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 belongs to a reading series of Democracy Incorporated by Sheldon S. Wolin. For quick access to all chapters, please click here.

Disclaimer: This chapter summary is personal work and an invitation to read the book itself for a detailed view of all the author’s ideas.

The myth of a “new world” has been widely used in 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 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 the world at large by a “new world order” and its subsequent “war on terror.” The same old phantasm is at play.

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 the emergence of a new world is also declaring the disappearance of an old one, along with the necessity of discarding its old ways and constraints in the use of power. This self-legitimizing drive was so powerful in the case of the “new world order” that Condoleezza Rice could declare “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 A new world order indeed, poised to annihilate those deemed as the new savages.

Source: Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

The reason for such a martial stance is that building a new world can only be a sacred call against which, therefore, there is no legitimate opposition. A new world is meant to be because the old one is defective and endangers the march toward civilization. The obvious weakness of this new world phantasmagoria is, of course, that it defines “civilization” only negatively, by opposition to its supposed contrary. The other—the savage, the terrorist—is what makes us the civilized party. The “New World” is a mental image (which is the original meaning of the word “phantasm” in ancient Greek) that makes those who fall for its appeal reason in reverse. Instead of primarily relying on the principle that civilization is an open and constructive path toward the betterment of humanity at large, they sacrifice cultures—and thus civilization itself—on the altar of what is supposed to be unilaterally best for all. Those who do not acknowledge the exclusiveness of the way forward are simply wrong. And bad.

What is at stake with the new world mythology is indeed our common humanity. Threatening to obliterate people here and there is simply showing that there is no reality behind the word “humans” for the righteous ones favoring this option. Native Americans, Palestinians, and Tibetans, along with countless other civilizations, have serenely been denied their human and cultural dignity in the exact same way and still suffer the consequences. In the conquerors’ minds, it is simply easier to even deny that they exist at all. A mere nuisance, natives shouldn’t be here anyway and, by the same token, their claim to cultural and territorial ancestry should simply be ignored. These kinds of mental associations make no rational sense but are psychologically powerful. Especially since the alternative—embracing our responsibilities toward each other universally—denies the right to colonize or impose a “New World” vision on others.

***

With the war on terror, as with the new world mythology in earlier times, the United States came to be defined by one single, all-encompassing purpose. George W. Bush said that the nation had found in retaliating against terrorists “its mission and its moment,” insisting that “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 reminded the public that the United States is the “greatest force for good on the earth” and that fighting terrorism is “a calling from beyond the stars.”4 Bruce Bartlett, a previous domestic policy adviser to Ronald Reagan and a Treasury official for the first President Bush, was quoted saying, “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

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? And given that hell and heaven are the only fundamental things to consider, 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, making them stand with the forces of evil. It is not worth reflecting on the fact that we personally and collectively create our own hell on a regular basis, or that heaven is in the smile of every child in the world. The war on terror relates to the heavy stuff only—the transcendent one.

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 would hardly find any ground to stand on from within the mythical realm of the new world order. The war on terror cannot be limited by facts, data, or the overall consideration of fostering peace to fuel its sacred call. Reason does not matter. Fear does. This is why The National Security Strategy gives a pretty sketchy definition of terrorism: “[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 thus 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.” Foreign terrorism, in other words, is convenient to imperial will-to-power. It creates the opportunity to point at a few more “rogue states,” propping up a new world order plan 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 term “superpower” has been used since the 1950s to design states able to project force anywhere in the world whenever they may choose to. 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 empire’s will-to-power needs to constantly point at its supposed evil counterpart. And when fighting chaos, one must not be surprised that justice, let alone democracy, might not be obtained right away. This explains why Congress was mentally prepared to relinquish its duties in that regard and never claimed back its authority since the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) became law on September 18, 2001.

“Since that September day, says Sheldon Wolin, 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 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 “War on Terror” and the effective abandonment of democracy. According to Hobbes, our “state of nature” is a state of permanent fear of violent death. Neoconservatives in Washington (but not only them) embrace Thomas Hobbes’ broad depiction of humanity, consequently inferring 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 Following the classic political thinker, they assume that chaos is the reason why power is to be held with a firm hand.

Interestingly, no neocon has ever expanded on the main political implication of defining power by opposition to chaos. By contrast, Hobbes 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 dares say out too loudly. What warmongers and superpower aficionados of all times understand quite well, on the other hand, 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. It is not innocent that “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 Healthy for who?

Seduced by the phantasm of power, neoconservative dummies do not see that chaos is not a principle and that if you want to root your power in opposition to the former, this only means that you are seeking power for the sake of power. Which Hobbes advocated for. In his theory, keeping whatever gains made in life 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 sovereign’s absolute power is the necessary condition to free ourselves from the state of nature’s absolute chaos.

Moreover, Hobbes “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.

Hobbes’ view of politics has become our reality: “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.” The only principle of government that we have left is security. Truth is banned—think Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, or Julian Assange—and so are its immediate correlates: freedom and justice. As major media outlets, attentive to official cues, follow suit with belated, condescending, and minimal coverage of dissenting voices, it seems that the new normal instituted with the war on terror is going to be ours for a long time to come.

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Book Club discussion: What is the main idea in this chapter? What are its logical and/or real-world implications? Can you think of an objection?

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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 October 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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