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Tomgram: Jonathan Schell: A Niagara Falls of Post-9/11 Violence

Unconquerable World cover

A new book on the ways nonviolent resistance matters.

In December 2002, finishing the introduction to his as-yet-unpublished book The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People, Jonathan Schell wrote that the twentieth century was the era in which violence outgrew the war system that had once housed it and became “dysfunctional as a political instrument. Increasingly, it destroys the ends for which it is employed, killing the user as well as his victim. It has become the path to hell on earth and the end of the earth. This is the lesson of the Somme and Verdun, of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, of Vorkuta and Kolyma; and it is the lesson, beyond a shadow of a doubt, of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

More than a decade later, that remains a crucial, if barely noticed, lesson of our moment. Jonathan Schell died this March, but he left behind a legacy of reporting and thinking — from The Real War and The Fate of the Earth to The Unconquerable World — about just how, as the power to destroy ratcheted up, war left its traditional boundaries, and what that has meant for us (as well as, potentially, for worlds to come). In The Unconquerable World, published just before the Bush invasion of Iraq, he went in search of other paths of change, including the nonviolent one, and in doing so he essentially imagined the Arab Spring and caught the essence of both the horrors and possibilities available to us in hard-headed ways that were both prophetic and moving.

Today, partly in honor of his memory (and my memory of him) and partly because I believe his sense of how our world worked then and still works was so acute, this website offers a selection from that book. Consider it a grim walk down post-9/11 Memory Lane, a moment when Washington chose force as its path to… well, we now know (as Schell foresaw then) that it was indeed a path to hell. Tom

The Path to a New 1914? 
How America Chose War After 9/11 
By Jonathan Schell

[This essay is slightly adapted from Jonathan Schell’s 2003 book, The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People, and appears at TomDispatch.com with the kind permission of its publisher, Metropolitan Books.]

Then came the attack of September 11th. Like the starting gun of a race that no one knew he was to run, this explosion set the pack of nations off in a single direction — toward the trenches. Although the attack was unaccompanied by any claim of authorship or statement of political goals, the evidence almost immediately pointed to al-Qaeda, the radical Islamist, terrorist network, which, though stateless, was headquartered in Afghanistan and enjoyed the protection of its fundamentalist Islamic government. In a tape that was soon shown around the world, the group’s leader, Osama bin Laden, was seen at dinner with his confederates in Afghanistan, rejoicing in the slaughter.

Historically, nations have responded to terrorist threats and attacks with a combination of police action and political negotiation, while military action has played only a minor role. Voices were raised in the United States calling for a global cooperative effort of this kind to combat al-Qaeda. President Bush opted instead for a policy that the United States alone among nations could have conceivably undertaken: global military action not only against al-Qaeda but against any regime in the world that supported international terrorism.

The president announced to Congress that he would “make no distinction between the terrorists who commit these acts and those who harbor them.” By calling the campaign a “war,” the administration summoned into action the immense, technically revolutionized, post-Cold War American military machine, which had lacked any clear enemy for over a decade. And by identifying the target as generic “terrorism,” rather than as al-Qaeda or any other group or list of groups, the administration licensed military operations anywhere in the world. [cont’d.]

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