Monday, September 13, 2010

Obama on American values and fear

I just read through President Obama's speech at the Pentagon last Saturday on the 8th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. I look forward to the day, someday, that we can remember the 9/11 anniversary with some dignified commemoration, rather than treating it as something like a national dedication to permanent war.

And Obama's rhetoric isn't wearing well with me right now. For instance:

The perpetrators of this evil act didn't simply attack America; they attacked the very idea of America itself -- all that we stand for and represent in the world. And so the highest honor we can pay those we lost, indeed our greatest weapon in this ongoing war, is to do what our adversaries fear the most -- to stay true to who we are, as Americans; to renew our sense of common purpose; to say that we define the character of our country, and we will not let the acts of some small band of murderers who slaughter the innocent and cower in caves distort who we are. [my emphasis]
No, they didn't attack "the very idea of America itself." They pulled off a spectacular, coordinated terrorist attack on the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington. They failed to strike whatever the third target was that had been selected for the plane that went down in Pennsylvania. And their stated motivation, which is likely true within the context of their fanatical ideology, was their opposition to American interventions in the Middle East, including US support for Israel.

Obama's formulation has the appeal of calling us to be true to our American values. But it also promotes the idea that The Terrorists were and are an immediate threat to America's existence, aka an existential threat. And this kind of threat inflation is one of the biggest problems of US foreign policy.

And in practice, Obama's continuation of some of the most dubious aspects of the Cheney-Bush policies on massive domestic spying, government secrecy and "targeted assassinations" actually continue to undercut the US Constitutional order. Did the Cheney-Bush torture policy "distort who we are"? Obama's policy of Look Forward Not Backward - refusing to prosecute known torture crimes by high-level perpetrators - says that the torture policy is indeed part of "who we are." Even when the current President chooses not to use it for the moment, if he is staying true to his announced policy on torture.

They doubted our will, but as Americans we persevere. Today, in Afghanistan and beyond, we have gone on the offensive and struck major blows against al Qaeda and its allies. We will do what is necessary to protect our country, and we honor all those who serve to keep us safe.
It's ludicrous at this juncture to pretend that we've had eight years of war in Afghanistan with still no end in sight as a response to the 9/11 attacks. What happened in the Afghanistan War wasn't so much "mission creep" as "mission leap."

They may seek to strike fear in us, but they are no match for our resilience. We do not succumb to fear, nor will we squander the optimism that has always defined us as a people. [my emphasis]
Actually, fear has become so integral to our foreign, military and intelligence policies, as well as to our domestic politics in general, that it's little more than a pious assertion to say that Americans now "do not succumb to fear." In national politics, it would be more accurate to say we thrive on fear.

They may seek to exploit our freedoms, but we will not sacrifice the liberties we cherish or hunker down behind walls of suspicion and mistrust. They may wish to drive us apart, but we will not give in to their hatred and prejudice. For Scripture teaches us to "get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice."

They may seek to spark conflict between different faiths, but as Americans we are not -- and never will be -- at war with Islam. It was not a religion that attacked us that September day -- it was al Qaeda, a sorry band of men which perverts religion. And just as we condemn intolerance and extremism abroad, so will we stay true to our traditions here at home as a diverse and tolerant nation. We champion the rights of every American, including the right to worship as one chooses -- as service members and civilians from many faiths do just steps from here, at the very spot where the terrorists struck this building.
In the context of Republican/Tea Party hatemongering, this strikes a welcome note.

Those who attacked us sought to demoralize us, divide us, to deprive us of the very unity, the very ideals, that make America America -- those qualities that have made us a beacon of freedom and hope to billions around the world. Today we declare once more we will never hand them that victory. As Americans, we will keep alive the virtues and values that make us who we are and who we must always be. [my emphasis]
It really is pretty pitiful that the President, like his predecessor, is still treating a mythical image of AL QA'IDA as a massive menace justifying the tremendous military and intelligence expenditures of today, and the reckless policy of military intervention and permanent war that now prevails.

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