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Life During Wartime

11.11.2001 | POLITICS

When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, all of America mobilized to meet the new challenge. Factories and plants abandoned commercial endeavors and converted their productive power to the task of churning out war material. Families, heeding a government that emphasized the collective good, began saving and recycling all manner of metal products, and cut their overall consumption to make way for the demands of war. And taxes, which provided the financial fuel for rebuilding America's military, went through the roof. From there, the war was brought against Japan.

Fast-forward sixty years. When terrorists attacked New York and Washington, private industry waited all of two days before marching to the capital and demanding a handout. Families, heeding a government that believes conservation has no role in public policy, were now told that true patriots consumed--mostly American flag merchandise, but fossil fuels and fine dinners as well. To underscore the point, Congress first resurrected a wasteful and shortsighted energy plan, and then shoved a massive tax cut (aimed primarily at the rich) through the House of Representatives. From here the war has been brought against Afghanistan, and as the bombs burst in midair the wealthy among us walk off with swollen wallets and craven smiles. The world has only changed forever for those who lack the means to control it. Sacrifice and misery are commodities of the normal classes; the same government that sends some men to Afghanistan sends others a constant stream of fawning gifts.

I. Terrorism

That the Taliban is evil is beyond question. It is a repressive religious dictatorship, misogynous and repulsive, and few people would shed tears if it vanished forever. That said, it's worth pointing out that the Taliban have no record of international terrorism, and contributed no terrorists to September 11's attacks. That task fell to our putative allies. Fifteen of the 19 suspected September 11 terrorists were from the repressive religious dictatorship of Saudi Arabia (which we protect), two were from the repressive religious dictatorship of the United Arab Emirates (which we also protect), and one was from the secular dictatorship of Egypt (second only to Israel in receiving our military aid). We could bomb these countries, too, one supposes--particularly Saudi Arabia, whose royal family has members that fund and ardently support bin Laden--but they have declared themselves right-minded totalitarian states and joined our struggle for freedom.

The Taliban did not bomb the World Trade Center, and, unless my memory greatly betrays me, it made two overtures to the United States that indicated a willingness to hand over the man who did. The first came when they asked to see the evidence against Osama bin Laden, and said he could be tried in Afghanistan and then extradited. That request was rebuffed. Then, on the eve of the bombing campaign, they said negotiations might result in bin Laden being expelled to a neutral country. This, too, was harshly turned away.

I still can't understand why. There is the old axiom, of course, which says the United States doesn't negotiate with terrorists, but even if this were true, the Taliban are not "terrorists" in the modern sense. They are admittedly terrorists in the original sense, because fear and violence are their primary methods of governance (the word "terrorist" is derived from "the Terror," the brutal period after the French Revolution when dissent meant the guillotine.) But if we start refusing to negotiate with every government that fits that bill, we'll need to close an awful lot of embassies, and disavow about fifty years of foreign policy as well.

And the sad truth is that it isn't true: the United States in general, and members of this Administration in particular, have never had qualms about dealing with terrorists. Fifteen years ago, many of the chest-thumping hawks that occupy positions in the current administration negotiated quite extensively with terrorists, and used the government of Iran as an intermediary. Nor did they stop at mere negotiation; they also sold surface-to-air missiles to a terrorist-sponsoring state, and then sent the proceeds to a terrorist, drug-running army in Nicaragua. (Included among these people, for anyone still under the impression that he wears a halo, is Colin Powell. No one knows exactly how involved our affable Secretary of State was, but only because he was less than forthright at the Iran-Contra hearings, answering "I don't recall," or "I can't recall," to 56 different questions.)

