Something is rotten in our democracy. Like a family where everything goes wrong and nobody says a word, we suffer a load of unasked questions that have under them still more questions. Do Americans always need a war? That is a first question. It did not seem so before 2001. And the attacks that America endured then, attacks whose misery we have returned a hundredfold against actual and imagined enemies — did those events and the interpretation put on them by Cheney and Bush (and ratified, with an agreeable change of tone, by Barack Obama ) trigger a mutation in the American character? In relation to the Constitution and our place in the world of nations, 2001 in that case must have assumed the status of the Big Bang in the universe of politics. Useless even to think of anything that came before.
To say we now act as if we need a war may underrate the syndrome. We seem to require three wars at a given time: a war to be getting out of, a war we’re in the middle of, and a war we aim to step into. The three at present are Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran. And the three to follow? Pakistan, Sudan, and Yemen, perhaps: we are already well along in all three — well along in missile strikes, black ops, alienated people whom we say we support.
The commitment to war as a general need was not less wrong but it seemed more comprehensible when the president was George W. Bush. “All wars are boyish, and are fought by boys,” wrote Melville; and it was evident to anyone with nerve-endings that Bush was an unsatisfied boy. The pursuit of multiple wars seems more exposed under Barack Obama because he fits a common idea of a grown-up. So we look more dryly now for the principle backing wars that once seemed driven by crude passions and a cruel simplicity of heart.
America’s wars are sustained less by public support than by the absence of public opposition. These are wars of indifference that endure because tolerably few Americans get killed.
A society which likes to declare: we support our troops, is comfortable with the idea that a few thousand won’t come home. Tens of thousands Americans maimed is also tolerable — not because the number is tolerable but because it’s a number rarely mentioned. And hundreds of thousands of non-Americans killed or disfigured, with millions losing their homes while seeing their countries ripped apart — these are the tears in a global fabric, whose weave, texture, design are of little concern to a nation that perpetually sees the world as other.
When and how did this indifference emerge? I don’t believe that 9/11 was a turning point as much as a clarifying moment: it revealed that as far as most Americans are concerned, the US government is free to do as it pleases overseas so long as its military adventures do not intrude too much within the insulated American way of life.
And what is the nature of that way of life? It was anticipated 150 years ago by Alexis de Tocqueville when he described how democracy would fall apart:
I seek to trace the novel features under which despotism may appear in the world. The first thing that strikes the observation is an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of all the rest; his children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind. As for the rest of his fellow citizens, he is close to them, but he does not see them; he touches them, but he does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone; and if his kindred still remain to him, he may be said at any rate to have lost his country.