Gore Vidal‘s essay, “The End of Liberty”
“The End of Liberty,” by Gore Vidal, Septermber 2001.
Note: Not long before September 11, 2001. Vanity Fair commissioned a piece from their favorite author, Gore Vidal. Sometime after the events of 9/11, he submitted the below essay, which the magazine returned with a kill fee for “market reasons.” The essay had, however, already been published in a collection of Vidal’s essays by Fazi Editore in Italy under the title “La fine della libertà: verso una nuova totalitarianismo.” (The below retains British punctuation and spelling.)
According to the Qoran, it was on a Tuesday that Allah created darkness.
Last 11 September, when suicide-pilots were crashing commercial airliners into crowded American buildings, I did not have to look to the calendar to see what day it was: Dark Tuesday was casting its long shadow across Manhattan and along the Potomac river. I was also not surprised that despite the seven or so trillion dollars we have spent since 1950 on what is euphemistically called ‘Defense’, there would have been no advance warning from the FBI or CIA or Defense Intelligence Agency. While the Bushites have been eagerly preparing for the last war but two – missiles from North Korea, clearly marked with flags, would rain down on Portland, Oregon only to be intercepted by our missile-shield balloons, the foxy Osama bin Laden knew that all he needed for his holy war on the infidel were fliers willing to kill themselves along with those random passengers who happened to be aboard hijacked airliners. Also, like so many of those born to wealth, Osama is not one to throw money about. Apparently, the airline tickets of the 19 known dead hijackers were paid through a credit card. I suspect that United and American Airlines will never be reimbursed by American Express whose New York offices Osama – inadvertently? – hit.
On the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, a passenger telephoned out to say that he and a dozen or so other men – several of them athletes – were going to attack the hijackers. ‘Let’s roll!’ he shouted. A scuffle. A scream. Silence. But the plane, allegedly aimed at the White House, ended up in a field near Pittsburgh. We have always had wise and brave civilians. It is the military and the politicians and the media that one frets about. After all, we have not encountered suicide bombers since the Kamikazes, as we called them in the Pacific where I was idly a soldier in World War II. Japan was the enemy then. Now, bin Laden… The Muslims… The Pakistanis… Step in line.
The telephone rings. A distraught voice from the United States. ‘Berry Berenson’s dead. She was on Flight…’
The world was getting surreal. Arabs. Plastic knives. The beautiful Berry. What on earth did any of these elements have in common other than an unexpected appointment in Samarra with that restless traveller Death?
The telephone keeps ringing. In summer I live south of Naples, Italy. Italian newspapers, TV, radio, want comment. So do I. I have written lately about Pearl Harbor. Now I get the same question over and over: Isn’t this exactly like Sunday morning 7 December 1941?
No, it’s not, I say. As far as we now know, we had no warning of last Tuesday’s attack. Of course, our government has many, many secrets which our enemies always seem to know about in advance but our people are not told of until years later, if at all. President Roosevelt provoked the Japanese to attack us at Pearl Harbor. I describe the various steps he took in a book, The Golden Age. We now know what was on his mind: coming to England’s aid against Japan’s ally, Hitler, a virtuous plot that ended triumphantly for the human race. But what was – is – on bin Laden’s mind? For several decades there has been an unrelenting demonisation of the Muslim world in the American media. Since I am a loyal American, I am not supposed to tell you why this has taken place but then it is not usual for us to examine why aNYThing happens other than to accuse others of motiveless malignity. ‘We are good,’ announced a deep-thinker on American television. ‘They are evil,’ which wraps that one up in a neat package. But it was Bush himself who put, as it were, the bow on the package in an address to a joint-session of Congress where he shared with them – as well as all of us somewhere over the Belt-way – his profound knowledge of Islam’s wiles and ways: ‘They hate what they see right here in this Chamber.’ A million Americans nodded in front of their TV sets. ‘Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms, our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.’
At this plangent moment what American’s gorge did not rise like a Florida chad to the bait? Should the 44-year-old Saudi-Arabian, bin Laden be the prime mover, we know surprisingly little about him. We can assume that he favours the Palestinians in their uprising against the European- and American-born Israelis, intent, many of them, on establishing a theocratic state in what was to have been a common holy land for Jews, Muslims and Christians.
But if Osama ever wept tears for Arafat, they have left little trace. So why does he and millions of other Muslims hate us?
