Even though I was only a few blocks away from the World Trade Center on 9/11, I learned about the attack the way almost everybody else in the United States did, through the media. Mainly I was worried about food. Let me explain. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, I worked for a long series of Silicon Alley startups, all of which paid well, but none of which managed to stay in business for very long. By the time 2001 rolled around I was living check to check, worried not only about how I would pay rent, but how I would eat. On 9/11 I was working for a small, failing DSL reseller a few blocks downtown from the World Trade Center. Layoffs were coming, and I was doing a lot of hard core ass kissing, bowing and scraping, trying to make myself indispensable so when the bad news came that Fall, I would still be there the next day. Since nobody wanted the early morning shift, I was already in the office by 5 A.M.
By the time Mohammad Atta appeared above the skies of lower Manhattan, death, destruction, and a martyr’s paradise his goal, I was thinking about lunch. The only problem was I didn’t have any money. Then it hit me. Two floors down, a new startup was throwing a launch party. There would be bagels, sandwiches and an endless supply of Diet Coke, enough to last me a few days until I got paid. When I got there, the room was full of people — at 10:00 AM? — but thank God, there was still plenty of food. That’s when I realized something was very, very wrong. Everybody else seemed terrified. I recognized a coworker. She was sitting on one of the tables, her face in her hands, sobbing hysterically. I noticed TV sets everywhere, all turned to the news. On NBC, Tom Brokaw was sitting at his desk with a grim look of determination on his face. When he made the big announcement I almost thought he was talking to me personally.
“We are at war.”
Who exactly “we” were at war with wasn’t entirely obvious. It didn’t take a genius to figure out who destroyed the World Trade Center. Ever since the late 1970s, the United States government had been arming, training and giving vast amounts of money to the people who would eventually become Al Qaeda. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the destruction of the Soviet Union, George H.W. Bush made his move against Saddam Hussein in Iraq, stationing American troops near Mecca in Saudi Arabia, and making an enemy of Osama Bin Laden who, up until then, saw the United States as an ally against godless communism. All through the 1990s, the same Islamic fundamentalists who fought the Soviet Army in Afghanistan staged a series of terrorist attacks against American allies and assets abroad, the Kenyan Embassy, the USS Cole, the hotel bombings in Aden, Yemen. Finally, in 2001, they hit the United States at home, staging a brilliantly executed military operation against the financial district in lower Manhattan. Just about the only people it surprised were Condoleeza Rice and George W. Bush.
The only problem with Tom Brokaw’s declaration of war was that Al Qaeda may have been an army, but it was an army without a country. What’s more, Osama Bin Laden had two state sponsors, the United States and Saudi Arabia, neither of which is ever going to be put on a terrorist watch list, at least one made up by the United States government. Soon however, it became obvious who “we” were going to war with. When the media attempted to tie the anthrax attacks that September to Saddam Hussein, it became obvious they were a false flag operation that had already been planned to justify the invasion of Iraq. If they went down the memory hole almost as quickly as they happened it was mainly because the Bush administration no longer needed them. After the destruction of the World Trade Center, George W. Bush could have attacked any Muslim country and the vast majority of the American people, as well as most of the Democratic Party, would have still gone along. “We” were at war. Anybody who disagreed was a traitor. There were, of course, foreign policy experts who pointed out that the word “terrorism” had a distinct historical meaning — an attack on civilians designed to instigate government repression and polarize the population against that government– and that the the proper response to 9/11 would have been to arrest the leaders of Al Qaeda and put them on trial, but George W. Bush had already declared himself a long running “war on terror” and Saddam Hussein an existential threat to the United States. Few people in the media dared question him.
We were at war.
