“Taking Liberties” by Gore Vidal, April 2002
Since September 11 the US is in danger of turning into a ‘seedy imperial state’, argues Gore Vidal
The Guardian, Saturday 27 April 2002
According to the Koran, it was on a Tuesday that Allah created darkness. Last September 11, when suicide pilots were crashing commercial airliners into crowded American buildings, I did not have to look at the calendar to see what day it was: Dark Tuesday was casting its long shadow across Manhattan and along the Potomac river. I was also not surprised that despite the seven or so trillion dollars the US has spent since 1950 on what is euphemistically called “defence”, there would have been no advance warning from the FBI or CIA or Defence Intelligence Agency.
While the Bushites have been eagerly preparing for the last war but two – missiles from North Korea, clearly marked with flags, would rain down on Portland, Oregon, only to be intercepted by our missile-shield balloons – the foxy Osama bin Laden knew that all he needed for his holy war on the infidel was a few flyers willing to kill themselves along with those passengers who happened to be aboard the hijacked airliners. Also, like so many of those born to wealth, Bin Laden is not one to throw money about. Apparently, the airline tickets of the 19 known dead hijackers were paid for by credit card. I suspect that United and American Airlines will never be reimbursed by American Express, whose New York offices Bin Laden – inadvertently? – hit.
The telephone keeps ringing. In summer I live south of Naples, in Italy. Italian newspapers, television and radio want comment. So do I. I have written lately about Pearl Harbor. I get the same question over and over: isn’t Dark Tuesday exactly like Sunday morning, December 7 1941? No, it’s not, I say. As far as we know, we had no warning of the September 11 attack. Of course, our government has many, many secrets which our enemies always seem to know about in advance but our people are not told of until years later, if at all. President Roosevelt provoked the Japanese to attack us at Pearl Harbor. I describe the various steps he took in a book, The Golden Age. We now know what was on his mind: coming to England’s aid against Japan’s ally, Hitler, a virtuous plot that ended triumphantly for the human race. But what was – is? – on Bin Laden’s mind?
For several decades there has been an unrelenting demonisation of the Muslim world in the American media. Since I am a loyal American, I am not supposed to tell you why this has taken place, but then it is not usual for us to examine why anything happens other than to accuse others of motiveless malignity. “We are good,” announced a deep thinker on American television, “they are evil,” which wraps that one up in a neat package. But it was Bush himself who put, as it were, the bow on the package in an address to a joint session of Congress where he shared with them – as well as all of us somewhere over the Beltway – his profound knowledge of Islam’s wiles and ways: “They hate what they see right here in this chamber.” A million Americans nodded in front of their TV sets. “Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.” At this plangent moment what American’s gorge did not rise like a Florida chad to the bait?
So why do Bin Laden and millions of other Muslims hate us?
Bin Laden persuaded 4,000 Saudis to go to Afghanistan for military training by his group. In 1991, Bin Laden moved on to Sudan. In 1994, when the Saudis withdrew his citizenship, Bin Laden was already a legendary figure in the Islamic world and so, like Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, he could tell the royal Saudis, “I banish you. There is a world elsewhere.” Unfortunately, that world is us.
In a 12-page “declaration of war”, Bin Laden presented himself as a potential liberator of the Muslim world from the great Satan of modern corruption, the US. When Clinton lobbed a missile at a Sudanese aspirin factory, Bin Laden blew up two US embassies in Africa, put a hole in the side of an American warship off Yemen, and so on to the events of Tuesday, September 11. Now President George W Bush, in retaliation, has promised us not only a “new war” but a secret war. That is, not secret to Bin Laden but to us – we who pay for and fight it.
“This administration will not talk about any plans we may or may not have,” said Bush. “We’re going to find these evil-doers… and we’re going to hold them accountable.” Along with the other devils who have given Bin Laden shelter in order to teach them the one lesson that we ourselves have never been able to learn: in history, as in physics, there is no action without reaction. Or, as Edward Herman puts it, “One of the most durable features of the US culture is the inability or refusal to recognise US crimes.”