Let us deal first with the six foot seven inch Osama who enters history in 1979 as a guerrilla warrior working alongside the CIA to defend Afghanistan against the invading soviets. Was he anti-communist? Irrelevant question. He is anti-Infidel in the land of the Prophet. Described as fabulously wealthy, Osama is worth ‘only’ a few million dollars, according to a relative. It was his father who created a fabulous fortune with a construction company that specialised in building palaces for the Saudi royal family. That company is now worth several billion dollars, presumably shared by Osama’s 54 brothers and sisters. Although he speaks perfect English, he was entirely educated at the Saudi capital, Jeddah…. Several siblings live in the Boston area and give large sums to Harvard. We are told that much of his family appears to have disowned him while many of his assets in the Saudi kingdom have been frozen. Where does Osama’s money now come from? He is a superb fund-raiser for Allah but only within the Arab world; contrary to legend, he has taken no CIA money. He is also a superb organiser within Afghanistan.
In 1988, he warned the Saudi king that Saddam Hussein was going to invade Kuwait. Osama assumed that after his own victories as a guerilla against the Russians, he and his organization would be used by the Saudis to stop the Iraqis. To Osama’s horror, King Fahd sent for the Americans: thus, were infidels established on the sacred sands of Mohammed. ‘This was,’ he said, ‘the most shocking moment of my life.’ ‘Infidel’, in his sense, does not mean aNYThing of great moral consequence – like cheating sexually on your partner; rather it means lack of faith in Allah, the one God, and in his Prophet. Osama persuaded 4,000 Saudis to go to Afghanistan for military training by his group. In 1991, Osama moved on to Sudan. In 1994, when the Saudis withdrew his citizenship, Osama was already a legendary figure in the Islamic world and so, like Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, he could tell the royal Saudis, ‘I banish you. There is a world elsewhere.’ Unfortunately, that world is us. In a 12-page ‘declaration of war’, Osama presented himself as potential liberator of the Muslim world from the great Satan of modern corruption, the United States. When [President] Clinton lobbed a missile at a Sudanese aspirin factory, Osama blew up two of our embassies in Africa, put a hole in the side of an American war-ship off Yemen, and so on to the events of Tuesday, 11 September. Now President George W Bush, in retaliation, has promised us not only a ‘new war’ but a secret war. That is, not secret to Osama but only to us who pay for and fight it.
‘This administration will not talk about any plans we may or may not have,’ said Bush. ‘We’re going to find these evil-doers… and we’re going to hold them accountable’ along with the other devils who have given Osama shelter in order to teach them the one lesson that we ourselves have never been able to learn: in history, as in physics, there is no action without re-action. Or, as Edward S Herman puts it, ‘One of the most durable features of the U.S. culture is the inability or refusal to recognise US crimes.’
When Osama was four years old, I arrived in Cairo for a conversation with Nasser to appear in Look Magazine. I was received by Mohammed Hekal, Nasser’s chief adviser. Nasser himself was not to be seen. He was at the Barricade, his retreat on the Nile. Later, I found out that a plot to murder him had just failed and he was in well-guarded seclusion. Hekal spoke perfect English; he was sardonic, cynical. ‘We are studying the Qoran for hints on birth control.’ He sighed.
‘Not very. But we keep looking for a text.’ We talked off and on for a week. Nasser wanted to modernize Egypt. But there was a reactionary, religious element… Another sigh. Then a surprise. ‘We’ve found something very odd, the young village boys – the bright ones that we are educating to be engineers, chemists and so on – are turning religious on us.’
Hekal was a spiritual son of our Eighteenth Century Enlightenment. I thought of Hekal on Dark Tuesday when one of his modernised Arab generation had, in the name of Islam, struck at what had been, 40 years earlier, Nasser’s model for a modern state. Yet Osama seemed, from all accounts, no more than a practising, as opposed to zealous, Muslim. Ironically, he was trained as an engineer. Understandably, he dislikes the United States as symbol and as fact. But when our clients, the Saudi royal family, allowed American troops to occupy the Prophet’s holy land, Osama named the fundamental enemy ‘the Crusader-Zionist Alliance’. Thus, in a phrase, he defined himself and reminded his critics that he is a Wahhabi Muslim, a Puritan activist not unlike our Falwell-Robertson zanies, only serious. He would go to war against the United States, ‘the head of the serpent’. Even more ambitiously, he would rid all the Muslim states of their western-supported regimes, starting with that of his native land. The word ‘Crusader’ was the give-away. In the eyes of many Muslims, the Christian West, currently in alliance with Zionism, has for 1,000 years tried to dominate the lands of the Umma – the true believers. That is why Osama is seen by so many simple folk as the true heir to Saladin, the great warrior king who defeated Richard of England and the western crusaders.