Ever since 1979, when a mob stormed the headquarters of the CIA in Tehran, otherwise known as the United States Embassy, the United States government has been at war with the Islamic Republic of Iran. A “boots” on the ground invasion of Iran, a country of 80 million people with a well-trained military and access to Russian and Chinese arms not being practical, the Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama and now Trump administrations have attempted to overthrow the Islamic Republic by a combination of economic sanctions designed to destroy Iran’s economy, CIA training of anti-government protests, support for terrorist movements like the MEK, social media — Twitter first came to prominence in 2007 when the American media declared it central to “establishing democracy in Iran” — and a destructive regional war designed to break up the secular, but pro-Iranian, and pro-Russian, government of Syria and replace it with our old friends Al Qaeda. American foreign policy had come full circle. Where “we” had been at war with terrorism, the terrorists are once again our allies. We have returned to the days of the Carter and Reagan Administration. Any journalist like Max Blumenthal or Rania Khalek who questions the wisdom of going back to the same misguided policy that had gotten 3000 Americans killed back in 2001 is quickly labeled as a “pro-Assad genocide denier” and banished from respectable society.
We have been at war with Iran ever since I was a child.
The United States government has always blurred the distinction between war, revolution and terrorism for its own political agenda. During the United States Civil War, for example, no major government recognized the Confederate States of America, even though it was clearly a nation state, not an insurrection. The Lincoln Administration had a small army of lawyers trying to find the right language that would compel the British and French to respect the Union blockade of Southern ports without admitting that the United States navy was maintaining a blockade against another country. They largely succeeded, and just as quickly contradicted themselves when they accepted Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House. The terms that Ulysses Grant brought to the Lee and his generals made it clear that while Lincoln did not consider the Confederacy to be a legitimate nation state, it did consider the Army of Northern Virginia to be a legitimate army, not a band of insurrectionists. Lee’s soldiers, therefore, were allowed to keep their horses and their arms and return home. Contrast Lincoln’s treatment of the Army of Northern Virginia to his treatment of the Native American leaders of the Dakota War of 1862 in Minnesota. 38 Sioux leaders were executed. Little Six and Medicine Bottle were arrested and treated as common criminals, briefly escaping to Canada before being brought back home and hanged. After the execution of Little Crow in 1868, the Minnesota Historical Society acquired his scalp, his skull and his bones and put them on public display for decades. Try to imagine Robert E. Lee’s skull being put on display in the Smithsonian. That the very idea seems ludicrous is part of what defines “white privilege.”
The current neoliberal world order maintained by the United States and its allies makes use of the same distinction between war, terrorism, and insurrection that allowed Robert E. Lee an honorable surrender with full military honors and treated the leaders of the Lakota Sioux like common criminals. Rich countries in Western Europe and North America are granted full, unconditional status as legitimate nation states. In 2003, the clownish right wing media may have demonized the French for refusing to support the invasion of Iraq — they even called for a boycott of French wine — but the United States government was not going to impose crippling sanctions designed to destroy the French economy or assassinate French politicians. Similarly, in the United Kingdom, there was an all out campaign to demonize Jeremy Corbyn as an antisemite who supported the IRA and other terrorist groups, but they couldn’t come right out and shoot him. For countries in Eastern Europe, Asia, South America, Africa and the Middle East, on the other hand, membership in the club of respectable nation states is conditional. Israel can maintain a long time, illegal occupation of the West Bank and institute a policy of apartheid against the Palestinians. Saudi Arabia can govern itself as a totalitarian religious monarchy, and even hack one of their own journalists to death in their embassy in Istanbul, but since both Israel and Saudi Arabia and key pillars of the neoliberal world order, they never face economic sanctions or condemnations from the United States government for human rights violations. China and Russia, in turn, even though both countries are many times as old as the United States and have cultural and religious traditions that go back before the Middle Ages, are demonized as rogue states.
Unlike in 2001, the new line coming out of Washington is that there is no war, and can be no war with Iran. Donald Trump’s assassination of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani is not an act of war. It’s not even part of the “war on terror.” It was a police action against a common criminal. To enforce their new official position the United States Military and the American “intelligence community,” which once tried to create a “Cuban Twitter” designed to mobilize the Cuban people against Fidel Castro, has released a sophisticated army of bots and trolls on social media designed to undermine protest. There is no war, they say. You can’t protest the war with Iran because there is no war with Iran. Protest you say? You fool. There is no war. Where George W. Bush declared himself to be a “war President,” Donald Trump, even though he ordered the assassination of one of Iran’s top generals, is determined that nobody questions his status as a “peace President.” There is no war you traitor and if you don’t agree you can move to Venezuela or something. Did I tell you? There is no war.
Tom Brokaw, as far as I know, has made no comment.