America Rex

It was evident, even before the dust had begun to settle, that the attacks of September 11 would force America to fight a war that would test the country’s very perception of itself. Faced with an enemy unlike any the world had ever known – that was everywhere and nowhere, that cared nothing for the lives of civilians or of its own soldiers – America had to adopt tactics that would shake the popular conception shaped by two world wars and a century of Hollywood: that the Americans always did well by doing good. The only way to deal with the new threat of international terrorism was to pre-empt its attacks and to destroy it root and branch. This entails dark deeds done by shadowy forces in the twilight zone between the two sides of the war. Whatever good intentions anyone may have had at the start, if the choices are between getting dirty or getting killed, it is almost certain that most nations – like individuals – will see survival as the absolute of moral clarity. Future generations can agonize over the ethics of the struggle. September 11 made it clear that the guardians of the continually changing border of our American-led civilization would be waging their war in the legal void that breeds monsters. And most of the world appeared content to allow America to take the lead in this unsettling new world. That is why there seems to have been no great interest shown by other countries when planes operated by the CIA began to ferry prisoners without names to prisons without addresses across the world. The overthrow of the Taleban regime in Afghanistan was widely seen as a legitimate act of self-defense and reprisal against the closest to a state entity that the terrorist force could have. This was, however, part of a total war that would grow more and more complicated the longer it went on. It was a war that – in order to deal with the real danger – would translate into the increasing impingement of our rights and gradually lead to reservations and anger. But, for most of the world, this was a time not to ask and for America not to tell. Most countries were happy to see America bearing the brunt of costs and commitment in a war that concerned everyone. But what followed was a miscalculation worthy of Greek tragedy, where the unwitting protagonist is destroyed by over-reaching. The lies that were used to justify the Iraq war isolated America from many of its allies. The subsequent failure to secure Iraq was even more damning, forcing the US to act in the way that occupying forces have always acted – brutally and ineffectually. In short, the daily slaughter in Iraq deprived America of the moral clarity that 9/11 had inspired and of the precious aura that it was both noble and invincible. And so, at a most critical time, America was riven by questions both at home and abroad. The surest sign that America is a healthy democracy is the fact that secrets such as the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and the global gulag were revealed by the US news media. But this is also part of the problem. Seeing as some people in the US administration have been waging war on the news media, the revelations in the American media serve to divide Americans even further domestically, while alarming their allies and strengthening their enemies. The inevitable result is that the more the ethics of the war on terrorism are muddied, other countries will have to take a long look at themselves and their relationship with America. It is no coincidence that America’s greatest ally, Britain (itself a victim of mass terrorism) has recoiled from many American tactics. Now everyone is asking questions. Even the most pro-American leaderships find it necessary to take a step back. The team around President Bush seems to be pushing in the wrong direction, with Vice President Dick Cheney leading the fight for official tolerance of torture. This at a time when Washington needs to bridge the chasm with the rest of the world, not widen it. There is no easy solution, other than the need for America to abandon the message that it cares only for those who are useful to it. America, like most of its allies, is a democracy. And democracies are forced to look hard to discover what is wrong and to right it. In Sophocles’ tragedy, Oedipus the king is destroyed by his pursuit of the truth because the gods willed it so, because he found that he himself was the curse upon his land. The Americans labor under no such curse. All they need to do is to remember that, after survival, the greatest priority is living a life worth living and upholding a civilization for which no one should feel shame.