[Before reading the following essay, you might want to read Vidal's controversial essay on Sept. 11. It appears on the web site of Index on Censorship, a quarterly magazine that puts much of its content on-line. A related link: My review of Vidal's 2003 book, Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson.]
ONE ALWAYS WONDERS about the ultra-chic liberalism of Vanity Fair, which comes to us each month stuffed with advertisements for designer clothing, Italian shoes and the latest unisex fragrance. And these days, Gore Vidal is probably wondering more than most of us.
Why does the magazine even publish Christopher Hitchens, the prickly British leftist who chides capitalist excess and who calls Mother Teresa "the ghoul of Calcutta"? And what sympathy would its readers have for Timothy McVeigh, with whose ideas about government Vidal sympathized in an essay that appeared in the September 2001 issue?
It almost seems as if Vanity Fair publishes these pieces to assuage its laissez-faire conscience for putting so many air-blown Hollywood celebrities on its cover and for pandering to the lives of the Very Rich.
But even this good soldier of the magazine world has its line in the sand: When Vanity Fair asked Vidal to write about Sept. 11, and when he turned in an essay that would surely have enraged our current culture of ne plus ultra patriotism, the magazine spiked the piece, leaving Vidal to twist in the wind like the American flag he sought to protect with his trenchant study of our loss of basic constitutional freedoms.
Twice before, Vanity Fair had published pieces by Vidal that questioned our nationís commitment to the Bill of Rights and its guarantees of freedom. His November 1998 essay, "The War at Home," brought together a cautionary history of a government devising new ways to arrest its people and satisfy a hungry ruling corporate culture. And in "The Meaning of Timothy McVeigh," published in a month that would change the course of our history, he argued the case of a young man who did the wrong thing for the right reason - and unfurled hints of the government coverup to keep the full truth from coming out.
No longer, though. When Vidal couldnít publish his Sept. 11 essay in the magazine, he published it - along with the two earlier Vanity Fair pieces, and an essay from the Nation called "The New Theocrats" - in a small Italian-language book titled La fine della libertŗ: Verso un nuovo totalitarismo, which means "the end of liberty: toward a new totalitarianism." That book was soon translated into French under the same title.
Now at last that untouchable essay makes its American debut in Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace: How America Got To Be So Hated (Thunder Mouth Press/Nation Books, 2002), a collection of Vidalís writing that presents his views on American imperialism since World War II. Each essay in the 160-page book examines the authorís long-heralded assertion that our government has systematically sided with the military-industrial complex - a term coined by Eisenhower - against the interest of the people who, in theory only, make up a democracy.
Itís a challenging book, one that mounts some astounding evidence on the way to proving many of its theses. And yet, on the question of Sept. 11, not even Vidal can do what would seem - at least for now - to be impossible: How do we "explain" Osama bin Laden and the extremist Moslem world that made the World Trade Center attacks happen.
In his five-page introduction to Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, Vidal discusses the history of his unpublished Vanity Fair piece and quotes from a piece by Arno J. Mayer that The Nation declined to publish. The Mayer essay speaks of the United Statesí history since World War II of "preemptive state terror" in the Third World.
Next in Vidalís book comes the essay "September 11, 2001 (A Tuesday)," the piece originally written for Vanity Fair (and which, Vidal says, was also rejected by The Nation). Here he discusses at length the implications of what happened to the World Trade Center on the 21st Centuryís first day of infamy. The essay ends with a 20-page chart detailing American military operations around the world from 1949 to the present.
Vidal calls the second section of the book "How I Became Interested in Timothy McVeigh and Vice Versa." This begins with a brief introduction about his relationship with McVeigh and then presents two essays: "The Shredding of the Bill of Rights," which appeared in the November 1998 issue of Vanity Fair under the title "The War at Home"; and "The Meaning of Timothy McVeigh," which appeared in the September 2001 issue of the magazine.
