She's come undone

Decoding Susan Sontag, line by arduous line.


Andrew Sullivan
September 12, 2002 2:40AM (UTC)

From Tuesday's New York Times, in an Op-Ed headlined "Real Battles and Empty Metaphors":

By Susan Sontag

Since last Sept. 11, the Bush administration has told the American people that America is at war. But this war is of a peculiar nature. It seems to be, given the nature of the enemy, a war with no foreseeable end. What kind of war is that?

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Er, has Sontag heard of the Hundred Years War? Or the Peloponnesian War? Or the almost century-long war against totalitarianism in the 20th century? Most wars in history have been engaged with no clear understanding of when exactly they might end. In fact, this is the rule of most difficult international conflicts, not the exception.

There are precedents. Wars on such enemies as cancer, poverty and drugs are understood to be endless wars. There will always be cancer, poverty and drugs. And there will always be despicable terrorists, mass murderers like those who perpetrated the attack a year ago tomorrow -- as well as freedom fighters (like the French Resistance and the African National Congress) who were once called terrorists by those they opposed but were relabeled by history.

Is Sontag aware that there is a distinction between domestic and foreign policy? (And notice the sly notion that not all terrorists are actually terrorists. Does she believe the terrorists of 9/11 will one day be described as noble freedom fighters? She doesn't say.) She's right, of course, to bemoan the awful militaristic metaphors of such domestic campaigns. (And for the record, I've long opposed the domestic "wars" on drugs and poverty. They debase the solemn currency of war and make the problems worse, not better.) But it doesn't in any way follow that an armed conflict with foreign powers who have invaded our cities and murdered American citizens is not a "war" in any meaningful sense of that term.

When a president of the United States declares war on cancer or poverty or drugs, we know that "war" is a metaphor. Does anyone think that this war -- the war that America has declared on terrorism -- is a metaphor? But it is, and one with powerful consequences. War has been disclosed, not actually declared, since the threat is deemed to be self-evident.

Excuse me, but war was not disclosed or declared by the United States. It was declared quite emphatically and unapologetically by Islamist terrorists years ago, and has been going on in the Middle East and elsewhere for the better part of three decades. (Sontag might read Lawrence Wright's superb reporting in this week's New Yorker to see how deep this war goes and who is really galvanizing it. Hint to Susan: not us.) And it is not and never has been a metaphor. Metaphors didn't crash into New York, Washington and Pennsylvania a year ago. Metaphors didn't liberate Afghanistan. Special Forces troops, even now defending Sontag's freedom to write her Op-Ed, are not metaphorically trying to hunt down al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan. From our enemy's perspective, the war has been real for decades. The only people who didn't see it were those trying not to see it, or those who were distracted elsewhere. Such distractions no longer count as an excuse.

Real wars are not metaphors. And real wars have a beginning and an end. Even the horrendous, intractable conflict between Israel and Palestine will end one day.

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Huh? When, according to Ms. Sontag, did the wars in the Balkans ever really end? Or begin? When did the conflict in Ireland ever really end? Why would the conflict between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East, bubbling for millennia, automatically be required one day to end? Maybe there will be some sort of settlement some day that isn't beset by violence. But I doubt it. Some wars -- like the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries which our current war strongly resembles -- last generations, or go dormant, and then revive.

But this antiterror war can never end.

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In the sense that conflict this deep disappears overnight, of course not. But in the sense that war and politics can make the Middle East a less barbaric, depraved and despotic place, the answer is that the anti-terror war absolutely can end. But only if we wage it with conviction and skill, and recognize that all the belligerent components, from Iraq and Iran to Saudi Arabia, are connected -- exactly the response Sontag opposes.

That is one sign that it is not a war but, rather, a mandate for expanding the use of American power.

What can that last sentence mean? Could it not have been written during every single war that this country or any country has ever waged? Of course, wars mean an expansion of government power. That is why, for example, small-government types like me support war only as a last resort. But unlike Sontag, I consider the massacre of 3,000 people in New York City, after decades of low-level terrorism against American citizens, and the promise of even more bloodshed, to be a reason to defend ourselves. At long last.

