The Bush Crusade
"Memory," the novelist Paul Auster has written, is "the space in which a thing happens for the second time." No one wants the terrible events that came after the rising of the sun on September 11, 2001, to happen for a second time except in the realm of remembrance, leading to understanding and commitment. But all the ways George Bush exploited those events, betraying the memory of those who died in them, must be lifted up and examined again, so that the outrageousness of his political purpose can be felt in its fullness. Exactly how the war on terrorism unfolded; how it bled into the wars against Afghanistan, then Iraq; how American fears were exacerbated by Administration alarms; how civil rights were undermined, treaties broken, alliances abandoned, coarseness embraced--none of this should be forgotten.
Given how they have been so dramatically unfulfilled, Washington's initial hubristic impulses toward a new imperial dominance should not be forgotten. That the first purpose of the war--Osama "dead or alive"--changed when Al Qaeda proved elusive should not be forgotten. That the early justification for the war against Iraq--Saddam's weapons of mass destruction--changed when they proved nonexistent should not be forgotten. That in former times the US government behaved as if facts mattered, as if evidence informed policy, should not be forgotten. That Afghanistan and Iraq are a shambles, with thousands dead and hundreds of thousands at risk from disease, disorder and despair, should not be forgotten. That a now-disdainful world gave itself in unbridled love to America on 9/11 should not be forgotten.
Nor, given Bush's reference, should the most relevant fact about the Crusades be forgotten--that, on their own terms and notwithstanding the romance of history, they were, in the end, an overwhelming failure. The 1096 campaign, the "First Crusade," finally "succeeded" in 1099, when a remnant army fell upon Jerusalem, slaughtering much of its population. But armies under Saladin reasserted Islamic control in 1187, and subsequent Crusades never succeeded in re-establishing Latin dominance in the Holy Land. The reconquista Crusades reclaimed Spain and Portugal for Christian Europe, but in the process destroyed the glorious Iberian convivencia, a high civilization never to be matched below the Pyrenees again.
Meanwhile, intra-Christian crusades, wars against heresy, only made permanent the East-West split between Latin Catholicism and "schismatic" Eastern Orthodoxy, and made inevitable the eventual break, in the Reformation, between a Protestant north and a Catholic south. The Crusades, one could argue, established basic structures of Western civilization, while undermining the possibility that their grandest ideals would ever be realized.
Will such consequences--new global structures of an American imperium, hollowed-out hopes for a humane and just internationalism--follow in the train of George W. Bush's crusade? This question will be answered in smaller part by anonymous, ad hoc armies of on-the-ground human beings in foreign lands, many of whom will resist Washington to the death. In larger part, the question will be answered by those privileged to be citizens of the United States. To us falls the ultimate power over the American moral and political agenda. As has never been true of any empire before, because this one is still a democracy, such power belongs to citizens absolutely. If the power is ours, so is the responsibility.