The Hijacking of History

This article originally appeared in the October 2001 issue of Direct Democracy, a publication of Demokratisk Alternativ.

For many people involved in the worldwide struggle against capitalism, the past two years had seemed, for once, to offer some promise of progress toward a freer society. History appeared to be taking a rare turn in our favor, with the ranks of the global movement expanding and its politics becoming sharpened and defined. But the massive crimes against humanity perpetrated on September 11 have stifled these hopes and ushered in a new period of uncertainty and peril. The fanatics who hijacked three planes that day were also, in a sense, hijacking history. And in an alarming instance of unconscious symmetry, their intended targets, the military, political and economic elites of the United States, appear to be intent on completing the job.

In the immediate wake of these barbarous attacks, with many of the victims in New York still unidentified and with US bombs creating new victims each day, it is very difficult to reach reasoned and informed conclusions about the crimes themselves or the cycle of violence of which they form such a frightening part. Since we do not yet know very much about the motivations of the perpetrators, any attempt to make sense of the events will involve an irreducible element of speculation. The search for meaning in this apparently meaningless calamity has nevertheless spawned a variety of helpless pseudo-explanations, ranging from the usual conspiracy theories to the hoary myth of a “clash of civilizations” to a rejuvenated version of standard orientalist prejudices about Islamic cultures and peoples.

In the severely degraded public discourse of the United States, the September 11 attacks are considered an unprecedented act of terrorism committed by religious fundamentalists and masterminded by a shadowy criminal figure, Osama Bin Laden. Each of these beliefs is a mixture of truth and caricature. While the terrorist label is indisputably accurate, it obscures the context within which the attacks occurred. Isolated deeds by desperate individuals are not the predominant form of political violence in today’s world; the latter more often manifests itself as systematic state terrorism, much of it sponsored by the government of the United States. The September 11 terrorist acts were scarcely unprecedented, but they did come as a severe shock to most of the citizenry of the US, which had heretofore known the false innocence and complacency that come with unchallenged imperial status.

Similarly, the notion of religious fundamentalism conceals as much as it reveals about the worldview that evidently guided the hijackers on their ghastly mission. There is nothing peculiar about “Islamic fundamentalists” that distinguishes them from other proponents of absolutist religious dogma. What set these extremists apart was not their devotion to theological concepts but their insistence on translating these concepts into a political program, an ideology for re-shaping the world in order to purify it of blasphemy and evil. This crude political ideology apparently lead to their choice of methods and targets, and that in the end is more important than the underlying spiritual justifications.

Finally, the connections between the attackers and Bin Laden seem credible, but they have yet to be definitively established. This has never been a point of scruple for American policy makers or media managers, who have not hesitated to induct Bin Laden into the ever-growing international rogues gallery that constitutes the central obsession of the US public imagination. Here he joins the company of previous incarnations of pure evil such as Qaddafi, Khomeini, Noriega, Hussein, Milosevic et al., who figure so prominently in US demonology. The fact that several of these figures were, like Bin Laden himself, at one time allied with the US state goes conveniently unmentioned.

This has been perhaps the most confounding aspect of US responses to the attacks: the outrage directed against Bin Laden and his cohorts has been simultaneously much too broad and much too narrow. US allies Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have been enlisted into the “coalition against terrorism”, despite the fact that their government and military apparatuses are the immediate godfathers of Bin Laden and his network, both ideologically and materially. Indeed, the US state itself carries the ultimate responsibility for having created, trained, and supplied the groups that have now turned to bite the hand that fed them. The well-documented history of US covert operations in Afghanistan during the closing days of the Cold War reveals a long trail of evidence linking Bin Laden to his former masters in the CIA. This trail of evidence is unambiguous and easily traced, in marked contrast to the tentative and inconclusive evidence linking Bin Laden to the September 11 attacks.

None of this has resulted in a general re-evaluation of US foreign policy, much less a general reflection on the lethal consequences of US imperial arrogance. Instead the American public has been treated to still more scapegoating, with the already pulverized and immiserated population of Afghanistan absurdly held responsible for the crimes in New York, Washington DC and Pennsylvania. And the officially sanctioned scapegoating has unsurprisingly spawned a number of grassroots variants, including indiscriminate hostility toward Muslims, Arabs, South Asians, and anybody mistaken for members of these extremely broad groups. All of these ignoble and irrational non-responses to the terror of September 11 are merely ways to avoid facing the essential uncomfortable fact about the attacks: they were the unforeseen but logical result of the shameful history of US policies in Central Asia, the Middle East, and elsewhere.