So why not negotiate? It's possible, of course, that the Taliban was bluffing, but even if this were the case, where would the harm have been? One doubts that we'd be any worse off than we are now, allied with a new army of fundamentalist warlords, creeping dangerously close to a ground war in a country famous for swallowing armies, and conducting a bombing campaign that is rapidly antagonizing the Muslim world. ("Before the bombing," an Afghan villager told the Los Angeles Times on November 5, "the Taliban was always saying that Americans were enemies of Islam, and we did not believe them. But now, when they are killing innocent people, we believe what the Taliban was saying was true.") Our Administration, which virulently disavows any interest in "nation building", now spends increasing amounts of time discussing the fate of post-Taliban Afghanistan, and less and less time talking about bin Laden himself. Between CNN installments of "America Strikes Back" and Donald Rumsfeld's daily briefings, we seem to have forgotten that the man responsible for September's atrocity may not be in Afghanistan at all. Is our goal to catch Osama bin Laden or is to reclaim the soul of Afghanistan? I have no problem with either, but I prize the former above the latter and I seem to be hearing very little about it as the air raids wear on.

Nor do I hear, for that matter, much about bin Laden's days with the CIA, or the Taliban's history with Unocal petroleum. The memory hole of CNN, in particular, is astounding: the September 11 attacks have made any discussion of blowback taboo. Also unmentioned, of course, is our history of militarizing a region we now consider barbaric. Worldwide, every dollar we've spent on humanitarian development has been matched by two dollars in military assistance; in the Middle East that ratio is still more stilted. But these tidbits have now become less relevant, not more. The world has changed, so goodbye to all that.

II. Airlines

Also lost in the media vacuum, it seems, have been the full implications of the airline aid package. After a parade of millionaires wearing sad-sack faces trundled in and out of the Capitol, Congress coughed up $15 billion in emergency assistance to the nation's airlines: $5 billion in grants, and $10 billion in loans. Attached to the package were no conditions for helping the 100,000 workers recently laid off, and--astoundingly--no conditions for improving security. This despite the fact that before September 11, the airlines consistently lobbied against tighter security rules (sandbagging many of the proposals brought forth after the bombing of Pan Am flight 103), and tended to blithely ignore the rules already in place (American Airlines in Boston was slapped with a $1 million fine for security lapses just one month before Mohammed Atta and his cohorts boarded Flight 11). Even in wake of September 11, FAA inspections have shown fewer than 10 percent of all airlines performing rudimentary security measures like matching bags to passengers. The airlines insist, of course, that steps are being taken, that "now"--as is always the case in the aftermath of an aviation disaster--"is the safest time to fly". "Now," however, must be selectively defined; presumably it does not refer to November 5, when a man at O'Hare Airport waltzed untouched through a United Airlines checkpoint carrying seven knives, a can of pepper spray, and a stun gun.

The industry has in the past objected to additional security measures on grounds of cost. Now it seems that Congress will pump $500 million into airport protection, and recoup the expense with a $2.50 surcharge placed on every ticket. This is far from exorbitant, and though the airlines could have made a similar move years ago, they preferred instead to farm security out to the lowest bidder. As a result, the men and women charged with keeping the skies safe receive the same shameful wages as burger flippers at McDonalds. Most audits also show them to be inadequately trained, and many underwent no background checks before they were dropped on the front lines of the war against terrorism. Mix these factors together and you begin to understand why the turnover rate for security personnel at airports usually hovers around 400 percent annually. In any other security field, statistics like these would be ludicrous. Airline CEOs are very rich, and they no doubt sometimes require bodyguards; I wonder if the men protecting them are disinterested, underpaid, and suffer from a tendency to quit every three months.

What Congress has actually done is award three bailouts. First, it has thrown 15 billion of our dollars at an industry that wasn't very healthy to begin with (remember that prewar talk about a passenger's bill of rights?). Second, by doing nothing for the 100,000 employees laid off, it has ensured that most of the newly jobless will collect unemployment insurance; this forces individual states to subsidize the downsizing tactics of an already-subsidized industry. And finally, by taking over the duties of airport security, the government relieves the airlines of yet another significant expense, making any rational observer wonder what on earth these companies have left to spend $15 billion on.

