We are a public forum committed to collective reasoning and the imagination of a more just world. Join today to help us keep the discussion of ideas free and open to everyone, and enjoy member benefits like our quarterly books.
Ever since reading The Body in Pain, I have cherished the thought and insight of Elaine Scarry, that rarity among intellectuals, a truly original mind focused on the most fundamental civilizational challenges. Regardless of the theme, Scarry never is content with merely reproducing or even varying familiar ideas. Her consistently radical way of posing essential questions redirects inquiry in the most valuable ways and is a tribute to her disciplined and erudite imagination, which is put almost exclusively at the service of democratic citizenship in America. If I understand her correctly, the unifying political project that dominates Scarry’s concerns is the redemption of citizenship and restoration of constitutionalism, especially given the subversive implications of current technology and strategic doctrines of destruction epitomized by nuclear weaponry. As with several other intriguing radicalisms, Scarry’s argument recommends a return to principled conservatism.
To perceive the significance of September 11 in this light is Scarry’s most daring undertaking of all, especially impressive because it cuts against the grain of pervasive intellectual tumult and confusion that has been our national lot for this past year. To what seems like the most important conversation in the history of this country, at least since the rise of Hitler, Scarry brings an illuminating clarity as she considers how we might reduce our vulnerability without deforming our constitutional democracy. To so help us understand this gruesome and unprecedented happening and the lessons it contains for how we defend ourselves—as individuals, as a society, and as a world—in the face of a megaterrorist threat is both a heroic and a necessary undertaking. We can only give thanks that the republic contains a thinker of Scarry’s quality and profundity, someone who focuses her energies so that we might discover how to act as vigilant citizens in this profoundly demanding situation.
Already in The Body in Pain Scarry recognized that nuclear weaponry has transformed war because of its omnicidal potential, but also because the government using such weapons, despite their magnitude, cannot pause to obtain meaningful consent even from citizens and their elected representatives at home, much less from people elsewhere affected so irretrievably by secret decisions here.
This observation now illuminates America’s vulnerability to the September 11 attack, despite its insistence on a defense structure premised on the speed of response in the event of attack. The logic of the government’s argument that there is no time to obtain a Congressional declaration of war in such emergency circumstances, and the authority to use nuclear weapons must thus be put “at the personal disposal” of the president. The further implication, underscored by Scarry, is that because the Constitution is suspended for this kind of ultimate decision, it seems fatuous to insist on congressional participation in lesser decisions, including conventional warfare. Indeed, since World War II the country’s war commitments have bypassed the constitutional arrangement of authority with awesome consistency. Scarry has observed that this failure to relate war-making to procedures of consent virtually eliminates the relevance of law and morality to this most critical of all national decisions and decisively undermines the democratic character of our governing process.
What Scarry shows so vividly is that the supposed functional justification for this suspension of the rights of citizens is itself based on a huge technophilic illusion. We are a civilization victimized by the modernist idea that every threatening technological innovation can only be neutralized by offsetting technological moves of even greater magnitude. Over time, this has raised the stakes of conflict until we reach the absolute ceiling of human survival with nuclear weaponry. Even here, qualifications must be made to calibrate correctly the scope of the problem. When it comes to human cloning, the established authorities, although floundering, willingly rely on normative criteria to limit permissible technological innovation.
In relation to war-making, Americans, as members of society and adherents of a system of governance, have lost their confidence in all that might eventually have made the country “a light unto the nations”: morality, rule of law, constitutional government, an engaged citizenry, and humane governance. Of course, this heritage was never without serious blight, considering the dispossession of indigenous peoples, slavery, gender discrimination, and a host of other social injustices. Yet the point remains: there were grounds for projecting American exceptionalism as a goal, even if not as an attainment. Such claims depend on the future tense, a sense of trajectory towards a goal which seemed plausible in relation to race relations, the status of women, and sexuality. But now this national trajectory has altered sharply for the worse.
Extending Scarry’s assessment somewhat beyond its explicit reach, al Qaeda’s tactical brilliance can be seen in its realization that the technological sophistication of American “power” provided no defense against dedicated unarmed individuals willing to die to carry out their mission of destruction. In this regard, the suicidal hijackers resembled the passengers on Flight 93. Both were effective within the frame of their intentions, and both sacrificed their lives knowingly for a cause deemed greater than themselves: in one case as jihadists bent on terrorist destruction and in the other as citizen warriors defending their society against enemies. What both sides overlooked was the potency of defensive responses that went beyond the vulnerabilities of technology. The exploits of the passengers of Flight 93 foiled the hijackers’ plans, premised on the vulnerability of sophisticated technology.
