New Canadians Centre
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Edited image of GWB in front of a food truck proudly serving 'Freedom Fries.'

How History Rhymes

Written by
Karol Orzechowski
and
and
February 18, 2022
How History Rhymes
Edited image of GWB in front of a food truck proudly serving 'Freedom Fries.'

1.

In the aftermath of 9/11, that great cataclysm of Western culture, there was deep trauma; for many (mostly white) people, it was the first time that “the war had been brought home,” in a way. It was a bucket of ice wake-up call: “we” were no longer immune to a very particular kind of threat.

The knee-jerk response to the trauma was frightening: U.S. flags, already ubiquitous, became even more visible; hanging from every front porch, even creeping up into Canada. From the wellspring of this trauma came a rallying cry that would become the official narrative of why this happened. It was coined during a speech by George W. Bush  just one week after the attacks:

The terrorists did this because they hate our freedom: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.”*

George W. Bush (henceforth referenced as GWB), a born-again Christian Republican, was the president at the time, though he was largely seen as an inept boob — everyone seemed to tacitly acknowledge that Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld were the real architects of the administration’s foreign policy. Cheney and Rumsfeld were members of the Project for a New American Century think tank. In fact, it seemed like Bush’s entire cabinet consisted of former PNAC goons. Considering that PNAC had been advocating for regime change in Iraq since at least 1998, they were well-positioned to be exactly where they were.

With that kind of pedigree, it’s no surprise that the drums of war began to beat almost immediately after the towers fell, with alarming volume and with great urgency. If you remember that time, you remember the rhythm. In the speech quoted above, just one week after 9/11, GWB telegraphed the plan: the public “should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen. It may include dramatic strikes visible on TV and covert operations secret even in success.” He underlined his point just a moment later: “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.”

2.

The most immediate effects of the 9/11 attacks — apart from the loss of life and the toxic cloud of building dust that hung over NYC for weeks — were economic. The stock market, which closed for about a week, lost $1.4 trillion dollars in valuation across the board. It was a financial bloodbath.

From that economic loss, the definition of “freedom” that the U.S. was fighting for became more expansive. A month to the day after the attacks, GWB articulated it more clearly:

Now, the American people have got to go about their business. We cannot let the terrorists achieve the objective of frightening our nation to the point where we don't — where we don't conduct business, where people don't shop. That's their intention. Their intention was not only to kill and maim and destroy.

The American economy was bleeding out, and it seemed like no amount of American flags could act as a tourniquet. The people needed to be encouraged to shop, and they were, loudly and often. It worked. By the end of the year, both personal consumption levels and GDP had returned to normal, and even risen above the levels from 2000 year-over-year.

3.

Less than a month after the attacks, the War On Terror began in earnest with a “shock and awe” campaign of bombing. The invasion and eventual occupation of Afghanistan was christened “Operation Enduring Freedom.” Dark green and white night-vision video from embedded journalists showed Kabul and various other cities being motherfucking walloped. It was brutal and garish.

Just days after the invasion, the U.S. Senate passed a massive new law called the USA PATRIOT Act… which, believe it or not, was an acronym: Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism. (Sheesh.) It was passed in the middle of the night, with most of the senators admitting they hadn’t even read it. GWB signed it into law 45 days after the attacks.

While the “target” of the USA PATRIOT Act was ostensibly “terrorists,” it was to be applied mainly within the borders of the U.S., and against its own citizens. And applied it was. It was arguably one of the most repressive eras in U.S. history, as the government used and abused this law to clamp down on anti-globalization protestors, anti-war protestors, animal rights activists, and more — while generally leaving the homegrown threat of white nationalists alone. It also arguably paved the way for mass surveillance policies, like those revealed in the Snowden leaks, with a law that justified all of it in advance.

4.

Concurrent to the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act was what would largely be considered the second-wave of 9/11 terrorism: the anthrax attacks through the U.S. postal system. Plenty was fishy about it, not the least of which was that the most significant attacks went to the media, notably American Media Inc., publisher of the National Enquirer. Anthrax, while extremely dangerous, can be treated with a heavy antibiotic called Cipro. By the end of October of 2001, GWB was negotiating hard with pharma companies to get enough Cipro for every American, at a good price to boot.

The investigation into the anthrax scare was a weird one: the U.S. began to build a case against Bruce Edwards Ivins, a government biodefence researcher who worked with anthrax. It was never brought to trial because just before the Justice Department was set to spring their case on him, he committed suicide. Meanwhile, the government archive of anthrax samples that could have been tested and shown to be linked to the anthrax used in the attacks had been destroyed immediately after the first infection was detected.

