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Rant #62
(published Late in the Year, 2001)
911 or Gulf Wars Chapter II: America Strikes Back
by Gordon Smith

America, post-Nine Eleven, has given rise to much jingoistic fervor, and seen some give free reign to the hate and brutality that's been incipient for so long-witness the glee as they pronounce in solemn tones a death sentence for Osama Bin Laden, so glad that once again it's hip to be vicious. And that's just fine: let them bomb Afghanistan until there is nothing but rubble, and then let us sow the rubble with salt so nothing may live there for a thousand years. However, despite an overwhelming mandate from the American people to do just that, the course the Bush Administration has charted so far has, instead, been rational, measured, and careful. Diplomatic. An attempt, even in our violent response to violence, to return to the normalized forms with which we are familiar: the old, well-loved strategies of threat and deterrence which served so valiantly throughout the Cold War. Renormalization and return are the order of the day, wistfulness for the good old deaths of yore, and thus every future is now inscribed in nostalgia, a future of interminable "Pearl Harbor"s and Gulf War documentaries.

But a future 'united.' One might well wonder exactly what the form of our unity is. Not (thankfully) the visceral, bureaucratic, revolutionary unity-gone-haywire that seeks to stamp out all difference (c.f. Nazi Germany). Nor a unity acting upon material conditions: only Midwestern twelve-year-olds would argue that our unity has filled the pockets of the poor with the money of the rich. (One exception is that unity seems to demand that we all purchase and display cheap, garish, profiteering As-Seen-On-TV flags.)

This unity, then, is nothing less than a rhetorical maneuver, which is why much of it seems so distasteful. The use of Nine Eleven as a touchstone for any particular kind of rhetorical shadowboxing, as a commercial for any cause or way of thinking-be it unity, or religion, or racism-seems crass at best. But once the brief silence of disorientation following Nine Eleven ended and the gabble of voices rushed back into the fray, the event had already been positioned as the ultimate petty I-told-you-so-I told you we shouldn't allow in so many foreigners, I told you we shouldn't have left Saddam Hussein in power, I told you to make peace with God for the moment of your death is nigh-and Nine Eleven has stabilized as a kind of vulgar trump-card in almost every rhetorical game.

But, as the planes were crashing and the towers were falling and we were glued every last one of us to a television set trying to figure it all out, the news, the politicians, the whole symbolic machine whose purpose is to synthesize and drone out ideology went blank-no one was spinning the disaster as anything other than what it was, a shock, a jolt, a disaster in every sense. Many voiced the mantra, "I feel like I'm living in a movie," hoping that saying it would make it so, that the singularity of the real would once again retreat behind the screen of myth, and, more importantly, the eschatology of screen time would pertain, and there would be a definitive, timely (90 minutes max) ending.

The matrix of movies 'being lived' was clear from the first: any of the airline-themed disaster/terrorist fantasies (Passenger 57, Airforce 1, Die Hard 2, Turbulence, Con Air, even Airplane). As Slavoj Zizek has argued, the horror of Nine Eleven is precisely that we have dreamed of this form of spectacle so long and so thoroughly that Nine Eleven stripped it from us as an imaginary, leaving us face-to-face with the horror of a climax where the terrorist doesn't die along with his plot at the hands of a hero who saves the day.

Yet, through the magic of ritualized rhetoric, an inversion of this fear is realizing itself. As if by dint of will, merely by incanting "I feel like I'm living in a movie" enough times, we have in fact ENTERED movie reality, the dimension of the real fundamentally demolished forever. But, from this side of the screen, at least part of our fear-the vast symbolic underpinning, not its quotidian component that only speaks of day-to-day survival (which has been exponentially aggravated)-has been reduced because we have discovered we were wrong. We are not in the movie we thought: not a disaster at all, but the American Myth par excellence, Star Wars. Fittingly, the first chapter of our current crisis was played out in 1991 during the Gulf War. So, logically, from Gulf Wars, now as we retaliate and search for justice in the mountains of Afghanistan, we begin America Strikes Back.

In both cases, we style ourselves in the role of the righteous rebels, defenders of justice (but, then, so do our adversaries). However, unlike the Rebel (Northern) Alliance, we carry on our shoulders the aegis, responsibility, and collective force of the global interest in stability, hegemony, continuity-in short, Empire (Perhaps this is reflected in the substitution of "America" for "The Empire" in the title of the current chapter). Of course, at the same time, Osama Bin Laden's stated goal in his activities is the re-establishment of a pan-Islamic empire. Who plays the role of 'good' and who 'evil' is thus contested: unlike Darth Vader, who initially relishes the inherent 'darkness' of the Dark Side. Nevertheless, both sides are in fundamental agreement that the opposition is 'evil,' and vice versa, so that although it is defined relatively, moral value is still absolute. Even the American military, perhaps with tongue firmly in cheek, has acknowledged this sentiment by nicknaming the flying radiostations that broadcast anti-Taliban and humanitarian aid information over Afghanistan "Commander Solos."

The current unity, then, reveals itself to be a manifestation of this deeper understanding-we are united in our collective entrance into the giddy, optimistic order of George Lucas' myth. No longer faced by a world of complex interrelations and aleatory systems, but the comfortable and predictable binary system of Good versus Evil, and a larger-than-life struggle between the two. And by understanding this, the shackles of the real are lifted and we are immersed in a structure whose terrors and, more importantly, whose triumphs are already foretold and fully forestalled. We can survive any particular "scene," since we know in advance how the shape of the whole will be: Good triumphs, Evil dies screaming in a futuristic nuclear reactor.

Make no mistake: I join with my fellow Americans in our new irreality, our new sense of befuddlement as we test the strange waters of life as a movie, and our profound mourning for the lives we left on the other side of the screen. I, too, hope in the end to be a part of the final victory celebration where the Ewoks make bongos out of the Stormtroopers' many helmets.

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