The other backlash

By Robert Jensen

Published in Hindustan Times · July, 2005

[This article appeared in the Hindustan Times (India), July 22, 2005, p. 10.]

Analysts of all political stripes in the United States have been drawing conclusions about U.S. anti-terrorism policies from the July 7 bombings in London.

Right-wing forces argue (mistakenly, in my opinion) that the terrorist attacks prove we must stay the course of the Bush administration’s strategy of using military force to win the so-called “war on terror” until we vanquish the evil-doers.

Critics argue (correctly, in my opinion) that the bombings prove terrorism can’t be stopped through war. Left critics (again, correctly) remind us that the policy’s inability to make anyone truly safer suggests a different primary motivation for the U.S. attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq: The longstanding U.S. goal of extending and deepening dominance in the strategically crucial Middle East and Central Asia.

My thoughts after the bombings, however, were concerned not with analysis of existing policy but speculation about what will happen in the United States when the next major terrorist strike comes. That next attack likely will not only strengthen militaristic right-wing forces but drive the society into a more repressive and degraded politics.

I say “when,” not “if,” the next attack on U.S. civilians comes because it is inevitable. Political conditions that gave rise to certain Islamic groups’ decision to target the United States have not changed. The United States continues to deploy military forces in the Middle East; continues to give unconditional support to Israel’s illegal and brutal occupation of Palestine; and continues to use its economic and diplomatic power to control, to the degree possible, the framework of politics in the region. I believe those policies are immoral and indefensible, but whatever one’s opinion, it’s clear the mainstream of the Republican and Democratic parties are committed to that agenda. The broad resentment of those U.S. policies throughout the Muslim world — even by people who reject the ideology and methods of radical Islam — will continue to provide fertile ground for recruitment by extremist forces, which can be expected to continue to pursue their goals using increasingly sophisticated strategies that will eventually evade anti-terrorism defenses.

(A footnote, necessary when writing from the United States: To say I believe a terrorist attack is inevitable is not to welcome nor justify it. That should be obvious, but must always be repeated lest one be accused of supporting terrorism.)

Why am I pessimistic about the aftermath of another attack? Although Sept. 11, 2001, allowed the government to expand police powers and marginalize dissent, in many ways the repression was relatively mild. It’s true that hundreds of Arab and South Asian immigrants were rounded up and deprived of even minimal legal protections, and that systematic torture in U.S. prison camps has gone on without much public outrage. And the U.S. military prosecuted two wars with typical barbarism.

But, even with all those horrors, the reaction of the society was more restrained than many on the left expected. Domestic political dissidents were not systematically rounded up or silenced through force; instead, we were mostly ignored. And almost every mainstream politician made a point of saying the fight was not with Islam but with a particular segment of the Muslim world. Islam, we were told by the president, is a religion of peace (a claim about as true for Islam as for Christianity, Judaism, or Hinduism, all of which have adherents who use religion to justify violence and domination).

But when the next major terrorist attack hits the United States, I expect no such restraint on the uglier instincts in U.S. political culture. For example, the reaction of much of the news media to the London bombings suggests the corporate media — especially the increasingly dominant conservative elements — will go after dissent more ferociously than they did post-9/11.

The progressive media advocacy group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting collected much of that commentary on July 7 and pointed out that a dominant theme was that the bombings should end criticism of Bush policies. In the words of one journalist on a FOX News show, “That debate is obliterated. …We’re back to the basics. We are at war.” (For more examples, see

In other words, when attacked there can be no rational assessment of administration policies. There can be no debate. The choice is either adulation of the glorious leader or silence.

When the attacks of 9/11 hit, the culture could draw on a climate of tolerance and respect for political dissent that had built since the democratizing movements of the 1960s (including the new left, antiwar, civil rights, feminism, gay rights). But throughout U.S. history, such tolerance tends to be cyclical, and there’s no guarantee that dissidents can count on it again. There are several reasons to be nervous.

First is the longstanding ideology of American exceptionalism, the doctrine that the United States is a unique force in history that serves as both the model of, and vehicle for, democracy worldwide. Ironically, such mythology can serve as a powerful weapon to limit democratic dialogue: If U.S. motives are always pure, what’s the point of debate?

Today that exceptionalism is often conflated with an increasingly triumphalist and fundamentalist evangelical Christianity. For these folks, it’s not just about inherent U.S. superiority; we have not only history, but a muscular God on our side.

Finally, the danger posed by this toxic combination of God and country is heightened by U.S. affluence. In this, the richest country in the history of the world, there is a large privileged class content with its material comfort. Leaders realize that if they promise to protect “the American way of life” — extravagant consumption with no concern for the effects on other living things, human or non-human — they can expect wide and deep public support.

When the next terrorist attack hits, we can be certain that the Bush administration (or its successor, Republican or Democrat) will draw on those ideologies to try to build support for more belligerent policies. The U.S. public has in the past accepted whatever barbaric militarism and domestic repression that leaders say is necessary to protect our precious right to consume about 25 percent of the world’s oil and 30 percent of the gross world product, even though we are only 5 percent of the world’s population. There’s no reason to assume it can’t happen again.

All that is predictable. What’s unknown is whether a vigorous anti-empire movement can forestall these developments. That is not a matter for prediction but action. Those of us who are part of that movement have much work to do.