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When the government declares war on cancer or poverty or drugs it means the government is asking that new forces be mobilized to address the problem. It also means that the government cannot do a whole lot to solve it. When the government declares war on terrorism -- terrorism being a multinational, largely clandestine network of enemies -- it means that the government is giving itself permission to do what it wants. When it wants to intervene somewhere, it will. It will brook no limits on its power.

Sontag doesn't seem to understand that there is something called the Constitution of the United States. It mandates that the people of the United States get to pick their government. The Constitution is indeed a limit on the government's power. If and when the people of this country decide that they do not want their government to prosecute a war on terrorism, they will have every right to change their leaders. This fear of untrammeled American power is a paranoid fantasy. America has been the most reluctant and benign hegemon in world history.

The American suspicion of foreign "entanglements" is very old. But this administration has taken the radical position that all international treaties are potentially inimical to the interests of the United States -- since by signing a treaty on anything (whether environmental issues or the conduct of war and the treatment of prisoners) the United States is binding itself to obey conventions that might one day be invoked to limit America's freedom of action to do whatever the government thinks is in the country's interests. Indeed, that's what a treaty is: it limits the right of its signatories to complete freedom of action on the subject of the treaty. Up to now, it has not been the avowed position of any respectable nation-state that this is a reason for eschewing treaties.

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It is by no means a new doctrine that nation-states can decide not to engage in treaties that they believe violate their own national self-interest. When such treaties could mean foreign powers trying American soldiers in courts run by Libyans, it is not exactly revolutionary to refrain from signing such agreements. As for Kyoto, Sontag seems to be unaware that it was never ratified by the Senate. We can't abrogate a treaty we never ratified.

Describing America's new foreign policy as actions undertaken in wartime is a powerful disincentive to having a mainstream debate about what is actually happening. This reluctance to ask questions was already apparent in the immediate aftermath of the attacks last Sept. 11. Those who objected to the jihad language used by the American government (good versus evil, civilization versus barbarism) were accused of condoning the attacks, or at least the legitimacy of the grievances behind the attacks.

Here we go again. Poor Sontag. No "mainstream debate." Just dozens of speeches, endless talk-shows, countless Op-Eds, blogs, and the New York Times turning itself into an 18th century factional broadsheet. Her real gripe is that people actually dared to criticize her monstrous callousness when she found reason to criticize America in the hours after the horror of 9/11. Her punishment? Being given the prime Op-Ed space in America a year later. Notice also that she describes the distinction between civilization and barbarism as "jihad language." When Islamist fanatics foment hatred of Jews, it's their culture. When America defends itself, it's "jihad."

Under the slogan United We Stand, the call to reflectiveness was equated with dissent, dissent with lack of patriotism. The indignation suited those who have taken charge of the Bush administration's foreign policy. The aversion to debate among the principal figures in the two parties continues to be apparent in the run-up to the commemorative ceremonies on the anniversary of the attacks -- ceremonies that are viewed as part of the continuing affirmation of American solidarity against the enemy. The comparison between Sept. 11, 2001, and Dec. 7, 1941, has never been far from mind. Once again, America was the object of a lethal surprise attack that cost many -- in this case, civilian -- lives, more than the number of soldiers and sailors who died at Pearl Harbor. However, I doubt that great commemorative ceremonies were felt to be needed to keep up morale and unite the country on Dec. 7, 1942. That was a real war, and one year later it was very much still going on.

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This is a phantom war and therefore in need of an anniversary.

Does she really believe that the 3,000 victims of 9/11 are "phantoms"? Does she really believe that wanting to remember and recall them in an anniversary is entirely designed to foment war talk? As for her precedents, the Second World War was full of far more emphatic rallying cries, blatant propaganda and constant war speeches to keep up morale and rally the troops and the country throughout the years of conflict. When Churchill repeatedly commemorated and invoked Dunkirk during the Second World War, was he really doing so for "phantom" reasons -- or did he realize that every democracy at war needs to be rallied, supported and cajoled into vigilance?

Such an anniversary serves a number of purposes. It is a day of mourning. It is an affirmation of national solidarity. But of one thing we can be sure. It is not a day of national reflection. Reflection, it has been said, might impair our "moral clarity."

