Words important for all Americans to hear, from Tom Engelhardt

Most commencement speeches are a bore.  Few were as good as this one written for the students of the virtual correspondence school known as TomDispatch.

Missing Word, Missing World“, By Tom Engelhardt , 2 June 2009 — Excerpt:

Graduates of the Bush years, initiates of the Obama era, if you think of a commencement address as a kind of sermon, then every sermon needs its text. Here’s the one I’ve chosen for today, suitably obscure and yet somehow ringing:

“The idea that somehow counterterrorism is a homeland security issue doesn’t make sense when you recognize the fact that terror around the world doesn’t recognize borders. There is no right-hand, left-hand anymore.”

That’s taken directly from the new national security bible of Obama National Security Advisor (and ex-Marine General) James Jones. He said it last week at a press briefing.

… After 4 years in this college, I assume you are students of the word and like all biblical texts, this one must be interpreted. It must be read. So let’s start by thinking of it this way: If we are, in some sense, defined by our enemies, then consider this description of terrorism — even though most acts of terror are undoubtedly committed by locally-minded individuals — as something like a shadow thrown on a wall. The looming figure to which the shadow belongs is not, however, al-Qaeda, but us. We are, after all, in the war-on-terror business. It’s how we’ve defined ourselves these last years.

If you accept Jones’s definition, then you only have to go a modest distance to conclude that we are the other great force on the planet that “doesn’t recognize borders.” Keep in mind that, right now, we’re fighting at least two-and-a-half wars thousands of miles from this sylvan campus, and in your name no less. When it comes to our “national security,” as we define it, borders turn out to matter remarkably little in a pinch, as long, of course, as they’re other people’s borders.

After all, we have established an extensive network of military bases, some gigantic, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and secured the right to treat them essentially as U.S. territory; we have hundreds of such bases, large and small, scattered across the Earth, most not in war zones, a startling number of them built up into impressive “little Americas.” It’s through them that we garrison much of the planet (something you will almost never see commented upon in the mainstream media, obvious though it may be). Our drone aircraft, flown by remote control from bases in the United States, now regularly patrol distant skies, as if borders did not exist, to smite our foes, whatever any locals might think. Typically, as far as we know, our secret warriors continue to fund, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, a Bush-era project, which also knows no borders, aimed at destabilizing the Iranian government.

The Architecture of Meaning

Instead of simply continuing down this superhighway of borderlessness, let’s just consider two sentences buried deep in a recent piece on the inside pages of the New York Times about a roadside explosive device in Iraq that killed three Americans in a vehicle. It’s the sort of thing that Americans tend not to find strange in the least. So as an experiment, try, as I read it aloud, to take in the deep strangeness it represents:

“The Americans were driving along a road used exclusively by the American military and reconstruction teams when a bomb, which local Iraqi security officials described as an improvised explosive device, went off. No Iraqi vehicles, even those of the army and the police, are allowed to use the road where the attack occurred, according to residents.”

Keep in mind that this isn’t a restricted road in Langley, Virginia. It’s a road outside the Iraqi city of Falluja, where we conducted two massive, city-destroying assaults back in 2004; in other words, the road which “no Iraqi vehicles… are allowed to use” is thousands of miles and many borders away from Washington.

And that’s nothing really. If you want to know something about American “impunity” — a fine 19th century word that should be more widely used today — when it comes to Iraq’s borders, get your hands on the text of Order 17. That order was issued by our viceroy in Baghdad, L. Paul Bremer III, back in the salad days of the Bush administration, when that era’s neocons thought the world was their oyster (or perhaps their oil well).

Promulgated on the eve of the supposed “return of sovereignty” to Iraq in 2004, Order 17 gave new meaning to the term “Free World.” In intent, it was a perpetual American get-out-of-jail-free card. If I were the president of this college, I would assign Order 17 to be read as part of a campus-wide course on magical imperial realism. Here’s but one passage I’ve summarized from that document:

All foreigners (read: Americans) involved in the occupation project were to be granted “freedom of movement without delay throughout Iraq,” and neither their vessels, vehicles, nor aircraft were to be “subject to registration, licensing or inspection by the [Iraqi] Government.” Nor in traveling would foreign diplomats, soldiers, consultants, or security guards, or any of their vehicles, vessels, or planes be subject to “dues, tolls, or charges, including landing and parking fees,” and so on. And don’t forget that on imports, including “controlled substances,” there were to be no customs fees (or inspections), taxes, or much of anything else; nor was there to be the slightest charge for the use of occupied Iraqi “headquarters, camps, and other premises,” nor for the use of electricity, water, or other utilities.

