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Fear’s Victory
When Terror Is the Foil

The normal reaction is to be thankful that a plot supposedly of such massive scale—to bomb up to a dozen planes out of the Atlantic sky—was found out and halted before its execution. The normal reaction is to consider ourselves lucky. But there’s been nothing normal, not about the way the alleged plot has been uncovered and described, or rather projected in Britain and the United States like a halting reality-show production, not about the insistent way the word “alleged” must attach to these claims (in ways the word would have never been necessary, or even acceptable, five or four years ago), not about the manic way various members of the Bush administration, like children dangling prize ribbons, have paraded themselves before cameras to claim some of the credit for the nab and use the story once again to prance instead of lead. Because there’s nothing normal about this reveling in fear that our government keeps injecting in society’s veins, as if fear were the administration’s only leash to power. Instead of facing down fear, instead of defying it, instead of putting it in its contemptuous place (fear being terrorism’s rankest instrument), we are made to accommodate it and submit to it every chance the government gets to ram it down our collective throats. We are asked, in other words, to be complicit with terrorism’s ultimate aim, without terrorists having to bother to do so much as light a fuse.

“It is a mistake to believe there is no threat to the United States of America ,” President Bush said on Thursday between—what else—campaign stops on behalf of mid-termers. “And that is why we have given our officials the tools they need to protect our people.” He was brandishing his straw men, of course. No one has ever said that there is no threat to the nation. But the moment Bush declared his so-called war on terror, turning the national security state into an instrument of power more far-reaching and unchecked than it ever was during the cold war, the question has always been: threat from whom? And almost from the start, the threat from the Bush administration and its complicit Congress has far outweighed anything terrorists could do, blowing planes out of the sky included.

Terrorism is by definition a spectacular one-time event, sometimes serialized, always limited by its very strength: it’s only as effective as its intended target permit it to be. Short of nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists, the downing of planes, the suicide explosions, the hostage-taking is all as immediately disturbing as it is ultimately no more consequential than accidental tragedies that end lives in myriad other ways, but without altering democratic institutions and the constitutional functioning of society. As we now know, as we knew even in 2001 had it not been for the infighting of intelligence agencies and their criminal turf battles, it is also extremely difficult to pull of a spectacular terrorist event. It takes enormous planning and a concurrence of circumstances that hinges almost on lottery-like luck. It takes the somnolent complicity of the very forces designated to prevent those attacks.

The 9/11 terrorists didn’t know they could count on that somnolence. They only hoped. They got their wish. Several times their plot was near being uncovered. Several times unforgivable but forgiven (and never prosecuted) mistakes of ignorance or vanity on the CIA’s or the FBI’s part (among others) allowed them to proceed. We now hope the nation’s intelligence services have learned their lesson, tightened up and rendered these attacks what they should have always been even in the best of circumstances: rarities, or damn near impossibilities. It doesn’t take a Patriot-Act abetted war on terror to accomplish the goal. It takes enforcing common means and a few uncommon means of intelligence, means long in place.

Still, when a few plots have been “foiled” since 2001, they’ve stretched believability. The fool who wanted to blow-torch cables off the Brooklyn Bridge . The other fool who plotted from Lebanon about blowing up the Lincoln Tunnel, as if he’d read galley proofs of John Updike’s “Terrorist.” The foolish chatter about blowing up the Sears Tower . Every time Alberto Gonzales’s Justice Department (and John Ashcroft’s before him) bandied about the “foiled plots,” they made it seem as if the trigger had been half-way there. With every exaggerated story we lost more faith in a system discrediting itself. And every time, the administration used the events to heighten our sense of fear, as if the nation needs periodic boosters to keep it anxious, to keep it dependent and trusting of a government’s protections. That’s without mentioning the Department of Homeland Security’s yo-yo color scheme.

The British airplane plot may well be real. It may well have involved a dozen planes. It may well have been stopped near the brink. But the way it’s being played (here more than in Britain , where Tony Blair’s campaign of fear has had limited effect) discredits its seriousness and further discredits the “war on terror.” The aim isn’t to protect against terrorism. It’s to ensure terrorism’s permanent threat, to invent its magnitude, to cast any skepticism about the strategy as something faintly treasonous, as wishing people harm, as sympathy with terrorism. It makes you wonder: what if a victory over terrorism was ever declared? It’s an impossibility. The Bush administration has cast the danger in such ways as to box itself into a position incapable of declaring such a victory. The administration itself (or its coming clones) would have to disband, having hinged its entire raison d’être on such a war. That there’s never been a war is besides the point. The methods of war are the means to power, and there lies the source of the founding lie, its motive, its consequences: the war on terror is the continuation of Republican politics by other means. End the war, and you end the Republican Party’s viability. God alone couldn’t prop up the party and its religious zealots. It therefore must be a perpetual war.

On August 25, 1944, Albert Camus wrote in his Combat Column, as Paris was reveling in the end of its war and its belated liberation:

Those who never lost hope for themselves and their country are finding their reward tonight. This night is a world unto itself: it is the night if truth. The truth in arms, the truth in battle, the truth in power after languishing after so many years empty handed and chest bared. Truth is everywhere on this night, which finds the people and the cannon roaring in unison. The truth speaks, in fact, with the voice of the people and the guns; it wears the triumphant and tired face of the fighters in the streets, beneath their sweats and their scars. Yes, this is indeed the night of truth, and of the only truth that counts, the truth that is prepared to fight and win.

There is no victory in sight in the war on terror because there’s only the desire to fight and to deceive as a means to power, not a means to victory. In such a hothouse of fraud and pretexts there is in sum no truth. There are only foils for the truth. Even when terrorists are alleged to be caught plotting the destruction of ten transatlantic flights.

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