Notice the passive tense. Who exactly has said that reflection is the enemy of moral clarity? It is, of course, the precursor to moral clarity. And notice too the condescension and arrogance of this woman. How dare she think that the only people "reflecting" are those opposed to the war? In fact, the deepest reflections I have found -- reflections on history, on religion, on freedom, on war -- have often led thinkers more nuanced and supple than Sontag to support this war wholeheartedly. That is not to say that others might draw different conclusions. But reflection is not the monopoly of any side in this debate.

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It is necessary to be simple, clear, united. Hence, there will be borrowed words, like the Gettysburg Address, from that bygone era when great rhetoric was possible.

Abraham Lincoln's speeches were not just inspirational prose. They were bold statements of new national goals in a time of real, terrible war. The Second Inaugural Address dared to herald the reconciliation that must follow Northern victory in the Civil War. The primacy of the commitment to end slavery was the point of Lincoln's exaltation of freedom in the Gettysburg Address. But when the great Lincoln speeches are ritually cited, or recycled for commemoration, they have become completely emptied of meaning. They are now gestures of nobility, of greatness of spirit. The reasons for their greatness are irrelevant.

Such an anachronistic borrowing of eloquence is in the grand tradition of American anti-intellectualism: the suspicion of thought, of words. Hiding behind the humbug that the attack of last Sept. 11 was too horrible, too devastating, too painful, too tragic for words, that words could not possibly express our grief and indignation, our leaders have a perfect excuse to drape themselves in others' words, now voided of content. To say something might be controversial. It might actually drift into some kind of statement and therefore invite rebuttal. Not saying anything is best.

Did Sontag hear president Bush's brilliant and stirring Sept. 20 address to Congress? Did she read his West Point address on preemption? Will she even notice Tony Blair's incandescent tones this week? Just because she will not listen does not mean that great rhetoric is dead or that our leaders are incapable of it. The point of reiterating Lincoln tomorrow is to remind us of the democratic values now threatened by our enemy. I see no problem with that. Who on earth would?

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I do not question that we have a vicious, abhorrent enemy that opposes most of what I cherish -- including democracy, pluralism, secularism, the equality of the sexes, beardless men, dancing (all kinds), skimpy clothing and, well, fun. And not for a moment do I question the obligation of the American government to protect the lives of its citizens.

Here is her exculpatory passage, designed to insulate her from the accurate charge that she opposes any credible American response to the jihad launched against us. But even now, her point is clear. They may wage war on us but we cannot wage war on them. We can only defend ourselves once they have attacked us -- and not before. And we cannot hold the states that sponsor these people responsible. Saddam must stay. And so must every other facilitator of terror in the Middle East, while we conduct a police search -- with Miranda rights -- for the culprits every time more innocents are massacred.

What I do question is the pseudo-declaration of pseudo-war. These necessary actions should not be called a "war." There are no endless wars; but there are declarations of the extension of power by a state that believes it cannot be challenged.

You're repeating yourself here, Susan. This is like the final verse of a Barry Manilow song where, having exhausted any actual melody or lyrics, he simply ratchets up the same old chorus in a new key. Didn't Howell suggest she cut this? He should have. It's sounding desperate. As a reader put it to me in an e-mail this morning: The world has moved beyond Sontag's understanding and experience, and she feels that is unfair.

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America has every right to hunt down the perpetrators of these crimes and their accomplices. But this determination is not necessarily a war. Limited, focused military engagements do not translate into "wartime" at home. There are better ways to check America's enemies, less destructive of constitutional rights and of international agreements that serve the public interest of all, than continuing to invoke the dangerous, lobotomizing notion of endless war.

Lobotomizing? Isn't it telling that in her last fusillade against her opponents, she accuses them of facilitating a mass coma of stupidity? It is the last resort of the fading intellectual: to accuse your public of stupidity. Of course, it is Sontag who is drowning here. She knows she cannot countenance the evil of radical Islamism. She knows she cannot defend Saddam or Osama. She knows she cannot truly oppose self-defense against the horrors of the terror masters. For how can she be a real lefty and support people who enslave women, deny human rights and murder homosexuals and Jews? But her worldview is so marinated in decades of anti-Americanism, in a loathing of capitalism, of free markets, of free trade and ideas, that she cannot bring herself to live up to her own principles. So she waits in a welter of metaphor until they murder us again.


Andrew Sullivan

Salon columnist Andrew Sullivan's commentary appears daily on his own andrewsullivan.com Web site.

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