How the White House is exploiting
terrorism to promote
a reactionary domestic agenda
by Michael Parenti
Toward Freedom magazine, December
2001 / January 2002
When almost-elected President George W.
Bush announced his "war on terrorism" in the aftermath
of the Sept. 11 attacks, he also launched a campaign to advance
the agenda of the reactionary Right at home and abroad. This includes
rolling back an already mangled federal human services sector,
reverting to deficit spending for the benefit of a wealthy creditor
class, increasing the repression of dissent, and further expanding
the budgets and global reach of the US military and other components
of the national security state.
Indeed, a week after the terrorist attacks,
the Wall Street Journal ran an editorial calling on Bush to quickly
take advantage of the "unique political climate" to
"assert his leadership not just on security and foreign policy
but across the board." The editorial summoned the president
to push quickly for more tax-rate cuts, expanded oil drilling
in Alaska, fast-track authority for trade negotiations, and raids
on the Social Security surplus.
Bush himself noted that the attacks on
the World Trade Center and the Pentagon offered "an opportunity"
to "strengthen America." As numerous conservatives spoke
eagerly of putting the country on a permanent war footing, the
president proudly declared "the first war of the 21st century"
against an unspecified enemy to extend over an indefinite time
frame. Swept along in the jingoist tide, that gaggle of political
wimps known as the US Congress granted Bush the power to initiate
military action against any nation, organization, or individual
of his choosing, without having to proffer evidence to justify
Such an unlimited grant of arbitrary power-in
violation of international law, the UN charter, and the US Constitution-transformed
the almost-elected president into an absolute monarch who can
exercise life-and-death power over any quarter of the world. Needless
to say, numerous other nations greeted the president's elevation
to King of the Planet with something less than enthusiasm.
And King of the Planet is how he is acting,
bombing already badly battered and impoverished Afghanistan-supposedly
to "get" Osama bin Laden. Unmentioned is that US leaders
actively fostered and financed the rise of the Taliban, and previously
refused to go after bin Laden. Meanwhile, the White House announced
that other countries may be bombed at will and the war will continue
for many years. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz urged
that US armed forces be allowed to engage in domestic law enforcement,
a responsibility denied the military since 1878.
Under pressure to present a united front
against terrorism, Democratic legislators roll over on the issue
of military spending. Opposition to the so-called missile defense
shield is evaporating, as is willingness to preserve the Anti-Ballistic
Missile Treaty. The lawmakers may come up with most of the $8.3
billion that the White House wants to develop the missile defense
shield and move forward with militarizing outer space. Congress
is marching in lockstep behind Bush's proposal to jack up the
military budget. Additional funds have been promised to the National
Security Agency (NSA), CIA, FBI, and other skullduggery units
of the national security state. Having been shown that the already
gargantuan defense budget wasn't enough to stop a group of suicidal
hijackers armed with box cutters, Bush and Congress thought it
best to pour still more money into the pockets of the military-industrial
Many of the measures to "fight terrorism"
have little to do with actual security. They are public relations
ploys designed to: (a) heighten the nation's siege psychology,
and (b) demonstrate that the government has things under control.
So, aircraft carriers are deployed off the coast of New York to
"guard the city," national guardsmen armed with automatic
weapons "patrol the airports," and sidewalk baggage
check-ins and electronic tickets are prohibited, supposedly to
create "greater security." Since increased security
leads to greater inconvenience, it has been decided that greater
inconvenience will somehow increase security-or at least give
The biggest public relations ploy of all
is the bombing of Afghanistan, leaving us with the reassuring
image of Uncle Sam striking back at the terrorists. To stop the
bombing, the Taliban offered to hand over bin Laden to a third
country to stand trial, without even seeing evidence against him.
But the White House rejected that offer. It seems that displaying
US retaliatory power and establishing a military presence in that
battered country are the primary US goals, not apprehending bin
Lost in all this is the fact that US leaders
have been the greatest purveyors of terrorism throughout the world.
In past decades, they or their surrogate mercenary forces have
unleashed terror bombing campaigns against unarmed civilian populations-destroying
houses, schools, hospitals, churches, hotels, factories, farms,
bridges, and other nonmilitary targets-in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos,
East Timor, the Congo, Panama, Grenada, El Salvador, Guatemala,
Somalia, Iraq, Yugoslavia, and numerous
other countries, causing death and destruction to millions of
innocents. Using death squad terrorism, US leaders have also been
successful in destroying reformist and democratic movements in
scores of countries. Of course, hardly a word of this is uttered
in the corporate media, leaving Bush and company free to parade
themselves as the champions of peace and freedom.
