Susan Sontag Was Right

The former head of Britain’s intelligence agency, MI5, says the U.S. response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks – specifically the invasion of Iraq – and the launching of a worldwide “war on terrorism” was “a huge overreaction.” Those words would’ve gotten her in big trouble back in the bad old days, when the “warbloggers” were on the loose, Andy Sullivan was taking names, and the Susan SontagNoam ChomskyMichael Moore Axis of Evil was the object of near-universal opprobrium. These days, however, her diagnosis of post-9/11 derangement syndrome is well nigh universally held to be the conventional wisdom. A new president will likely take office in the U.S. largely because of this sea-change in public opinion.

The problem is that the lessons of the post-9/11 hysteria, an emotional tsunami generated in large part by opportunistic politicians, have still not been fully absorbed, either by the public or by elite opinion. Presidential frontrunner Barack Obama, after all, has pledged to escalate our endless “war on terrorism” on at least two fronts: Afghanistan, where he is eager to send tens of thousands more U.S. troops, and Pakistan, which – in a troubling, albeit unacknowledged reiteration of the Bushian doctrine of “preemption” – he has repeatedly threatened to invade.

The key point made by Stella Rimington, head of Britain’s legendary spook outfit in the 1990s, is that the politicization of the national security issue not only made the fight against terrorism ineffective, but engendered the complete opposite of its intended result: terrorism was empowered, rather than set back, by the warlords of London and Washington. From the Guardian:

“It all began, she suggests, with September 11. ‘National security has become much more of a political issue than it ever was in my day,’ she says. ‘Parties are tending to use it as a way of trying to get at the other side. You know, “We’re more tough on terrorism than you are.” I think that’s a bad move, quite frankly.’

“Rimington mentions Guantánamo Bay, the practice of extraordinary rendition, and the invasion of Iraq – three issues which the majority in Britain’s security and intelligence establishment opposed privately at the time.”

The professionals, however, weren’t in charge; the politicians were, and they – not surprisingly – used 9/11 as a pretext for war, the rollback of basic civil liberties, and cementing their own hold on power. In the United States, the CIA was sidelined, and the neocons brought in their ownexperts.” Ensconced in a number of obscure Pentagon subdepartments, they stove-piped bogus “intelligence” directly to the White House and key members of Congress. That was the War Party’s whole modus operandi – doing an end run around the intelligence and military professionals, inserting their own operatives into key positions, and effectively pulling off a coup d’etat.

The U.S. military and rhetorical response to 9/11 had nothing, in short, to do with waging an actual war on terrorist entities such as al-Qaeda and its allies, and everything to do with domestic political considerations: gaining political advantage and keeping it for eight long years, during which time al-Qaeda grew stronger and is today in a better position than ever, while Osama bin Laden is still hectoring us from his cave.

Michael Scheuer, former head of the bin Laden task force at the CIA, has gone so far as to describe the U.S. government as al-Qaeda’s one “indispensable ally,” and this is not simply a case of rhetorical overkill. In terms of hard numbers – the numbers of jihadists who, as Rimington put it, “say that the war in Iraq played a significant part in persuading them that this is the right course of action to take” – the benefits to bin Laden’s cause have been palpable. This is the “surge” no one talks about – rising support for radical jihadism generated by U.S. actions throughout the world.

As the smoke lingered over lower Manhattan, Susan Sontag‘s alleged “treason” amounted to a simple statement of fact, albeit one that spared nothing and no one in its merciless assessment:

“The disconnect between last Tuesday’s monstrous dose of reality and the self-righteous drivel and outright deceptions being peddled by public figures and TV commentators is startling, depressing. The voices licensed to follow the event seem to have joined together in a campaign to infantilize the public. Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a ‘cowardly’ attack on ‘civilization’ or ‘liberty’ or ‘humanity’ or ‘the free world’ but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?”

Sontag, who was vilified for this and died a few years later of inoperable cancer, has been more than vindicated. She was a modern Cassandra, at least in this instance, and her insight into where and how we went wrong, post-9/11, deserves to be remembered:

“Our leaders are bent on convincing us that everything is O.K. America is not afraid. Our spirit is unbroken, although this was a day that will live in infamy and America is now at war. But everything is not O.K. And this was not Pearl Harbor. We have a robotic president who assures us that America stands tall. A wide spectrum of public figures, in and out of office, who are strongly opposed to the policies being pursued abroad by this administration apparently feel free to say nothing more than that they stand united behind President Bush. A lot of thinking needs to be done, and perhaps is being done in Washington and elsewhere, about the ineptitude of American intelligence and counter-intelligence, about options available to American foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East, and about what constitutes a smart program of military defense. But the public is not being asked to bear much of the burden of reality. The unanimously applauded, self-congratulatory bromides of a Soviet Party congress seemed contemptible. The unanimity of the sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric spouted by American officials and media commentators in recent days seems, well, unworthy of a mature democracy.”