The book's third section, "Fallout," contains a very brief introduction to a copy of Vidalís Aug. 27, 2001, letter to FBI director-designate Robert S. Mueller III. The letter - to which Vidal surely did not expect a reply - chides Mueller with evidence that McVeigh did not act alone in bombing the Murrah building in Oklahoma City. "Now that McVeigh has already been injected into a better world," he writes in the letter, "I am sure that the bureau's choice of explanation to my inquiry will be a difficult one." He goes on to ask whether the FBI merely conducted an incompetent investigation, or whether the bureau knowingly withheld evidence. He then presents a 10-point Bill of Rights written by McVeigh on May 28, 2001.
The last two sections of the book present two more of Vidal's previously published essays: "The New Theocrats," reprinted from The Nation, in which he discusses a moralizing conservatism that breeds an "old-fashioned American stupidity where a religion-besotted majority is cynically egged on by a ruling establishment"; and "A Letter To Be Delivered" - reprinted from Vanity Fair, and written on Nov. 7, 2000 - in which he writes an open letter to the soon-to-be-elected president. To this second essay he adds a preface and a footnote - written "a dozen days before the inauguration of the loser of the 2000 presidential election" - that predicts a Bush-Cheney presidency will create "a powerless Mikado ruled by a shogun vice president and his Pentagon counselors."
The essay on Sept. 11 underwent some modest if interesting revision along the way to its publication in Perpetual War. Vidalís comments on the attack first appeared on the internet, in Portuguese, on the site of the Brazilian newspaper Folha de S„o Paulo. Vidal apparently gave them a statement/interview within days of the event when the publication requested one. That Brazilian piece was soon translated into Spanish and published on the web site of the Mexican newspaper La Jornada. Later, a private web site operator translated it into English and put it on the web. These three version of Vidal's remarks include an anecdote about his sister, who lives in Washington and who had a friend aboard the plane that eventually crashed into the Pentagon. "Without losing her calm," Vidal wrote, recounting his sisterís phone call, "the friend called her husband on a cellular phone. ĎWe were hijacked,í she informed him. After that, she started to describe the last minutes of her life leading up to the airplaneís collision with the fifth side of the Pentagon. It was the husbandís birthday."
This anecdote does not appear in the version of the Sept. 11 essay that Vidal polished and published in Perpetual War. But another fleeting celebrity anecdote remains from the Italian/French version.. On the morning of the attack, Vidal received a call from a friend in America telling him that Berry Berenson - widow of the actor Anthony Perkins - had died in one of the planes that hit the Twin Towers. "The world was getting surreal," he writes. "Arabs. Plastic knives. The beautiful Berry." Itís the only intimate moment in his Sept. 11 essay, a piece of writing that otherwise coolly analyzes why Osama bin Laden killed more than 3,000 people and a dozen of his supporters one morning in America.
In fact, Vidalís books seems to have three purposes: to document our growing loss of liberties and our governmentís decimation of the Bill of Rights; to show how this loss of liberty caused a sane and intelligent Timothy McVeigh to commit his act of self-defense on behalf of himself and other oppressed citizen; and to explore why Osama bin Laden is not an evil madman but rather a reasonably aggrieved citizen of a world dominated by American military imperialism. Ultimately, heís on firmer ground when he discusses the Bill of Rights than when he tries to explain - "justify" would be too strong a word - McVeigh and bin Laden.
Although Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace begins with the essay about Sept. 11, it may serve readers better to read the three principle essays in the chronology in which Vidal wrote them. Their arguments interlock and build upon one another, often making predictions that come true - and, in one case, offering a proof that proves to be deadly wrong.
Thus, the bookís argument really begins with "The Shredding of the Bill of Right," published in the November 1998 Vanity Fair under the title "The War at Home." In this essay, Vidal pens a blistering indictment of the federal government and its decimation of the Bill of Rights, particularly the Fourth and Fifth amendments. "Today," he writes, "in the all-out, never-to-be-won twin wars on Drugs and Terrorism, 2 million telephone conversations a year are intercepted by law enforcement."
