TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

On the Legacy of September 11

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Lukas Szrot looks at Tim Luke’s “On 9.11.01” from Telos 120 (Summer 2001).

The aftermath of the War on Terror rages on despite bipartisan assurances that “major combat operations are over” and that “the war is coming to a close.” This ongoing conflict has produced, and continues to produce, prodigious human casualties and economic hemorrhaging. Tim Luke’s words regarding September 11, 2001, are in many ways as timely today as they were nearly fourteen years ago. For instance, Luke writes:

Even though the US believes itself to be the world’s preeminent power, many others believe it has shown little leadership over the past decade on global warming, the AIDS pandemic, world poverty, nuclear proliferation, and economic instability, beyond its propensities for fighting antiseptic air wars from B-2 bombers or fomenting technological upheaval with “dot com” capitalism. Some discursive democracy in the 1990s essentially has meant either the empty chatter of talk-show gripe artists airing multicultural grievances at home or the feckless evasion of global challenges with nationalistic excuses abroad. (132)

By most accounts the gap between the wealthiest and poorest in the United States has only broadened, while relatively little has been done to assuage the misery of the thousands who live in penury or die of starvation worldwide every day. In 2015, the United States is governed by politicians at the highest levels of office who are still fighting to deny that global warming even exists, much less that it is a problem, citing some of the most tenuous anomalies and potentially fraudulent travesties masquerading as scientific evidence since the controversy over cigarette smoking.

The Internet has become a sort of economic Wild West, replete with a wave of new crimes, such as international fraud and identity theft. Simultaneously the world wide web has morphed into a Panopticon through which the life-worlds of technophiles are routinely scrutinized in the name of national security. These developments challenge the Internet’s effectiveness both as a medium for effective global commerce and as a tool of social and intellectual liberation. In many ways the United States seems more polarized than ever, notably when commentary on the ongoing War on Terror, and the domestic and public policy issues that have since experienced a flavor of not-so-benign neglect, can be streamlined into shallow, partisan sound-bite sparring. Luke is a visionary, deploying the much-needed panoramic lens of social theory to look beneath and beyond partisan bickering in order to examine larger geopolitical and historical circumstances.

Take, for example, Luke’s recognition that “This cannot be reduced to a ‘clash of civilizations.’ Indeed, religious leaders from both Islam and Christendom have roundly condemned the acts of 9.11.01” (131). Many U.S. citizens have unreflectively framed the conflict in terms of a Christian “us” and a Muslim “them,” betraying a profound historical amnesia and multicultural ignorance. “Of course, Islam can coexist, and has done so in the past, with scientific skepticism, commercial honesty, the freedom of women, basic natural rights, and a separation of religion and state; it is mostly religious fundamentalists in Islam who assail these principles. And, as the Reverend Jerry Falwell so artlessly illustrated when he interpreted 9.11.01 as God’s retribution against America for being a nation of sinners, these illiberal tendencies also plague Christianity” (139–40). Religious fundamentalism is a reaction to a perceived threat that is far larger and older than the modern chess game of global politics, rooted in historical and socioeconomic realities. “On one level, modernity works well in the Middle East. Oil is pumped, shipped, and sold. . . . On another level, however, modernity fails: only a few gain from this incredible wealth, while many more live quite miserable lives, blaming the West, as they have since the 18th century, for much of their misery” (136). Luke refers to a “modernity of failure” in which these illiberal tendencies are nurtured and exacerbated by a longstanding tension between the West and Middle East in an environment of repression and dearth, partly concealed from American eyes by a sanctification of petrochemical plunder and unfettered consumerism.

Yet perhaps what was hardest to swallow about 9/11 was not merely that the targets, the victims, were primarily civilian, but that the perpetrators were willing to give their own lives in these kamikaze attacks. “Liberal ideologies rest at the core of modern consumer society. Without the codes of conduct that rule everyday human behaviors for autonomous rational agency, the technics that underlie market exchange, instrumental action, and personal happiness would grind to a halt. To live is to consume, and to consume is to live” (137–38). This is the face of a culture war that transcends mere left–right political boundaries while also serving to reinforce them. To question—even to challenge violently—means-ends rationality and the consumerism that it unabashedly perpetuates is not entirely beyond the pale for American denizens at the fringes. Consider, for instance, the bombing of the Oklahoma federal building or the murder of doctors who perform legal abortions. Yet it is simply beyond the imaginings of most Americans, and perhaps most Westerners, ensconced in a relatively small circle of wealthy, technologically forward, democratic nations. How, indeed, does one fight an enemy who welcomes death, who is grateful to kill and to die, presuming that death brings eternal rewards and destruction to enemies, real or perceived?

“Believing God, History, or Nature is on their side, and that greater rewards await them in another world beyond this one, these ‘others’ can willingly sacrifice themselves, their family, and their wealth to attain long-term strategic goals” (138). Such a sense of otherness is turned into a potent weapon in the hands of religious fundamentalists bent on violence. And it is this otherness, Luke implies, that made the 9/11 attacks so devastating, for technocratic societies provide within them the potential tools of their own destruction. These tools can be employed against their masters with spectacularly devastating consequences, as the world witnessed on 9/11. “Modern life, as people in Lower Manhattan or Northern Virginia know it, depends on a network of complex, interlinked technostructures. Whether it is a system tied to communication, nutrition, and transportation or a structure set in finance, housing, and medicine, ordinary technical artifacts and processes will always afford terrorists innumerable embedded assets that can be used for destructive purposes” (132).

Yet another issue arises regarding terrorism in an increasingly techno-globalist civilization, for “the US has now entered into a ‘state of war’ with ‘stateless warriors’—a situation that has not prevailed in the republic since its ‘civilizing campaigns’ against Native Americans, the Barbary pirates, and Caribbean buccaneers in the 18th and 19th centuries” (134). How might such a war be won? There is no state, no front line, only loosely interconnected but autonomous cells to be pursued across national borders, in part rendering these borders superfluous in a form of warfare that mirrors the very imperialistic tendencies ascribed to the corrupt and decadent West by its enemies. Images of soldiers marching in squads through urban areas in Iraq kicking down doors springs to mind: Who is the enemy? Where is the enemy? Is this what “liberation” looks like? This type of war takes an unprecedented psychological toll on soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq that is in many ways consonant with the aforementioned slow economic bleeding-out, as warriors return from battle bearing the mental scars of a long, grinding war of attrition.

The piecemeal erosion of civil liberties represents a final and supremely problematic component that followed the attacks. As Luke writes, “9.11.01 has evoked a new national emergency, which provides the pretext for ‘a state of emergency,’ or ‘a 911 state,’ to fight a shadow war against invisible enemies on unknown fronts, possibly for decades” (141). For as soldiers are besieged and economies bled, citizens too are besieged and liberties bled when the “all-seeing eye” of an increasingly paranoid governing structure and intelligence community turns inward to seek these stateless warriors. In doing so, they cite national security, and likely save lives, but at a potential cost of a citizenry who increasingly find themselves under the invisible and boring gaze of an ascendant Big Brother. As of mid-2015, troops remain in Iraq and elsewhere throughout the Middle East, battling the latest wave of “illiberal other” insurgency in ISIS. In claiming that this new War on Terror, a war declared not against a nation or state but against an abstraction, will be last “possibly for decades,” Luke stands to be proven right.

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