September 2006 Archives

HOW ABOUT FREEDOM FROM THE POLITICS OF FEAR?

The fifth anniversary of 9/11is tailor-made for "W"'s shameless fearmongering. Yesterday's visit to Ground Zero reminded him that “there’s still an enemy out there that would like to inflict the same kind of damage again.” With the Bush people running around telling folks that we should support them because we are no freer from fear than we were five years ago, it seems appropriate to pull out this piece that appeared in the Atlanta Journal Constitution on Sept. 12, 2001:


"Americans Left to Fear Unseen Enemy"

On January 6, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt promised to forge "a world founded upon four essential freedoms." In addition to freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom from want, there was "freedom from fear," which in Roosevelt’s view meant "a worldwide reduction of armaments" so that "no nation will be in a position to commit an act of aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world." Rather than securing freedom from fear, however, our victory in World War II soon dissolved into a nuclear arms race fueled by the Cold War.

The generation that spent portions of their childhoods practicing for direct nuclear hits on their elementary schools by putting their heads under their desks or had its adolescence punctuated by the sheer terror of the Cuban Missile Crisis can hardly look back with much nostalgia on that era. Yet, even as the Cold War ended and we breathed a collective sigh of relief at the diminished likelihood of a global nuclear holocaust, we were already slipping into a new era of fear and uncertainty, one in which the enemy could be internal, as well as external, and essentially invisible to boot, one in which extravagant defense budgets and massive missile stockpiles count for less than the ruthless and calculated fanaticism of relatively small numbers of unseen and often unknown enemies.

Regardless of whether Tuesday’s death total exceeds that of Pearl Harbor, one of these terrifying new enemies made September 11, 2001, a day that would live not only in infamy, but in irony as well. As president, George Bush, Sr., sought to take credit for the end of the Cold War and promised to create a new world order. Yesterday, he saw another president named Bush forced into hiding in an underground bunker. Our inability to protect even the Pentagon and perhaps even the White House or the Capitol served chilling notice that, when all is said and done, Osama Bin Laden can get closer to George W. Bush, Jr., than the latter, for all his resources, can get to him.

The hysterical reporters and the scenes of genuine public panic in New York seemed more the stuff of B-movies or a TV mini-series than that of live "as-we-speak" reality. Obviously, we are stunned by the apparent ease with which planes at major airports could be hijacked and used to demolish what should have been a tightly secured potential terrorist target. Yet, neither our shock or our dismay at the paralyzing fallout of this atrocity at all the nation’s airports and in its major cities defines the true significance of yesterday’s horrors. That significance lies in the capacity of an unseen enemy to make not just the residents of New York or Washington, D.C., afraid, but to implant that fear into the hearts of millions of Americans who have never been (and probably never intend to be) near either New York City or a major airport.

This reality came through to me in a number of ways, including the cancellation of classes at the University of Georgia and the anxious investigation of a "suspicious" van parked near the federal building in Athens. However, it was local reaction here in Hart County to yesterday’s horrors that I found most enlightening however. Our local radio station, WKLY, "The Voice of the Upper Savannah River," largely suspended its regular programming (save, of course, for the obituaries and mid-day devotional) and broadcast the programming of WGST and the Georgia News Network. The mayor of Hartwell, a woman of Lebanese extraction and Episcopal faith, urged citizens to offer their prayers for the victims and their families "in their own tradition." To that end, churches in town and throughout the county opened their doors to the prayerful. Yet, for all the sincere expressions of grief and compassion for the victims and their families that were uttered in Hart County yesterday, I feel certain that explicitly or not, those prayers also embodied a personal plea for the freedom from fear that, despite our victories in World War II and the Cold War, seems more elusive now than it did when Roosevelt promised to pursue it sixty years ago.

PS. For a truly balanced assessment of Bush's response to 9/11 five years out check out The Economist, which is particularly criticial of "the idea that it is the West and its values that are everywhere under attack, and everywhere by the same seamless front of what Mr Bush has taken to calling “Islamic fascism”, as if this conflict is akin to the second world war or the cold war against communism."