He goes on to present more anecdotes and statistics that mount a staggering case against a government that makes special tax laws to benefit corporation and special security laws to invade peopleís privacy in contravention to the Bill of Rights, all the while ignoring cases of hair-trigger police and FBI raids and killings that leave bloody evidence of an armed government out of control.
"Drugs," he writes. "If they did not exist our governors would have invented them and so make much of the population vulnerable to arrest, imprisonment, seizure of property, and so on." But of course, they do exist, and Vidalís solution to the problem of addiction - legalize drugs, sell them at cost, and list the side effects on the bottle - ignore the social problems that cause drug use and addiction in the first place. (Not all users are dealers, after all. In fact, very few of them are.)
In this essay, Vidal introduces one of the odd contradictions in what would become his argument about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Long a virulent atheist, who has mocked all foolish believers in what he calls the "Sky God" (name your denomination or faith - he dislikes them all), Vidal writes of extremist, religion-based movements: "All of this biblically inspired nonsense has taken deepest root in those dispossessed of their farmland in the last generation. Needless to say, Christian demagogues fan the flames of race and sectarian hatred on television and, illegally, pour church money into political campaigns." A few years later, though, he would not label the minions of Osama bin Laden to be religious extremists in this mode, despite strong indications that they are.
And finally, in this essay, Vidal makes one ominous observation. Discussing our governmentís obsession with terrorism, which he says has led the government to demand that citizens identify themselves in public places like people once did in Stalinís Soviet Union, he noted in 1998: "Only twice in twelve years has an American commercial plane been destroyed in flight by terrorists; neither originated in the United States. To prevent, however, a repetition of these two crimes, hundred of millions of travelers must now be subjected to searches, seizures, delays."
Three years later, the number would triple, and one can only wonder if more searches at one of the countryís most security-lax airports could have prevented it.
Vidal begins this essay with interwoven narrative lines. One recounts his spot on Good Morning, America, during which he was abruptly told by Charles Gibson that ABC had "lost audio" with its hookup to Vidalís home in Italy. On site at his home, Vidal writes, the sound man told him that the audio was just fine. At the same time, he offers a passionate diatribe demonstrating the role of fundamentalist religion (Catholic and Protestant) in far too many top government offices, including the FBI and the Justice Department.
Then begins the history: of the Branch Davidians and the assault at Waco; of the case against McVeigh, dubbed the lone killer by the government; and of the ongoing chain of events - not just Waco - that led McVeigh to see himself as "a soldier in a war, not of his making." This war, discussed in "The Shredding of the Bill of Rights" - the essay that McVeigh read, leading him to contact Vidal - was a war against the United States government, which McVeigh believed was waging a war against its citizens and their freedom. And he also believed that we could expect more dissent from our citizens as they became increasing aware - and increasing dissatisfied - with the descending state of American freedom.
Thus Vidal teaches us about the meaning of McVeigh, whose actions he sees as an admonitory tale of a growing ill wind. His essay, however, cannot unlock the mystery of the man - that is, why McVeigh turned to such methods when others, like Vidal and so many more, fight the same war so differently. In one instance, though, he almost accidentally comes close. Vidalís essay quotes some lengthy passages from the thoughtful, civil, articulate letters that McVeigh wrote to him. One such letter concludes with this: " ĎEvery normal man must be tempted at times to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.í - H.L. Mencken. Take good care."
A few sentences later, Vidal reflects on McVeighís chosen epigraph. "I do think I wrote him," Vidal reflects, "that Mencken often resorted to Swiftian hyperbole and was not to be taken too literally. Could the same be said of McVeigh?" No, obviously not, for McVeigh had already slit his fair share of throats. So here Vidal seems to have stumbled on something important: namely, that McVeigh embraced a certain rhetoric of his choosing as a call to violent action. The mystery remains, then, to figure out why - a question Vidal says we must always ask - why McVeigh chose to act in ways that others who share his viewpoints never would. The only conclusion he can draw is that McVeigh felt he had no choice but to turn to the most seditious of measures to wake people up.