The answer, for United at least, seems to be a string of commercials during the World Series. I don't pretend to know the advertising rates charged for the Fall Classic, but I'm sure they aren't cheap, and it was disheartening, watching the games, to think that my tax money was going not to assist a fired worker's family, but instead into the already-swollen gullet of Major League Baseball. I have no problem with federalizing security, and I realize that healthy airlines are vital to the nation's economy. But why no strings attached to the aid? Airlines aren't vital to the economy simply by virtue of their existence. Their impact is their multiplier effect; airlines stimulate tourism, which before September 11 was the biggest industry in both the United States and the world. Hotels, restaurants, and retail stores rely on planes to move people and goods. But this is conditional on people wanting to fly, and people won't want to fly unless they feel safe. Since the airlines and their lobbyists have historically blocked improvements to our current system, which is about as secure as a spaghetti colander and certainly doesn't make people feel safe, I see no reason why they shouldn't be asked to take that $15 billion and foot part of the bill for making things better. We trust the airlines with our lives. Why should we bail out an industry that bailed out on us?

Of course that isn't the entire story. The airlines also have a powerful impact through the jobs they provide. But here again, the bailout package fails. Not simply because it contains no funds to assist laid-off workers, nor because it sets aside no money for job training. What is galling is that the package allows airlines to ignore the standing severance provisions in their labor contracts, meaning that workers can be let go with virtually no compensation at all, regardless of any past concessions their unions had won.

When the federal government gave the Chrysler Corporation a $1.5 billion bailout in 1980, it spread the funds equally across all levels of the corporation. It also mandated that the United Auto Workers be given a seat on the company's board, and Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca, in a show of good faith, went to work for $1 a year, vowing to pay every penny of the loan back (which he did.) Iacocca is no populist icon, but the sheer inequity of the aviation bailout makes one yearn for the days when CEOs were more like him. True, the airline bill freezes executive compensation at 2000 levels for two years, and caps executive severance at twice that amount. But when one considers that Leo Mullin, the Chairman of Delta Airlines, last year made $2.1 million in salary and $34 million in stock options, it becomes apparent that hardship will not be a shared experience for the whole Delta family. Journalist Greg Goldin has noted that it would take the average American worker 1,365 years to earn Mullin's annual income. What's more, the cap on executive compensation is only applied to the bailout's $10 billion in loans. If the companies restrict themselves to the $5 billion in grants, then salaries have no restrictions at all. As Goldin points out, the sky is (forgive the expression) the limit.

In its day, critics called the Chrysler loan a dangerous example of corporate welfare. Now it seems downright New Deal-ish. After the airline deal was passed, a coalition of Democrats tried to follow it up with legislation assisting the fired workers. This was met with frowns and consternation, and Congress' open arms quickly became crossed. The once-generous majority was suddenly afflicted with parsimony. Certainly we can't just wantonly spend, they said; now is not the time for Big Government. It was a stunning change in tune, but the band always plays to the audience, and this was a different concert altogether--only the hall was the same. The airline executives and their former workers saw different shows, because they reside in different Americas. One is where the government works for you, and the other is where it works you over.

III. Taxes

Those who decry Big Government tend to forget that Big Government is an apt description of war. War is, in fact, the biggest government of all. In peacetime, the Department of Defense spends almost $10,000 a second. In wartime, it spends significantly more. Regardless of how one feels about the military-industrial complex, it should be quite obvious, based on these figures, that no nation can fight a war and cut taxes at the same time. The reason for this is simple: without tax revenue, a war will mean, sooner or later, borrowing money to buy weapons, and weapons offer virtually no return on investment. If you buy a Tomahawk missile for $1.4 million, one of two things will happen. You will either shoot it, in which case it explodes and is gone forever, or you won't shoot it, in which it case it sits around and does absolutely nothing for your dollar. Either way, you will never get your $1.4 million back. Tomahawk missiles can be very useful, but from an economic standpoint they, like most weapons systems, are money that disappears. And because the easiest way to replace disappearing money is to print more, the combination of tax cuts and military spending is often accompanied by inflation--as was the case with Ronald Reagan's tax cut/military buildup in the 1980s.

