Terrorism, Violence, and the Culture of Madness
by HENRY A. GIROUX
The thought of security bears within it an essential risk. A state which has security as its sole task and source of legitimacy is a fragile organism; it can always be provoked by terrorism to become more terroristic.
— Giorgio Agamben
George Orwell’s nightmarish vision of a totalitarian society casts a dark shadow over the United States. The consequences can be seen clearly in the ongoing and ruthless assault on the social state, workers, unions, higher education, students, poor minorities and any vestige of the social contract. Free market policies, values, and practices with their emphasis on the privatization of public wealth, the elimination of social protections, and the deregulation of economic activity now shape practically every commanding political and economic institution in the United States. Public spheres that once offered at least the glimmer of progressive ideas, enlightened social policies, non-commodified values, and critical dialogue and exchange have been increasingly militarized—or replaced by private spaces and corporate settings whose ultimate fidelity is to increasing profit margins. Citizenship is now subsumed by the national security state and a cult of secrecy, organized and reinforced by the constant mobilization of fear and insecurity designed to produce a form of ethical tranquilization and a paralyzing level of social infantilism.
Chris Hedges crystalizes this premise in arguing that Americans now live in a society in which “violence is the habitual response by the state to every dilemma,” legitimizing war as a permanent feature of society and violence as the organizing principle of politics. Under such circumstances, malevolent modes of rationality now impose the values of a militarized neoliberal regime on everyone, shattering viable modes of agency, solidarity, and hope. Amid the bleakness and despair, the discourses of militarism, danger and war now fuel a war on terrorism “that represents the negation of politics—since all interaction is reduced to a test of military strength war brings death and destruction, not only to the adversary but also to one’s side, and without distinguishing between guilty and innocent.” Human barbarity is no longer invisible, hidden under the bureaucratic language of Orwellian doublespeak. Its conspicuousness, if not celebration, emerged in the new editions of American exceptionalism ushered in by the post 9/11 exacerbation of the war on terror.
In the aftermath of these monstrous acts of terrorism, there was a growing sense among politicians, the mainstream media, and conservative and liberal pundits that history as we knew it had been irrefutably ruptured. If politics seemed irrelevant before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, it now seemed both urgent and despairing. But history cannot be erased, and those traditional public spheres in which people could exchange ideas, debate, and shape the conditions that structured their everyday lives increasingly continued to appear to have little significance or political consequence. Already imperiled before the aftershocks of the terrorists’ attacks, democracy became even more fragile in the aftermath of 9/11. Almost fourteen years later, the historical rupture produced by the events of 9/11 has transformed a terrorist attack into a war on terror that mimics the very crimes it pledged to eliminate. The script is now familiar. Security trumped civil liberties as shared fears replaced any sense of shared responsibilities. Under Bush and Cheney, the government lied about the war in Iraq, created a torture state, violated civil liberties, and developed new antiterrorist laws, such as the USA PATRIOT ACT. It imposed a state of emergency that justified a range of terrorist practices, including extraordinary rendition and state torture, which made it easier to undermine those basic civil liberties that protect individuals against invasive and potentially repressive government actions.
Under the burgeoning of what James Risen has called the “homeland security-industrial complex,” state secrecy and organized corporate corruption filled the coffers of the defense industry along with the corporate owned security industries—especially those providing drones– who benefited the most from the war on terror. This is not to suggest that security is not an important consideration for the United States. Clearly, any democracy needs to be able to defend itself, but it cannot serve, as it has, as a pretext for abandoning civil liberties, democratic values, and any semblance of justice, morality, and political responsibility. Nor can it serve as a pretext for American exceptionalism and its imperialist expansionist goals. The philosopher Giorgio Agamben has suggested rightly that under the so-called war on terrorism, the political landscape is changing and that “we are no longer citizens but detainees, distinguishable from the inmates of Guantanamo not by an indifference in legal status, but only by the fact that we have not yet had the misfortune to be incarcerated—or unexpectedly executed by a missile from an unmanned aircraft.”