Or, since actual architecture, like the architecture of language, is revealing, consider our most recent embassy-building practices. An embassy is, almost by definition, the face of our country, of us, abroad. For our embassy in embattled Iraq, the Bush administration ponied up almost three-quarters of a billion dollars (including cost overruns). The result, now opened, is the largest embassy compound on the planet.

It’s about the size of Vatican City, a self-enclosed world with its own elaborate defenses and amenities inside the citadel of Baghdad’s Green Zone. Staffed by approximately 1,000 “diplomats,” it’s the sort of place Cold War Washington might once have dreamed of building in Moscow (not that the Russians would have let them).

Do the Iraqis want such an establishment in their capital? Would you, if it was a foreign “embassy” in your land? Once again, that old-fashioned word “impunity,” which once went so well with words like “freebooter” and “extraterritoriality,” seems apt. We still practice a version of freebooting, we still have our own version of extraterritoriality, and we do it all with impunity.

The Imperial Mother ship lands

In our era, the imperial mother ship landedin a country the size of California, but with a smaller population, that just happens to have a lot of untapped reserves of hydrocarbons. But that, I’m sure you’re thinking, was the Bush era. You know, the years of over-the-top unilateralism that crashed and burned along with those dreams of a global Pax Americana and a domestic Pax Republicana.

You might think so, but the news — what’s left of it anyway — tells a different story. When it comes to “change you can believe in,” a recent pieceby Saeed Shah and Warren P. Stroebel of the McClatchy newspapers caught my eye. They wrote: “The White House has asked Congress for — and seems likely to receive — $736 million to build a new U.S. embassy in Islamabad, along with permanent housing for U.S. government civilians and new office space in the Pakistani capital.”

In other words, the Obama administration is asking Congress to fork over almost the exact price of our monster embassy in Baghdad (after staggering cost overruns). Figure those always predictable overruns into this project, and you may indeed have the first billion-dollar embassy. To use a term the U.S. military once loved, this will result in a large “footprint”on Pakistani soil. It is, to say the least, not normal practice to build and staff such mega-embassies. So if you have a taste for symbolism, this sort of embassy says a lot about how Washington imagines power relations on this planet. Think of these as our ziggurats, our temples (as well as command centers) in foreign climes.

Far stranger than any of these strange specifics is this: none of them seem particularly strange to us. They are news, yes, but not the sort of news that opens eyes, starts discussion, sets Americans — sets you — wondering.

Two Lost Syllables

Now maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by any of this. After all, isn’t this just how imperial powers like to operate: as if they owned the planet, or at least had special rights that overruled the locals when it comes to significant hunks of prime real estate?

Which brings us to a word I haven’t said yet, the real subject of my speech today: Empire. It’s the word no one in Washington can say. Its absence from our political discussion is perhaps what makes the United States imperially unique, and yet without it, some crucial part of the real world is missing in action too, some part of what might help us understand ourselves and others.

Words denied mean analyses not offered, things not grasped, surprise not registered, strangeness not taken in, all of which means that terrible mistakes are repeated, wounding ways of acting in the world never seriously reconsidered.

Think of a crucial missing word as a kind of invisible straight jacket. Its absence, oddly enough, chains you to the present, to what’s accepted and acceptable. Just two missing syllables, em-pire, making up a word that’s proved so serviceable for so many centuries. And yet, without it, our American world is a little like the one in the sci-fi movie The Matrix. You remember, it’s the one where human beings imagine themselves moving and acting in a perfectly real land, while their actual bodies are stored somewhere far more grim. One question to ask yourself as you form your processional to leave these grounds that have sheltered you these last years might be: Do you have any idea what world you’re walking into? If essential terms for describing it are missing, can you even know? And no less important, do you want to know?