The folly of a tax cut--any tax cut--is compounded by the idiocy of directing it most toward those who need it least. Assuming a tax rollback would be useful right now, would the proper measure really be one that gives $671 million to General Electric, as the House of Representatives seems to think? We can set aside for a moment the fact that GE, a massive defense contractor, will likely be getting plenty of government money anyway in the coming months, particularly if the Bush Administration goes through with its absurdly expensive and internationally divisive missile defense plan. We can focus instead on the basic economic stimulus strategy being employed, which is to rebuild the economy by jumpstarting Wall Street.

GE is, indisputably, one of Wall Street's juggernauts, and helping it will no doubt boost its stock. It could also have ancillary benefits for the larger market. The question is whether it will help anything else. By coincidence, September 11 was also the day that Jack Welch, GE's legendary CEO, published his memoirs, in which he bragged about firing 100,000 people. The GE "revolution," which has made Welch a hero in the business press, was based on "rightsizing"--the strategy of firing employees en masse in order to post paper gains in stock price. What our Congressmen have conveniently left unsaid, in their efforts to resuscitate the stock market, is that the market functions at an inverse relationship to wages. The NASDAQ rejoices not when jobs are created, but when they cease to exist. When AT&T CEO Robert Allen laid off 40,000 workers in a single day in 1996, his company's stock skyrocketed, and within hours he had personally become $5 million richer. AT&T's laid off workers shared in none of this bounty, just as stock market wealth in general rarely finds it way to the average American. Even MIT economist Lester Thurow, a man dizzily infatuated with markets, admits that 86 percent of all the stock gains from 1995-99 went to the wealthiest ten percent of Americans.

How, then, will this package "stimulate" the economy? The average American household already has $8,500 in credit card debt, and under the House proposal it will receive little from the government besides exhortations to keep spending. We say, in the aftermath of September 11, that firefighters, police officers and ironworkers-come-rescuers are our true heroes. Perhaps we should pass a tax package that shows we mean it.

IV. Energy and Secrecy

Memory is always short, and shorter still during times of crisis. Many people, therefore, have probably forgotten that prior to September 11, the Bush Administration was on the verge of being sued by the General Accounting Office. Had this happened, Bush would have been the first President taken to court by the investigative arm of Congress, and certainly the first President taken to court on behalf of his Vice President. The storm erupted when Dick Cheney refused to tell the GAO the names of the people on his energy task force. Cheney insists that he received input from a wide range of policy professionals, but no one can seem to find an environmentalist who was consulted, and there isn't an ounce of environmentalism in the plan the task force ultimately released, which contains $27.6 billion in subsidies to the coal, oil, nuclear and auto industries. Nor does Cheney's insistence of aboveboard dealing jibe well with his willingness to go to court to prevent anyone from seeing just how honest he was.

Obscuring the source of our energy policy is certainly troublesome, but from a writer's perspective it makes a handy metaphor, since in matters of oil Americans often fail to see the entire picture, and sometimes see it backwards. We dismiss countries that allow the market to dictate the price of gas as backwater socialists, while we, who pump subsidized fuel into road-hogging behemoths, proudly label ourselves honest capitalists. Our roads, vehicles and fuel all enjoy prices that are artificially lowered, so we know their benefits far more than their costs. We account for five percent of the planet's population but 25 percent of its yearly petroleum consumption; our cars alone devour one eighth of the world's oil. But because we don't think of such things, we react to crises in the Middle East in peculiar ways. In the 1970s, when every other nation let prices rise in response to the Arab oil embargo, our government increased its subsidy, and triggered a run on gas. Today, amid a Middle East war, our auto companies have slashed prices and eliminated financing, and we have obediently run out to purchase new models of the American dream: fuel-injected, halogen headlights, and of course power windows--perfect places (need it even be said?) from which to fly the American flag.

