Edited by Sam Thielman
MY FRIEND DAVID KLION wrote an excellent piece for N+1 on the return to 9/11 politics now that it's open war again in Israel/Palestine, and perhaps soon Lebanon. David gives REIGN OF TERROR a shout and zeroes in on the parable of canceling Susan Sontag:
As Spencer Ackerman recalls in Reign of Terror, his grim accounting of the disastrous twenty years that followed 9/11, Susan Sontag was the rare public intellectual who tried to express a degree of nuance and historical context in the days following the attacks; for this, she was accused of “moral obtuseness” by the Washington Post’s Charles Krauthammer and “self-flagellation” by the New Republic’s Lawrence F. Kaplan. Andrew Sullivan named a snarky “award” for moral equivalence after Sontag and continued handing it out long after her death in 2004. It took years for Sontag’s posthumous reputation to fully recover and for her warnings to seem like retroactive common sense—years during which America launched two catastrophic full-scale invasions, established ongoing secret wars spanning a dozen countries, set up a transnational network of torture camps and a prison in Cuba that exists outside the reach of the Constitution, built a dystopian digital panopticon to spy on literally everyone, and killed orders of magnitude more civilians than died on 9/11 itself.
Leave the Israelis aside for a moment. American politicians and journalists are comfortable again referring to Palestinians as animals to be exterminated before they savagely kill again. Sure as the sun rises in the east, the anti-government-weaponization Sen. Josh Hawley, who saluted the January 6 rioters, somehow found dissenters he wants to sic the Justice Department on. Afghanistan veteran and U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, an evangelical Christian who apparently volunteered for the Israel Defense Forces, wore an IDF uniform to work just as the IDF is about to escalate the daily violence strangling Gaza to unthinkable levels. New York City Councilwoman Inna Vernikov—don't think for a second MAGA doesn't grow in Brooklyn—took her gun to counterprotest a pro-Palestinian demonstration at Brooklyn College.
That's just on the right. White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said statements from progressive lawmakers calling for deescalation before the IDF reinvades were "repugnant" and "disgraceful." President Biden—alongside every other Western leader—has decided that the history of Israel/Palestine started on Saturday. Akbar Shahid Ahmed reported for Huff Post that the State Department is telling diplomats to refrain from any diplomatic language of restraint. The USS Gerald Ford carrier strike group, centered around the world's largest aircraft carrier, is in the eastern Mediterranean right now, as if the U.S. ammunition shipments to the IDF don't already make it clear to Palestinians which superpower actively participates in their deaths.
It should be clear that the politics of the War on Terror have not ended. They only go into abeyance from time to time, or find new outlets for their bloodthirst, before returning. That is a measure of how insufficiently we have confronted these politics. Confronted, they can be overwhelmed and defeated, because they lead only deeper into the disaster—that is, terror—they're predicated on destroying. There's even a whole book whose themes include how liberals decide that it's safer not to confront these politics, and how well that decision works out for everyone.
NOT A WEEK into this excruciating reality and we already have nostalgia for the old-time War on Terror. Axios desks rose by a few inches in describing a video by George W. Bush hailing Benjamin Netanyahu's imminent revenge. The news outlet reminisced about "the Texas twang and… the Bushian posture that takes viewers back 20 years." Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, appearing next to U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, referred to Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran as "an axis of evil."
It's been more than half a day since Israel demanded more than one million Palestinians flee imminent and massive aerial bombardment, a terrifying impossibility given the realities of Gaza's enclosure, to say nothing of basic logistics. Hours ago I was on a Zoom call set up by Peter Beinart that featured the left-wing former Knesset speaker Avrum Burg and Sally Abed, a Palestinian activist with the Israeli peace group Standing Together. (Subscribe to Peter's newsletter, especially in this moment of crisis in Israel/Palestine.) Abed described how the Israeli demand for mass displacement prompted widespread fear that Israel will "pretty much ethnically cleanse the northern part of the Gaza Strip."
