Thursday, June 03, 2004

Words May Break My Bones

If you were raised by your TV, you’ll know the answer to this question: What is hamburger? Chopped ham? No! It’s chopped steak. (And therefore perfect for the zesty taste of A1 Steak Sauce.)

Likewise, what was the Cold War? A war against cold temperatures? No! It was a war against the Soviet Union! Dammit, they got me again.

So what is the War on Terror? A war against fright? No! It’s a war against … Give me a sec … A war against …

I don’t really know what the War is against. In fact, it isn’t a war at all, in the way humans have thought about war for five thousand years. It's really a rhetorical device that permits the government to invoke the prefabricated moral framework of “war” – with all the sacrifice and righteousness that comes with it – in carrying out what is, in fact, a political agenda. Once an agenda is a “war,” Americans are willing to accept a lot of inconvenience. During World War II, we conscripted the young; hoarded metal; spared meat; sealed our lips; and even permitted women to do men’s work. During the War on Terror, we have been asked to spend profusely (while reducing taxes pursuant to a wholly separate agenda); permit our children to kill and be killed; incur international hatred; and increase the likelihood of another devastating terrorist attack on American soil. If the War on Terror were not a war, but only a General Feeling of Abhorrence on Terror, there could be no sacrifice – and thus no overseas deployment of 200,000 troops, or massive bombing campaigns, or Patriot Act. We would be constrained to “fight” terrorism with the unexciting tools available to a peacetime government.

The War on Terror is not our first rhetorical war. LBJ had his War on Poverty. Several succeeding presidents had the War on Drugs. Did we blow our chances to succeed in those wars by not really treating them like wars?

Take the War on Poverty. As it actually was waged, the “War” amounted to mealymouthed disbursements of money and expansions of federal bureaucracy. Phooey. In a real war, we could have gone right to the root of the problem. Any community that aids or harbors poverty is our enemy. We would give those neighborhoods an ultimatum: Hand over poverty or else! If they didn’t comply, we could occupy them and root out the impoverished evil-doers. And we could store the survivors in prisons that would, through constant degradation and humiliation, ensure they would never embrace poverty again. (I heard we may already be trying this.)

So, too, with the War on Drugs. What did that “War” really amount to? More dogs in airports, fences on the borders, and full employment for prosecutors and prison guards. Drugs were obviously being aided and harbored by rogue nations, such as Colombia and Florida. (Scratch that last part.) Why did we put up with that? We should have said, “Hand over the drugs! Or else!” We could have assembled a Coalition of the Willing, which would have been comprised of at least 30 states. And if the drugs weren’t handed over tout de suite, we could have used the inherent powers of a government at war, mobilized troops, and bombed the hell out of Colombia (and maybe Florida). Then we could install a provisional interim coalitional collaborative conference of advisors to ensure that drugs get out and stay out.

I think the roadmap for the future is clear. Don’t like abortion? The War on Abortion is ready to be waged. Move the National Guard in to root it out. Don’t like gay marriage? Laser-guided cruise missiles straight into Provincetown should take care of that. Same with California, the Bill of Rights, and broccoli.

After all, what is a war? Chopped ham? No, it’s a rhetorical device that permits limitless exercise of executive power and ensures the complacency of a population afraid to be perceived as challenging the legitimacy of its leaders! Perfect for the use of zesty devices like rights-restricting statutes, bunker-busting bombs, and American lives.


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