The New World of Terror

The war on terror was supposed to sign the dawn of a new world era. What does its “new world” mythology rest upon and how do we, the people, come to accept fear as the principle of political power?

This post is part of a reading series of Democracy Incorporated by Sheldon S. Wolin. For quick access to all chapters, click here.

As in any book club, you are kindly invited to let the rest of us know what you think!

Disclaimer: Being the result of personal work, this chapter summary cannot and does not pretend to offer a detailed and accurate transcription of all the author’s ideas.

The myth of a “new world” has been widely used for the United States, seen as the promise of a fresh beginning on a vast land open to a nation of pioneers. An image noticeably oblivious of the fact that there were already several old nations occupying the land. Operating as the implicit justification of a willful act of power, the new world mythology has obliterated natives from the collective consciousness of European immigrants. Today, the same type of self-serving certainty is superimposed not on unchartered lands but on the world at large by a “new world order” and its subsequent “war on terror”. What does its own mythology rest upon and how do we, the people, come to accept fear as the principle of political power?

Sheldon Wolin argues that the most complete U.S. official statement of what he calls “will-to-power” was, in recent history, the National Security Strategy of the United States issued in 2002. “In that document, the administration declared its intention to reshape the current world and define the new one. ‘In the new world we have entered,’ it declared grandly, ‘the only path to safety is the path of action.'”1 Declaring a new world is indeed a positive act canceling an old one, discarding with it its old ways and constraints in the use of power. So much so that Condoleezza Rice warned the international community “If they [Iraq and North Korea] do acquire WMD [weapons of mass destruction] their weapons will be unusable because any attempt to use them will bring national obliteration.”2 Not the language of an administration poised to impartially assess the situation and committed to all possible diplomatic efforts.

The New World of Terror
Source: Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

The reason for such a martial stance is that building a new world can only be a sacred call which, as such, bears no opposition. This new world is meant to be because the old one is defective and endangers the march toward civilization. The unmistakable weakness of this idea, however, is to define civilization by opposition to its supposed contrary. The other—the savage, the terrorist—is what makes us the civilized party. Yet, by avoiding to rely first on the principle that civilization is an open and constructive path toward the betterment of humanity, the “new world” ends up being an empty concept exclusively aimed at designing its enemies.

Our common humanity is what is at stake with the new world mythology. Threatening to obliterate some of us—be it North Korea—is simply showing that to some others there is no reality behind the word “humans”. This is how American natives then or Palestinians now have been constantly denied their humanity. As the story goes, their ancestors were hardly on the same land in the first place. This denial of reality is psychologically understandable: as the mere nuisance that they are, natives or Palestinians do not deserve to be recognized as even existing, let alone to remind the rest of us that we have responsibilities toward each other. That is the path of the new world, the path of colonization. In its own hallucinated way, the war on terror is on the exact same line.

The passage from the old to the new world was operated when the United States came to be defined in the single, all-encompassing purpose of the war on terror. George W. Bush said that the nation had found there “its mission and its moment” and vowed in his message to expand government powers under the Patriot Act: “We will never forget the servants of evil who plotted the attacks and will never forget those who rejoice at our grief.”3 He also memorably said that the United States is the “greatest force for good on the earth” and that in fighting terrorism the nation is responding to “a calling from beyond the stars.”4

In this narrative, we are the pure ones. Our call is from heaven since, otherwise, it would be from hell. Who could confuse the two? Hell and heaven are the only fundamental things to consider and you are on one side or the other. We, the United States, want to be on the right side. This implies that other nations may not want to; which implies in turn that they stand for the forces of evil. It is not worth reflecting on the fact that we create our own hell on a daily basis, or that heaven is in the smile of every child in the world. The war on terror relates to the heavy stuff—the transcendent one. Bruce Bartlett, a previous domestic policy adviser to Ronald Reagan and a Treasury official for the first President Bush, was quoted saying in that respect: “This is why George W. Bush is so clear-eyed about Al Qaeda and the Islamic fundamentalist enemy. He believes you have to kill them all. They can’t be persuaded, that they’re extremists, driven by a dark vision. He understands them because he’s just like them.”5

The New World of Terror

In this dialectic of absolutes, our retaliation is sacred and has nothing in common with the murderous endeavors of evil-doers. As Sheldon Wolin reminds us, “At the same time, the character of absolute evil assigned to terrorism—of a murderous act without reasonable or just provocation—works toward the same end by allowing the state to cloak its power in innocence. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 Americans asked, “What have we done to deserve this?” The official silence that met the question made plain the obvious answer: Nothing.” Terrorism was thus made to appear as irrational violence and the action in response to it as necessarily pure, without ulterior or mixed motives. An innocence, says Sheldon Wolin, “that under normal circumstances might raise suspicions about motives served to justify extensions of power at home and abroad.”