Who was Saladin? Dates 1138-1193. He was an Iraqi Kurd [born in Takrit in what is now Iraq]. In the century before his birth, western Christians had established a kingdom at Jerusalem, to the horror of the Islamic Faithful. Much as the United States used the Gulf War as pretext for our current occupation of Saudi Arabia, Saladin raised armies to drive out the Crusaders. He conquered Egypt, annexed Syria and finally smashed the Kingdom of Jerusalem in a religious war that pitted Mohammedan against Christian. He united and ‘purified’ the Muslim world and though Richard Lion-heart was the better general, in the end he gave up and went home. As one historian put it, Saladin ‘typified the Mohammedan utter self surrender to a sacred cause.’ But he left no government behind him, no political system because, as he himself said, ‘My troops will do nothing save when I ride at their head…’
Now his spirit has returned with a vengeance. The Bush administration, though eerily inept in all but its principal task which is to exempt the rich from taxes, has casually torn up most of the treaties to which civilised nations subscribe – like the Kyoto Accords or the nuclear missile agreement with Russia.
As the Bushites go about their relentless plundering of the Treasury and now, thanks to Osama, Social Security (a supposedly untouchable trust fund) which, like Lucky Strike green has gone to war, they have also allowed the FBI and CIA either to run amok – or not budge at all, leaving us, the very first ‘indispensable’ and at popular request last global empire, rather like the Wizard of Oz doing his odd pretend-magic tricks while hoping not to be found out.
Latest Bushism to the world, ‘Either you are with us or you are with the Terrorists.’ That’s known as asking for it. To be fair, one cannot entirely blame the current Oval One for our incoherence. Though his predecessors have generally had rather higher IQs than his, they, too, assiduously served the 1% that owns the country while allowing everyone else to drift. Particularly culpable was Bill Clinton.
Although the most able chief executive since FDR, Clinton, in his frantic pursuit of election victories, set in place the trigger for a police state which his successor is now happily squeezing. Police state? What’s that all about? In April 1996, one year after the Oklahoma City bombing, President Clinton signed into law the Anti-Terrorist and Effective Death Penalty Act, a so-called ‘conference bill’ in which many grubby hands played a part including the bill’s co-sponsor Senate Majority leader Bob Dole. Although Clinton, in order to win elections, did many unwise and opportunistic things, he seldom, like Charles II, ever said an unwise one. But faced with opposition to Anti-Terrorism legislation which not only gives the attorney-general the power to use the armed services against the civilian population, neatly nullifying the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, it also, selectively, suspends Habeas Corpus, the heart of Anglo-American liberty. Clinton attacked his critics as ‘unpatriotic’. Then, wrapped in the flag, he spoke from the throne: ‘There is nothing patriotic about our pretending that you can love your country but despise your government.’ This is breathtaking since it includes, at one time or another, most of us. Put another way, was a German in 1939 who said that he detested the Nazi dictatorship unpatriotic?
There have been ominous signs that our fragile liberties have been dramatically at risk since the 1970s when the white-shirt-and-tie FBI reinvented itself from a corps of ‘generalists’, trained in law and accounting into a confrontational ‘Special Weapons and Tactics’ (aka SWAT) Green Beret style army of warriors who like to dress up in camouflage or black ninja clothing and, depending on the caper, the odd ski mask. In the early 80s an FBI super-SWAT team, the Hostage 270 Rescue Team was formed. As so often happens in United States-speak, this group specialised not in freeing hostages or saving lives but in murderous attacks on groups that offended them, like the Branch Davidians – evangelical Christians who were living peaceably in their own compound at Waco, Texas until an FBI SWAT team, illegally using army tanks, killed 82 of them, including 25 children. This was 1993. Post Tuesday, SWAT teams can now be used to go after suspect Arab-Americans or, indeed, anyone who might be guilty of terrorism, a word without legal definition (how can you fight terrorism by suspending habeas corpus since those who want their corpuses released from prison are already locked up?) But in the post-Oklahoma City trauma, Clinton said that those who did not support his draconian legislation were terrorist co-conspirators who wanted to turn ‘America into a safe house for terrorists’. If the cool Clinton could so froth what are we to expect from the over-heated Bush post-Tuesday?