Must we kid ourselves anymore about oil? It is why we are in the Middle East, and why we project our influence into a culture deeply antagonistic to ours. Oil is why the American military has bases in Mecca, the holiest city in Islam (for those who fail to see the significance, imagine Western reaction if the Syrian army erected a base in the Vatican). Oil, sadly, is why some American men will probably die in Afghanistan. Oil is, in may respects, national security: it is entirely appropriate that Condoleeza Rice, President Bush's National Security Advisor, once had a Chevron oil tanker named after her. For all these reasons, we deserve to know who makes our energy policy. It should not be a secret. In time, nothing our government does should be secret.

But these days secrecy is winning. On November 2, while America's attention was focused on Afghanistan, President Bush signed an Executive Order that essentially overturned the Presidential Records Act of 1978. Now a sitting President can withhold the release of a former president's papers, even if that former President wants them published. If this law stands, then we will likely never see the 68,000 pages of Reagan era documents scheduled for release this year, which the Bush Administration has already twice stalled. The documents, eagerly awaited by a number of historians, were expected to detail many aspects of the Iran Contra affair--expected to detail, in other words, the extent to which our leaders negotiated with terrorists and then lied about it.

Not everything is so grim, however; in one area the forces of secrecy are being rolled back considerably. That would be the USA Patriot Act: the new security bill passed in the aftermath of September 11. Like the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which was written after the Oklahoma City bombing, the Patriot Act contains nothing that would have prevented the atrocity that inspired it, but does greatly expand the government's power to tap phone calls, read e-mails, and incarcerate people without charging them. So even as the public sector--our government--becomes more private, we private citizens see our lives becoming more public. That's fair, right?

The tragedy is not that this has happened, but that we have acquiesced in it. The papers may scream United We Stand, but in truth United We Sit, content to let other people pull our strings. Raised on an abiding disinterest in public affairs, cowed by the promise of new danger, and mesmerized by the waving of flags, we have handed the government permission to do with us what it will. There is little point, anymore, at railing against our elected representatives. They have told us to return to normal and we have done it, because we cannot seem to realize that normal was part of the problem. That normally, we paid no attention to foreign policy. That normally, we watched the NASDAQ and accepted without flinching the certainty of its wisdom. Accepted without flinching the idea of our wisdom. In the wake of September 11, our leaders have told the rest of the world that it is time for them to get tough with their citizenries, time to think differently. Yet told us to go back and think in the manner to which we are accustomed. Why do we find nothing odd in that? Why is it that we alone need never change?

Our elected representatives have disappointed us, but we have abandoned democracy as much as they have, because a democracy only functions when its citizens choose to give a damn. We are at war now, and instead of buying an Expedition and hanging Old Glory out its side window, maybe we should decide which America it is we are fighting for. It could be the America described in our Constitution, an admirable dream of a just country. Or it could be the Animal Farm nightmare of George Orwell's imagination: a nation of sheep, run by pigs, and owned by wolves.

Terrorism is a bankrupt and failed instrument of policy, and those who employ it rightfully repulse us. The Islamic militants arrayed against us are fanatics, characterized by a constant and arrogant certainty that they are correct. It is this certainty that lets them overlook or justify the innocent people trampled for their cause, and that lets them die without question for an oil-rich ideologue who sends them to battle in all corners of the earth. But Islamic militants cannot destroy America. The enemy of empire has always been internal, and it has always been contentment. There is no question that our system is superior; we have rights and freedoms that our enemies lack. The question lies in whether we will use these rights, or leave them instead to rot in a field of jingoistic cliché, buried, perhaps, in a storefront window beneath overpriced patriotic clothes. What happened on September 11 cannot be excused, but neither can our refusal to think critically about it. Where is our dissent, or at the very least our skepticism? We should not be so happy to be made pawns, so grateful to become what we say we despise.

About the Author
Michael Manville's writing has appeared in a number of online and print publications. He lives in Los Angeles.
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