Such suspicions have no ground to stand on anyway in the mythical realm of the new world order, where reality comes second after fantasy. In order to fuel its sacred call, the war on terror cannot be limited by facts, data, or the overall consideration of fostering peace. Fear is what matters. The National Security Strategy thus declared that terrorism was “[a] shadowy network of individuals [that] can bring great chaos and suffering to our shores for less than it costs to purchase a single tank. Terrorists are organized to penetrate open societies and to turn the power of modern technology against us.”6 Even though this statement is not misleading by itself, the issue is that it is what the description of the enemy stops at. Becoming the core element of the war on terror message, this shadowy character of terrorists is intended to raise a primal fear about the precariousness of every moment in daily life, consequently justifying the idea of enlarging the power of the avenging state both at home and overseas. “In the shaping of a fearful new world, says Sheldon Wolin, much would depend on the administration’s definition of the enemy, the evidence supporting that definition, and the definition’s problematic nature.” Conveniently enough, “evil” works in the shadow and you never know what is going to come up next. The war must go on.

The war on terror consequently appears to be nothing else than a mirroring act. As Sheldon Wolin puts it, “Terrorism is both a response to empire and the provocation that allows for empire to cease to be ashamed of its identity,” adding “A world where warfare has no boundaries, spatial or temporal, and hence no limits was not the simple product of terrorism but that of its exploitation.” In other words, terrorism is convenient to imperial will-to-power. It creates the opportunity of new “rogue states” to fight against in order to prop up the agenda of a world order at the empire’s command—i.e. that of the United States. In that sense, “Terrorism, power without boundaries, becomes the template for Superpower; the measureless, the illegitimate, becomes the measure of its counterpart.”

The New World of Terror

The term “superpower” has been used since the 1950s to design states able to project force anywhere in the world and at a time of their choosing. Sheldon Wolin notes in this regard that, by extension, it can also mean a power “that is continually challenging the forbidden as its predestined other.” Knowing no boundaries, the will-to-power of empire needs to constantly point at some other evil deed—either actual or totally made up—requiring to be answered in kind. As the war on terror has fully shown, a new world order against what is otherwise deemed to turn into utter chaos is as good a bad excuse as you can get. What the heck would you need the truth for? Democracy?

It turns out that we are not such much interested in democracy, after all. At least most of our representatives aren’t. In total contradiction with the spirit and the letter of the United States Constitution, Congress has relinquished its duties by not claiming back its authority since the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) became law on September 18, 2001. As Sheldon Wolin reminds us, “Since that September day it is not only the ordinary routines and liberties of citizens that have been changed. The constitutional institutions designed to check power—Congress, courts, an opposition political party—swore allegiance to the same ideology of vengeance and enlisted themselves as auxiliaries. Despite some solitary dissident voices, none of these institutions attempted consistently to block or resist as the president proceeded to mount an unprovoked invasion of one country and threaten others, nor to question as he and members of his cabinet bullied allies, demanding uncritical support from all nations while proclaiming the right of the United States to walk away from solemn treaty obligations whenever convenient and to undercut the efforts of other nations seeking to develop international institutions for curbing wars, genocide, and environmental damage.” The real question is to understand how we, the people, can effectively abdicate our legitimate and inalienable power in the name, quite stinkingly, of democracy itself.

As one might have guessed, fear, the very engine of the war on terror, is what is needed. The exploitation of fear for power is certainly as old as human history, but because he made them strictly dependent on one another, Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679) is the most relevant political theorist to refer to when trying to make sense of today’s effective abandonment of democracy in favor of the war on terror. He explained, says Sheldon Wolin, “how those two elements could be exploited to promote an awesome concentration of state power and authority, and, crucially, how that outcome could be represented as the product of popular consent.”