How quickly the “liberals” melted away before the hot tide of ultra-nationalism that the media and the politicians (or do I repeat myself?) whipped up in the wake of 9/11! And how like a Soviet Party congress was our own Congress, as it voted for war – and ratified a bill that abolished the constitutional liberties we once took for granted, without even reading it. Remember?

Even some “libertarians” forgot their supposed devotion to individual rights and urged Americans to get used to increased surveillance because “a free society is not a suicide pact,” while others cheered the “war on terrorism” and jeered Sontag, including the present editor of the leading libertarian magazine. Yet Sontag was not merely right, she was eerily prescient, the central point of her famous New Yorker essay being that the War Party was using the worst terrorist attack in American history to further its own agenda:

“Those in public office have let us know that they consider their task to be a manipulative one: confidence-building and grief management. Politics, the politics of a democracy – which entails disagreement, which promotes candor – has been replaced by psychotherapy. Let’s by all means grieve together. But let’s not be stupid together. A few shreds of historical awareness might help us to understand what has just happened, and what may continue to happen. ‘Our country is strong,’ we are told again and again. I for one don’t find this entirely consoling. Who doubts that America is strong? But that’s not all America has to be.”

The manipulation of public opinion on the home front is what the formulation of our foreign policy is all about, which is why it rarely works, and quite often backfires in our faces. Confronted with a disaster, in a democratic society the political response is to either somehow escape blame, or else use it as a bludgeon against the opposition. In the case of 9/11, our public servants did both.

Without the “war on terrorism,” the terrorists would be a marginal and universally despised band of hunted criminals, without much hope of launching a worldwide guerrilla struggle against the American colossus. As it is, however, they are a rising force in the world of Islam, and their reach – their capacity to hit the American mainland – is significantly increased, easily 10 times what is was in the days immediately following 9/11.

The idea that an Obama administration would inaugurate a new era and right the wrongs committed over the past eight years, is a delusion that will die hard, and – if Obama is elected – very shortly. After all, he’s proposing to do the same thing in Pakistan and Afghanistan that George W. Bush did in Iraq: he wants to launch an Afghan “surge.” As we witness the sheer scope of the task he proposes we undertake a bit further to the east, we may come to remember the Bush years with near-nostalgia. The opening up of a new Afghan/Pakistani front will be the Iraq war writ large.

The argument that Pakistan and Afghanistan are where bin Laden and al-Qaeda reside, and that the Iraq war was a diversion from our duty to go after the monster in his lair, assumes all sorts of things that are by no means certain – and, in the case of bin Laden’s place of residence, are almost certainly wrong. (My own guess is that bin Laden is somewhere in the wilds of central Asia – not Waziristan – perhaps in one of those ex-Soviet “republics,” well beyond the reach of the U.S. or its allies, and, as usual, fighting in the front lines alongside his fellow jihadists.)

In any case, we are still not getting it. By every indication, the road ahead is going to be long, hard, and littered with the bones of the War Party’s sacrificial sheep. Whether we eventually begin to grasp Sontag’s – and Rimington’s, and Scheuer’s – essential insight into the true meaning and significance of 9/11, and where we went wrong in responding to it, depends on many factors. Hopefully this Web site is one variable driving us in the right direction – toward a new realism about America’s role in world affairs.


I have to add, however, that Sontag was not right about the Balkan wars. Hers was one of the main intellectual voices (among many, to be sure) calling for U.S. military intervention. I dealt with her arguments in my 1996 pamphlet Into the Bosnian Quagmire: The Case Against U.S. Intervention in the Balkans. She was one of the first to employ the rhetoric of World War II in the service of the War Party, equating the Serbians with the Nazis and likening attempts at a negotiated settlement to another Munich. Not only the neocons play that game. Yet her commentary on 9/11 – published barely a week after the attacks – stands by itself as an example of clear-headed objectivity and moral courage.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].