Helplessly, We Await the Catastrophe Our Rulers Are Creating

I cannot stop thinking of 1939, when everyone could see the war coming and no one, it seemed, could do anything to stop it. Contemplating the impending catastrophe, W. H. Auden wrote,

In the nightmare of the dark All the dogs of Europe bark, And the living nations wait, Each sequestered in its hate; Intellectual disgrace Stares from every human face And the seas of pity lie Locked and frozen in each eye.

(“In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” 1939)

Today, the dogs of war are barking not in Europe but in the District of Columbia, and again people are looking on helplessly as the tragedy unfolds. We see the disaster being designed and touted, we observe the intellectual disgrace staring from the faces of George W. Bush and his advisers, and we note the seas of pity lying locked and frozen in their eyes. Yet we can do nothing to prevent the makers of this coming calamity from carrying out the devastation.

I wonder if they ever lie awake at night and imagine the faces of the men, women, and children — people they do not know, people who do not know them and who cannot harm them — who will be dead soon, their bodies crushed, ripped, and burned by the force of U.S. munitions exploding in their streets, homes, shops, schools, and hospitals. Those bombs are smart, no doubt, but they are better at math than at morality. Even when they work as they are supposed to, they are not smart enough to discriminate between the innocent and the guilty as they detonate in a densely populated urban area such as Baghdad. Do Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld sleep peacefully nowadays, or do they awake haunted by visions of the innocent strangers they are preparing to obliterate? Do they rise at midnight to wash their hands, only to find that they cannot cleanse the damned spot?

In Congress, the politicians declare their strong support for the president’s new policy of global preemptive wars and, in particular, for his impending assault on the ailing, impoverished, nearly defenseless Iraqis. The legislators dare not oppose the president’s plan, because then their electoral opponents would call their patriotism into question. Their patriotism, it seems, requires that they sacrifice their clear constitutional duty for the sake of campaign appearances. A deeper patriotism — an allegiance to the principles of the American Republic — lies beyond their comprehension. In the name of a vulgar and superficial patriotism, they forsake all loyalty to the traditions that once made the United States a beacon of freedom, rather than a world-ranging bully to be feared and loathed. Congress may posture and pretend, but it will do nothing substantial to exercise its constitutional authority to decide whether to commit the nation to war. Better to go along, to pass a vague, blank-check resolution. Later, if the war goes badly, the members can criticize it; if it goes well, they can take credit for supporting it; but in no event will they put themselves in a position to be held genuinely accountable.

So, with our supine and cowardly representatives unwilling to resist the chief executive’s usurpations, “we the people” can only wait and watch as the president allows his strings to be pulled by people for whom war will be not the last resort but the option they will exercise as soon as they perceive a threat, however modest, to their mastery of the world. The old boundaries have become irrelevant. No longer does the U.S. government content itself to rule over a vast continental domain. No longer does it find satisfaction merely in a Monroe Doctrine that proclaims its hegemony in the Western Hemisphere. No, our rulers have declared in sufficiently plain language, in their new “National Security Strategy of the United States,” made public on September 20, that they intend to dominate the entire world. Some members of the political class speak openly of empire; others avoid the word but embrace the substance. Make no mistake, however: the American Republic is no longer just sick unto death; it is stone-cold dead.

Although many ordinary Americans appear to have no quarrel with what is being done in their name, many others oppose this imperial impudence and the brutalities that express and sustain it. For the dissidents, the government has prepared a suitable reception. The TIPS informants are getting ready to report suspicions about them. The prison cells wait to receive more “material witnesses,” “enemy combatants,” and anyone accused, no matter how baselessly, of aiding or abetting alleged terrorists. For these unfortunates, no writ of habeas corpus will spoil the government’s day; no defense lawyer’s shadow will darken the doorway of its secret interrogations. As the president and Attorney General John Ashcroft have made clear, if you are not with the government, you are against it, and they have demonstrated already how far they are willing to go to deal with those who are against. Henceforth, thanks to the USA PATRIOT Act, all of us will be subject to closer surveillance. As we are ever more systematically monitored and regimented by our own government, even the elementary freedoms of movement, speech, and assembly will go by the board. In time, all of us will learn to keep quiet, if we know what is good for us and our families.

We are told that the government’s new policies, with their perpetual wars “to keep the peace,” will bring us security, but they will not do so. Instead, the American empire’s global violence will create a bottomless reservoir of vengeful terrorists. By insisting on poking its imperial stick into every hornet’s nest on the planet, the U.S. government will ensure that Americans will continue to be stung. Wherever they may travel, at home or abroad, they will be at risk of attack by aggrieved men and women.

Perhaps we should not weep. Maybe a once-free people who surrenders its liberties so readily, so unjustifiably, deserves nothing better. Meanwhile, we can only wait helplessly for our masters to commence the catastrophe in Iraq, and heaven only knows where else.