Some readers will remember that on 9/11 I began a series of columns, called “Letter From Ground Zero,” that attempted to follow and reflect upon the consequences of the great crime. I suspended the column in 2006, when looking at the world through the aperture of 9/11 threatened to become a sort of lie—to falsely hold this attack responsible for actions that, like the protracted Iraq War, originated in our own, independent compulsions and delusions.
Now that the one person most clearly identified with the attack—Osama bin Laden—has been killed, I’ve been wondering, along with others, to what extent this event has written a finish to the story that began at Ground Zero. The dubious word here is “closure,” borrowed from psychobabble and given a new life in politics, suggesting that wars should be waged to make people feel good, not for any concrete, rational ends. (Is “closure” simply therapy-talk for revenge?)
The question is legal and bureaucratic as well as emotional. Michael Moore recently made a point relevant to all three aspects. At the end of the Second World War, he noted, it was not when Hitler killed himself that people ran into the streets to celebrate; it was when the war ended, several days later. Likewise, Americans did not publicly rejoice when the bomb dropped on Hiroshima; they waited until V-J Day, eight days later. “That’s when America went crazy with joy,” Moore pointed out, “not over a killing, but over an announcement of peace.”
This time, people were left with the killing alone. No hint of a peace glimmered. The “war on terror” went on. The war in Afghanistan went on. The war in Iraq went on. The war in Pakistan went on. In these circumstances, it was hard to know how to react. Moore reported feeling “relief” at the event along with dismay at the celebrations that took place around the country. Another sentiment that seems apropos is one attributed to the anti-Nazi cleric Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who participated in a plot to assassinate Hitler in 1944. When asked to pray for the plot’s success, he reportedly said, “I ask not for God’s blessing but only his mercy.”
The legal picture mirrors the emotional one, with the difference that here it is difficult even to imagine what an “end” might look like. A traditional war ends with an armistice or a surrender and perhaps also a peace treaty. But how can the “war on terror” end? For one thing, it was never declared, only “authorized,” in the Authorization for Use of Military Force passed by Congress on September 14, 2001. Before 9/11, even traditional war had already drifted apart from constitutional law: the Constitution’s big pronouncement on the topic—“Congress shall…declare War”—is a dead letter. In its place have come, at best, various feeble substitutes. The most important is the War Powers Resolution of 1973, in which Congress in effect attempted to recover through legislation some of the powers it had given away in practice during the Vietnam War as well as previously. Most crucial, it permitted the president to begin hostilities on his own only in the event of direct danger to the United States but required that after sixty days he report to Congress and seek authorization to continue. Billed as an assertion of Congress’s constitutional powers, the War Powers Resolution was at the same time a retreat from the clear language of the Constitution, leaving the war power in limbo, where it has remained ever since. The Obama administration’s current failure even to pay lip service to the resolution’s provisions in its intervention in Libya is only the most recent example of the failure to respect it. The sixty-day deadline was reached on May 20, and the administration ignored it.