In The Minority Report (2002), Steven Spielberg’s last film based on a Phillip Dick short story, criminals are arrested before they commit their crime, since three humans who, through monstrous scientific experiments, acquired the capacity to foresee the future, can exactly predict their acts (the “minority report” from the title refers to those rare cases where one of the three mediums employed by the police disagrees with the other two about a crime to be committed)… If one transposes this idea to international relations, does one not get the new “Bush (or, rather, Cheney) doctrine,” now publicly declared as the official US “philosophy” of international politics (in the 31 pages paper entitled “The National Security Strategy,” issued by the White House on September 20 2002)? Its main points are: the American military might should remain “beyond challenge” in the foreseeable future; since the main enemy today is an “irrational” fundamentalist who, in contrast to Communists, lacks even the elementary sense of survival and respect of his own people, America has the right to preemptive strikes, i.e., to attack countries which do not already pose a clear threat to the US, but MIGHT pose such a threat in the foreseeable future; while the US should seek ad hoc international coalitions for such attacks, it should reserve the right to act independently if it will not get sufficient international support.
So while the US presents its domination over other sovereign states as grounded in a benevolent paternalism which takes into account the interests of other states, it reserves for itself the ultimate right to DEFINE its allies’ “true” interests. The logic is thus clearly formulated: even the pretense of a neutral international law is abandoned, since, when the US perceive a potential threat, they formally ask their allies to support them, but the allies’ agreement is optional, the underlying message is always “we will do it with or without you,” i.e. you are free to agree with, but not free to disagree — the old paradox of the forced choice is reproduced here, the freedom to make a choice on condition that one makes the right choice.
The US displeasure of Gerhard Schroeder in September 2002, when he won the elections with his firm stance against the American military intervention in Irak, was a displeasure at the fact that Schroeder did what a normal politician in a functioning democracy and a leader of a sovereign state does — while agreeing that the Iraqi regime is a threat, he simply articulated his disagreement with the way the US government proposed to deal with this threat, thereby stating an opinion shared not only by many other states, but also by a considerable percentage of American people and congressmen. Schroeder was thus the first to get the full taste of the Bush doctrine — and, to pursue the homology even further, was his disagreement with the US plans to preventively attack Iraq not precisely a kind of real-life “minority report,” signaling his disagreement with the way others saw the future?
We all remember the MAD (“mutually assured destruction”) logic elaborated at the height of the Cold War; from our retrospective view, compared with the Bush doctrine, the MAD logic cannot but appear today relatively rational. Back in the 1970s, Bernard Brodie pointed out how this logic effectively worked: “It is a strange paradox of our time that one of the crucial factors which make the /nuclear/ dissuasion effectively function, and function so well, is the underlying fear that, in a really serious crisis, it can fail. In such circumstances, one does not play with fate. If we were absolutely certain that the nuclear dissuasion is one hundred per cent efficient in its role of protecting us against a nuclear assault, then its dissuasive value against a conventional war would have dropped to close to zero.”
In short, the MAD strategy worked not because it was perfect, but on account of its very imperfection. The perfect strategy (if one sides nukes the other, the other will automatically respond, and both sides will thus be destroyed) had a fatal flaw: what if the attacking side counts on the fact that, even after its first strike, the opponent continues to act as a rational agent? His choice is now: with his country mostly destroyed, he can either strike back, thus causing total catastrophe, the end of humanity, or NOT STRIKE BACK, thus enabling the survival of humanity and thereby at least the possibility of a later revibal of his own country? A rational agent would chose the second option… What makes the strategy efficient is the very fact that we cannot ever be sure that it will work perfectly: what if a situation spirals out of control for a variety of easily imaginable reasons (from the “irrational” aggressivity of the one part to simple technological failures or miscommunications)? It is because of this permanent threat that both sides do not want to come even too close to the prospect of MAD, so they avoid even conventional war; if the strategy were perfect, it would, on the opposite, endorse the attitude “Let’s fight a full conventional war, since we both know that no side will risk the fateful step towards a nuclear strike!” So the actual constellation of MAD is not “If we follow the MAD strategy, the nuclear catastrophe will not take place,” but: “If we follow the MAD strategy, the nuclear catastrophe will not take place, expect for some imprevisible incident.” (And the same goes today for the prospect of the ecological catastrophe: if we do nothing, it will occur, and if we do all we can do, it will not occur, expect for some imprevisible accident.)
