November 12, 2007

The disconnect between reality and response in American life: Afghanistan as a case study

One of the things you learn about while writing a blog are the severe limitations of your own certainty, and, in a related way, how much of what is commonly accepted as true is in fact based on nothing. You begin to appreciate, when you routinely lay out your thought processes in written form, that we tentatively accept ideas as true in order to navigate through reality in a coherent way that allows us to communicate with other humans who have also conditionally accepted the same "facts" as verified truths. And what we find, in retrospect (after the rejection of a tentative "truth" on the basis of later-acquired information), is that the reason for the consensual "reality" thus constructed was emotional rather than intellectual.

To place some meat on the bones of these nebulous ideas: consider America's Great War on Terror (GWOT). I can recall during the early days of Air America's broadcasts (when I used to listen) that Al Franken was always careful to distinguish his opposition to the Iraq war from his general support for the war in Afghanistan. The invasion of Afghanistan has always received kid glove treatment in the American media, from both sides of the aisle in Congress, and from conservatives and liberals alike in the general public. It is the "good war" that vindicated America's losses on 9/11, and to the extent that Bush has been criticized for the Afghanistan invasion, it has been on the basis of (a) leaving before the "job was done" to invade Iraq, and (b) [similar, but slightly different from the first point] failing to "capture or kill" Osama bin Laden.

The logical foundation for the Afghanistan invasion was that the Taliban "harbored" bin Laden, and thus in Bush's dichotomous, Manichean world were "with the terrorists" instead of with us. We then began hearing about the oppressive nature of the Taliban regime, the squelching of women's rights, etc., all of which are common features of numerous other Muslim regimes (Saudi Arabia being an excellent example), but which gained a stature of complete intolerability in this target country during the run-up to the war. The cable news networks began running an endless loop of hooded terrorists-in-training going hand over hand on a jungle gym and crawling through a plywood box. This single 10-second film stood in for the "training camps" which had to be eradicated in order to deprive the "terrorists" of a "staging area" under state protection.

Conspiracy theorists came out of the woodwork during this period and pointed out that the Taliban had been in negotiations with Unocal for construction of a pipeline across the country, but that the deal fell through prior to the invasion. Michael Moore aired out this idea in his hit movie "Fahrenheit 9-11." Such ideas, to the extent they were offered as the real reason for attacking the Taliban, were generally considered "loony," and in their own way added credibility to the arguments for the "necessity" of the invasion. Thus, a general consensus developed that Bush had made the right decision in partnering up with the Northern Alliance and driving the Taliban from power.

Occasionally, someone would mention (on PBS, for example) that the main 9-11 conspirators (Mohammed Atta, Marwan al-Sheihi, Ziad Jurrah) were from Egypt, the UAE and Lebanon, respectively, and had become radicalized during student days in Hamburg, Germany. About 15 of the 19 conspirators were Saudi nationals (primarily the "muscle.") The four pilots trained extensively in American flight schools, mainly in south Florida. A book by Dore Gold, former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, about Saudi sponsorship of terror ("Hatred's Kingdom"), stated in passing that there was no evidence that any of the hijackers had ever been to Afghanistan. I never saw this assertion specifically challenged; the 9-11 Commission Report develops a conclusion, based on testimony from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, that some of them did travel to Afghanistan to meet with bin Laden, and that their passports had been "manipulated in ways typical of al-Qaeda" that suggested they were attempting to conceal prior trips to Afghanistan.

To my way of thinking, even if all of the pro-war assertions were true (and as noted, this is highly questionable), it adds up to a very weak case for invading Afghanistan. This would be true whether or not we had successfully neutralized bin Laden, which we obviously have not. There was no need for a nation like Afghanistan as a staging area for the attacks of 9-11. (The final plans, in fact, were put together in the United States.) If the idea was to capture bin Laden, a large-scale military invasion seemed poorly calculated to bring about the result (as indeed proved the case). Nevertheless, politically speaking, no one can challenge the invasion and remain a viable Presidential candidate in the United States. This is a heterodoxy that is beyond the pale, and it is unsupportable precisely because it is at this point that basic emotional factors weigh in decisively. After seeing the towers fall on TV, America "had to do something." It didn't matter if it didn't make any sense. We obviously rounded up a lot of Afghans and other Muslims while we were in Afghanistan and then established a concentration camp in Cuba. No one in public life spends much time wondering out loud who these people are, what "war crimes" they committed, or what they have to do with 9-11. We've never tried any of them for war crimes and we deny them any right to challenge the basis of their incarceration. In simplest terms, they are a "symbol," like the invasion of Afghanistan itself, of our resolve in the GWOT.

I think a society begins to pay a very steep price when its large-scale actions become fundamentally unhooked from empirical reality. Strong forces now hold the country in a state of cathexis which prevents any logical response to perceived threats. As the emotional environment becomes more hysterical, a larger and larger disconnect develops between real-world events and the nature of our reactions. We now live in a country where practically everyone accepts fundamentally false premises, proceeds to base irrelevant responses in ineffectual ways on such beliefs, and then marvels that nothing has changed for the better. The process itself tends to close off any path toward a different way of thinking and acting and thus becomes self-reinforcing. It looks crazy because, in the most fundamental psychiatric sense, it is the very definition of insanity.

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