The war on terror morphed into a legitimation for state terrorism as was made clear under the willingness of the Obama administration to pardon the CIA torturers, create a “kill list”, expand the surveillance state, punish whistleblowers, and use drones to indiscriminately kill civilians—all in the name of fighting terrorists. Obama expanded the reach of the militarized state and along with Democratic and Republican Party extremists preached a notion of security rooted in personal fears rather than in a notion of social security that rallied against the deprivations and suffering produced by war, poverty, racism, and state terrorism. The war on terrorism extended the discourse, space, location, and time of war in ways that made it unbounded and ubiquitous making everyone a potential terrorists and the battlefield a domestic as well as foreign location, a foreign as well as a domestic policy issue. Obama has become the master of permanent war seeking to increase the bloated military budget—close to a trillion dollars–while “turning to lawless violence….translated into unrestrained violent interventions from Libya to Syria and back to Iraq,” including an attempt “to expand the war on ISIS in Syria and possibly send more heavy weapons to its client government in Ukraine.” Fear became total and the imposition of punitive standards included not only the bombing, abduction, and torture of enemy combatants, but also the use of the police and federal troops for drug interdictions, the enforcement of zero tolerance standards in public schools, and the increasing criminalization of a range of social behaviors that extended from homelessness to violating dress codes in school.
Under the regime of neoliberalism with its war-like view of competition, its celebration of self-interest, and its disdain for democratic values and shared compassion for others, any notion of unity has been contaminated by the fog of misguided patriotism, a hatred of the other now privileged as an enemy combatant, and an insular retreat into mindless consumerism and the faux safety of gated communities. With the merging of militarism, the culture of surveillance, and a neoliberal culture of cruelty, solidarity and public trust have morphed into an endless display of violence and the ongoing militarization of visual culture and public space.
The war on terror has come home as poor neighborhoods are transformed into war zones with the police resembling an occupying army. The most lethal expressions of racism have become commonplace as black men and boys such as Eric Garner and Tamir Rice are repeatedly beaten, and killed by the police. As Jeffrey St. Clair has pointed out, one index of how state terrorism and lawlessness have become normalized is evident not only by the fact that the majority of Americans support torture, even though they know “it is totally ineffective as a means of intelligence gathering,” but also by the American public’s growing appetite for violence, whether it parades as entertainment or manifests itself in the growing demonization and incarceration of black and brown youth, adults, Muslims, immigrants, and others deemed as disposable. It should come as no surprise that the one issue the top 2016 GOP presidential contenders agree on is that guns are the ultimate symbol of freedom in America, a “bellwether of individual liberty, a symbol of what big government wants and shouldn’t have.” Guns provide political theater for the new political extremists and are symptomatic less of some cockeyed defense of the second amendment than willingness to maximize the pleasure of violence and building a case for the use of deadly force both at home and abroad. As Rustom Bharacuha and Susan Sontag have argued in different contexts, “There is an echo of the pornographic in maximizing the pleasure of violence,” one “that dissolves politics into pathology.”
Notions of democracy increasingly appear to be giving way to the discourse of revenge, domestic security, stupidity, and war. The political reality that has emerged since the shattering crisis of 9/11 increasingly points to a set of narrow choices that are being largely set by the jingoistic right wing extremists, the defense department, conservative funded foundations, and fueled by the dominant media. War and violence now function as an aphrodisiac for a public inundated with commodities and awash in celebrity culture idiocy. This surrender to the pleasure of violence is made all the more easy by the civic illiteracy now sweeping the United States. Climate change deniers, anti-intellectuals, religious fundamentalists, and others who exhibit pride in displaying a kind of thoughtlessness exhibit a kind of political and theoretical helplessness, if not corruption, that opens the door to the wider public’s acceptance of foreign and domestic violence.
The current extremists dominating Congress are frothing at the mouth to go to war with Iran, bomb Syria into the twilight zone, and further extend the reach of the American empire through its over bloated war machine to any country that questions the use of American power. One glaring example can be found in the constant and under analyzed televised images and stories of homegrown terrorists threatening to blow up malls, schools, and any other conceivable space where the public gathers.
