Today is the first September 11 under President Trump. Perhaps fittingly, it’s also the first time that the amount of years since that fateful day can be expressed as a discreet square of a square – because the number 16 is a square of 4, which is a square of 2. Why would that be fitting? Because a square of a square invokes a box in a box, and 9/11 is both a Pandora’s box that continues to expand into new Pandora’s boxes as well as a set of (yes) Russian dolls that keep revealing new inner truths. As a WTC7-shaped square of everything and nothing, you could call 9/11 a parabox. You could also make a decent case that if 9/11 had never happened, neither would have President Trump.
Before 16 years ago today, we didn’t speak of terror quite so often or so portentously. (In the 90s, Alanis Morrisette could sing “Thank you terror” without anyone caring.) Many have rightly complained that when President Bush declared a War on Terror, he declared war not on an enemy but on a tactic that can never be truly defeated. Bush’s two Presidential successors have both run for AND against this open-ended war on terror, essentially saying “fighting terror everywhere is misguided, but I’ll just fight terror a little more and then wrap up.” Call it the terror tango.
As it happens, we never end our Orwellian war against Eastasia/Eurasia, ensuring our need to control more violence. Like Israel, we reserve the right to react to terror with terror-like violence that is vastly disproportionate to what we’ve incurred. Even in the 1980s, Wolverine once said that “terrorists” are what the big army calls the little army.
Although the term has been around at least since the French revolution, in the 21st century we recognize terror for what it is: weaponized fear. (Earlier generations would have benefitted from writing “weaponized” more often.) Perhaps the central problem with our war on terror is that we can only fight fire with fire, only attack weaponized fear with more weaponized fear. Our cool Armed Forces recruitment videos aren’t necessarily cooler than ISIS’s recruitment videos. Year by year, in 15 years of the war on terror, we steadily abandoned the moral high ground. That’s just one reason the terror tango seems increasingly totalitarian.
This war, at the 16-year mark, has given up even the pretense to moral superiority. Our current President responds to a friendly reporter’s questions about killers overseas: “what, you think we’re so innocent?” Many people have been asking why Trump can bring himself to confront people like Mika Brzezinski, Angela Merkel, and South Korea President Moon Jae-in, but not Nazis or dictators like Rodrigo Duterte, Tayyip Erdogan, or Vladimir Putin.
It doesn’t feel like a coincidence that even Republicans have chosen this square-in-square year to question the unending war on terror. It seems that even they have tired of being tied to a vote, older than their teenage kids, that obviously never covered ISIS. Marginalized and demoralized, even Congress may be sick of the terror-tango coming so close to totalitarianism.
That has made me think. Sure, most Americans weren’t talking about terror during, say, the 1960s. But that doesn’t mean intellectuals had left the issue alone. In fact, no less than Hannah Arendt, during the 1940s, while writing the authoritative book on totalitarianism, had a few choice words about terror. She wrote:
Propaganda is indeed part and parcel of “psychological warfare”; but terror is more. Terror continues to be used by totalitarian regimes even when its psychological aims are achieved: its real horror is that it reigns over a completely subdued population. Where the rule of terror is brought to perfection, as in concentration camps, propaganda disappears entirely; it was even expressly prohibited in Nazi Germany. Propaganda, in other words, is one, and possibly the most important, instrument of totalitarianism for dealing with the nontotalitarian world; terror, on the contrary, is the very essence of its form of government. Its existence depends as little on psychological or other subjective factors as the existence of laws in a constitutionally governed country depends upon the number of people who transgress them.
Terror as the counterpart of propaganda played a greater role in Nazism than in Communism. The Nazis did not strike at prominent figures as had been done in the earlier wave of political crimes in Germany (the murder of Rathenau and Erzberger); instead, by killing small socialist functionaries or influential members of opposing parties, they attempted to prove to the population the dangers involved in mere membership. This kind of mass terror, which still operated on a comparatively small scale, increased steadily because neither the police nor the courts seriously prosecuted political offenders on the so-called Right. It was valuable as what a Nazi publicist has aptly called “power propaganda”: it made clear to the population at large that the power of the Nazis was greater than that of the authorities and that it was safer to be a member of a Nazi paramilitary organization than a loyal Republican. This impression was greatly strengthened by the specific use the Nazis made of their political crimes. They always admitted them publicly, never apologized for “excesses of the lower ranks” – such apologies were used only by Nazi sympathizers – and impressed the population as being very different from the “idle talkers” of other parties.
The similarities between this kind of terror and plain gangsterism are too obvious to be pointed out. This does not mean that Nazism was gangsterism, as has sometimes been concluded, but only that the Nazis, without admitting it, learned as much from American gangster organizations as their propaganda, admittedly, learned from American business publicity.
From these sore spots the lies of totalitarian propaganda derive the element of truthfulness and real experience they need to bridge the gulf between reality and fiction. Only terror could rely on mere fiction, and even the terror-sustained lying fictions of totalitarian regimes have not yet become entirely arbitrary, although they are usually cruder, more impudent, and, so to speak, more original than those of the movements.
There’s something familiar about the lack of even the need for apology, the shamelessness about fiction. There’s something about the business gangsterism, the Trumpian vibe of “nice democracy here, be a shame if something were to happen to it.”
I haven’t done all the math yet. Trump is not pro-totalitarian or pro-terror in any definition that we so far know. But I believe we’re watching the definitions change before our eyes. This particular 9/11 may someday serve as a marking point for the evolution of a new type of terror-totalitarianism tango.