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After September 11: Our State of Exception

Americans, believing themselves to stand proudly for the rule of law and human rights, have become for the rest of the world a symbol of something quite opposite: a society in which lawbreaking, approved by its highest elected officials, goes unpunished. Thus President Obama’s exhortation that the country look forward and not back takes on a different coloring: the country has entered a twilight world when it comes to the law and is unlikely soon to emerge from it.

At the same time, in the Middle East itself, where torture had underpinned the power of every national security state, the most notorious images of the state of exception—the obscenely twisted naked figures at Abu Ghraib, the kneeling hooded prisoners in their orange jumpsuits at Guantánamo—provoked a debate about torture and human rights that had heretofore been impossible. Egyptians, forbidden to talk about Egyptian torture, could freely discuss, analyze, and condemn American torture, and thereby initiate a discussion of human rights and dignity that was a motivating element in the early upheavals of the Arab Spring. As Shadi Mokhtari writes:

Because the torture and abuse depicted was so widely seen as directed towards the Arab or Muslim man, many felt a profound sense of personal violation. As they grappled to formulate a response, they often found themselves invoking human rights…. Instead of viewing human rights as a Western imposition, increasingly it became a language that Arab populations embraced…. It did not take long however for the focus to turn inward to the Arab world’s own “Guantánamos,” “Abu Ghraibs,” and widespread practice of torture. Activists began exploiting limited openings to draw compelling analogies to the repression pervading their own societies.18

This raises a question for Americans: Are we still waiting to have that debate in the United States—or is it already over? The story of torture is widely known, voluminously documented. It is part of our present, not our past. When Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called “Christmas Day Bomber,” was apprehended after failing to detonate his “underwear bomb” over Detroit, a number of prominent politicians, both Republican and Democratic, demanded he be sent to Guantánamo and subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques.” That Obama officials handed him over to the FBI provoked outrage and warnings about the grave danger such a decision represented for the country. “Eleven months after the president had shut down the enhanced interrogation program and revealed the techniques in the program publicly,” former Vice President Cheney writes in his memoir, “the replacement [for the interrogation program] did not exist. Abdulmutallab was read a Miranda warning.”

The accuracy of this—in fact, Abdulmutallab seems to have cooperated with the FBI interrogators—is less important than what it says about the centrality of “enhanced interrogation techniques” as a political touchstone in the era of the state of exception. Torture shows that officials are willing to do anything to protect the country. Reluctance to use torture shows weakness, an ambivalence in the determination to protect the country no matter what the cost. Reluctance to use torture shows a reversion to the “law enforcement model,” which, as we know, is now held to be responsible for the success of the September 11 attacks in the first place.

As long as there is no successful attack on American soil an unstable equilibrium persists—a gray world different but recognizable. In the wake of the next attack, however, the subtle changes all around us, the ways the state of exception endures, will leap into vivid color. And for all the talk of the “strategic defeat” of al-Qaeda, that next attack is almost certain to come—indeed, the very weakening of al-Qaeda makes such a success more likely. The organization is no longer strong enough to insist that America, the showcase for its most dramatic efforts, is suited only for a “spectacular,” a grand mass-casualty event on the scale of September 11. Now any attack, even a “lone wolf” car bombing, will serve, and we see this in the pattern of recent attempts:

In the post 9/11 world, we had an average of about four plots targeting US soil, or emanating on US soil, a year. In 2008–2009, that jumps to nine and then ten. In 2011, we are already on a pace to pass that.

Thus John Miller, a high official of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and a former television reporter who interviewed both Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. Miller goes on:

Something has happened, a better maturation of ideology, a better way to get the message out, that has caused those plots to be coming at us literally at a rate or a pace of almost one a month. And when you deal in that kind of volume, you have a special challenge. Number one, we are operating at nearly 100 percent in interdicting all of them and shutting them down. But the odds of being able to maintain that batting average, as the numbers go up, those [odds] go down.19

What is this “better way of getting the message out”? One of the most damaging failures of the early War on Terror was the willingness of the Bush administration to act in a way that seemed to embody the caricature that bin Laden and al-Qaeda had made of the United States: a muscle-bound, arrogant, crusading, hegemonic superpower intent on repressing and abusing and humiliating Muslims. The naked obscenities from Abu Ghraib, the images of shackled, hooded Muslims in their orange jumpsuits at Guantánamo, were immense victories for al-Qaeda in a war whose foremost strategic goal was the recruitment of young Muslims to the cause of extremist, anti-American Islamic fundamentalism. It is this “battle of the story” that Dick Cheney, for example, still fails utterly to grasp. “I don’t have much sympathy for the view that we should find an alternative to Guantánamo…,” he tells us in his memoir, “simply because we are worried about how we are perceived abroad.”

The president who followed him has shown—most notably in his Cairo speech to the Muslim world—that he has a deeper understanding of the politics of this conflict; but his failure to close Guantánamo, after vowing on his second day in office to do so within the year, shows how deeply the state of exception has embedded itself in our politics. No one, Republican or Democrat, wants to be accused of “coddling terrorists.” To this President Obama, in a typically eager capitulation to reality, has acceded. It is a compromise with the state of exception for which, in the political whirlwind certain to follow hard on another successful attack, he is unlikely to be granted much credit. Meanwhile the one element that, since the early Roman dictatorships, all states of exception have shared—that they are temporary, that they end—seems lacking in ours. Ten years later, what was the exceptional has become the normal. The improvisations of panic are the reality of our daily lives.

  1. 18

    See Shadi Mokhtari, “George Bush and the Turn to Human Rights in the Arab World,” OpenDemocracy.net, February 25, 2011. 

  2. 19

    See Piers Morgan Tonight, CNN, September 6, 2011. 

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