Incidentally, those who were shocked by Bush the Younger’s shout that we are now ‘at war’ with Osama and that those parts of the Muslim world that support him, should have quickly put on their collective thinking caps. Since a nation can only be at war with another nation-state, why did our smouldering if not yet burning bush come up with such a phrase? Think hard. This will count against your final grade. Give up? Well, most insurance companies have a rider that they need not pay for damage done by ‘an act of war’.
Although the men and women around Bush know nothing of war and less of our Constitution, they understand fund-raising. For this wartime exclusion, Hartford Life would soon be breaking open its piggy bank to finance Republicans for years to come. But it was the mean-spirited Washington Post that pointed out, under US case law, only a sovereign nation, not a bunch of radicals, can commit an ‘act of war’. Good try, W. This now means that we the people, with our tax money, will be allowed to bail out the insurance companies, a rare privilege not afforded to just any old generation. Although the American people have no direct means of influencing their government, their ‘opinions’ are occasionally sampled through polls. According to a November 1995 CNN-Time poll, 55% of the people believe ‘The federal government has become so powerful that it poses a threat to the rights of ordinary citizens.’ Three days after Dark Tuesday, 74% said they thought, ‘It would be necessary for Americans to give up some of their personal freedoms.’ 86% favoured guards and metal detectors at public buildings and events. Thus, as the police state settles comfortably in place, one can imagine Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfield studying these figures, transfixed with joy. ‘It’s what they always wanted, Dick.’
‘And to think we never knew, Don.’
‘Thanks to those liberals, Dick.’
‘We’ll get those bastards now, Don.’
It seems forgotten by our amnesiac media that we once energetically supported Saddam Hussein in Iraq’s war against Iran and so he thought, not unnaturally, that we wouldn’t mind his taking over Kuwait’s filling stations. Overnight our employee became Satan – and so remains, as we torment his people in the hope that they will rise up and overthrow him – as the Cubans were supposed, in their US-imposed poverty, to dismiss Castro a half-century ago, whose only crime is refusal to allow the Kennedy brothers to murder him in their so-called Operation Mongoose.
Our imperial disdain for the lesser breeds did not go unnoticed by the latest educated generation of Saudi Arabians, and by their evolving leader, Osama bin Laden, whose moment came in 2001 when a weak American president took office in questionable circumstances. The New York Times is the principal dispenser of opinion received from corporate America. It generally stands tall, or tries to. Even so, as of 13 September, the NYT’s editorial columns were all slightly off-key. Under the heading ‘Demands of Leadership’ the NYT was upbeat, sort of. It’s going to be OK if you work hard and keep your eye on the ball, Mr President. Apparently Bush is ‘facing multiple challenges, but his most important job is a simple matter of leadership.’ Thank God. Not only is that all it takes, but it’s simple, too! For a moment… The NYT then slips into the way things look as opposed to the way they ought to look. ‘The Administration spent much of yesterday trying to overcome the impression that Mr Bush showed weakness when he did not return to Washington after the terrorists struck.
‘But from what I could tell no one cared while some of us felt marginally safer that the national silly-billy was trapped in his Nebraska bunker. Patiently, the NYT spells it out for Bush and for us, too. ‘In the days ahead, Mr. Bush may be asking the nation to support military actions that many citizens, particularly those with relations in the service will find alarming. He must show that he knows what he is doing.’ Well, that’s a bull’s eye. If only FDR had got letters like that from Arthur Krock at the old NYT. Finally, Anthony Lewis thinks it wise to eschew Bushite unilateralism in favour of cooperation with other nations in order to contain Tuesday’s darkness by understanding its origin while ceasing our provocations of cultures opposed to us and our arrangements. Lewis, unusually, for a New York Times writer, favours peace now. So do I. But then we are old and have been to the wars and value our fast-diminishing freedoms unlike those jingoes now beating their tom-toms in Times’ Square in favour of an all-out war for other Americans to fight.
As usual, the political columnist who has made the most sense of all this is William Pfaff in the International Herald Tribune (17 September 2001). Unlike the provincial war-lovers at the New York Times, he is appalled by the spectacle of an American president who declined to serve his country in Vietnam, howling for war against not a nation or even a religion but one man and his accomplices, a category that will ever widen.
The riposte of a civilised nation: one that believes in good, in human society and does oppose evil, has to be narrowly focused and, above all, intelligent. Missiles are blunt weapons. Those terrorists are smart enough to make others bear the price for what they have done, and to exploit the results. A maddened US response that hurts still others is what they want: it will fuel the hatred that already fires the self-righteousness about their criminal acts against the innocent. What the United States needs is cold reconsideration of how it has arrived at this pass. It needs, even more, to foresee disasters that might lie in the future.