Anyhoo, around the same time, many in the Bush administration were talking about smallpox. In fact, they had been talking about it months before: in June of 2001, senior administration officials took part in a war games exercise called Dark Winter — a fictional scenario involving a purposeful outbreak of smallpox in Oklahoma by an unknown assailant. 

Smallpox is a very deadly disease (around 30% mortality) that has been officially eradicated in the wild since 1980, which can be attributed to a mass vaccination campaign in the preceding decades. To this day, there are only two remaining stocks of smallpox in the world: one in the U.S. and one in the northern wilds of Russia. 

The thinking in 2001 was that, because Russian scientists were so poorly paid, it was possible that one or more of them may have sold a portion of Russia’s smallpox cache to terrorists. Though the smallpox fire had already been burning, 9/11 accelerated everything and likely contributed to the phantom panic. There was no evidence of an imminent threat (unleashing smallpox would be a scorched earth move, likely to kill as much of “their side”), but the speculation alone was enough for GWB and the administration to begin considering a mandatory vaccination plan to get every U.S. citizen inoculated. They went so far as to earmark over a billion dollars with the eventual goal of securing 300 million doses.

Still, the stakes were high all around. The vaccine for smallpox is one of the roughest out there: in people who had never received the smallpox vaccine(a large part of the population), the severe adverse reaction rate was 10%. Nevertheless, the U.S. right wing was very much in favour of a vaccine mandate at the time that would make today’s covid vaccine “mandates” seem like nothing — even though the threat itself was imaginary to non-existent.

It’s probably worth mentioning that the Dark Winter exercise ended in failure, aka complete societal collapse, in a relatively quick timespan. The exercise was characterized by:

“...leaders hampered by an inability to address a crisis they hadn't foreseen; […] management options limited by the swift and unpredictable spread of the disease (and a limited stockpile of vaccines); a health care system that lacked the surge capacity to deal with mass casualties; increased tensions between state and federal authorities; the rapid spread of misinformation on cures and treatments for the outbreak; the difficulty of controlling unpredicted flights of civilians from infected areas; domestic turmoil sparked by political uncertainty (with sporadic rioting-quelled by National Guard units-in large urban areas as grocery stores are shuttered); and an increasing reliance on the willingness (and unwillingness) of individual citizens to self-quarantine to stop the spread of the contagion.”

5.

Guantanamo Bay is located at the southern tip of Cuba, on a military base that has been under U.S. control for over 100 years. In January of 2002, it was repurposed as a prison camp for “enemy combatants” who had been captured as part of the War On Terror and Operation Enduring Freedom. The camp was strategically located off of U.S. soil for the simple reason that, so long as it was there, the legal rights and obligations that the state normally has to those charged with crimes would not apply.

Guantanamo inmates often languished for years and years without charges and without trial, facing various methods of torture, repeated interrogations, and other horrific treatment driving some to suicide. The “enemy combatants” included virtually anyone that the U.S. captured abroad and suspected of being terrorists, including even teenagers as young as 13. They were captured, put on a plane, shipped off to Cuba, and left there indefinitely until the military could figure out what to do with them.

6.

With Afghanistan firmly under the boot of the U.S.’s plan to export freedom around the world, in 2002 the Bush administration, ever faithful to its PNAC roots, began to shift its focus. Iraq, long on the list for regime change, was in the crosshairs, but unlike the 1991 Gulf War, the U.S. had no pretext this time… so they had to make one up. The basic story was that Iraq had been serving as a friendly staging ground for global terrorist groups, and also, was a terrorist state itself. They labeled Saddam Hussein a terrorist, too (and would eventually find him in a “spider hole” and hang him after a trial that would last about a month and a half).

In October of 2002, the U.S. Congress gave its approval to President Bush to invade Iraq unilaterally. America had been engaged in a pressure campaign against the U.N. to “allow” it to invade Iraq in a pre-emptive strike for its own interests. The U.N., for its part, disagreed, and the Security Council did what it could to veto any attempt the U.S. made through official channels. As this went on, the U.S. gathered together aCoalition of the Willing which mostly included military superpowers such as Macedonia and Lithuania, among a couple heavy hitters like the United Kingdom. [Side Note: the goofy coalition also led to one of my favourite moments of GWB’s career, the mildly infamous “You Forgot Poland” quote.]

