the swamp” of evil doers, 60 countries worth of them, if necessary. Meanwhile, they moved quickly to fight the last battle at home, the one just over, by squandering vast sums on an American Maginot Line of security. The porous new Department of Homeland Security, the NSA, the FBI, and other acronymic agencies were to lock down, surveil, and listen in on America. All this to prevent “the next 9/11.”
In the process, they would treat bin Laden’s scattered al-Qaeda network as if it were the Nazi or Soviet war machine (even comically dubbing his followers “Islamofascists”). In the blinking of an eye, and in the rubble of two enormous buildings in downtown Manhattan, bin Laden and his cronies had morphed from nobodies into supermen, a veritable Legion of Doom. (There was a curious parallel to this transformation in World War II. Before Pearl Harbor, American experts had considered the Japanese — as historian John Dower so vividly documented in his book War Without Mercy — bucktoothed, near-sighted military incompetents whose war planes were barely capable of flight. On December 8, 1941, they suddenly became a race of invincible supermen without, in the American imagination, ever passing through a human incarnation.)
When, in October 2001, Congress passed the Patriot Act, and an Office of Homeland Security (which, in 2002, became a “department”) was established, it was welcome to the era of homeland insecurity. From then on, every major building, landmark, amusement park, petting zoo, flea market, popcorn stand, and toll booth anywhere in the country would be touted as a potential target for terrorists and in need of protection. Every police department from Arkansas to Ohio would be in desperate need of anti-terror funding. And why not, when the terrorists loomed so monstrously large, were so apocalyptically capable, and wanted so very badly to destroy our way of life? No wonder that, in the 2006 National Asset Database, compiled by the Department of Homeland Security, the state of Indiana, “with 8,591 potential terrorist targets, had 50 percent more listed sites than New York (5,687) and more than twice as many as California (3,212), ranking the state the most target-rich place in the nation.”
everywhere, even in rural areas, politicians were strapping on their armor and preparing to run imminent-danger, anti-terror campaigns, while urging their constituents to run for cover.
In the administration’s imagination (and the American one), they were now capable of anything. From their camps in the backlands of Afghanistan (or was it the suburbs of Hamburg?), as well as in the murky global underworld of the arms black market, al-Qaeda’s minions were toiling feverishly to lay their hands on the most fiendish of plagues and pestilences — smallpox, botulism, anthrax, you name it. They were preparing to fill suitcases with nuclear weapons for deposit in downtown Manhattan. They were gathering nuclear refuse for dirty bombs. Nothing was too mad or destructive for them. Every faint but strange odor — the sweet smell of maple syrup floating across a city — was a potential bio-attack. And everywhere, even in rural areas, politicians were strapping on their armor and preparing to run imminent-danger, anti-terror campaigns, while urging their constituents to run for cover. Meanwhile, that former Sodom of the New World, New York City, had somehow been transformed into an I-heart-NY T-shirt-and-cap combo.
So, thank you, Osama bin Laden for expediting the Department of Homeland Security, glutting an already bloated Pentagon with even more money, ensuring that all those “expeditionary forces” would sally forth to cause havoc and not find victory in two hopeless wars, enabling the establishment of a vast offshore prison network (and the torture techniques to go with it), and creating a whole new global “security” industry to “thwart terrorists” that was, by 2006, generating $60 billion a year in business and whose domestic wing was devoted to locking down America.
When the history of this era is finally written, based on the Tai Chi Principle, Osama bin Laden and his scattering of followers may be credited for goading the fundamentalist leaders of the United States into using the power in their grasp so — not to put a fine point on it — stupidly and profligately as to send the planet’s “sole superpower” into decline…
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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s Tomdispatch.com, is the co-founder of the American Empire Project. His book, The End of Victory Culture (University of Massachusetts Press), has been updated in a newly issued edition that deals with victory culture’s crash-and-burn sequel in Iraq.
Copyright 2008 Tom Engelhardt