War is the no-win, all-lose option. The time has come to put the good Kofi Annan to use. As glorious as total revenge will be for our war-lovers, a truce between Saladin and the Crusader Zionists is in the interest of the entire human race. Long before the dread monotheists got their hands on history’s neck, we had been taught how to handle feuds by none other than the god Apollo as dramatised by Aeschylus in The Eumenides (a polite Greek term for the Furies who keep us daily company on CNN). Orestes, for the sin of matricide, cannot rid himself of the Furies who hound him wherever he goes. He appeals to the god Apollo who tells him to go to the UN – also known as the citizens’ assembly at Athens – which he does and is acquitted on the ground that blood feuds must be ended or they will smoulder forever, generation after generation and great towers shall turn to flame and incinerate us all until:
The thirsty dust shall never more suck up the darkly steaming blood… and vengeance crying death for death! But man with man and state with state shall vow the pledge of common hate and common friendship, that for man has oft made blessing out of ban, be ours until all time.
Let Annan mediate between East and West before there is nothing left of either of us to salvage. The awesome physical damage Osama and company did us on Dark Tuesday is as nothing compared to the knock-out blow to our vanishing liberties – the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1991 combined with the recent request to Congress for additional special powers to wire-tap without judicial order; to deport lawful permanent residents, visitors and undocumented immigrants without due process and so on.
Even that loyal company town paper the Washington Post is alarmed:
The Justice Department is making extraordinary use of its powers to arrest and detain individuals, taking the unusual step of jailing hundreds of people on minor … violations. The lawyers and legal scholars… said they could not recall a time when so many people had been arrested and held without bond on charges – particularly minor charges – related to the case at hand.
This is pre-Osama:
Restrictions on personal liberty, on the right of free expression of opinion, including freedom of the press; on the rights of assembly and associations; and violations of the privacy of postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications and warrants for house searches, orders for confiscations as well as restrictions on property, are also permissible beyond the legal limits otherwise prescribed.
The tone is familiar. It is from Hitler’s 1933 speech calling for ‘an Enabling Act’ for ‘the protection of the People and the State’ after the catastrophic Reichstag fire that the Nazis had secretly lit.
Only one congresswoman, Barbara Lee of California, voted against the additional powers granted the President.
Meanwhile, a NYT-CBS poll notes that only 6% now oppose military action while a substantial majority favour war ‘even if many thousands of innocent civilians are killed’. Most of this majority are far too young to recall World War II, Korea, even Vietnam. Simultaneously, Bush’s approval rating has soared from the around 50% to 91%.
Traditionally, in war, the President is totemic like the flag. When Kennedy got his highest rating after the debacle of the Bay of Pigs he observed, characteristically, ‘It would seem that the worse you fuck up in this job the more popular you get.’ Bush, father and son, may yet make it to Mount Rushmore though it might be cheaper to redo the handsome Barbara Bush’s look-alike, George Washington, by adding two strings of Teclas to his limestone neck, in memoriam, as it were. Finally, [DQ] the physical damage Osama and friends can do us – terrible as it has been thus far – is as nothing as to what he is doing to our liberties.
Once alienated, an ‘unalienable right’ is apt to be forever lost, in which case we are no longer even remotely the last best hope of earth but merely a seedy imperial state whose citizens are kept in line by SWAT teams and whose way of death, not life, is universally imitated. Since VJ Day 1945 (‘Victory over Japan’ and the end of World War II), we have been engaged in what the great historian Charles A Beard called ‘perpetual war for perpetual peace’. I have occasionally referred to our ‘enemy of the month club': each month a new horrendous enemy at whom we must strike before he destroys us. I have been accused of exaggeration, so here’s the scoreboard from Kosovo (1999) to Berlin Airlift (1948-49).
You will note that the compilers, Federation of American Scientists, record a number of our wars as ‘ongoing’, even though many of us have forgotten about them. We are given, under ‘Name’ many fanciful Defense Department titles like Urgent Fury which was Reagan’s attack on the island of Grenada, a month long caper which General Haig disloyally said could have been handled more briefly by the Provincetown police department. In these several hundred wars against communism, terrorism, drugs or sometimes nothing much, between Pearl Harbor and Tuesday 11 September 2001, we always struck the first blow.
Copyright © by Gore Vidal