In the final pages of his essay, Vidal quotes two experts who say that a U-Haul filled with explosives could not possibly have brought down the Murrah building, and that there must have been explosive charges inside the building that helped to bring it down. The experts donít speculate on who might have placed those charges. So Vidal concludes this essay by laying out three possibilities: that McVeigh was a "useful idiot" in a government conspiracy to destroy its own building in Oklahoma as a way of justifying its war against U.S. citizens; that McVeigh acted alone; or that McVeigh had nothing to do with it and took the credit and chose execution because he agreed with the action and did not want to spend his life in prison.
Whatever the answer, both McVeigh and Vidal believed and believe that the war is not over.
Bin Laden, weíre told, in a brief flashback of his life so far, came from a wealthy family, studied engineering in college, and was religious but not a zealot. So far, from this description, he could be a constituent of the American nouveau riche: For example, all of the ultra-conservative, ultra-patriotic, Reaganite men of the Coors family got engineering degrees. But then Vidal adds of the young bin Laden: "Understandably, he disliked the United States as symbol and as fact."
Wait a minute. Understandably? How did we get to that? Why would a man with wealth, studying a profession and practicing religion as an integrated part of his life, "understandably" dislike a country whose American Dream he seemed to be emulating? More clues: "But when our clients, the Saudi royal family, allowed American troops to occupy the Prophetís holy land, Osama named the fundamental enemy the ĎCrusader Holy Alliance.í . . . In the eyes of many Moslems, the Christian West, currently in alliance with Zionism, has for thousands of years tried to dominate. . .the land of the true believers." Vidal also points out that when the Iraqis invaded Kuwait, bin Laden expected the Saudi government to call upon him and his guerrilla fighters to stop the invasion. He was deeply shocked and offended when the Saudis called upon the infidel United States instead (which raises the question of why bin Laden doesnít launch an attack against his infidel countrymen). He also was angry at the Israelis for "establishing a theocratic state in what was to have become a common holy land for Jews, Moslems and Christians."
Thus emerges a portrait of Osama bin Laden: Once a regular (rich) guy, who for some reason (unexplored) became a religious zealot, who (naturally) hated the Jews for trying to create a theocracy in the Holy Land of Israel, and whose faith and ego were bruised when the Saudis didnít call on him for help. Thatís hardly a flattering portrait, and from it, bin Laden remains both explained and unexplained: the former because fanaticism is an ancient and oddly comprehensible story; and the latter because even Vidal cannot fully explain what leads one man (or two, if you include McVeigh) to commit such phenomenal acts when so many others choose not to. Just as McVeigh was once a Gulf War hero but later a bitter critic of America, so was bin Laden once privileged and educated but later given over to political zealotry and extreme faith. In fact, where Vidal lambastes the Israeli national theocracy (which may or may not be the case), he seems less reluctant to attach the same conditions to bin Ladenís desire for a Moslem world theocracy, replete with its routinely inhumane treatment of women.
Part 2 of the essay mostly recaps Vidalís earlier views about how the Bush administration makes sure that the rich donít pay taxes, and about how Bushís henchmen (Rumsfeld, Cheney) revel in the fact that Americans now readily accept the diminution of their freedoms in the "war against terrorism" (a process that began in force, he points out, during the Clinton administration). He might have done a greater service to trace how American foreign policy of the past 10 or 20 years so alienated the Arab/Moslem world that Sept. 11 became "inevitable." But that would be hard, considering how the Arab countries have continued to sell oil to the U.S. (because it profits them) and how it was Arab against Arab when Iraq invaded Kuwait, although he does point out we propped up Saddam Hussein for so many years in his war against Iran, only to find that we eventually had to fight the monster of our own making in the Gulf War.
