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9/11

Jonathan Raban, NYRB, looks back at September 11, 2001:

That week, my compatriot Christopher Hitchens, stranded in Seattle after giving a lecture on September 10 in Walla Walla, Washing- ton, said over dinner that "at times like this, America turns into a one-party state," and reminded me of the prophecy made by Robert Lowell back in 1966, when he answered a questionnaire sent to him by the editors of Partisan Review:

I have a gloomy premonition... that we will soon look back on this troubled moment as a golden time of freedom and license to act and speculate. One feels the sinews of the tiger, an ascetic, "moral" and authoritarian reign of piety and iron.

The mood of our fellow diners in the restaurant was one of forced joviality — a few jokes and laughs too many were coming from the tables around us. "I think we've just entered the reign of piety and iron," Hitchens said.

… the war on terror increasingly distorts our view of the domestic scene. Under Bush's self-styled "wartime presidency," the composition of the American landscape is steadily altering. What was once in the foreground is moving into the background, and vice versa. Our world is being continuously rearranged around us in deceptively small increments. Though we like to pretend that the emerging new order is "normal," that daily life proceeds much as it always did, with a few small novel inconveniences, we keep on bumping uncomfortably into the furniture. It seems important to remember that this strange and disorienting redisposition of things is not the inevitable consequence of the September 11 attacks, but has been engineered by a political administration that could, and should, have responded to the attacks quite differently. For a sense of what alternative responses the Bush administration might have made, see the deeply thoughtful international colloquium, Club de Madrid Series on Democracy and Terrorism, published in June 2005 and available online at safe-democracy.org. It is a model of the kind of informed discussion that should have taken place in the United States before the Patriot Act was rushed through Congress, and in Britain before Tony Blair came up with his hasty threats of anti-terror legislation.

Lowell's "gloomy premonition" turns out to have been full of uncanny prescience. The greatest military power in history has shackled its deadly hardware to the rhetoric of fundamentalist Christianity, with all its righteously simplistic moralism, in a war of "good against evil" and "freedom against fear." Vietnam, though it was a terrible political and strategic miscalculation, was not like this. Yet American military iron is not an inexhaustible commodity, and even its piety, in the absence of all the promised miracles, looks now as if it just might be on the verge of running out.

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