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THE DOOMSDAY MACHINE

John Chuckman

It occurred to me to write a satire about Osama and the boys sitting around in the mountains somewhere holding a conference about the worst possible damage they could inflict on the United States and deciding that it would be whatever act got Bush re-elected.

But retired American General Tommy Franks came along and spoiled the fun. General Franks has followed the advice of the fictional Doctor Strangelove by announcing to the world what he believes will happen if the United States is attacked by terrorists using strategic weapons: he says Americans will scrap the Constitution and set up a military government.

If you recall the bitter and hilarious Cold War film, Dr. Strangelove, there is a scene where the Soviet ambassador puts down the phone to Moscow, groaning about “The fools, oh, the mad fools,” and then informs the American President and Pentagon brass for the first time of the Doomsday Machine. The Doomsday Machine, he explains to those gathered in a desperate effort to stop an unauthorized attack launched by a lunatic American wing commander, is an automated device that, once set, cannot be prevented from responding to any attack by releasing an earth-straddling cloud of deadly radiation.

Doctor Strangelove, a character based on captured scientists and others from Nazi Germany who rose to high places in the American government during the Cold War, shrieks from his wheelchair, struggling to control the tendency of his right arm to rise in the Hitler salute, what is the good of such a deterrent if no one is told about it?

Indeed, so General Franks has warned us. Considering the wholesale insanity we’ve witnessed since 9/11, there is little reason to doubt the general’s judgment.

Many Americans would not be frightened by the idea of military government. After all, they receive a steady diet of sappy stuff about “our boyz.” But if you look at what the boys have been doing lately in Iraq and recall the atrocities of Vietnam, any warm, cozy expectation of being ruled by the likes of Jimmy Stewart in khakis vanishes.

For many reasons, democracy always has had a tenuous hold in America. Its history as a democracy where almost everyone can vote only goes back several decades, and as we saw in Florida during the last presidential election, that basic principle is not yet firmly entrenched. The adolescent nature of much of American culture – exhibited in a thousand ways from endless movies about muscle-bound superheroes to the flag-waving spectacles made of football games – reveals an attraction to fascism, fascism being merely an adult form of adolescent fantasies about power.

It is not difficult at all to imagine democracy’s hold being quickly snapped, especially where dark, exaggerated fears are involved, such fears also being a prominent feature of American culture. Consider the millions of Christian fundamentalists who fervently embrace the notion that earth faces imminent destruction in an Armageddon. Just a few years ago, as the calendar turned to the year 2000, millions of secular crackpots, the militia/survivalist types, stocked ammunition and freeze-dried rations in a modern-day repeat of the fallout shelter lunacy of the 1950s. There have been countless gatherings on mountaintops to await the “end of time” and many bizarre mass suicides. America, reflecting its unpleasant Puritan heritage, almost certainly leads the advanced world in holding to voodoo-like fears.

The impact of an American military government on the world would be incalculable. Treaties, agreements, diplomatic conventions all might effectively be suspended since it is the Constitution that gives foreign treaties their primacy in law within the United States. International borders effectively could be erased since few are in a position to prevent the American military’s taking whatever arbitrary measure it pleases. The United Nations might well be dismissed as an unnecessary expense and a security risk.

Huge, destabilizing uncertainties would be introduced into world markets. The flow of international capital would be affected. A world depression could easily be induced. After all, it was poorly-considered American law, the Smoots-Hawley Tariff, that helped create the Great Depression.

The military-service draft would certainly be re-introduced.

The prospect for a quick end to military rule would not be good because such a government’s central purpose would be fighting terror, yet all applicable history tells us that conventional military action is ineffective against terror – ineffective, that is, unless you are prepared literally to crush great masses of people. Of course, America does have its advocates for this last, like the upstanding young man from Texas who e-mailed me, after reading something of mine, that Afghanistan should have been reduced to a lump of radioactive glass.

Bush’s response to 9/11 has widely dispersed the adherents of terror and strengthened terror’s appeal to new recruits. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and other important countries display genuine signs of instability. Every thoughtful statesman warned Bush of this before he invaded Iraq, but he chose to ignore them all. This clearly is not all the work of the mysterious al-Qaeda Bush loves to blame but of many aggrieved individuals. Iraq itself has been turned into a suppurating wound of grievances. The Arab world, a very large place indeed, deeply resents America’s humiliating occupation of a major Arabic capital and its continued generous support for Israel’s occupation and abuse of Palestinians.

You might think that Americans – a people deeply attached to guns and slogans like “Live free or die” and “Don’t tread on me” – of all people in the world would understand the anger and resentment of Iraqis. Yet the polls still show substantial support for a President who utters nonsense each time he speaks on the subject. I can only explain this fact by out-of-proportion tendencies to fear and indifference to the lives of others. Liberal Internet sites headlining every slight downward tick in Bush’s polls have about them a eerie feeling of desperate fantasy.