The problem with today’s “Bush doctrine” is that, with it, the loop is closed, there is no longer any room even for the “realistic” opening to the imprevisible which sustained the MAD doctrine: the “Bush doctrine” relies on the violent assertion of the paranoiac logic of total control over the FUTURE threat and preemptive strikes against it — the ineptness of such an approach for today’s universe in which knowledge circulates freely is patent. The loop between the present and the future is thus closed: the prospect of breath-taking terrorist act is evoked in order to justify incessant preemptive strikes now. The state in which we live now, in the “war on terror,” is the one of the endlessly suspended terrorist threat: the catastrophe (the new terrorist attack) is taken for granted, yet endlessly postponed — whatever will actually happen, even if it will be a much more horrible attack than that of 9/11, will not yet be “that.” And it is crucial here to grasp how the true catastrophe ALREADY IS this life under the shadow of the permanent threat of a catastrophe.
Terry Eagleton recently drew attention to the two opposed modes of tragedy: the big, spectacular catastrophic Event, the abrupt irruption from some other world, and the dreary persistence of a hopeless condition, the blighted existence which goes on indefinitely, life as one long emergency. This is the difference between the big First World catastrophies like September 11 and the dreary permanent catastrophe of, say, Palestinians in the West Bank. The first mode of tragedy, the figure against the “normal” background, is characteristic of the First World, while in much of the Third World, catastrophe designates the all-present background itself.
And this is how the September 11 catastrophe effectively functioned: as a catastrophic figure which made us, in the West, aware of the blissful background of our happiness, AND of the necessity to defend it against the foreigners’ onslaught… in short, it functioned exactly according to Chesterton’s principle of Conditional Joy: to the question “Why this catastrophe? Why couldn’t we be happy all the time?”, the answer is “And why should we be happy all the remaining time?” September 11 served as a proof that we are happy and that others ENVY us this happiness. Along these lines, one should thus risk the thesis that, far from shattering the US from its ideological sleep, September 11 was used as a sedative enabling the hegemonic ideology to “renormalize” itself: the period after the Vietnam war was one long sustended trauma for the hegemonic ideology — it had to defend itself against critical doubts, the gnawing worms was continuously at work and couldn’t be simply suppressed, every return to innocence was immediately experienced as a fake… until September 11, when US was a victim and thus allowed to reassert the innocence of its mission. In short, far from awakening us, September 11 served to put us to sleep again, to continue our dream after the nightmare of the last decades.
The ultimate irony is here that, in order to restore the innocence of the American patriotism, the conservative US establishment mobilized the key ingredient of the Politically Correct ideology which it officially despises: the logic of victimization. Relying on the idea that authority is conferred (only on) those who speak from the position of the VICTIM, it relied on the implicit reasoning: “We are now victims, and it is this fact that legitimizes us to speak (and act) from the position of authority.” So when, today, we hear the slogan that the liberal dream of the 1990s is over, that, with the attacks on the WTC, we were violently thrown back into the real world, that the easy intellectual games are over, we should remember that such a call to confront the harsh reality is ideology at its purest. Today’s “American, awaken!” is a distant call of Hitler’s “Deutschland, erwache!”, which, as Adorno wrote long ago, meant its exact opposite.
What, then, are we blinded for when are dreaming the dream of the “war on terror”? Perhaps the first thing to note here is the deep satisfaction of the American commentators in ascertaining how, after September 11, the anti-globalist movement has lost its raison — what if this satisfaction tells more than it meant to say? What if the War on Terror is not so much an answer to the terrorist attacks themselves as an answer to the rise of the anti-globalist movement, a way to contain it and distract attention from it? What if this “collateral damage” of the War on Terror is its true aim? One is tempted to say that we are dealing here with a case of what Stephen Jay Gould would have called (ideological) ex-aptation: the apparent secondary effect or profit (the fact that the anti-globalist protest is now also listed in the series of “terrorist” supporters) is crucial.
[Appeared in Frankfurter Rundschau, January 2003. Original no longer available, here reproduced in full.]