The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced [follower], but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (standards of thought) no longer exist." Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism
"The compulsion of total terror on one side, which, with its iron band, presses masses of isolated [people] together and supports them in a world which has become a wilderness for them--and the self-coercive force of logical deduction on the other which prepares each individual in [their] lonely isolation against all others-- corresponds to each other and needs each other in order to keep the terror-ruled movement in motion and keep it moving.
"Just as terror ruins all relationships with men, so the self-compulsion of ideological thinking ruins all relationships with reality. The preparation has succeeded when [people] have lost contact with [other people] as well as the reality around them; for together with these contacts, [people] lose the capacity of both experience and thought. The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced [follower], but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (standards of thought) no longer exist." Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism.
The American nation-state led by the Bush Administration, and the transnational rebel group led by Bin Laden, has brought to life the artificially fabricated insanity that Hannah Arendt so dreaded. But the situation is far worse than she could have imagined. The insanity that permeates the psyche of the United States of America and the mysterious Al Qaeda is being carefully nurtured by Bush and Bin Laden, the products of wealthy families intertwined in business dealings for decades. Rather than trying to find a mid-point where some commonality and reduction of violence might be found, these two zealots and their minions have eliminated the possibility of any peaceful outcome and, instead, daily sow the seeds of destruction for the causes they claim to promote. In short, perpetual ideological conflict played out on the battlefields of the world.
Bush and Bin Laden view themselves as freedom fighters and are steadfast in their beliefs and their gods. On that score, no one can argue. But both have done more
to eliminate freedom-the mobility of thought and action-than some of history's worst scoundrels.
Set on a collision course predetermined by years of dubious American economic, political and military actions throughout the Middle East and Persian Gulf Basin, it was only a matter of time before Bush and Bin Laden (or President X and Bin X) would find themselves and their followers at war with each other.
For a moment following September 11, 2001, there was an option that both men had and that was to reach out to each other and, adopting the best parts of Christianity and Islam, attempt to address grievances, to right wrongs, to salvage the lives of collateral human beings. Enough potential, enough new beginnings, as Arendt would say, had died on that terrible September day and all the days that came before for those living under tyrannical regimes supported by the USA. But in an already insane--and dangerously bored--world eager to explore new levels of insanity, exercising the freedom to be free from war and its sufferings to "turn the other cheek" seemed, itself, an absurd choice.
Guided by Fantasy
And so Bush and Bin Laden, blinded by their otherworldly beliefs in Christian and Islamic mysticism, launched their hungry followers into the place that they occupy. That place where, as Arendt pointed out, the distinction between fact and fiction and true and false no longer exist--an artificially created insanity, a totalitarian place full of demons and evil where a disembodied concept-God-provides violent guidance.
How else to explain their theatric and compulsive ideological showmanship? Bin Laden claims peace upon Allah but destroys Allah's name through the destruction of life. Bush says he has done more for human rights than anyone in history, yet he has authorized the creation of a Gulag, the torture and killing of prisoners, soldiers and collateral human beings alike. Bin Laden takes his guidance from the Koran and his zealous advisors. Bush takes all his guidance from the Bible and claims not to read or watch any newscasts, getting his views from advisors who never met a boardroom they didn't like. Both leaders demand total organizational secrecy.
One of the central personality characteristics of both men is their need to hide. Bin Laden has been on the run since the CIA supported him against the Soviets in
the 1980's. No surprise there. But Bush's hide-everything characteristic and "I don't have to tell anyone why I do things" has unfortunately spilled over into much of American society where even the operation of local utilities has been classified and hidden under the guise of national security. This protect-the-sewercap homeland security mentality in a nation of 300 million people occupying a continental landmass with a width of 4421 kilometers and a length of 2572 kilometers is patently insane. So, absent the bright light of a public that thinks and a responsible US Congress and media, Americans essentially already have the equivalent of a martial law government, a government run out of a bunker that never sees the "real" light of day (perhaps an arrangement can be made with the US military to keep the current government and business leaders in their bunkers after the next rebel assault).
