THE RHETORIC OF A STAGGERING EMPIRE
Elected on the ‘Çhange We Need’ card, President Obama failed to stand apart from the hyperpatriotic charged rhetorical tradition of his predecessor. Though not a psycho-linguist, I could not help but be struck by the unbecoming chest-thumping triumphalism and hubris that his Sunday night speech announcing the assassination of Osama bin Laden dripped with. It fit exactly into the array of ‘War on Terror’ rhetoric spearheaded by Dubya Bush, and which Obama had ostensibly shunned in favour of a more restrained, measured tenor. He may not have actually used the inanity of the phrase ‘War on Terror’, but the Bush Effect was ever-present. In fact, I could not see much difference in the ethos of the President’s speech and the furore in the streets as young, euphoric Americans consuming regular dosages of FOX News bulletins shouted ‘USA! USA!’ and showed fists in a berserk display of febrile jingoism. The President may have had at his disposal a greater sophistry of words and stood in a grander setting, but the sentiment was hardly distinguishable. Both danced to the same tune _ a naked, primeval wardance.
If one were to change the specific names and events, Obama’s emotional appeal calling to arms and to national unity could most fittingly come from one of the ‘terrorists’ he claims to fight. The justification for U.S policy is the same doctrine of vengeance Obama condemns about Al Qaeda. Just as the President invoked the images of 9/11 ‘seared in our memory’ and painted lesser visible images of ‘empty seats at the dining table’ and ‘children growing without fathers’, so too are those who strap bombs around their bodies haunted by spectres of the bleeding ghosts of America’s wars. There are other images also seared in other memories, Mr. President_ and these are images that do not occur in your speeches or on your news channels or in your national consciousness or in any remote corner of your mind as your drones rain death and destruction in lesser known towns and villages where those live who you excluded when you vowed to protect ‘our citizens, our friends, our allies.’ There are other hearts with gaping holes cut through them, too. Vengeance works on both sides: “The villainy you teach me I shall execute. And it shall go hard, but I will better the instruction.”(Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice). But your victims don’t wear the alluring face of the civilization you champion, the values you extol. Their ire makes them your despised evil enemies, while yours makes you the impregnable empire you think you are. It is the same old vengeful spiral you have not grown out of, even as you celebrate the supposed greatness of ‘who you are’ and ‘what you stand for.’ You gloat in triumphant, satiated vengeance as you celebrate dead bodies whisked-out-of-sight even as you lecture us on justice, peace and sacred values.
The otherized few are the bad guys, the terrorists. And thus you strip away dignity and humanity from those who challenge your might to show them as mere despicable moronic villains. Michael Scheuer, former CIA bin Laden expert insisted that to consider bin Laden as a murderous ‘terrorist’ reflected America’s naivete and inaccuracy in understanding its enemy, as he was a personage with far greater credibility personifying what many saw as a legitimate struggle rooted in an ideology far more popular and authentic than the U.S would have us believe. While his method may be one that many in the Muslim world reject, his standpoint and its appeal was what many saw as both genuine and deep rooted. Scheuer clarified it was a mistake to consider bin Laden a pathological murderous maniac ‘committed to killing innocents_ men, women and children’ as the President informed us. He was committed instead (in his own words), to the defence of his community against American expansionism and interventionism and to avenge the millions of victims of America’s wars and proxy wars. And just as the U.S dismisses the tremendous civilian damage its warmongering incurs as ‘collateral’ and not intended, so too did bin Laden make clear that innocents never were the target, though his strategy of attack may inevitably include damage to them. The identical logic of the ‘nation under God’ and its loathsome evil enemy is only too clear_ while the former claims to champion all civilized values and all that is good and true, the latter is condemnable and barbaric. Chomsky wrote that the failure to apply to ourselves the same standards we use for others is an arrogance of power and a perversion of democracy by those purportedly defending it_ those who place themselves as judge, jury and executioner all rolled into one.
The President showed off the feathers in his cap at a good time, mentioning ‘disrupted terrorist attacks and greater homeland security.’ This does not however talk of the great cost at which it came- the loss of civil liberties in the United States and an officially imposed Hollywood-style national paranoia. What the U.S may successfully have done however is to deflect the war off the shores of the United States to the mountains of Pakistan_ somebody else’s dirty work.
Former president Bush was not just present in spirit, he even occurred in Obama’s speech as the President attributed his clarification that this was ‘not a war against Islam’ to his senior. The need to reiterate arises only when the action belies is. The ‘clarification’ would do little to alleviate and redress the grievances of much of the Muslim world increasingly irate about the continuity of the former administration’s myopic and exploitative policies towards the Muslim world. The recent crisis in Libya has only made clear how little the U.S has learnt from the Iraq quagmire and from the many fiascos of the previous administration, whose official line the President meticulously toes.