And she expressed justified bitterness at having to begin every media interview with a condemnation of Hamas—which she unreservedly condemns—while "generals of the Israeli army… openly [talk] about wiping out whole areas of civilians. …[but] we're not expected to talk about the context of the oppressive Israeli regime." And that is 9/11 politics distilled to its essence: to make scandalous the presentation of context. In the spirit of Susan Sontag: fuck that.
I and every other Jew alive have been terrified for my friends in Israel—as far as I know, I don't have family in Israel, but do I have people I love there—as well as for my friends in Palestine. The suffering they are experiencing—the deaths they are enduring—may be the work of the IDF, they may be the work of West Bank settlers, they may be the work of Hamas. But in every case, they are the result of an Israeli apparatus of apartheid. That apparatus strengthens Hamas. I can't say this loudly enough. The Washington Post:
“The modus vivendi was that Hamas takes care of Gaza, Israel allows it to prosper, with the relatively small price that Israel paid every so often, with a round of violence in which Israel would kill thousands of Palestinians and Palestinians would kill dozens of Israelis — that was considered the best Israel could hope for,” said Eran Etzion, former deputy head of Israel’s national security council. “Now that strategic equation has been completely violated.”
If you want this to stop, and you should, there is only one way it can stop, and that is to end the apartheid. What Burg described as the "Russian military strategy" employed by the IDF, which is to say the aerial bombardment of Gaza so as to minimize the dangers of urban warfare for an invasion force, will not stop it. The IDF won't destroy Hamas, it can only destroy Palestinians, and those Palestinians who survive will never forget it. From Israel's perspective, the day after will look like the day before. From Fallujah to Tarek Kolache, the War on Terror could not have made this more clear. When Lloyd Austin, former CENTCOM commander, calls Hamas ISIS-like, he seems to forget how ISIS came to exist in the first place. Israel intensifying the conditions of Palestinian destruction can have no effect but to catalyze the next wave of resistance. Perhaps deliberate Israeli policy will cultivate that wave as well.
When anyone wields 9/11 politics against the marginalized, solidarity has to be the full-throated response. 9/11 politics seek to make solidarity look like surrender, so as to disguise the fate to which their bloodthirsty condemns so many. But these politics have a glass jaw. There was no left-wing government in Israel before Saturday, just the furthest-right-wing government in its history. The "Iron Wall failing," as my friend Jonathan Katz wrote, is the result of the right's preferences and the left's marginalization. 9/11 politics are meant to distract from the accumulated devastation of those preferences, and it is all those politics can ever produce—except, that is, the strangulation of democracy. These politics can be defeated if confronted forthrightly, because their works are self-discrediting. In America, the wreckage they created has been on display for an entire generation.
In Israel, Burg noted, people are directing their fury at Netanyahu's government for structurally facilitating the attacks and then failing to protect their people from them. Yossi Verter writes in Haaretz that the partners in Israel's unity government "mustn’t forget what [Netanyahu] did to us in the last nine months, and how he brought that Saturday morning upon us." Netanyahu is an extraordinary survivor and knows how to manage Israel's fractious politics, so I wouldn't necessarily bet against his continued survival. But the more important point is that significant numbers of Israelis are not willing to perform the amnesia that 9/11 politics require. That points the way for the rest of us: down a path of solidarity, to confront the problem at its core, which is apartheid.
The awful reality is that it will come too late for so many Palestinians. Earlier this week, Sami al-Arian told me Palestinians will die in their homes rather than be forced out for the second time in their national history. I can't stop thinking about that. But we owe it to everyone dead, Israeli and Palestinian, to jeer at the arsonist when he claims to be a firefighter. From Afghanistan to Iraq to Israel/Palestine to a prospective diplomatic deal between Riyadh and Jerusalem, all he does is ensure that he never runs out of business. His record of destruction has to be recited the moment he dares to open his mouth.
Earlier today, I was exchanging messages with someone the U.S. once considered a dangerous Islamist, the kind of person once described in terms that right now American and Israeli politicians are using against Palestinians. At one point, I said: "Pray for Gaza."
He replied: "No, pray for both sides."
SOME OTHER PIECES WORTH READING: