(Part III of Counterterrorism, American Exceptionalism, and Retributive Justice)
by Michael Vlahos
“Retribution” appears below.
Click here for the complete paper with references.
Michael Vlahos, PhD teaches in the Global Security Studies program at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences. Dr. Vlahos is the author of Fighting Identity: Sacred War and World Change. His articles have appeared in Foreign Affairs, The Times Literary Supplement, Foreign Policy, and Rolling Stone. Since 2001 he has been a regular featured guest of the nationally syndicated John Batchelor Show on WABC.

FIGHTING IDENTITY: Sacred War and World Change

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Transfigured Exceptionalism:
From Redemption to Retributive Justice

“Terrorism” inhabits America’s civil-religious consciousness just as it did for Tacitus, representing “the enemy of mankind:” as an affront to light and truth. Terrorism, in the American experience, issues a divine test: Is America still beloved of the Almighty, and still his agent to redeem humankind? If not, then what shall be America’s path?

Or is God showing us another way, where both the models of open sanctuary and redeemer nation are left behind for a third path. Are the failure of the 9/11 War and the rise of counterterrorism signs that America is moving toward a fortress of virtue, a Helm’s Deep of Humanity? We should understand three underlying dynamics.

First, Americanism is a faith as demanding as any world religion. Yet our society is too close to its belief system to be able to see how it operates as religion, and thus is unable take into account how it shapes our thinking and decision-making. We publicly invoke American exceptionalism normatively, in the same manner as medieval enunciations of Papal infallibility.

Second, Americanism fulfills its divine mission through war. It is our instrument of destiny. America demands eternal victory as much as Rome once did; defeat is unthinkable. Our shameful defeat in Vietnam forced an existential identity choice. Another loss would compromise the American identity, so we invoked the wizardry of “military transformation” to recreate ourselves as Gods of War, whose chosen campus was just battle.

Banners like “Shock and Awe!” highlighted the nation’s extreme confidence in the divine invincibility of American arms. By 2001 we were sure that America could no longer be defeated by force of arms. Victory in battle, rather than victory in war, became the triumphant yardstick of American exceptionalism.

Third, paradoxically, terrorism became more threatening after 9/11—precisely because it could not be defeated in battle. By exposing the impotence of our chosen instrument of divine will, terrorism has undermined exceptionalism by stripping away our collective belief and commitment.

Terrorism tells us we cannot fulfill the divine mission, that The City itself is vulnerable to strike, that we have lost the anointment of eternal victory. In the face of terrorist acts, our extravagantly advertised invincibility in battle did not buy us anything. In Iraq and Afghanistan, victory in battle—as opposed to victory in war—was almost valueless.

At first, in Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom (just as it was written before in Desert Storm) American Olympians swept all before them. Yet in the coming years of fruitless, Iliadic battle, even our Gods of War were in flush strength, ineffective; in wholesale killing, counterproductive. Thus terrorism led our citizens to lose faith. Here is how it played out.

The attacks of September 11, 2001 scarred and transfigured American exceptionalism. They rammed home, through biblical metaphor (the crashing walls of Jericho), a vision that stung our heart: The Fall of the City (America itself).

Incapable of voicing the scriptural implications of 9/11—that we might not be able to fulfill God’s plan for America—we plunged headlong as a nation into apocalyptic war. The metaphorical power of 9/11 demanded transcendental response—namely, the charge from God to finish what lay incomplete since 1919 and 1945 and even 1991—the final redemption of humankind, the liberal democratic end to history.

This exceptionalist ideal of global redemption was reflected in the president’s battle plan, which promised that we would “transform the greater Middle East;” that “the road to Jerusalem lay through Baghdad;” that we would over time “integrate the non-integrated Gap” into the “Functioning Core;” and that the dominoes falling this time would be the dictators.

Yet within five years this vision was wreckage. The United States stared at defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan. After March 2006, piece-by-piece, the entire enterprise was scrapped, replaced by an interim fallback called counterinsurgency.

Counterinsurgency (COIN) briefly dazzled a frightened Washington establishment like The Rainmaker. COIN was the fetish stone, the secret recipe, the magic formula. If America could no longer transform the world, it would at least hoist to the pole stable, working, parliamentary, pro-American regimes in Kabul and Baghdad.

But COIN gave us less than four years of war-fighting credibility before being wholly emptied of hope. In fact, our war-fighting credibility was exposed as marketing oversold. COIN had no impact on events in Iraq, while in Afghanistan its failure became a fig leaf no courtier general—whether Stanley McChrystal or David Petreus—could hold in place.

In the wake of counterinsurgency’s collapse, America had yet another fallback, a strategic escape-hatch: persistent, unmanned, global strikes—the jewel-in the-crown of a strategy called counterterrorism. Counterterrorism tells us it is not Fortress America; it is not hopeless isolationism. Counterterrorism says it upholds the global stature of America, but it does so through elaborate geographical fiction.

Counterterrorism presents us with a magical vehicle: The magnificent, unblinking, always obedient robot-hoplites that range the world freely. They kill without regard to national borders or international law. In reality, counterterrorism is as much a transformation of doctrine as if it were a return to 1930s-style isolationism.

In the 1930s—in the fleeting moment of the neutrality acts—America was burdened and afraid. The world system was falling apart, and US society was inwardly focused just to survive. For a moment the nation became a walled city on a hill, a fearful entrenchment wholly at odds with actual American power (we were then one-third of the world economy).

Similarly, global counterterrorism represents an alternative, if recessional packaging of American exceptionalism. Yet unlike isolationism, it is not framed as a strategic breather, a momentary hunkering-down. It is a new vision of America’s relationship to the world, distinct both from John Winthrop’s vision of a sanctuary serving as an example to outsiders and from FDR’s vision of active global engagement.

No longer is the world to be redeemed; instead much of humanity is now considered irredeemable, or at best an enduring threat to Americanism. America may still be God’s chosen nation, but it can no longer pretend that battle-altruism—“We come in peace,” “We are here to help”—can save lost societies.

Instead, only those “nations that want to live in peace and liberty” are worthy. The new canon describes those peoples we once sought to redeem as breeding grounds of terrorism. Why might this new narrative represent new “scripture”?—Because it marks such a complete break from the prior evolution of Americanism.

This new take on American exceptionalism seeks to keep a savage and primitive world at bay. That this same world was long ago the focus of U.S. altruism—the redeemer—is of zero importance now, as America seeks perfect security. American exceptionalism is now based almost wholly on punishment rather than redemption.

Should it be surprising that American leaders and citizens so readily abandoned its traditional notion of exceptionalism after just ten years of disappointment and frustration? Perhaps this last great national project was doomed by its transparent selfishness; it was cast as a government-only enterprise that sidelined the American people as passive actors, asked only to “go shopping.”

Perhaps it could not survive the shock of passionate Muslim resistance against our benevolent tutelage (and against the tyrants we supplicated for 30 years). This war severed the pure-of-heart liberator narrative of America, the stainless knight.

In light of this disappointment, maybe it is easy now for Americans to shrug and say, “Whosoever moves against us, kill them.” Eighty-three percent of Americans support the Obama administration’s use of drones—with enthusiasm—including 77 percent of Democrats. This suggests that Americans do not question the collateral killing of family members, even in weddings and funerals, or the global disregard of sovereignty, or the execution of American citizens without due process.

On The Daily Show, a liberal New York audience broke into cheers when Jon Stewart rebutted Rep. Steve King’s (R, Iowa) 2008 assertion that if Obama were elected, “radical Islamists and their supporters would be dancing in the streets,” with, “talk about hitting the nail on the head, if you were to replace the word ‘dancing’ with ‘dodging unmanned drone missiles raining hell from the sky.” 

Liberal New Yorkers were actually cheerleading the current US counterterrorism campaign. They were not applauding how archly Stewart eviscerated various GOP flacks. Rather, they were giving “props” to their president’s “chops”—as manly a killer as his predecessor. This TV affirmation over a year ago perhaps represents the informal plebiscite on which the current presidential administration bases its drone-policy legitimacy. As of yet there is no grassroots outcry, no mass demonstrations against it.

Retributive Justice Supreme

Can so deeply-rooted a civil religion simply discard its core affirmation of faith, substituting an atavistic Biblical-retributive doctrine, and still keep both integrity and coherence? Yes. Republican presidential candidates are the best illustration of how it can be done. Instead of uniting the world through American divine agency, a new ringing rhetoric calls for the dividing of humanity.

Newt Gingrich quotes FDR’s wartime speech. But Roosevelt was calling for urgent destruction of the Demiurge and the world’s rescue, in the name of all people. By contrast, America’s new mission, tub-thumped through 2012 by GOP candidates, affirms our otherness—America is “set apart from other nations.” Mitt Romney avows that we will not permit a world without American domination. But through drone strikes as our national MO, the other, Democratic Sect, has essentially affirmed Romney’s charge.

America’s new affirmation of faith has abandoned universal deliverance in exchange for a state of permanent struggle against an entire swathe of humankind. The origins of this may go back to the Cold War and our acceptance, contra FDR, of living with the Demiurge.  But more critically, the agency of counterterrorism is at once the signal, vessel, and icon of a very new and transformed conception of American identity.

Informed deeply by a substrate of retributive justice, the new exceptionalism is all about affirming commitment to only a limited compass of good humans against a polluted sea spawning bad humans. Hence it asserts an altered framework of the sacred for the American civil religion. No longer animated by a millennial vision of redemption, the new national credo speaks more forcefully for preservation of those virtuous bastions, even Helm’s Deep sanctuaries that represent other loan words for Americanism as “Civilization.”

Pathos watches how we let go of American universalism.

While Americanism may still reign as modernity’s strongest civil religion, yet it has become the religion of a people united by the weakest of tribal bonds. Moving American exceptionalism away from Universalist visions of redemption and back to retributive justice is itself an admission of weakness and fear—and the impending end of its own Universalist claim.

Benedict Anderson might have called America the ultimate “imagined community.” A nation that is fundamentally an idea must at all costs defend this idea, lest faith and thus identity fail us. Yet such an idea—full of universal calling—must also be confident that it can overcome any assault.

American exceptionalism is this idea, yet it has lost its confidence entirely, and lives now only to survive. So terrorism has come to dominate our religion in unconquerable antithesis. In today’s American civil-religious thought, terrorism is the Devil himself—and the Devil drives. Yet the Devil is within us.