Rethinking America

Americans’ Moby Dick: The 21st Century Edition

The “War On Terror” is entering its 16th year. But why does it have such a hold over Americans’ lives, culture and politics?

Credit: PRODavid www.flickr.com

Takeaways


  • America’s “war on terror” has become our national mission for restoration.
  • The memory of 9/11 is what grieves us. It inflames our collective passion for vengeance.
  • Americans have embraced the post-9/11 trauma rather than exorcised it. That is the purpose of the “war on terror.”
  • Putin is but the projection of our own existential dread.
  • The spectral persona who haunts our minds, “Putin” has no objective existence.

America’s “Global War on Terror” (GWOT) consumes hundreds of billions annually. It has spawned an entire industry that embraces millions of workers.

These range from intelligence/ security consultants to academics and the 70,000 men and women of Special Operations Command who today are fighting the war in 38 countries.

The War on Terror also mobilizes most of the 834,000 persons who are granted “Top Secret” national security clearances. “Terrorism” and “Counter-Terrorism” labels are sure-fire attention getters used to promote all manner of causes.

At a deeper level, the nation’s very psyche has been possessed by this abnormal obsession. The consequences are profound.

Moby Dick: No longer just literature

Captain Ahab’s obsessive hunt for Moby Dick, the 1851 novel by Hermann Melville, was driven by the thirst for revenge.

The earlier encounter with the great white whale had maimed Ahab – in soul as well as body. Ahab was consumed by the passion to restore his sense of self, and make himself whole again, by killing his nemesis – a compulsion that his wooden leg never let weaken.

Beyond 9/11

America’s “war on terror” has become our national mission for restoration. The psychic wound of 9/11 is what grieves us. It inflames our collective passion for vengeance.

The physical wound is already healed. By now, it must be memorialized in order for the scar to be seen. It never did impair our functioning. In that sense, it was little more than a broken toe.

In the aftermath of 9/11, there was genuine fear of a repeat attack – something that we now know never was in the cards.

However, our enemy has been emasculated. The great Satan was shot dead in Abbottabad. Only pinpricks at long intervals from within our midst draw blood.

Still yearning for catharsis

Catharsis has eluded us Americans, though. We still seethe with emotions. We suffer from the embedded anxiety that is dread, from uneasy feelings of vulnerability, from a seeming lost prowess and control.

A society that talks casually about the need for “closure” on almost all occasions cannot find closure on 9/11. Instead, it has a powerful need to ritualize the fear, to pursue the implacable quest for ultimate security, to perform violent acts of vengeance that neither cure nor satiate.

Hunting for new monsters to slay

So, we search the seven seas hunting for monsters to slay. We are not after Moby Dick himself, but his accessories, accomplices, enablers, facilitators, emulators, sympathizers.

Whales of every species, great and small, fall to our harpoons. The dead and innocent dolphins far outnumber them. Such are the fortunes of war.

Since there is no actual Moby Dick out there to pursue, we have fashioned a virtual game of acting out the hunt, the encounter, the retribution.

Truth be told, we have embraced the post-9/11 trauma — rather than exorcised it. That is the purpose and meaning of the “war on terror.” That war is about us – it no longer is about them.

Destruction all around

Ahab destroyed himself, destroyed his crew, destroyed his ship. He sacrificed all in the quest – a quest for the unattainable.

Like Ahab, the United States is sacrificing its principles of liberty, its political integrity, the trust that is the bedrock of its democracy, its standing in the world as the “best hope of mankind,” and its capacity to feel for others – including its fellow citizens.

America’s Moby Dick has migrated and transmuted itself. It now is lodged in our innermost being.

Thank God for Putin

There, it spawns fictive offspring – Vladimir Putin. But the phantasmagoric Putin is but the projection of our own existential dread.

The spectral persona who haunts our minds, “Putin” has no objective existence.

“Putin” is the creation of our troubled national psyche. We have transposed onto him the whole maelstrom of turbid emotions we had imparted to Osama bin-Laden, and then the Islamic State.

To rid ourselves of America’s transmuted 21st century version of Moby Dick, we must kill part of our tainted being. In other words, we must perform a form of psycho-political chemotherapy.

Otherwise, our national soul will wither away — just as Ahab was sucked into the ocean depths entangled in the very ropes he had fashioned to ensnare Moby Dick.

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About Michael J. Brenner

Michael Brenner is Professor Emeritus of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.