In time, people in the US may catch on
that the reactionaries in the White House have not the slightest
clue about how to save us from future assaults. They seem more
interested in -and are certainly more capable of-taking advantage
of terrorist attacks than preventing them. They have neither the
interest nor the will to make the kind of major changes in policy
that would dilute the hatred so many people around the world feel
toward US power. They're too busy handing the world over to the
transnational corporate giants at the expense of people everywhere.
And, they show no intention of making a 180-degree shift away
from unilateral global domination and toward collective betterment
and mutual development.
HOME FRONT OFFENSIVE
Several proposed laws are designed to
expand the definition of terrorism to include all but the most
innocuous forms of protest. S. 1510, for example, treats terrorism
as any action that might potentially put another person at risk.
That would give the feds power to seize the assets of any organization
or individual deemed to be aiding or abetting "terrorist
activity." And it can be applied retroactively without a
statute of limitations. A telephone interview I did with Radio
Tehran in mid-October, trying to explain why US foreign policy
is so justifiably hated around the world, might qualify me for
detention as someone who is abetting terrorism.
Other initiatives expand the authority
of law enforcement officials to use wiretaps, detain immigrants,
subpoena email and Internet records, and infiltrate protest organizations.
More than 1000 people were rounded up and put into "preventive
detention," with no charges brought against them and no legal
redress. In keeping with the reactionary Right's agenda, the war
against terrorism has become a cover for the war against democratic
dissent and public sector services. The message is clear: The
US must emulate not Athens but Sparta.
One of the White House's earliest steps
to protect the country from terrorist violence was to cut from
the proposed federal budget the $1 billion slated to assist children
who are victims of domestic abuse or abandonment. Certainly a
nation at war has no resources to squander on battered kids or
other such frills. Instead, Congress passed a $40 billion supplemental
budget, including $20 billion for "recovery efforts,"
much of it to help clean up and repair New York's financial district.
Next was an "emergency package"
for the airlines-$5 billion in direct cash and $10 billion in
loan guarantees, with the promise of billions more. The airlines
were beset by fiscal problems well before the September attacks.
This bailout has little to do with fighting terrorism. Taken together,
the loss of four planes, lawsuits by victims' families, and higher
insurance rates didn't create industry-wide insolvency, and don't
justify a multi-billion-dollar bailout. The real story is that
once the industry was deregulated, the airlines began overcapitalizing
without sufficient regard for earnings, the assumption being that
profits would follow after a company squeezed its competitors
to the wall by grabbing a larger chunk of the market. So, the
profligate diseconomies of "free market" corporate competition
are once more picked up by the US taxpayer-this time in the name
of fighting terrorism.
Meanwhile, some 80,000 airline employees
were laid off in the weeks after the terrorist attacks, including
ticket agents, flight attendants, pilots, mechanics, and ramp
workers. They won't see a penny of the windfall reaped by the
airline plutocrats and shareholders, whose patriotism doesn't
extend to giving their employees a helping hand. At one point
in the House debate, a frustrated Washington Democrat, Rep. Jay
Inslee, shouted, "Why in this chamber do the big dogs always
eat first?'' Inslee was expressing concerns about the 20,000 to
30,000 Boeing workers who were being let go without any emergency
allocation for their families. Sen. Peter G. Fitzgerald, an Illinois
Republican, expressed a similar sentiment when casting the lone
dissenting Senate vote against the bailout: "Congress should
be wary of indiscriminately dishing out taxpayer dollars to prop
up a failing industry without demanding something in return for
It remained for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton
to explain on behalf of the Bush war mongers why the handout was
necessary: 'We need to look at transportation again as part of
our national defense."
The anti-terrorism hype is also serving
as an excuse to silence opposition to drilling in the Arctic National
Wildlife Refuge. The US needs oil to maintain its strength and
security, we hear. Against this manipulative message, the environment
doesn't stand much of a chance.
Likewise, US trade representative Robert
Zoellick enlisted the terrorism hype in the campaign to surrender
sovereignty to corporate dominated international trade councils.
In a September Washington Post op-ed, Zoellick charged that opposition
to fast track and globalization was akin to supporting the terrorists.
House Republican leaders joined in, claiming that trade legislation
was needed to solidify the global coalition fighting terrorism.
