Friday, 12 September 2003

Exploiting Anxiety

The Political Capital of 9/11

The Bush administration never hesitated to exploit the general public's anxieties that arose after the traumatic events of September 11, 2001.

Testifying on Capitol Hill exactly 53 weeks later, Donald Rumsfeld did not miss a beat when a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee questioned the need for the United States to attack Iraq.

Senator Mark Dayton: "What is it compelling us now to make a precipitous decision and take precipitous actions?"

Defense Secretary Rumsfeld: "What's different? What's different is 3,000 people were killed."

As a practical matter, it was almost beside the point that allegations linking Baghdad with the September 11 attacks lacked credible evidence. The key factor was political manipulation, not real documentation.

Former CIA analyst Kenneth Pollack got enormous media exposure in late 2002 for his book "The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq." Pollack's book promotion tour often seemed more like a war promotion tour. During a typical CNN appearance, Pollack explained why he had come to see a "massive invasion" of Iraq as both desirable and practical: "The real difference was the change from September 11th. The sense that after September 11th, the American people were now willing to make sacrifices to prevent threats from abroad from coming home to visit us here made it possible to think about a big invasion force."

Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk, with the London-based Independent newspaper, was on the mark when he wrote: "Iraq had absolutely nothing to do with 11 September. If the United States invades Iraq, we should remember that."

But at psychological levels, the Bush team was able to manipulate post-9/11 emotions well beyond the phantom of Iraqi involvement in that crime against humanity. The dramatic changes in political climate after 9/11 included a drastic upward spike in an attitude -- fervently stoked by the likes of Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and the president -- that our military should be willing to attack potential enemies before they might try to attack us. Few politicians or pundits were willing to confront the reality that this was a formula for perpetual war, and for the creation of vast numbers of new foes who would see a reciprocal logic in embracing such a credo themselves.

One of the great media cliches of the last two years is that 9/11 "changed everything." The portentous idea soon became a truism for news outlets nationwide. But the shock of September 11 could not endure. And the events of that horrific day -- while abruptly tilting the political landscape and media discourse -- did not transform the lives of most Americans. Despite all the genuine anguish and the overwhelming news coverage, daily life gradually went back to an approximation of normal.

Some changes are obvious. Worries about terrorism have become routine. Out of necessity, stepped-up security measures are in effect at airports. Unnecessarily, and ominously, the USA Patriot Act is chipping away at civil liberties. Yet the basic concerns of September 10, 2001, remain with us today.

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