Other examples can be found in the militarized frothing and Islamophobia perpetrated by the Fox News Network, made concrete by the an almost fever pitched bellicosity that informs the majority of its commentaries and reactions to war on terror. Missing from the endless call for security, vengeance, and the use of state violence is the massive lawlessness produced by the United States government through targeted drone attacks on enemy combatants, the violation of civil liberties, and the almost unimaginable human suffering and hardship perpetrated through the American war machine in the Middle East, especially Iraq. Also missing is a history of lawlessness, imperialism, and torture that supported a host of authoritarian regimes propped up by the United States.
Capitalizing on the pent up emotions and needs of an angry and grieving public for revenge, fueled by an unchecked Islamophobia, almost any reportage of a terrorist attack throughout the globe, further amplifies the hyped-up language of war, patriotism, and retaliation. Similarly, conservative talking-heads write numerous op-eds and appear on endless talk shows fanning the fires of “patriotism” by calling upon the United States to expand the war against any one of a number of Arab countries that are considered terrorist states. For example, John Bolton, writing an op-ed for the New York Times insists that all attempts by the Obama administration to negotiate an arms deal with Iran is a sign of weakness. For Bolton, the only way to deal with Iran is to launch an attack on their nuclear infrastructure. The title of his op-ed sums up the organizing idea of the article: “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran.”
In the current historical moment, the language of indiscriminate revenge and lawlessness seems to be winning the day. This is a discourse unconscious of its own dangerous refusal to acknowledge the important role that democratic values and social justice must play in a truly “unified” rationale response, so as to prevent the further killing of innocent people, regardless of their religion, culture, and place of occupancy in the world. Instead of viewing the current crisis as simply a new and more dangerous historical conjuncture that has nothing to learn from the past, it is crucial for the American public to begin to understand how the past might be useful in addressing what it means to live in a democracy at a time when democracy is not only viewed as an excess, but as a liability to the wishes and interests of the new extremists who now control the American government. The anti-democratic forces that define American history cannot be forgotten in the fog of political and cultural amnesia. State violence and terrorism have a long history in the United States, both in its foreign and domestic policies, and ignoring this dark period of history means that nothing will be learned from the legacy of a politics that has indulged authoritarian ideologies and embraced violence as a central measure of power, national identity, and patriotism.
At stake here is the need to establish a vision of society and a global order that safeguards its most basic civil liberties and notions of human rights. Any struggle against terrorism must begin with the pledge on the part of the United States that it will work in conjunction with international organizations, especially the United Nations, a refusal to engage in any military operations that might target civilians, and that it will rethink those aspects of its foreign policy that have allied it with repressive nations in which democratic liberties and civilian lives are under siege. Crimes overlooked will be repeated and intensified just as public memory is rendered a liability in the face of the discourse of revenge, demonization, and extreme violence.
Many news commentators and journalists in the dominant press have taken up the events of September 11 within the context of World War II, invoking daily the symbols of revenge, retaliation, and war. Nostalgia is now used to justify and fuel a politics of in-security, fear, precarity, and demonization. The dominant media no longer functions in the interests of a democracy. Mainstream media supported Bush’s fabrications to justify the invasion of Iraq and never apologized for such despicable actions. It has rarely supported the heroic actions of whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Thomas Drake, John Kiriakou, Jeffrey Sterling, and others.
Mainstream media has largely remained mute about the pardoning of those who tortured as a matter of state policy. Against an endless onslaught of images of jets bombing countries extending from Syria and Iraq to Afghanistan and Gaza, amply supplied by the Defense Department, the dominant media connects the war abroad with the domestic struggle at home by presenting numerous stories about the endless ways in which potential terrorists might use nuclear weapons, poison the food supply, or unleash biochemical agents on the American population. The increased fear and insecurity created by such stories simultaneously serve to legitimatize a host of anti-democratic practices at home-including “a concerted attack on civil liberties, freedom of expression, and freedom of the press,” and a growing sentiment on the part of the American public that people who suggest that terrorism is, in part, caused by American foreign policy should not be allowed “to teach in the public schools, work in the government, and even make a speech at a college.”