The U.S.’s public relations campaign culminated in a speech at the U.N. by Colin Powell on February 5th, 2003, where he outlined in stunning detail just how dangerous Iraq was. It’s worth watching back today, if only to reflect on its litany of falsehoods: Iraq has nuclear weapons (they did not), Iraq has anthrax and smallpox (they did not — but that didn’t stop Colin Powell from holding up a fake vial in a truly magical piece of political theatre); Iraq materially aided the 9/11 attackers (they did not)… etc.

The U.N. didn’t buy it. People around the world didn’t buy it either: the push by the U.S. resulted in the biggest anti-war protests ever and since. Millions upon millions of people around the world protested to try to stop it. I was part of the protests in Ottawa at the time, and my favourite sign to this day said simply: Tanks For Nothing.

Despite the disapproval of the U.N. and seeming most of the rest of the world, in mid-March of 2003 the U.S. invaded anyway, and called it Operation Iraqi Freedom.

7.

Of course, much like today, the right wing was never one to waste a good opportunity for culture war. While the Coalition Of The Willing was laughable in many ways, the right quickly took the list of countries that weren’t on it, and began focusing on them as enemies of freedom. France, who had been especially vocal against the war and who had vetoed U.S. attempts to get approval for the invasion in the U.N., became a special target.

The result? Freedom Fries.

France’s opposition to unilateral U.S. military action had been so offensive that restaurants began to rename their french fries to freedom fries. It became a symbolic marker, much like the American flag, of whether you were with us or against us. Oddly enough, this had some precedent: the town of Germania, Iowa renamed sauerkraut to liberty cabbage during the First World War, as the residents tried to do their part to stoke patriotism and boost morale. 

Anyhoo, it seems like a funny aside, and in hindsight everyone recognizes its ridiculousness. But it’s worth stressing that, at the time, there were right-wing American politicians who were dead serious (or at least straight-faced) about this. They were so serious that, in March of 2003, two Republicans directed the cafeterias on Capitol Hill to change all references to french fries and french toast on menus, and replace them with freedom fries and freedom toast, as restaurants around the country did the same. On Capitol Hill, the politicized names would remain in place until 2006 (!), when they would be quietly changed back. 

8.

I wish I could tell you that the U.S.’s War On Terror and various campaigns for freedom had been “successful” in their supposed aims of eradicating terror and exporting freedom — but that would require assuming that they were ever meant to succeed in those aims in the first place. 

I’m in no position to comment on the quality of life in Afghanistan or Iraq — but I can imagine that the power vacuum in Iraq that was eventually filled by ISIS was no fucking picnic. I also imagine that the recent resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan after the U.S. finally left gives the whole thing a sickening, cyclical feel that makes the people there wonder what it was all about.

Meanwhile, Guantanamo Bay remains open, and still contains almost 40 prisoners — people who have essentially been warehoused there in brutal conditions, some without charge or trial, for the past 20 years. I would imagine that many of them have given up on any idea of freedom altogether.

Interestingly, the remaining majority of elements of the USA PATRIOT Act finally expired in 2019, and were not pushed to be extended/renewed. Those expirations have likely had no effect on the mass surveillance programs that were exposed in the early 2010s, however, as they existed in an extralegal capacity to begin with. The beat goes on.

9.

History doesn’t always repeat itself. But it does rhyme.

This present moment we’re in isn’t the first time (nor will it be the last) that right-wing elements have employed the idea of freedom as a sledgehammer. In many ways, the use of the discourse of freedom is brilliant, because it’s a lizard brain trigger word that steamrolls nuance. It’s a word like “unique”: just like something can’t be “rather unique,” you can’t be “somewhat free.” You are either free or you are not. It’s a word that encourages — and, in many ways, necessitates — a high-contrast mentality. 

But it’s worth underlining that virtually no one believes in an unmitigated idea of freedom. Every application of it has limits and bounds, and it’s worth interrogating what those bounds are, especially when the most traditionally reactionary and regressive voices begin loudly aligning themselves in the direction of demanding FREEDOM in all caps. What freedoms are they trying to gain? What freedoms do they think have been taken away? Freedom for whom? Freedom from what? And who is leading that charge? 

Freedom is a very complicated idea. But it’s also a word that activates people like Manchurian Candidates in a basic, lowest common denominator direction, frothing at the mouth while moving headlong towards logical incoherence. Freedom is not a cudgel, and we should beware of any motherfucker who wields the word or idea as a blunt object — history shows us that their agendas often have very little to do with freedom, except the freedom to fight in wars, consume, and die.

* [Nevermind that Osama Bin Laden was actually really clear that the attacks were enacted as retaliation for the U.S. using Afghanistan in a proxy war against Russia in the 80s…]




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