Bin Laden seemed, from all accounts, no more than a practising, as opposed to zealous, Muslim. Ironically, he was trained as an engineer. Understandably, he dislikes the United States as symbol and as fact. But when our clients, the Saudi royal family, allowed American troops to occupy the Prophet’s holy land, Bin Laden named the fundamental enemy “the Crusader-Zionist Alliance”. Thus, in a phrase, he defined himself and reminded his critics that he is a Wahabi Muslim, a puritan activist not unlike our Falwell-Robertson [Christian fundamentalist] zanies, only serious. He would go to war against the US, “the head of the serpent”. Even more ambitiously, he would rid all the Muslim states of their western-supported regimes, starting with that of his native land. The word “Crusader” was the giveaway. In the eyes of many Muslims, the Christian west, currently in alliance with Zionism, has for 1,000 years tried to dominate the lands of the Umma, the true believers. That is why Bin Laden is seen by so many simple folk as the true heir to Saladin, the great warrior king who defeated Richard of England and the western crusaders.
Saladin (1138-1193) united and “purified” the Muslim world, and though Richard the Lionheart was the better general, in the end he gave up and went home. As one historian put it, Saladin “typified the Mohammedan utter self-surrender to a sacred cause”. But he left no government behind him, no political system because, as he himself said: “My troops will do nothing save when I ride at their head…” Now his spirit has returned with a vengeance.
The Bush administration, though eerily inept in all but its principal task, which is to exempt the rich from taxes, has casually torn up most of the treaties to which civilised nations subscribe – like the Kyoto accord or the nuclear missile agreement with Russia. As the Bushites go about their relentless plundering of the treasury and now, thanks to Bin Laden, social security (a supposedly untouchable trust fund) which has gone to the war, they have also allowed the FBI and CIA to either run amok or not budge at all – leaving us, the very first “indispensable” and, at popular request, last global empire; rather like the Wizard of Oz doing his odd pretend-magic tricks while hoping not to be found out.
Though Bush’s predecessors have generally had rather higher IQs than his, they, too, assiduously served the 1% that owns the country while allowing everyone else to drift. Particularly culpable was Bill Clinton. Although the most able chief executive since FDR, Clinton, in his frantic pursuit of election victories, set in place the trigger for a police state which his successor is now happily squeezing.
Police state? What’s that all about? There have been ominous signs that our fragile liberties have been dramatically at risk since the 1970s, when the white-shirt-and-tie FBI reinvented itself from a corps of “generalists” trained in law and accounting into a confrontational Special Weapons and Tactics (aka Swat) green beret-style army of warriors, who like to dress up in camouflage or black ninja clothing and, depending on the caper, the odd ski mask.
In the early 80s, an FBI super-Swat team, the Hostage 270 Rescue Team, was formed. As so often happens in US-speak, this group specialised not in freeing hostages or saving lives but in murderous attacks on groups that offended them, like the Branch Davidians – evangelical Christians living peaceably in their own compound at Waco, Texas, until an FBI Swat team, illegally using army tanks, killed 82 of them, including 25 children. This was 1993.
Post-September 11, Swat teams can now be used to go after suspect Arab-Americans or, indeed, anyone who might be guilty of terrorism, a word without legal definition (how can you fight terrorism by suspending habeas corpus, since those who want their corpuses released from prison are already locked up?). But in the post-Oklahoma City trauma, Clinton said that those who did not support his draconian legislation were terrorist co-conspirators who wanted to turn “America into a safe house for terrorists”. If the cool Clinton could so froth, what are we to expect from the overheated Bush post-September 11?
Incidentally, those who were shocked by Bush the Younger’s shout that we are now “at war” with Bin Laden and those parts of the Muslim world that support him should have put on their collective thinking caps quickly. Since a nation can only be at war with another nation state, why did our smouldering if not yet burning Bush come up with such a phrase? Think hard. Give up? Well, most insurance companies use a rider saying that damage done by “an act of war” need not be covered. Although the men and women around Bush know nothing of war and less of the US constitution, they understand fundraising. For this wartime exclusion, Hartford Life would soon be breaking open its piggy bank to finance Republicans for years to come. But it was the mean-spirited Washington Post that pointed out that, under US case law, only a sovereign nation, not a bunch of radicals, can commit an “act of war”. Good try, W. This means that we the people, with our tax money, will be allowed to bail out the insurance companies, a rare privilege not afforded to just any old generation.