This legacy of suppression has a long history in the United States, and it has returned with a vengeance in academia, especially for those academics, such as Norman Finkelstein and Steven G. Salaita, who have condemned America’s policies in the Middle East and the government’s support of the Israeli government’s policies towards Palestinians. Language itself has become militarized fed by an onslaught of extreme violence that now floods Hollywood films and the violence that dominates American television. Hollywood blockbusters such as American Sniper glorify war crimes and produce demonizing views of Islam. Television programs such as Spartacus, The Following, Hannibal, True Detective, Justified, and Top of the Lake intensify the pleasure quotient for viewing extreme and graphic violence to an almost unimaginable degree. Graphic violence appears to provide one of the few outlets for Americans to express what has come to resemble what could be construed as a spiritual release. Extreme violence, including the sanctioning of state torture, may be one of the few practices left that allows the American people to feel alive, to mark what it means to be close to the register of death in a way that reminds them of the ability to feel within a culture that deadens every possibility of life. Under such circumstances, the reality of violence is infantilized, transformed into forms of entertainment that produce and legitimate a carnival of cruelty. The privatization of violence does more than maximize the pleasure quotient and heighten macho ebullience, it also gives violence a fascist edge by depoliticizing a culture in which the reality of violence takes on the form of state terrorism. Authoritarianism in this context becomes hysterical because it turns politics and neoliberalism “into a criminal system and keeps working towards the expansion of the realm of pure violence, where its advancement can proceed unhindered.”
The extreme visibility of violence in American culture represents a willful pedagogy of carnage and gore designed to normalize its presence in American society and to legitimate its practice and presence as a matter of common sense. Moreover, war making and the militarization of public discourse and public space also serve as an uncritical homage to a form of hyper-masculinity that operates from the assumption that violence is not only the most important practice for mediating most problems, but that it is also central to identity formation itself. Agency is now militarized and almost completely removed from any notion of civic values. We get a glimpse of this form of violent hyper-masculinity not only in the highly publicized brutality against women dished out by professional football players, but also in the endless stories of sexual abuse and violence now taking place in frat houses across America, many in some of the most prestigious colleges and universities. Violence has become the DNA of war making in the United States, escalating under Bush and Obama into a kind of war fever that embraces a death drive. As Robert J. Lifton points out,
Warmaking can quickly become associated with “war fever,” the mobilization of public excitement to the point of a collective experience with transcendence. War then becomes heroic, even mythic, a task that must be carried out for the defense of one’s nation, to sustain its special historical destiny and the immortality of its people. ..War fever tends always to be sporadic and subject to disillusionment. Its underside is death anxiety, in this case related less to combat than to fears of new terrorist attacks at home or against Americans abroad–and later to growing casualties in occupied Iraq.
The war on terror is the new normal. Its adoration and intensification of violence, militarization, and state terrorism reach into every aspect of American life. Americans complain over the economic deficit but say little about the democracy and moral deficit now providing the foundation for the new authoritarianism. A police presence in our major cities showcases the visible parameters of the authoritarian state. For example, with a police force of 34,000 New York City resembles an armed camp with a force that as Thom Hartman points out is “bigger—that the active militaries of Austria, Bulgaria, Chad, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Kenya,” and a number of other countries. At the same time, the Pentagon has given billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment to local police forces all over America. Is it any wonder, that minorities of color fear the police more than the gangs and criminals that haunt their neighborhoods? Militarism is one of the breeding grounds of violence in the United States and is visible in the ubiquitous gun culture, the modeling of schools after prisons, the exploding incarceration state, the paramilitarization of local police forces, the burgeoning military budget, and the ongoing attacks on protesters, dissidents, black and brown youth, and women.
