“People respond to fear, not love,” Richard Nixon once said of American voters. “They don’t teach that in Sunday school, but it’s true.
In the 20 years since the September 11 terrorist attacks, Nixon’s yellowish view of democracy has been tested and has frequently been found to be true. But the story of how America was changed by the first attack on its homeland since Pearl Harbor is best understood from the ground up than through the four-year presidential cycle.
No matter how far away they were from the smoldering wreckage of the Twin Towers, Americans woke up on 12/9 to a world that was definitely changed from what it was on 9/10. “In retrospect, these last summer weeks in New York [in 2001] feel like the moment of weightlessness when a ball has reached the top if its arc and has not yet started to dive, ”writes Evan Osnos, author of Wilderness.
Ever since Thucydides predicted that the expansion of the Athenian Empire risked tyranny inside and out, scholars have warned that war cannot be isolated from the society that pursues it. George W Bush and his successors nevertheless attempted to separate the “global war on terror” from the American daily.
In one respect, they were successful. As Samuel Moyn shows in his scholarly and provocative book, Human, lawyers are as much an integral part of American warfare today as generals. The “death lists” that Barack Obama so carefully analyzed have claimed more civilian deaths than his White House was prepared to admit – just 4,000 in the Pakistani badlands of Waziristan, according to Moyn. But those numbers are tiny compared to the hundreds of thousands or more killed in U.S. carpet bombings during the Vietnam and Korean Wars.
In Moyn’s account, Obama was forced to navigate “two Georges” – George McGovern, the Democratic presidential candidate whose disastrous 1972 anti-war campaign against Nixon made his party definitively hawkish, and George Bush, who had overstepped the remit of September 11 to launch an invasion of Iraq. Obama did it by putting all of this on a more solid legal basis. The same day Obama banned torture – or “improved interrogation techniques” – he launched his first drone strike. He did more in his first year than Bush did in his full eight years as president.
A few weeks after taking office, Obama “globalized” and “formalized” the American counterterrorism doctrine beyond the morally reprehensible position of Bush. “This was the initial justification for what has become a wave of humane killings that the sun might never set in space or end in time,” writes Moyn.
In this regard, Obama is truly the face of the new American era of “human” combat – a war far removed from even those who kill. In the first volume of his memoir, Obama says he wanted to save the young men who were causing so much trouble in America – send them to school, give them a trade, and empty them of their hatred. “And yet the world they were a part of, and the machines I was in control of, more often than not made me kill them instead,” Obama wrote.
The greatest value of Moyn’s book lies in the ethical questions it raises. Since today’s war has become so much less bloody, and involves so many fewer Americans, what will prevent it from becoming perpetual? If you’re a hawk, the answer is: who cares? As long as the terrorists are eliminated, the US government is doing its job. The problem is that not all American presidents will be as conscientious in their targeting as Obama (see Donald Trump). Plus, what will stop other countries, like China, from making similar use of their killer drones?
Then there is the future of autonomous drones which will have the ability to kill based on algorithms rather than human calculations. Their record can be as good in human judgment as that of self-driving cars. Yet it is a terrifying prospect. Humane wars are likely to be much more difficult to end than the wars of carnage that came before. “Moral improvement in belligerency might risk simply embellishing it,” Moyn said.
It remains to be seen whether President Joe Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan will mark the end of the “boots on the ground” dimension of America’s “eternal wars” – if not its remote-controlled global war on terrorism. But the changes 9/11 brought to American society show little sign of slowing down. Through the fortunes of three locations – Clarksburg, West Virginia; Greenwich, Connecticut; and the South Side of Chicago – Osnos chronicles the post 9/11 changes that “are pushing America to the breaking point.”
Of these, the movement towards a more martial culture is perhaps the most tangible. The United States now has 13 million citizens authorized to carry concealed firearms, more than 12 times the number of police officers. As a National Rifle Association lobbyist in Osnos puts it, the Al Qaeda attacks were a giant boon to the US gun lobby. The fall of the Twin Towers followed a decade of sharply falling crime rates and declining gun sales. Suddenly there was a new paranoia of terrorists to tap into.
In fact, the risk of an American dying in a terrorist attack was and remains infinitely small. In a 2016 poll, Americans estimated that one in six of their fellow citizens was Muslim. The real answer is one in 100. The NRA has put these xenophobic fears to good use. Gun companies have moved from targeting deer and duck hunters to commercializing the idea that anyone can be a Navy Seal. NRA videos show Americans in tactical combat gear heroically fighting terrorists. “You have to look pretty carefully for something designed to kill animals rather than people,” wrote one hunter enthusiast of this new era of gun marketing. Similar cultural changes have been observed in the military. The United States ended its military conscription in 1973. Since then, wars have been fought by the 0.5 percent of society who are recruited – mostly from America’s poorest rural and urban areas. .
In the days following September 11, Bush urged his fellow Americans to go about their lives normally, ski and continue shopping. His exhortations in the wake of what was a graphically gruesome assault on American civilians were primarily motivated by fears that consumer confidence would collapse. But they fueled a culture that was increasingly inclined to strike aggressive poses without risking personal consequences. The notion of war as a shared sacrifice has therefore also been cut off.
The Bush presidency, like Trump’s, has been marked by massive tax cuts. After the growth of martial culture, post 9/11 America is marked by growing inequalities. Osnos, writer for The New Yorker, illustrates this trend through the rise of hedge funds in his hometown of Greenwich, which has grown from a thriving banking town to a magnet for billionaires and insider trading.
Many of them increased their net worth by investing in asset stripping companies that deprived West Virginia miners of the pensions and health care they were owed – blessed by U.S. bankruptcy courts pro- companies. During the same period, West Virginia and many other “left behind” states moved from Democrat to Republican status.
In 2000, Bush became the first non-titular Republican since Herbert Hoover to win West Virginia. In 2012, Obama lost all counties in the state to Mitt Romney. While voters in the state had little illusion that Trump would keep his promise to restore the coal industry, they felt culturally closer to him than to Democrats like Hillary Clinton. Much of this can be attributed to the aftermath of September 11.
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Osnos’ book covers the period between the fall of the Twin Towers and the storming of the Capitol on January 6 of this year – the period in which “Americans lost their vision of the common good,” he claims. -he. You don’t have to share the author’s implicit rose on the collective sentiment that preceded the terrorist attacks to agree with his crystal-clear account of what has happened since then. Nearly a fifth of those arrested in the assault on Capitol Hill this year were former U.S. servicemen, more than 20 times their share of the population. As Moyn argues, the way we wage war is tied to the way we behave at home.
In early 2003, Norman Mailer, the now deceased novelist, warned that democracy was “a condition that we will be called upon to defend in the years to come”. Mailer’s foreknowledge is still relevant today.
Human: How the United States abandoned peace and reinvented war by Samuel Moyn, Farrar, Straus and Giroux $ 30, 416 pages, published in UK in January
Wilderness: The Making of America’s Fury by Evan Osnos, Farrar, Straus and Giroux $ 30 / Bloomsbury £ 20, 480 pages
Edouard Luce is the US national editor of the FT
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