Although the American people have no direct means of influencing their government, their “opinions” are occasionally sampled through polls. According to a November 1995 CNN-Time poll, 55% of the people believe that “The federal government has become so powerful that it poses a threat to the rights of ordinary citizens.” Three days after Dark Tuesday 74% said they thought “It would be necessary for Americans to give up some of their personal freedoms”; 86% favoured guards and metal detectors at public buildings and events. Thus, as the police state settles comfortably in place, one can imagine Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld studying these figures, transfixed with joy.
“It’s what they always wanted, Dick.”
“And to think we never knew, Don.”
“Thanks to those liberals, Dick.”
“We’ll get those bastards now, Don.”
It seems forgotten by our amnesiac media that we once energetically supported Saddam Hussein in Iraq’s war against Iran; and so he thought, not unnaturally, that we wouldn’t mind his taking over Kuwait’s filling stations. Overnight, our employee became Satan – and so remains, as we torment his people in the hope that they will rise up and overthrow him – as the Cubans were supposed, in their US-imposed poverty, to dismiss Castro a half-century ago, whose only crime was refusal to allow the Kennedy brothers to murder him in their so-called Operation Mongoose.
Our imperial disdain for the lesser breeds did not go unnoticed by the latest educated generation of Saudi Arabians and by their evolving leader, Bin Laden, whose moment came in 2001 when a weak American president took office in questionable circumstances. War is the no-win, all-lose option. The time has come to put the good Kofi Annan to use. As glorious as total revenge will be for our war-lovers, a truce between Saladin and the Crusader Zionists is in the interest of the entire human race. Let Annan mediate between east and west before there is nothing left of either of us to salvage.
The awesome physical damage Bin Laden and company did us on Dark Tuesday is as nothing compared to the knockout blow to our vanishing liberties – the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1991 combined with the recent request to Congress for additional special powers to wire-tap without judicial order; to deport lawful permanent residents, visitors and undocumented immigrants without due process, and so on.
Even that loyal company town paper the Washington Post is alarmed: “Justice department is making extraordinary use of its powers to arrest and detain individuals, taking the unusual step of jailing hundreds of people on minor… violations. The lawyers and legal scholars… said they could not recall a time when so many people had been arrested and held without bond on charges – particularly minor charges – related to the case at hand.”
This is pre-Bin Laden: “Restrictions on personal liberty, on the right of free expression of opinion, including freedom of the press; on the rights of assembly and associations; and violations of the privacy of postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications and warrants for house searches, orders for confiscations as well as restrictions on property, are also permissible beyond the legal limits otherwise prescribed.” The tone is familiar. It is from Hitler’s 1933 speech calling for an “Enabling Act” for “the protection of the People and the State” after the catastrophic Reichstag fire secretly lit by the Nazis.
Only one congresswoman, Barbara Lee of California, voted against the additional powers granted the president. Meanwhile, a New York Times-CBS poll noted that only 6% opposed military action while a substantial majority favoured war “even if many thousands of innocent civilians are killed”. Most of this majority are far too young to recall the second world war, Korea, even Vietnam. Simultaneously, Bush’s approval rating soared.
Traditionally, in war, the president is totemic, like the flag. When Kennedy got his highest rating after the debacle of the Bay of Pigs, he observed, characteristically: “It would seem that the worse you fuck up in this job the more popular you get.”
Finally, the physical damage Bin Laden and friends can do us – terrible as it has been thus far – is as nothing compared to what he is doing to our liberties. Once alienated, an “inalienable right” is apt to be lost forever, in which case we are no longer even remotely the last best hope of Earth but merely a seedy imperial state whose citizens are kept in line by Swat teams and whose way of death, not life, is universally imitated.
Since VJ Day 1945 (“Victory over Japan” and the end of the second world war), we have been engaged in what the great historian Charles Beard called “perpetual war for perpetual peace”. I have occasionally referred to our “enemy of the month club”: each month a new horrendous enemy at whom we must strike before he destroys us. I have been accused of exaggeration, but the scoreboard – a list compiled by the Federation of American Scientists of conflicts from Kosovo (1999) to the Berlin airlift (1948-49) – comprises several hundred wars against communism, terrorism, drugs or sometimes nothing much, in which we always struck the first blow.
· This is an edited extract from Gore Vidal’s article published in the 30th anniversary edition of Index on Censorship’s Filling The Silence, published on May 2 at £8.99. It also appears in Gore Vidal’s latest book, The Last Empire, published by Abacus. To order a copy for £10.99 (plus free p&p) call the Guardian book service on 0870 066 7979.