Thinking Past Terror

By Susan Buck-Morss
16 August 2003

Now more than ever, we must maintain a double vision if we are to see clearly. There are two United States of America, and any analyst -- whether from the left or the right -- that aims at accuracy rather than myth-making must make that distinction. The one United States is institutionally a democratic republic. It is committed by its constitution to a balance of powers. It is a nation founded on principles of freedom: not the shallow freedoms of mass culture mediocrity and consumer choice, but the deeply human, I will say it, universal political freedoms of belief, speech, assembly, due process, and equality before the law -- equality that has evolved over 200 years of citizen struggle.

I am fiercely loyal to the United States of America that espouses these ideals -- ideals in no way the exclusive product of our history, but struggled for widely within the global public sphere. But there is another United States over which I have no control, because it is by definition not a democracy, not a republic. I am referring to the national security state that is called into existence with the sovereign pronouncement of a "state of emergency" and that generates a wild zone of power, barbaric and violent, operating without democratic oversight, in order to combat an "enemy" that threatens the existence not merely and not mainly of its citizens, but of its sovereignty. The paradox is that this undemocratic state claims absolute power over the citizens of a free and democratic nation.

My own coming of age politically was the consequence of a less publicized September 11 -- in 1973, when the US government committed criminal acts, including murder, in support of the military coup in Chile of General Augusto Pinochet that caused the violent overthrow of Salvador Allende, the legally elected, Marxist president. (To think of the two September 11 events simultaneously -- to think of Henry Kissinger and Pinochet together as criminals against humanity, to think of the US School of the Americas together with the Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan as terrorist training grounds -- is precisely what a global public must be capable of doing.) Under the logic of the national security state that has existed formally in the United States since at least 1947, the "national interest" was conflated with that of the "free world"; freedom-loving regimes were by definition pro-American; freedom-fighters were any groups, no matter how anti-democratic, who with US backing attempted to destroy leftist social movements throughout the world.

A strong, secular left existed in every Middle Eastern nation in the 1970s. It supported the Palestinian struggle, in Edward Said's words, as "a liberation ideal, not a provincial movement for municipal self-rule under foreign tutelage. We saw it as an integral unit within the liberation movements of the Third World -- secular, democratic, revolutionary." This secular Arab left pressed for social and economic justice in terms antithetical to US military and economic interests, and it was in this atmosphere that the US national security state nurtured figures like Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and the leaders of the Taliban, all of whom would learn well the lessons of the wild zone of power.

I have argued that the unlimited, unmonitored wild zone of power is a potential of every state that claims sovereign power, and with it, a monopoly of the legitimate use of violence. Two conclusions follow. The first is that no matter how democratic the constitution of a state regime, as a sovereign state it is always more than a democracy, and consequently a good deal less. The second is that human rights, human freedom, and human justice cannot be exclusively possessions of one nation or one civilization. They must be global rights, or they will not be rights at all.

The problem is not that the West imposes its democratic values on the rest of the world, but that it does so selectively. It is intolerable that rights be applied with a double standard; it is inexcusable to justify this flagrant opportunism of the US or any state policy in terms of respect for cultural diversity.

Samuel Huntington, the author of The Clash of Civilizations and hardly a radical, describes US duplicity: "Democracy is promoted but not if it brings Islamic fundamentalists to power; non-proliferation is preached for Iran and Iraq but not for Israel; free trade is the elixir of economic growth but not for agriculture; human rights are an issue with China, but not with Saudi Arabia; aggression against oil-owning Kuwaitis is massively repulsed but not against non-oil-owning Bosnians." We add to this list without pause: recall that the Taliban's violation of women's rights made them deserving of destruction, while the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan was never even mentioned as a necessary component of an anti-Taliban regime.

As participants in a global public, we cannot allow ourselves, cynically, to accept such double standards. Humanity is the subject of the global public sphere, not the United States. No individual nation, no partial alliance, can wage war in humanity's name. We, the diverse multitude of humanity, must insist on this as non-negotiable: on this point, "you are with us or against us."

Until now, the US has been able, openly, to shift from the moral high gound to raw self-interest and still prevail. Until now. We in the vestige democracy that still calls itself proudly the United States of America, have the opportunity, now, to free ourselves from decades of being held hostage by the US national security state that has sullied our reputation and stolen our name. We must ask ourselves: How will we citizens, both civilians and soldiers, benefit from this "unlimited" war on terror, when its continuation is precisely what places our lives and our futures in danger? If the American way of life is going to have to change, let it be for the better. Let us not die for a system that exploits the globe's resources disproportionately and disproportionately reaps its wealth; that treats others with superpower arrogance and uses economic bribes to cripple the potency of the newly emerging, global body politic. If the war is brought to the homeland, let us be the ones who wage it -- not with terrorist violence whereby the ends justify the means, but with divine violence as Walter Benjamin, a Jew and a Marxist, conceived it: collective political action that is lethal not to human beings, but to the mythic powers that reign over them.

Adapted with permission from Thinking Past Terror: Islamism and Critical Theory on the Left (London and New Yorki: Verso, 2003), by Susan Buck-Morss. Buck-Morss is a professor of government and history of art and visual studies at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

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