WHEN LIVES ARE AT STAKE, "IFS" AND "BUTS" AIN'T CANDY AND NUTS

(A severely truncated version of this rant appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Sept. 2, 2004)

Frustrated that the American public lacks the intelligence to see how swimmingly things are really going in Iraq, Secretary of Defense Donald, “You wouldn’t believe the photos I’ve got on George and Dick,” Rumsfeld has decided to play the “Munich” card. Speaking to the American Legion last week, Rumsfeld compared critics of the Iraq war to those who tried to appease Adolf Hitler in the 1930s. These naysayers on Iraq, he tut-tutted, “seem not to have learned the lessons of history.” The particular “lesson” that Rumsfeld apparently has in mind is that the weak-kneed British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and his equally pusillanimous pal, Premier Eduoard Daladier of France, erred grievously at the September 1938 Munich Conference by caving in to Hitler’s threats to use force if necessary to reclaim the Sudetenland, an area whose large German-speaking population had been excised from Germany after World War I and grafted onto the new nation of Czechoslovakia. Critics of “appeasement” at Munich point out that despite his pledge to abandon his expansionist ambitions after acquiring the Sudetenland, Hitler went right ahead and seized the remainder of Czechoslovakia before proceeding merrily on his aggressive way until, less than a year later, his invasion of Poland plunged Europe into a war that could have been avoided if only Chamberlain and Daladier had shown some backbone at Munich.
In reality, believing that what the representatives of Great Britain and France did at Munich could have fundamentally altered Hitler’s course presumes that if Chamberlain and Daladier had just said “Buzz Off, You fascist creep!!,” Herr Hitler would simply have contented himself with staying put and playing with his little storm-trooper action figures. Had Hitler reacted less philosophically, however, there is little basis for believing that, at the time, Britain and France could have done much to stop him from canceling several thousand Czechs enroute to acquiring the Sudetenland. Even if they had tried, there is likewise no reason to assume that their response would have been sufficient to discourage him from future aggression. Certainly, Franklin Roosevelt gave no indication that the United States was either ready or willing at that point to provide meaningful assistance in any effort to resist Hitler militarily.
Those who have really “learned the lessons of history” will see that Rumsfeld’s simplistic analogy is based more on the Bush administration’s tortuous insistence on characterizing Islamic extremism as “a new kind of fascism” than on any real historical comparability between Europe in 1938 and the Middle East in 2006. They will also recognize in it the old post hoc ergo propter hoc (“after this, therefore because of this”) fallacy that confuses historical sequencing with historical causation.
This kind of reasoning is not simply dumb, it is also dangerous. From Vietnam to Nicaragua, the “Munich Syndrome” as some call it, has been invoked again and again to justify questionable military interventions. Just last year, commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of VE Day, President Bush sought to validate his own preference for military over diplomatic options by placing FDR’s February 1945 negotiations with Stalin at Yalta on the postwar status of Eastern Europe in the “unjust tradition of Munich.”
Given what we have seen of him in our own time, it should not surprise us to hear Bush intimate that, had he been president in 1945, he would not have hesitated to drag an already exhausted military and a war-weary American public into another bloody and doubtless protracted conflict. The Soviets, after all, had just turned the tide of war in Europe by sacrificing millions of lives to repulse Hitler, the latest in several centuries’ worth of brutal invaders from the West, and were not about to accept even the prospect of hostile nations on their western border without a fight.
Whenever a politician, or even a history professor for that matter, presumes to use “the lessons of the past” to influence our perceptions of the present, we should realize that the past offers a multitude of lessons, a great many of them contradictory and very few of them universal or straightforward enough for direct application to the here and now. If we truly hope to benefit from what the past can teach us, we must take care not only to know what happened and when but to understand why and how as well. If we don’t, we are likely to discover that, where history is concerned, a little learning can be almost as dangerous as none at all.

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