You’ll notice — and here’s the good news — that I haven’t offered you a shred of career advice, or a hint of optimism so far. And on this suitably gloomy day in this gloomy world of ours, I hope not to.

I also know that, whatever your minds may be on as you prepare to head through your school’s vast gates into a none-too-welcoming world, they aren’t on what I have to say today. That, quite honestly, gives me the freedom to talk about a word you may not have heard in your four years here, not applied to our country anyway.

Think about it. In these last moments of your campus life, don’t you find it a little strange that the United States, your country, has military bases, more than 700 of them, scattered across every continent and that your school offers not a single course on the way we garrison this planet? Don’t you find it just a tad odd that this seemingly salient fact of our national existence hasn’t seemed worth teaching, debating, or discussing?

To read  the rest click here.

About the author

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the Cold War and beyond, as well as of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing. He also edited The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), an alternative history of the mad Bush years.

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To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp interest these days:

Posts about the American Empire:

  1. Prof Nouriel Roubini describes “The Decline of the American Empire”, 18 August 2008
  2. The foundation of America’s empire: our chain of bases around the world, 8 September 2008
  3. “A shattering moment in America’s fall from power”, 19 November 2008
  4. “End of Empire” by David Roche, 29 November 2008
  5. To understand the Imperial Unconscious, Tom provides the Dictionary of American Empire-Speak, 6 March 2009
  6. The transition between Imperial reigns: what will it mean for America?, 16 December 2008

7 thoughts on “Words important for all Americans to hear, from Tom Engelhardt”

  1. My wife and I have had the fortune of traveling to a number of countries recently. We recently drove by the Canadian Parliament building in Ottawa and then visited the building with little hassle. However, the only street we found blocked off was in front of the U.S. embassy. This story is similar to Berlin, Prague, .. and many other cities where the restrictions on travel in front of the U.S. embassy is greater than in front of the host countries’ own seats-of-government. We, the U.S.A, have entered these capital cities and taken them over from their own citizens.
    Fabius Maximus replies: It’s always interesting to hear first-person evidence. What message do these fortress-embassies send to the local people?

  2. The problem with “impunity” is that it’s just another name for lawlessness. And how do we describe lawless violence? Terrorism.

    This explains how the anti-terrorists turn so easily into terrorists, how the anti-drug squads turn into drug-dealing assassins. Remember los Zetas? They started out as Mexico’s elite paramilitary anti-drug force. Now they’re the most feared of all the Mexican drug cartels.

    The same future awaits the DHS and the U.S. army’s elite counterterrorism squads.

    “Whoever fights with monsters should see to it that he does not become one himself. And when you stare for a long time into an abyss, the abyss stares back into you.”
    — #146 in Part IV of Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche
    Fabius Maximus replies: Although there is no unversally accepted definintion of terrorism, I don’t believe this is correct by any commonly accepted meaning.

    “how do we describe lawless violence? Terrorism.”

    Terrorism is usually consided to be the calculated use of violence (or the threat of violence) against civilians in order to attain goals — usually political or religious).

    Conflating lawless violence with terrorism is similar to conflating organized crime with 4GW. That does not mean that the former is good or estimable, merely different from terrorism. Bad things come in many forms.

  3. Major Scarlet

    What is so bad about being an empire? being the best isn’t a popularity contest. we won’t always be on top. perhaps some of you folks would like to see how china deals with their rational self interest when they learn to power project and america declines to a point where wee can no longer resist. in my opinion, we have been a fairly benign empire, historically speaking. basing troops abroad is not abnormal for super-powers. we are not set up to be governing authorities in any country we are based in. it is a mutual security arrangement for both parties.
    Fabius Maximus replies: The problem is that we are a bizarro-empire. We have the costs of empire but not the Imperial income. The empire (or more accurately, “empire” — as it is somewhat of a metaphor) contributes to our ruinious government deficits and current account imbalance. Both will be lethal to the Republic if not fixed.

  4. “What is so bad about being an empire?”

