Anyone old enough to remember the George W. Bush years can likely recall the shamelessness of the "you’re with us, or you’re against us" refrain. That is, you are with the terrorists if you are not gung-ho for endless war against a type of violence, a particularly extreme interpretation of a religion, and – let’s be real – a geographical area. If you simply offer some concerns, such as, gee, the rest of the world might get mad, or we might not get the welcome with flowers which we expect, well, you don’t get how bad the Taliban/Al-Qaeda/ISIS really are.
This deeply false dichotomy between supporting terrorists or agreeing with any and all US foreign policy was one that the Bush administration leaned on in tough times. Nearly 14 years after 9/11, and 12 years since the war in Iraq started, the hamfistedness of the propaganda already feels a little anachronistic. But that’s only because so many people now agree that the war was bad. We’ve had mushy liberal pundits from Jonathan Chait to Ezra Klein offering their decade-later self-flagellation. And we’ve marveled that otherwise smart people like the late Christopher Hitchens, or unrepentant comic book villains such as former Vice President Dick Cheney continued to defend the war long after it had gone out of fashion.
But it’s easy to see the mistakes of the last war. The key bit is making the next war doesn’t happen. And that’s the part the American people seem unable to handle. The threat of Saddam Hussein is impossible to take seriously now, because he is dead. Can we even remember what it felt like to fear him, or even Osama Bin Laden? Now it’s the Islamic State! Fear them! Fight them! President Obama and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) agree that a limited war against ISIS should happen. The terrifying hawks of congress, such as new right-wing darling Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), want much more than that.
ISIS is the worst, you understand. The worst. And in their obviously deliberate attempts to draw the US further into conflict, they do demonstrate their capacity for horror time and again. So once again, just as those against the 2003 Iraq war were painted as terrorist sympathizers, today’s anti-warriors are similarly branded the deluded peaceniks. If you’re sickened by ISIS’s deceptions and burning alive of innocents, but fall short of promoting more war, you are deemed a monster. It’s ironic that US interventionists aren’t sickened by burns and blown off limbs by their own drones and missiles. Somehow, that’s all right with most Americans. Their cause is just, or so goes the excuse.
Trying to explain terrorism makes you an apologist for violence. Arrogant stampedes into war make you a pragmatist or a realist. The world is violent and tough, so America should make it more so. And when it all goes to hell, the problem was a timid – likely Democrat – president who didn’t go to war hard enough, or came home too early. Next time, we’ll get it right. Next time the war just won’t end at all. (Fiscal conservatism apparently fits nicely with enormous embassies and bases all over the world.)
All of this horrifying justification for past and future wars means something to hawks. It means the people who do this love America. And if you object to America – if you argue that America has committed war crimes (a morally redundant term most of the time), you hate it. If you think that America is not as distant from ISIS as we’d like to believe, you’re probably just nuts. We are a thousand times better than terrorists, because they are terrorists. We aren’t terrorists. That’s all that needs to be discussed. Saying you didn’t mean to kill those civilians means everything. Not giving a shit that you got them killed is fine. It’s just the nature of war.
Consider this logic. The people supposedly devoted to the stirring words in the Constitution and Bill of Rights are happy to see them violated with the military-industrial complex, the prison-industrial complex, and the surveillance state. If, like me, you feel constantly infuriated and strangely hurt by the fact that America lies about its principles daily, you must hate the place. The warmongers are negligent, indulgent parents of a terror-child. They believe that letting America – that darling – do whatever it likes means they love it the most. But they don’t want to coddle little US too much. It’s got to learn to fight and protect itself, but by wailing on the playground kids who look like they might be trouble. Meanwhile, those of us who say "hang on, wasn’t America supposed to be better than this?" are no-funs and scolds. Loving America seems to mean only letting it bully the world. Wanting a principled America, and trying to fix it when it fails to live up to those principles, means you hate the country.
This is just another way that warmongers own the narrative. They win because they cover every contingency. They can predict the easy ending of every war. It may take a decade or two, but we will win. And then – though the place has been at war for thousand of years, and has nothing at all to do with us – we can fix it. We can nation build flawlessly in a place that is apparently so alien, we disbelieve that dead children, and bombed cities are part of the motivation for their people committing violence against the west.
Anything is possible with intervention. And we have endless chances to get it right. Obviously, nothing that matters to hawks is at stake here – not Americans’ rights, and certainly not the lives of thousands of innocent people.
Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and a columnist for VICE.com. She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at www.thestagblog.com.