Nemesis



Michael Smith

September 11, 2001

For two thousand years and more we have known the pattern: hubris, then Nemesis. Insolence, arrogance, violence: then retribution.

The proud symbols of American financial and military might are smoking ruins today; and upon these reeking altars thousands of innocents lie immolated. How to explain this horror? Why are we being attacked?

The short, sad answer is: because we -- or some of us, at any rate -- rule the world. These are the costs of empire: the price that ordinary New Yorkers and Washingtonians have paid for the kind of "leadership" that our nation's rulers have taken upon themselves. The smoke of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon rises in sacrifice to our civic Gods.

Imperial headquarters are more vulnerable than they used to be. The Gauls and the Picts could not very well carry their resistance into the sacred precincts of the Roman Forum. But in an interconnected and technologically advanced world, those who are unhappy with the way we run the globe have ways of striking back -- and striking at the heart.

Our obsession with policing and surveillance has signally failed to keep Nemesis at bay. For some years now, any plane trip has involved a degrading gauntlet of inspections for every passenger; yet it is still not very difficult, apparently, to turn these sleek emblems of prosperity and progress into weapons of mass destruction, directed against the vital organs of the world-bestriding civilization that produced them.

We now confront a fateful choice -- a choice that cannot be avoided or obscured by the usual euphemisms and misrepresentations.

We can continue down the path of globalist hubris that has brought us to this day of grief. We can persist with our "surgical strikes", our troop deployments, our force projections, and our support for brutal enterprises like the West Bank occupation and colonization -- and our support, as well, for "allies" like the Afghani fanatics who got their start under our sponsorship and are now, it seems, playing host to the likes of Osama bin Laden. We can try to defend ourselves against Nemesis by an ever-increasing fascistization of daily life: an ever more intrusive role for police and "security guards"; more surveillance and less privacy; more stops and searches, more regimentation and control, more officially sponsored fear and hysteria. It won't work; but even if it did, what a bitter pill for a once-free -- and free-minded -- people to swallow.

The alternative is to drop the burdens of empire and walk away from them. Let no one tell us this is impossible, unthinkable. Let no one frighten us with words like "isolationism". Just exactly what is wrong with isolationism -- if the alternative is world rule without the consent of the ruled, and the hatred of millions or billions of these involuntary subjects?

We have nothing to fear from a world left to work out its own salvation without meddling or minding by us. Osama bin Laden and his ilk are not interested in attacking Iceland or Ireland, because these countries have not inserted themselves into situations where such people have interests. Our strengths are such that gratuitous assaults on us would be very costly as well as pointless; but the assaults we are seeing now are not gratuitous. The elementary wisdom of the hiker and camper is relevant here: the creatures of the forest can be fierce and formidable but will generally leave you alone if you leave them alone.

Since the dust of World War II settled and left the US holding all the cards, we have formed a bad habit of intruding where we need not go. It would not be the end of the world -- indeed it would be a good thing -- if oil cost a bit more than it does; or Third World countries could make , without fear of sanction, cheap knockoffs of expensive AIDS drugs; or Israel and its neighbors had to arrive at an understanding without our help or hindrance.

The stakes are higher nowadays than they were when Rome ruled the world. The triumphant processions of that older empire always included a slave holding a smoking bundle of burning straw and repeating the phrase "sic transit gloria mundi": Thus does the glory of the world pass away. The smoke in our nostrils today is not merely symbolic, but all too real; and what threatens to pass from us is not just the glory of our imperial triumph, but life, and liberty, and everything else we hold dear.


Essays and reflections -- contents