Here was yet another overreaching, opportunistic attempt to wrap
the flag around a reactionary special interest.
Actually, it is the free trade agreements
that threaten our democratic sovereignty. All public programs
and services that regulate or infringe in any way upon corporate-capitalism
can be rolled back by industry-dominated, oligarchic trade councils.
Corporations can now tell governments- federal, state, and local-what
public programs and regulations are acceptable or unacceptable.
The reactionaries don't explain how giving private, non-elected,
corporate-dominated groups supranational, supreme power to override
laws and the Constitution will help in the war against terrorism.
LOOTING THE SURPLUS
The airline bailout was only part of the
spending spree. Bush endorsed a "stimulus" of $60 to
$75 billion to lift the country out of recession by "recharging
business investment." He also called for an additional $60
billion tax cut which, like previous tax reductions, would give
meager sums to ordinary folks and lavish amounts to fat cats and
plutocrats. Where is all this money for defense, war, internal
security, airlines, rebuilding lower Manhattan, tax cuts, and
recharging the economy coming from? Much of it is from the Social
Security surplus fund-which is why Bush is so eager to spend.
It is a myth that conservatives practice
fiscal responsibility. Right-wing politicians who sing hymns to
a balanced budget have been among the wildest deficit spenders.
Between 1981 and 1992, the Reagan-Bush administrations increased
the national debt from $850 billion to $4.5 trillion. By early
2000, the debt had climbed to over $5.7 trillion. Two things pump
up the deficit: first, successive tax cuts to rich individuals
and corporations-so that the government increasingly borrows from
the wealthy creditors it should be taxing; and second, titanic
military budgets. In 12 years, Reagan-Bush expenditures on the
military came to $3.7 trillion. In eight years, Bill Clinton added
another $2 trillion.
The payments on the national debt amount
to about $350 billion a year, representing a colossal upward redistribution
of income from working taxpayers to rich creditors. The last two
Clinton budgets were the first to trim away the yearly deficit
and produce a surplus. The first Bush budget also promised to
produce a surplus, almost all of it from Social Security taxes.
As a loyal representative of financial interests, George W., like
his daddy, prefers the upward redistribution of income that comes
with a large deficit. The creditor class, composed mostly of superrich
individuals and financial institutions, wants the US- and every
other nation-to be in debt to it.
Furthermore, the enemies of Social Security
have long argued that the fund will eventually become insolvent
and must therefore be privatized. (We must destroy the fund in
order to save it. ) But with Social Security continuing to produce
record surpluses, this argument becomes increasingly implausible.
By defunding Social Security, either through privatization or
deficit spending or both, Bush achieves a key goal of the reactionary
HOW FAR THE FLAG?
As of October, almost-elected President
Bush sported a 90 percent approval rating, as millions rallied
around the flag. A majority supported his military assault upon
the people of Afghanistan, in the mistaken notion that this will
stop terrorism and protect US security. But before losing heart,
keep a few things in mind. There are millions of people who, though
deeply disturbed by the terrible deeds of Sept. 11, and apprehensive
about future attacks, aren't completely swept up in the reactionary
Taking an approach that would utilize
international law and diplomacy has gone unmentioned in the corporate
media, yet 30 percent in the US support that option, compared
to 54 percent who support military actions (with 16 percent undecided),
according to a recent Gallup poll. Quite likely, a majority would
support an international law approach if they ever heard it discussed
and explained seriously.
In any case, millions of people in the
US want neither protracted wars nor a surrender of individual
rights and liberties, nor drastic cuts in public services and
retirement funds. Tens of thousands have taken to the streets
not to hail the chief but to oppose his war and reactionary agenda.
Even among the flag-wavers, support for Bush seems to be a mile
wide and an inch deep. The media-pumped jingoistic craze that
grips the US today is mostly just that, a craze. In time, it grows
stale and reality returns. One cannot pay the grocery bills with
flags or the rent with vengeful slogans.
My thoughts go back to another President
Bush, George the First, who early in 1991 had an approval rating
of 93 percent, and a fawning resolution from Congress hailing
his "unerring leadership." Yet, within the year, he
was defeated for reelection. Those who believe in democracy must
be undeterred in their determination to educate, organize, and
agitate. In any case, swimming against the tide is always preferable
to being swept over the waterfall.
Michael Parenti's recent books include
History as Mystery, To Kill a Nation: The Attack on Yugoslavia,
and the 7th edition of Democracy for the Few.
Michael Parenti page