Under the war on terrorism, moral panic and a culture of fear have not only redefined public space as the “sinister abode of danger, death and infection” and fueled the collective rush to “patriotism on the cheap”, it has also buttressed a “fear economy” and refigured the meaning of politics itself. Defined as “the complex of military and security firms rushing to exploit the national nervous breakdown,” the fear economy promises big financial gains for both the defense department, and the anti-terrorist-security sectors, primed to terror-proof everything from trash cans and water systems to shopping malls and public restrooms. The war on terrorism has been transformed into a new market, a consumer goods for the hysterical war mongers and their acolytes in the media while making politics and extension of war. Fear is no longer an attitude as much as it is a culture that functions as “the enemy of reason [while distorting] emotions and perceptions, and often leads to poor decisions.” But the culture of fear does more than undermine critical judgment and suppress dissent, as Don Hazen points out, it also: “breeds more violence, mental illness and trauma, social disintegration, job failure, loss of workers’ rights, and much more. Pervasive fear ultimately paves the way for an accelerating authoritarian society with increased police power, legally codified oppression, invasion of privacy, social controls, social anxiety and PTSD.”
Fear and repression reproduce rather than address the most fundamental anti-democratic elements of terrorism. Instead of mobilizing fear, people need to recognize that the threat of terrorism cannot be understood apart from the crisis of democracy itself. The greatest struggle faced by the American public is not terrorism, but a struggle on behalf of justice, freedom, and democracy for all of the citizens of the globe. This is not going to take place, as President Obama’s policies will tragically affirm, by shutting down democracy, eliminating its most cherished rights and freedoms, and deriding communities of dissent. Engaging terrorism demands more than rage and anger, revenge and retaliation. American society is broken, corrupted by the financial elite, and addicted to violence and a culture of permanent war.
The commanding institutions of American life have lost their sense of public mission, just as leadership at all levels of government is being stripped of any viable democratic vision. The United States is now governed by an economic and social orthodoxy informed by the dictates of religious and political extremists. Reform efforts that include the established political parties have resulted in nothing but regression, a form of accommodation that serves to normalized the new authoritarianism and its war on terrorism. Politics has to be thought anew and must be informed by powerful vision matched by durable organizations that include young people, unions, workers, diverse social movements, artists, and others. In part, this means reawakening the radical imagination so as to address the intensifying crisis of history and agency, and engage the ethical grammars of human suffering. To fight the neoliberal counter-revolution, workers, young people, unions, artists, intellectuals, and social movements need to create new public spaces along with a new language for enabling the American public to relate the self to public life, social responsibility, and the demands of global citizenship.
The left in the United States is too fractured and needs to develop a more comprehensive understanding of politics, oppression, and struggles as well as a discourse that arises to the level of ethical assessment and accountability. Against the new authoritarianism, progressives of all stripes need an inspiring and energizing politics that embraces coalition building, rejects the notion that capitalism equals democracy, and challenges the stolid vocabulary of embodied incapacity stripped of any sense of risk, hope, and possibility. If the struggle against the war on terrorism, militarization, and neoliberalization is to have any chance of success, it is crucial for a loyal and dedicated left to embrace a commitment to understanding the educative nature of politics, economic and social justice, and the need to build a sustainable political formation outside of the established parties.
The United States is in a new historical conjuncture and as difficult as it is to admit, it is a conjuncture that shares more with the legacies of totalitarianism than with America’s often misguided understanding of democracy. Under the merging of the surveillance state, warfare state, and the harsh regime of neoliberalism, we are witnessing the death of the old system of social welfare supports and the emergence of a new society marked by the heavy hand of the national security state, the depoliticization of the American public, extreme inequities in wealth, power, income, and a new politics and mode of governance now firmly controlled by the major corporations, banks, and financial elite. This is a politics in which there is no room for democracy, and no room for reformism. The time has come to name the current historical moment as representative of the “dark times” Hannah Arendt warned us against and to begin to rethink politics anew through social movements in which the promise of a radical democracy can be reimagined in the midst of determined and systemic collective struggles. The war on terrorism has morphed into a new form of authoritarianism and its real enemy is no longer limited to potential terrorists, but includes democracy itself.
- Henry A. Giroux currently holds the McMaster University Chair for Scholarship in the Public Interest in the English and Cultural Studies Department and a Distinguished Visiting Professorship at Ryerson University. His most recent books are America’s Education Deficit and the War on Youth (Monthly Review Press, 2013) and Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education (Haymarket Press, 2014). His web site is www.henryagiroux.com.