Scarry proceeds in her analysis of September 11 to insist that we are best off as a people and as a world if we in the United States learn anew to rely on what she calls the “egalitarian model” of defense. This is a characteristically radical argument bolstered by practical considerations, although given the depth of our technological self-entrapment, a seemingly utopian and politically unattainable position.
Still, the brilliance of Scarry’s assessment of September 11 should not overwhelm our own capacity for interrogation. Three issues strike me as especially in need of further discussion.
First, Scarry provides no acknowledgement of the relevance of international law and the United Nations in her illustration of the application of the egalitarian model: “no war with Iraq unless it has been authorized by Congress and the citizenry.” Because war affects people everywhere, it is only through respect for the limits imposed by international law that we can provide some assurance that the will of the powerful is not “the law” of world politics. In the case of Iraq, there is an almost total absence of international support for overlooking the U.N. Charter’s prohibition on nondefensive force, and recourse to war would be a massive Nuremberg crime against the peace even if overwhelmingly authorized by Congress and the citizenry. One senses, at least implicitly, that Scarry’s constitutional preoccupations may allow her to accept nationalist excesses provided they conformprocedurally to the egalitarian model. Such an indulgence could be serious given the extent to which American political culture currently subscribes to a range of anti-egalitarian ideals, including militarist ambitions and an acceptance of technological determinism when it comes to war. In effect, the egalitarian model, as an inspiring and necessary utopia, must also be extended from sovereign state to the world when it comes to war-making.
Second, there is something of a disconnect in relation to war in the nuclear age. Strategists argue primarily about deterrence, not defense. They acknowledge the vulnerability of defense, at least provisionally, but then argue that defense is unnecessary because the attacker would be devastated automatically by a retaliatory strike, no matter how much harm its attack inflicted and how pointless retaliation might be. Now, with the Soviet Union out of the picture, strategists have qualified their argument and favor investing in defense so that America itself will not be deterred in its quest for global dominance. And further, because “rogue states” allegedly might pursue even a suicidal attack, a purely rational approach to security is somewhat obsolete. On this last point, the strategists unreasonably abandon deterrence so as to realize imperial dreams, for there is more reason to regard secondary states such as Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as deterrable powers than the former Soviet Union or present-day Russia and China. My point is that Scarry needs to meet this deterrence/defense cluster of positions to make her critical assessment truly responsive to the prevailing dialogue on these matters.
Third, Scarry does not address the problems of conflict with a megaterrorist adversary that cannot be definitively situated in space. What was the U.S. government to do on September 12, other than attack Afghanistan? Could it be expected to sit back and wait for the next al Qaeda strike, perhaps even more devastating than the catastrophic harm visited on September 11? There was a plausible, although far from assured, connection between destroying the presumed nerve center of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and diminishing the challenge of megaterrorism. In contrast, no such connection exists with respect to Iraq. In fact, careful assessment shows that the megaterrorist threat is likely to be intensified by such an attack, creating a set of conditions where transfers of weapons of mass destruction to al Qaeda are most likely to occur. My point here is not mainly a substantive observation about weapons transfers. Instead, I want to emphasize that the template for defense and democracy associated with territorial warfare between sovereign states does not apply to the September 11 challenge. This would seem to validate weakening some of the constitutional constraints associated with fashioning an effective and legitimate response to a deeply concealed transnational terrorist network while reaffirming core commitments to law, morality, and constitutionalism. The burden of justification for the need for any abridgement of these commitments should be placed firmly on the government.
Sadly, this burden has not been assumed during the past year, resulting in gratuitous assaults on the liberties of citizens and the dignity of strangers and immigrants, especially from Islamic countries. I hope that Scarry will accept this distinction so as to make her egalitarian model a genuinely practical approach to national defense in the aftermath of September 11, while retaining the model’s exhilarating and indispensable utopian qualities. We urgently need Elaine Scarry’s empowering sense of post–September 11 patriotism. She tests our capacities and responsibilities as citizens, and she offers a scathing rebuttal to conventional wisdom on vital matters of war and peace.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox
Our well-being depends on a better understanding of how the logic of labor has twisted our relationship with pleasure.
“I was my father’s son. My father was Nai Nai’s least favorite.” A Taiwanese American man, driven from home by a secret, reevaluates his childhood memories of his grandmother.
MacArthur Genius Kelly Lytle Hernández makes the case for why U.S. history only makes sense when told as a binational story.
We must reject the legal liberalism that attempts to cordon off constitutional questions from democratic politics.
The United States ranked first on health security; then came COVID-19. In place of technocratic hubris, we need robust new forms of democratic humility.
To generate local, inclusive prosperity, cities must think beyond tech accelerators and science parks and instead embrace a wider range of innovation strategies.