Within much of mainstream US culture, and even among broad sectors of the Left at the moment, such considerations are contemptuously dismissed as an insult to the memory of the victims. But the obvious implication of these disconcerting facts is not to excuse or downplay the appalling immorality of mass murder, but to point toward ways of making sense of what lead to the acts in the first place. The notion that the hijackers were expressing their violent hatred of “freedom” is remarkably implausible, since freedom is hardly what the corrupt US-supported regimes in the Arab world and in Asia stand for. To the extent that we have any indication of what the hijackers’ ultimate aims were, they seem to include a mixture of good and bad reasons for despising what the United States represents: not just secularism and modernity, but also repression worldwide, that is, the very negation of freedom.

In other words, millions of people around the globe have excellent grounds for hating “the US” passionately. But the hijackers, of course, did not assault “the US”, or even for the most part the powerful people who oversee and execute US foreign policy; they killed randomly and arbitrarily, and quite a few of their victims were not US citizens. Nor is it meaningful to see these attacks as a blow against capitalism or the militarized state. The foolish synecdoche that makes “finance capital” a stand-in for the international economic order, or that views the Pentagon bureaucracy as the center of global power, is no more valid after September 11 than it was before. Opposition to capitalism and militarism has never been about destroying symbols or figureheads, much less secretaries and firefighters. The point is and always has been to transform social relations, not to obliterate symbolic parcels of real estate.

The same might be said, and indeed must be said, of the US government’s response to the attacks, which have been just as pointlessly symbolic even if they have so far killed fewer people. The massive and misdirected military response, far from deterring further attacks, is likely to ignite an ongoing cycle of retribution, with state terrorism triggering freelance retaliation for years to come. It also threatens to push the already highly unstable regions of Central and South Asia into a miniature world war, all for no other reason than covering up American vulnerability at home by re-asserting American power abroad. Osama Bin Laden could step on a landmine tomorrow and it wouldn’t change the fundamental arrangements of international power, which fairly guarantee that the hijackers will find willing imitators as long as the US continues to play its accustomed role. All of this may fit quite well into American global strategy, but aside from the danger it presents to people elsewhere, it is also hardly in the interests of the American populace, which as usual has not been informed about what their government’s policies actually mean both here and abroad.

And as the national security state flexes its muscles halfway around the globe, it is busy retrenching domestically as well. An outburst of popular jingoism is always a convenient opportunity for narrowing civil liberties and disciplining suspect segments of the population. Meanwhile, the traditionally unreflective patriotism of US culture has moved into a hysterical register, as if national identity could offer solace in the face of tragedy. Much of the public sphere in this country is awash in the iconography of empire, above all the US flag, which is supposed to represent unity in adversity but which for so many people stands for oppression and exclusion. A combination of powerlessness and fear has so far masked the hypocrisy of condemning the carnage of September 11 while implicitly or explicitly condoning the carnage that preceded and, however inadvertently, contributed to it.

The response of the Left has been occasionally courageous but frequently confused. The fissures that divided the Left during the Gulf war and the Kosovo campaign have deepened and become more embittered, with a number of prominent leftists apparently abandoning their internationalist commitments in the name of national unity. The mood of mourning has somehow overwhelmed critical faculties and pushed people who ought to know better into a rhetorical defense of “democracy” against “Islamic fascism”, a contrast that scarcely captures the present conflict. At the same time other leftists have chosen not to engage in any critical confrontation with the political goals implicit in the hijackers’ calculated atrocity. This position mistakes disorientation for principle, and is of no help in understanding the events and their aftermath, much less preparing for an ambiguous and ominous future. But many activists are doing their best to point toward other solutions to the crisis; although nobody has so far come up with anything particularly compelling, at least it is an occasion to raise questions about the underlying structures of US foreign and military policy as well as the meaning of political violence in a world of systematic political dispossession.

The current situation presents a difficult challenge to anarchists, social ecologists, communalists and other libertarian leftists. If the authors of the September 11 crimes against humanity were indeed trying to hijack history, in the sense of forcing a return to an imaginary well-ordered past uncompromised by the contestation of contemporary life, then our duty is not only to resist this attempt but also its mirror image right here at the center of our own societies. That means rejecting both the crime itself and its ostensible opposite, no matter how much the latter may cloak itself in self-righteousness and humanitarian concern. The painful recognition that history has been hijacked also reminds us that history is never reliably “on our side” but is always something to be struggled over. That struggle is possibly more confusing now than ever, with contrary varieties of reactionary fatalism vying with planes and explosions while emancipatory hopes grow dimmer. But this is also a time when new insights about the complexity of the social world may become possible, indeed necessary, if we are ever to move history toward a day when crimes against humanity, violent aggression, and political atrocities will be truly random occurrences rather than an integral part of the order of things.

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