To Hobbes, and this is the important point, there was no question that the consent of the people could only be genuine. The reason being, in his view, that our “state of nature” is a state of permanent fear of violent death; keeping whatever gains made in life originally requires striving for more in an endless and ruthless competition against all others. To extract ourselves from such a dire situation, the only option is to collectively consent to relinquish all political power to an absolute sovereign. We consequently lose all our rights to question the power above us, but by ensuring that no one can harm or become a threat to anyone else anymore we gain the immeasurable gift of tranquility. The absolute power of the sovereign is the absolute condition to free ourselves from the state of nature absolute chaos. Shaping the world in absolute terms is both Hobbes’ and the war on terror’s hallmark.

The New World of Terror

Neoconservatives in Washington (but not only them) embrace Thomas Hobbes’ depiction of the state of nature, saying for instance that “The alternative to American leadership is a chaotic Hobbesian world” where “there is no authority to thwart aggression, ensure peace and security or enforce international norms.”7 In accordance with the renowned political thinker, chaos is the reason why power is to be held with a firm hand. Interestingly, none of them has ever expanded on the main political implication coming from defining power by opposition to chaos. Hobbes himself, by contrast, had the merit of his own coherence: this implication is that politics is abolished. Against chaos, you don’t need to consult the people; you need power. That is, obviously, the quiet part no one in Washington dare saying out too loudly.

Seduced by the phantasm of power, neoconservative dummies do not see that chaos is not a principle and that if you want to found power by opposition to it, this only means that you are seeking power for the sake of power. Which Hobbes advocated for. But outside of his hellish view of humanity, a genuine principle of power must necessarily be positive. What warmongers and superpower aficionados of all times understand quite well, nevertheless, is how fear can be their main political asset. The more fear there is, the more citizens expect protection; reciprocally, the larger the subsequent prerogatives of the state, the more citizens may eventually be convinced that it is for a reason. As Sheldon Wolin reminds us: “In anticipation of the 2004 presidential campaign a Bush aide described the strategy to be followed by the president as “a healthy mix of optimism and the fear factor.”8

Even though these words might have been innocent, they are quite telling. In regard to how absolute power may choose to require democratic consent, Hobbes himself, as Sheldon Wolin explains, “reasoned that if individuals were protected in their interests and positively encouraged by the state to pursue them wholeheartedly, subject only to laws designed to safeguard them from the unlawful acts of others, then they would soon recognize that political participation was superfluous, expendable, not a rational choice. Hobbes’s crucial assumption was that absolute power absolutely depended not just on fear, but on passivity.” We may very well vote to get rid of politics—i.e., of all concerns regarding how we want to govern ourselves—as long as the “sovereign pastor”, as Hobbes names the absolute government, takes care of our security.

This is why the comparison with Hobbes’ view of politics is not too far-fetched; we are right in the middle of its reality: “Thus constitutional guarantees, a two-party system, institutionalized opposition, democratic elections, and a free press would seem formidable safeguards against the emergence of a Hobbesian sovereign. Unfortunately, in the aftermath of September 11 those guarantees have proved ineffectual.” Think Guantanamo, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, or Julian Assange. When the rule of law is not subverted, it is simply ignored. And as major media outlets, attentive to official cues, follow suit with belated, condescending, and minimal coverage of dissenting voices, how could we think that the war on terror sets us free?

Book Club Discussion: According to you, what can break the deadly political combination of fear and passivity theorized by Thomas Hobbes? If power is not based on preventing chaos, what is its justification?

Share your thoughts and build on what others say in the comment section below.

Footnotes

  1. NSS, Introduction, p.2
  2. “Campaign 2000: Promoting the National Interest,” Foreign Affairs, January/February, 2000, 53.
  3. New York Times, September 11, 2003, A-1.
  4. Cited by Roger Cohen, “A Global War: Many Fronts, Little Unity,” New York Times, September 5, 2004, sec. 4, p. 1.
  5. Ron Suskind, Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush, NYT Oct. 17, 2004.
  6. NSS, Introduction, p.1.
  7. William and Lawrence Kaplan, The War over Iraq (2003), 121, as cited in Bacevich, The New American Militarism, 92.
  8. New York Times, January 23, 2004, A-19, 23.
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