    This question reminds me of a crude joke I heard as a schoolboy, fifty years ago. The premise is that our protagonist buys a certified two-weeks-without-water camel at a used camel lot, heads out into the desert, experiences a camel breakdown after one week, and eventually finds his way back to the camel dealer to complain. The camel dealer says, “Well, maybe you didn’t ensure the camel was properly hydrated. The procedure is – as the camel is bent over drinking – bring two bricks together sharply on his dangling male appendages – the surprised camel will suck in his entire capacity at that time.” The customer says, “But doesn’t that hurt?” “Not at all – just be careful where you put your thumbs when you’re holding the bricks.”

    Analogies: camel owner = empire; camel = subjects of empire.

    You may no longer take seriously the myths you were taught as a schoolchild about the justifications for revolution – liberty, equality, fraternity, certain inalienable rights, self-determination, blah blah blah. Let’s put it bluntly. Across space and time, the experience of people who have been subjected to empire is that, at the recipients’ end, it has large helpings of theft and murder. This may be better than dispossession or extermination, whether partial or complete, which is another possible outcome of intercultural contact.

    As for “mutual security arrangement” – it doesn’t make me laugh out loud, but if you could see my face, you would observe a wry smile.

  5. Roberto Buffagni

    In American English, “border” tends to mean “frontier”.

    The analogy between the present phase of American Imperialism (Gulf War, Balkan War, Iraq, Afghanistan) and the XIX century Indian Wars comes very easily to mind. But American Imperialism is very different from, say, Roman or British imperialism. It is not a territorial imperialism, because America is not a Land Power, and the center of gravity of its Empire is not a city, nor a crown (“Identity”), but Sea and Sky (“Freedom”). Its center of gravity is an idea, a project of humanity.

    Everybody can (and then, should)become American: see the words written on the Statue of Liberty. So that American imperialism is comparatively milder, benevolent, democratic: if you submit, relax and enjoy you in becoming American, you are welcome. But if you don’t submit, if you don’t want to rescind your cultural and/or religious roots, if you don’t want to give up your tradition (if you don’t want that your sons grow up to become strangers), then American resentment flares up (“How dare you refuse such a priceless gift?!”).
    See Hiroshima, Nagasaki; or recently, Belgrade, Falluja.

    This is the reason at the core of 4GW. 4GW will not stop, because this American attitude will not, IMHO, stop, unless the USA happens to meet a major military defeat, worse than VietNam. America will not stop dreaming, until defeat will not wake her up.

  6. Major Scarlet

    Mista Charlie, we aren’t an empire in the neo-classical sense but we are an empire. a mostly economic empire that, strangely, apologizes for having so much power. at any rate, there is nothing wrong with it.

    if you think NATO wasn’t a “mutual security agreement”, we’ll agree to disagree. i’d rather not engage someone in an intellectual alternate universe.
    Fabius Maximus replies: We are not “a mostly economiic empire”, but rather an un-economic empire. Future generations of schoolchildren will laugh at our foolishness. Except for future American schoolchildren, who will cry at our foolishness.

  7. cletracsteve’s comments put me in mind of when I went to Beijing in 2002 (my first time abroad since 9/11). In particular, two things:

    (1) The U.S. Embassy in Beijing (a place where I had been several times previously), was in what I would now term a “Greenzone.” Meaning that the surrounding streets were barricaded off with Chinese government forces at regular intervals. I am not sure what this greatly heightened security signifies, but it was still there in 2005.

    (2) The contrast between entering the United States and China was stark. In China, you were quickly ushered through customs by an unarmed customs official, and there were no armed guards standing around. Returning to the United States was shocking (I had previously been abroad many times, and never encountered this kind of feeling entering a country, i.e. open hostility). Each customs official had a firearm, and there were officers with military rifles standing at various locations. There was a creepy new “DHS” flag with that black eagle on it. The feeling of oppression and “fascism” was truly beyond the pale.

    At the risk of creating a false dichotomy, its truly a shame that when Bush was presented with two alternative paths after 9/11 (when we had the sympathy and support of the world), he chose to use 9/11 as an excuse for unbridled aggression as opposed to using it to foster new relationships with the world. I think its obvious to all, except for among certain megalomaniacs in Washington, that voluntary cooperation is almost always more useful than involuntary submission. In lawyer terms, a bird in the hand via a voluntary settlement agreement is almost always more useful than two in the bush in an involuntary judgment.

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