"War is a no-win, all-lose option," Vidal says in the closing pages of his essay. Of course, heís right, although he has no practical solutions to the gulf of mistrust and bitterness that exists between the warring parties, nor does he really document, as the bookís title promises, how America "came to be so hated." And he adds: "The awesome physical damage that Osama and company did us on Dark Tuesday is as nothing compared to the knockout blow to our vanishing liberties." The truth of that assertion remains to be seen, although for now, at least on the issue of constitutional freedoms, Vidal might yet be the Nostradamus of 21st Century America.
Vidal ends his incendiary essay with the 20-page chart - compiled by the American Federation of Scientists - that lists the names and locations of American military operations around the world and even in the U.S. (such as anti-drug activities and efforts along the Mexican border to stop illegal immigrants). Yet as massive as the list seems to be, merely listing the names of these operations and where they took place doesnít finally tell us very much because the chart provides scant details (if any at all) about its abundant line items.
What, for example, can we conclude about the operations called Provide Hope I through V, which took place in the former Soviet Union in the 1990s? Do these operations mean we tried to take over Russia and can soon expect retaliation? And what of the many operations in Kosovo, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Croatia and other parts of that war-riddled region? Can anyone deny that the presence of America - joined by other European countries - ultimately helped quell the racial genocide against minority Moslems?
In fact, itís somewhat odd to see Vidal take a swipe at the month-long 1983 war in Grenada by paraphrasing Gen. Alexander Haig, whom he claims said, in Vidalís words, that the war "could have been handled more efficiently by the Provincetown police department." (Is Haig bitter that he didnít get to drop more bombs and wipe the place out?). Thatís almost as odd as hearing Vidal discuss bin Ladenís religious fanaticism so neutrally when, for half a century, Vidal has been a virulent atheist - and thoroughly correct in warning us about the evils of believing in a mystical Sky God whose propagators embrace a one-morality-fits-all theology. So his well-justified concern for Americaís loss of liberties has indeed led him to hook up with some strange bedfellows.
Their last appearances together occurred some time in late 1997 or early 1998, in part because Vidalís health made it more difficult for him to travel - he canceled a Vidal/Hitchens appearance in Pittsburgh at the 11th hour in March 1998 - but also because the two of them had begun to part ways. At the height of the Clinton sex scandal, Vidal maintained his support for the beleaguered Clintons, whom Hitchens argued had betrayed their liberal supporters. Vidal, on the other hand, tended to ignore Bill Clintonís often wishy-washy politics - something Vidal would later criticize in his essays on American freedom - in favor of charging that conservatives were persecuting Clinton for his private sexual behavior.
Now, though, in the wake of Sept. 11, it seems unlikely that Vidal or Hitchens will ever mend their ideological fences. In an essay entitled "Letís Not Get Too Liberal," published in the U.K. Guardian, Hitchens chides the West for causing many of the problems of the Moslem world, But he goes on to say, in very strong terms, that "fascist fundamentalism" is thoroughly unacceptable.
"In one form or another," Hitchens writes, expressing his distaste for Moslem extremism, "the people who leveled the World Trade Center are the same people who threw acid in the faces of unveiled woman in Kabul or Karachi, who maimed and eviscerated two of the translators of The Satanic Verses, and who machine-gunned architectural tourists at Luxor. Even as we worry about what they may intend for our society, we can see very plainly what they have in mind for their own: a bleak and sterile theocracy enforced by advanced techniques."
Thus he makes it clear that he is no apologist for the unacceptable behaviors of a people whom he admits have a legitimate gripe with the West. Yet neither does he have a taste for "the masochistic email traffic. . .circulating from the Noam Chomsky - Howard Zinn - Norman Finkelstein quarter." These are the liberals whom he believes must acknowledge that "there is no sense at all in which the events of September 11 can be held to constitute a reprisal, either legally or morally," for such "gross war crimes" as Clintonís rocketing of Khartoum or the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. "Does anyone suppose," he asks, "that an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza would have forestalled the slaughter in Manhattan?"
