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.
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The fact is that all the wars the United States has waged since it declared war on Japan in 1941 were fought without the clarity of legal definition that a declaration would have given. How do you undeclare a war that was never declared? But the “war on terror” exhibits a further anomaly. It straddles the line between war and crime. If Congress one day were to rescind the Authorization for Use of Military Force—which would be as clear a formal ending to the “war on terror” as one could imagine—the president would not be powerless to combat terrorism against the United States; his authority to prosecute criminal acts would suffice to carry on. Whatever else they are, acts of terrorism are crimes. George W. Bush declared that the 9/11 attacks were more than terrorism; “they were acts of war.” This definition answered the emotional need of the moment but set the stage for the violations of criminal law that followed.
Worse, Bush was not in fact ready to apply the war model consistently. He wanted the permissions of war but not the constraints. The constitutional requirement for a Congressional declaration of war was only one of these. Others were the whole web of restrictions on warfare laid down by the Geneva Conventions, which his legal experts declared obsolete. The laws of war were as thoroughly trampled as the laws of the justice system, leaving the whole “war” on terror up to improvisation and untrammeled executive whim.
Moving to take the excesses of the Bush era even further, the Republican-dominated House Armed Services Committee has recently voted to make the president’s de facto powers de jure by voting for a bill that would permit the president to attack not just Al Qaeda and the Taliban but also any “associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States.” The vagueness of the words “associated” (Bush used to say that Saddam Hussein was associated with Al Qaeda) and “forces” (individuals? nations?) is an open invitation to still greater executive dominance.
Any attempt to remedy these abuses would have to overcome the bureaucratic momentum pushing us in the opposite direction. The events of 9/11 gave birth to a full-scale restructuring and colossal growth of the government’s national security apparatus—certainly, the most extensive since the National Security Act of 1947 created the CIA and the precursors to the Defense Department, the National Security Council. The Department of Homeland Security, with more than 230,000 employees, absorbed the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the US Customs Service and the Coast Guard, among many other bodies, and spawned an array of new ones. (If Homeland Security is in charge of defending the “homeland”—presumably, the United States—what is the Defense Department defending? The empire?) Sixteen of the nation’s intelligence agencies were placed under the leadership of the director of national intelligence and began to grow exponentially. According to a Washington Post study, an estimated 845,000 people have top security clearance. They are employed in some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies. Is any of this going away soon, even with bin Laden in his watery grave? Is “closure” on the horizon?
As we look over this landscape of emotional bafflement, retreat from law and bureaucratic metastasis of what some are calling “the surveillance state,” the question insistently forms: Was 9/11 really the cause of all this, or was it rather the mere trigger for a change, deep and dark and lasting, in the structure of American life?
How does it all end? Does Congress do it? The president? Does it expire of old age? Is there an end? Or was it perhaps a beginning without an end, like some fateful genetic mutation—a deformation that will replicate itself indefinitely?