The muted warning by the President to Pakistan that it was ‘necessary for Pakistan to continue to join us in the fight’ was reminiscent of President Bush’s 2001 telephonic threat to the Pakistani premier, ‘you are either with Us or against Us.’
Having trumpeted enough bravado, Obama next tries a hand at playing victim, insisting that the war was ‘brought to our shores.’ This does not explain away the carefully laid down global network of American military bases in the Middle East and beyond, its many wars of occupation, intervention and exploitation, its numerous bloody misadventures many of which pre-date Al Qaeda. Chomsky reminds us that all concentrations of power at all periods of history have behaved in the same way, and all demand historical amnesia so that earlier atrocities can be forgotten. ‘If exposed as crimes, our atrocities can then be viewed as aberrations or mistakes rather than as part of a consistent pattern.’ (Neil Smith, reviewing Noam Chomsky).
Just as the president takes refuge in a sense of victimhood to justify his ‘defensive’ war, so do his enemies act out of their sense of injury and victimhood which they believe justifies their defensive war against the relentless American empire.
Relentless indeed, in the President’s own words: “We will be relentless in defence of our citizens and our friends and allies.” The fiction of America’s ‘defensive war’ wears thin with the rumble and roar of the doctrine of pre-emption that Obama inherits like a dutiful heir from his predecessor. According to Robert Jensen, “Obama’s comments keyed into the concept of American exceptionalism and the generalized fetishism of military force evident throughout American culture.”
“We will do whatever it takes”, Obama continued, while praising the work and the devotion of American counter-terrorism and intelligence officers. The message is that ‘All do Good who serve towards This End.’ The ends justify the means. The notorious ways and tactics of American counter terrorism and intelligence officers are only too well known with the laying bare of prison cells where evidence of brutal torture clothed as ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ has often surfaced, leaving one’s senses reeling. If it takes Gitmo-style waterboarding seventy or more times to get Khalid Sheikh Muhammad to utter what may be a lead to the bin Laden trail, Gitmo and all that its dark recesses conceal stands justified ‘towards This End.’
As the moral bankruptcy of the argument begins to gape, it seeks refuge in louder rhetoric celebrating ‘values.’ The echo of Bush’s black-and-white dichotomies of ‘good and evil’ and ‘our values and theirs’ rings clear as the President invokes American superior identity and values_ not once but twice: “We will be true to the values that make us who we are.” The constant references to superior American values and their centrality to the war remind one of Bush’s ‘they hate us for our freedom’ masterstroke. Towards the end, the President’s repetition of ‘our’, ‘ours’, ‘us’ and ‘we’ becomes a drumroll of jingoism and narcissism. In fact, it dwindles into naked hubris as Obama celebrates in the death of an unarmed enemy through unilateral military assault in another’s country the ‘greatness of our nation.’ That the nation did not question the official version of the great story with all its discrepancies and even lies as statements were circulated and retracted makes the state of the nation’s integrity self-evident.
The hubris turns megalomanic as the President of the Most Powerful Nation on Earth grandly announces: “America can do whatever we set our mind to.” The pattern falls into place. Bush the Senior had said years ago, “What We Say, Goes.” Grandiose rhetoric disguises the plain fallacy of the myth of ‘making sacrifices to make the world a safer place’, and ‘standing up for our values abroad.’ The counter-productive, valueless and hopelessly myopic American counter-terrorism policies only contribute to perpetuate America’s war against an enemy it created and now helps sustain. It only serves to keep the vicious cycle of fear and hate going. Al Qaeda has already warned of reprisals. The paranoia of a foreign monster lying in wait for innocent American ‘men women and children’ does not give Americans any sense of security, nor do the drone strikes in Pakistan and American vows that ‘the war has not ended’ serve the interests of peace anywhere. The ‘world becoming a safer place’ is yet another rhetorical ploy to win an indefensibly weak case.
It is a case of an empire careening towards doom, screeching piquantly on its way down the hill. Its delusions of grandeur and its insistent hubris is more dangerous than any ragtag group of ‘terrorists’ hiding in the mountains of Pakistan. Frank Smecker writes of what terrifies him more than Al Qaeda, “The most terrifying culture ever to exist... a culture that wholeheartedly and without question believes in the fantasy that it can continue to live on a finite planet while practising a way of life predicated on the assumption of infinite growth; a culture that will do anything within its means to reinforce this fantasy... And so when an empire attempts to send a message to other communities... a message that says- we need what you have and we will take it if you do not hand it over-, well, the message better be pretty convincing and ensure success... But what it does is also that it leaves an impression on those it hurts, and some people who are deeply hurt indeed reach a point of rage; and to foment rage and to show those who are left with nothing but these feelings of enmity and vengeance creates a ‘death spiral.’ It is fanaticism against fanaticism, a way of life versus another way of life, all dancing the same dance_ a pas de deux of terror... it merely reveals that this culture has always been that monster we are attempting to fight.”