From another corner of the Left comes the firebrand Alexander Cockburn, who writes a regular column for The Nation called "Beat the Devil." In his column of Jan. 28, 2002, he dismisses several conspiracy theorists who have circulated notions of why Sept. 11 happened, including the idea that the administration let it happen. Cockburn says these theories "add up to the notion that Americaís foes are too incompetent to mount operations unaided buy U.S. agencies, or that U.S. agencies arenít vast, bumbling bureaucracies quite capable of discounting warnings of attack."
Nor does embrace the possibility that itís all about securing a stable way to get oil out of Kazakhstan without passing through Russia. "If stability was the goal," Cockburn writes, "then war was a foolish option. The bush regime hastened into war because America had sustained the greatest massacre on its soil since Pearl Harbor and faced the political imperative of finding an enemy at top speed on which to exact vengeance." And he adds: "This isnít to say there werenít hawks inside the Bush Administration who were lobbying for plans to overthrow the Taliban in early summer, plans of which the Taliban became aware, possibly conniving in the September 11 attacks in consequence."
Finally, thereís Gara LaMarche who, in the April 1, 2002, issue of The Nation, reviews five newly published books on the World Trade Center attack. He sees these books as the opening salvo in what he predicts will become "a virtual cottage industry, perhaps occupying their own section at the local Borders or Barnes & Noble." He notes that none of the "experts" quoted in these books predicted anything as fatally simple as the means of attack used on Sept. 11. And after rounding up views from the Left, Right and Center, he observes: "I must confess skepticism on a changed world view. Virtually everyone with an opinion has cut 9/11 to fit a preconceived agenda."
Uncertain of what comes next - both in theorizing Sept. 11 and in living in a post-Sept. 11 world - LaMarche then echoes a Vidalian concern, charging that the media has failed "to do its job in equipping citizens to exercise any meaningful stewardship over the countryís role around the world. The disconnection of U.S. foreign policy from democratic discourse is profound."
LaMarche concludes with a series of questions: "Is there any chance this picture will change? That Americans will insists on being better informed about the world and the U.S. role in it?. . .That the spirit of community and Ďeveryday heroismí that moved New York and the nation in the weeks after September 11 has sparked a deeper and more enduring sense of civic responsibility and a more inclusive sense of community? That politics-as-usual will be set aside in order to address enduring inequities, here and around the world? Too soon to tell."
That sort of humane rhetoric is what separates Vidal from other writers who may agree with him to a large degree. For Vidal is and always has been a writer of ideas, and not a writer of such sloppy sentiments as those expressed by LaMarche. Perhaps thatís why he removed the anecdote about his sister from the Italian/French version of his Sept. 11 essay: because it personalized the event in a way that was contrary to his approach. Whatever the reason, Vidalís reluctance (refusal?) to include such language in his analysis of Sept. 11 certainly keeps people from embracing his views with more comfort and vigor.
Every informed reader, of course, can make up his or her own mind about who makes the most compelling case: Vidal, Hitchens, Cockburn or the authors of the books already published and the myriad books yet to come. But the presence of differing views from some partisans of the Left certainly show how the events of Sept. 11 have broken certain molds, and how Vidal - whom Hitchens, perhaps out of friendship, did not place on his Chomsky/Zinn/Finkelstein list of "masochistic" hand-wringers - has not given any ground.
Of course, Vidal takes his approach not to absolve McVeigh or bin Laden but to understand and interpret them in the framework of an action/reaction metaphor. In a sense, Vidal wants us to think like the "enemy" and see the world through their perspective - a leap Hitchens is clearly not willing to make. Whether Vidal succeeds in taking us to that place is, once again, something that each informed reader much decide. And even if Vidal canít tie things up as neatly as he (or we) might like, then at least someone is - if only for the sake of history - asking the question.
©Copyright 2005 by
University of Pittsburgh