Earn your daily bread and we'll take care of politics and your defense, they say. Arendt points out in The Human Condition that one of the main goals of tyranny is to get the public, the followers to forget about opposition politics, to not ask tough questions. Right on cue, Bush's minions lash out at any criticism of his/their policies as unpatriotic and unrealistic. Don't Ask! Have Faith! They admonish. And that attitude permeates today's society. For example, in the business world in-your-face, know-your-place takes the form of statements like these, "Those of us who make the big decisions get the big money and those who sweep the floors don't" according to one executive and retired military commander. One can only imagine the penalty that Bin Laden has for dissent. Yet, it is critical to remember that in the fantastical world that Bush and Bin Laden occupy, Arendt's insanity is normalcy. It is useless to ask, where's the outrage, simply because millions of followers in government, in business and in the public exist in that same unreal reality. Anyone else just doesn't matter.
Distinctions between Bush and Bin Laden followers are difficult to make. Both advocate preemption, War/Jihad, assassination, coups, and kidnapping and torture. So it's no surprise to learn that Bush and Bin Laden think there's just too much freedom. They've done everything in their power to ensure that freedom-- that open space to move about or fill with thought--is designed in accordance with their totalitarian worldview. It's no surprise that in Bush's 2004 State of the Union Address he made note of the fact that many Americans do not believe that the USA is at war. In a backhanded slap at the American Constitution, Bush mocked the US civilian justice system opting to glorify war and the US military, and give Americans another dose of fear. Bush is keeping the movement in motion, as Arendt would have said. In this environment, Individuality is of no use; in fact, it's dangerous. The day may be close when an individual born in the USA will not receive citizenship until later in life and after being subjected to a background check, fingerprinting, neural mapping and a citizenship test. Can it be long before every American is classified as a national security interest?
Bush has adroitly fused state, religious (Faith Based government) and business interests into one indistinguishable tyrannical mass (would one expect anything different in a country run by Bin Laden?). In like manner, the needs of that tyrannical mass have (or soon will) supercede and absorb individual thought and action, even the individual self as property. All of life's effort will be on behalf of national survival, national security. At the dinner table, at the office, upon waking up from sleep, on the metro, in the movie theater, all images, thinking and movement is dominated by war or the threat of war. Join the cause or find yourself on the outside is the new thinking.
The next step, perhaps well underway, begins with collection of US census data, airline passenger manifests, medical records, driving records, credit reports, academic transcripts, property records, religious affiliation, sexual affiliation, and marriage records, all of which are finding their way into centralized databases run by NASA, the US Army, the Pentagon and, undoubtedly, the FBI, CIA, NSA and who knows how many other organizations.
In compressed databases across the country, one no longer has a private and unique record, but rather becomes a classification, lumped together in an indistinguishable group. The data pattern determines your eligibility to join the group outside the database; for example, to board the airplane or train. You board the aircraft because of the very fact that you are no longer unique, you are no longer an individual, you are part of the group. You've selected non-freedom. Your interests match those of the tyrannical mass. And that's not all. Non-invasive neurological testing as proposed by NASA will be done right at the airport or train station to determine, like a lie detector test, whether your nervous. Is your nervousness a sign that you are a threat?
Adam Smith once said that the purpose of government is to protect the rich from the poor. Bush's policies and actions, or should we say those of his advisors, demonstrate at once that the federal government of the USA is being reduced to an entity that concerns itself only with national security. Smith's view is in play in 2004. As Bush chides the federal government to reduce "wasteful" spending on education, infrastructure repair, global health insurance, veterans benefits, social security, Medicare and environmental protection, etc., he asks for more tax cuts for the wealthy, more weapons, more tax breaks for corporations and more funding for an other-worldly program of space exploration best left to mechanical explorers, not flesh and blood.
Bush terrorizes his own populace and the world by indicating that the entire cosmos hangs in the balance. And it's not just the cosmos, it's your job, your home. And now your sexuality is under attack. Homosexuals and lesbians-and the radical judges who rule in their favor--threaten the national security of the USA because they may destroy the sanctity of the marriage contract. For this reason-and in another swipe at the US judicial system, Bush would amend the US Constitution inserting discrimination into a document that what was supposed to guarantee freedom.
Perhaps Arendt's most powerful and simple statement was that people need to think about what they are doing. She warned that the consequences of action taken today can't be known or may not be controllable once set into motion. The individuals that remain need to think hard about who and what they want to become-ammunition and human capital in the violently absurd world of Bush and Bin Laden, or thinking individuals moving in the open space of a fearless society.
(John is a Virginia based writer specializing in national security and political matters. He is the co-author of America's Nightmare).