George Bush represents the culmination of America’s long-term arrogant and uninformed policies towards a good deal of the world, the kind of policies that were indisputably the root cause of 9/11. A man whose capacities and imagination do not exceed those of a dozy Southern county sheriff has been thrust upon the world as a leader because many Americans just can’t be bothered to consider how the actions of their government affect so many others.

Bush has managed to convert a one-off, sensational terrorist attack, which could and should have been dealt with by methods several European states had long used against terror, into a tangle of nearly insoluble world-scale problems. The invasion of Iraq particularly was an irrational act.

Americans are not taught a sense of responsibility concerning their great power in the world, and they often are unaware of the impact they have on the others. After all, many Americans are raised to behave exactly that way towards their own society, a predatory, often chaotic place where having fun or getting ahead at the expense of others is widely regarded as youthful exuberance or entrepreneurial skill.

There is little doubt in the minds of thoughtful people removed from America’s unforgiving, brutish national politics that Bush’s actions as President have been destructive beyond calculation. They have hurled America along a path from which it may not recover, for, regardless of the upcoming election, the nation’s political institutions may not be adequate to the job.

First, there is no easy way out for American forces in Iraq. A sudden withdrawal now would be irresponsible and disastrous. And yet the longer troops stay under existing circumstances, the more hatred and resentment they engender. This seems an almost impossible paradox. Turning over administration to the United Nations is the logical step, but that would not likely mean the departure of all American troops.

Suppose a Democrat wins the next election – miracles do sometimes happen – the new President would face exactly the same choices. Bush’s rash act has effectively bound the hands of any successor. Despite the pathetic appeals on some liberal Internet sites to bring home the troops, this cannot quickly be done. In any event, the Republicans would stand ready to harshly criticize every mistake and every American soldier killed as a reflection of failed new policy.

Of course, that assumes the Democrats manage to elect someone whose views greatly differ from those of the gang feeding Bush his lines. The Democratic party has some people running who really disagree very little with Bush except on the issue of who should be in the White House doling out patronage.

The Republicans are expert at vicious, well-financed attacks, and Americans are not immune to these. They are a people who thrive on a great deal of momentary sensation and vitriol. Shows with conflict and meaningless verbal attack do well on American television. So Republicans maintain a large kennel of pet attack-commentators used to reduce all discussion to confused, snarling noise, a technique perfected in Germany during the 1920s and ’30s.

As we can see through events since 9/11, Democrats possess no comparable weapons. First, Democrats may not have the financial resources for the job. Second, one suspects that twisted nastiness is part of the right’s genetic endowment. It’s what enables them to sneer or laugh at the miseries and concerns of others. It’s what gives Lynne Cheney’s smile all the infectious appeal of a cracked hard-boiled egg.

There’s a role for stupidity, too. A good many Republicans embrace stupidity so long as the ideology is right. The examples are numberless. There was the late Sen. Hruska’s immortal comment on one of Nixon’s worst attempted appointments to the Supreme Court that mediocrity also needed to be represented on the court. There was Sen. Smith’s lunatic muttering about the federal government running a concentration camp where they kept the poor Cuban boy, Elian, after finally rescuing him from his tormenters in Florida. There was Sen. Jesse Helms’ poisonous, almost treasonous, suggestions on how military personnel should treat President Clinton. There was Tom DeLay’s racism-laced remarks on Clinton’s highly successful trip to Africa. And there was the colossal, multi-million dollar spectacle of impeaching a President over a stain on a dress.

Much of America’s post-World War policy reflects exactly the impact of such viciously-selfish political activity. George Wallace, the late, hateful Governor of Alabama, nicely summed up the forces at work when he once swore after a failed election that “nobody was gonna out-nigger me ag’in.” Applied to foreign affairs, Wallace’s statement becomes a template for much of American policy. America was dragged into the Korean War by haunting fears of accusations like “loosing China” – never mind that you can’t loose what was never yours – despite the Pentagon’s assessment that South Korea was not a place of major strategic importance. Truman instituted all kinds of dark measures such as loyalty oaths as he felt the hot breath of vicious fanatics down his neck. Lyndon Johnson launched the deadly crusade in Vietnam in large part through fear of being “out-commied” by a political predator such as Richard Nixon.

There is little basis for optimism if Bush remains in office and not a great deal more promised in the circumstances and leading personalities of the Democratic party. Were a new administration to manage the patient and demanding steps to appropriately extricate the U.S., American voters would begin showing impatience long before the end. And what administration ever is going to adequately pressure Israel to give us peace with an end to its occupation and land-grabs, shutting down that inexhaustible source of Arab anger, humiliation and desire for revenge?

In any case, who does not fear that some additional devastating attack on the United States is just a matter of time? Even a succession of them? Bush could hardly have done a better job of creating gangs of new and bitter enemies, and bitter people carrying their grievances to the United States reflect only the same inevitable forces of globalization that have introduced countless other changes to American life. Then General Franks’ Doomsday Machine might well roar into operation, launching us all into a new dark age.

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