Jonathan Schell, Goodbye to All That

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Jonathan Schell, who lives in downtown New York City, began writing his “Letter from Ground Zero” column — still unnamed — almost before the white dust storm of 9/11 had settled. The first of what would become almost four-and-a-half years of such columns — piercing, questioning, thoughtful — appeared the next week in the Nation magazine. In those early days, as the country and Congress were being panicked into every sort of folly, Jonathan stuck — as calmly as possible — to his most basic beliefs; and, at a time when so many were ducking for cover, he never hesitated to express them as strongly (and eloquently) as possible. To my mind, he has been a model of intelligent analysis and resistance in this strange, unhinged moment of ours.

Tomdispatch was far slower to start up. I began it only after two post-9/11 months of media coverage had driven me to despair, only after I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving such a degraded world to my children without having done a thing in response. And then, of course, I had nothing as lofty as the Nation in mind for my first tentative thoughts. An e-list of twelve friends and relatives seemed ambitious enough. It would be another year-plus before my still-unnamed dispatches, now heading out to hundreds of e-readers, became (thanks to Hamilton Fish of the Nation Institute) the Tomdispatch website. Only months after that did I post the first “Letter from Ground Zero” at the site (through the kindness of the Nation’s Katrina van den Heuvel). As all of you know, I’ve proudly posted many of Jonathan’s pieces since then.

This was hardly the first time his path and mine had intersected. His remarkable Vietnam writings, The Village of Ben Suc and The Military Half, as well as his classic Watergate book, The Time of Illusion, had helped shape my worldview in the late 1960s and 1970s, though at the time I knew him (the way any reader would) only on the page. In 1980, in the wake of the Three Mile Island nuclear near-catastrophe in Pennsylvania — I was by then an editor at Pantheon Books — I decided to publish Unforgettable Fire, a volume of drawings and brief descriptions of the Hiroshima A-bomb experience by some of its survivors — the first such book, I believe, to take mainstream Americans under the mushroom cloud since John Hersey’s Hiroshima in 1946. Jonathan plucked an unforgettably strange and indomitable image from that book — of a professor standing in his shorts in a sea of fire, holding only a rice ball in his fist — and, having translated it into words, made it central to the first part of The Fate of the Earth, his bestselling book about the superpower nuclear conundrum that, even without the USSR, still has us in its grip. That book — and so the image I had published — was one spark helping to set ablaze the vast antinuclear movement that, in the early 1980s, all-too-briefly challenged the Reagan administration.

Some years later, I became Jonathan’s editor, leaving Pantheon Books in 1990, only to be reunited with him years later at Metropolitan Books where I edited his post-9/11 work, The Unconquerable World. (Anyone who bothered to read that account of several centuries of state violence and popular resistance would have known, without a scintilla of doubt, that the Bush “cakewalk” into Iraq would prove anything but.)

Now, in a final “Letter from Ground Zero” column, Jonathan is saying goodbye to all that, only to offer the promise of an even deeper plunge into the American crisis of our moment. I have no doubt that our paths will cross again — and soon, I hope — at Tomdispatch. In the meantime, here (with my thanks yet again to the editors of the Nation magazine) is his final column. Tom

Farewell to Ground Zero
By Jonathan Schell

[This column, which will appear in the March 6th issue of the Nation, is posted here with the kind permission of the editors of that magazine.]

[This column, which will appear in the March 6th issue of the Nation, is posted here with the kind permission of the editors of that magazine.]

This column will be my last “Letter From Ground Zero.” The series will be succeeded by another, “Crisis of the Republic.” Until recently it seemed possible to trace the main developments in the Bush administration’s policies back to that horrible, fantastical day in September 2001, as if following an unbroken chain of causes and effects. Now it no longer does. The chain is too entangled with other chains, of newer and older origin.

The war against Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden had his headquarters and support from the ruling Taliban, was, for better or worse, a clear response to the attack on the United States. The Patriot Act and the reorganization of the national security apparatus likewise were responses to September 11. But with the launch of the Iraq War, the subject was already beginning to change. The political support for the war still flowed from 9/11, but the administration was already veering toward other objectives. For one thing, we know that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and others had wanted to attack Iraq since their first days in office, and, for that matter, even before. For another, the war proved to be a kind of test case of a far more sweeping revolution in American foreign policy, soon outlined in the White House document of 2002, the National Security Strategy of the United States of America, which set forth American ambitions for nothing less than global hegemony based on military superiority, absolute and perpetual, over all other nations. Many friends of this policy frankly and rightly called it imperial.

The Iraq test case has failed; in doing so it has tied down forces that otherwise might have been given further aggressive missions. The imperial plan stalled — as the nuclearization of North Korea without an effective American response, among other things, attests. Nevertheless, the administration’s international ambitions had a scarcely less sweeping domestic corollary, for which no master strategic document was supplied: a profound transformation of the American state, in which, in the name of the “war on terror,” the President rises above the law and the Republican Party permanently dominates all three branches of government. That project had even less to do with 9/11 than did the Iraq War. Its roots can be traced at least as far back as the election of 2000, when the Supreme Court improperly interjected itself into the electoral dispute in Florida and a majority consisting of Republican-appointed Justices awarded the presidency to the man of their own party. Or perhaps we need to look back even further, to the attempt by the Republican-dominated Congress to knock a Democratic President out of office by impeaching him for personal misbehavior accompanied by a minor legal infraction. (If those standards were still in force, President Bush would have been impeached eleven times over by now.) Obviously, these events had nothing to do with 9/11 or the Iraq War. Their roots are older and deeper. To arrange all the new developments, domestic and international, under the heading “Letter From Ground Zero,” as if it all began with Osama bin Laden, would therefore be misleading. It would be a kind of lie.

For the series’ new title, I want to acknowledge a debt to Hannah Arendt, who in 1972 published a book of essays titled Crises of the Republic. My single-letter change in her title reflects a belief that today the many disparate crises of the past have combined into one general systemic crisis, placing the basic structure of the Republic at mortal risk. At the forefront of concern must be the question: Will the Constitution of the United States survive? Is the American state now in the midst of a transmutation in which the 217-year-old provisions for a balance of powers and popular freedoms are being overridden and canceled? Or will defenders of the Constitution step forward, as has happened in constitutional crises of the past, to save the system and restore its integrity?

The obvious precedent is Watergate. Then as now, the presidency became “imperial.” Then as now, a misconceived and misbegotten war led to presidential law-breaking at home. Then as now, a quixotic crusade for freedom abroad really menaced freedom at home. Then as now, the law-breaking President was re-elected to a second term. Then as now, the systemic rot went so deep that only a drastic cure could be effectual. Then as now, opposition at the outset consisted not of any great public outrage but the lonely courage of a few bureaucrats, legislators, and reporters. Then it was the war in Vietnam; now it is the war in Iraq and the wider and more lasting “war on terror.” Then it was secret break-ins and illegal wiretapping; now it is arbitrary imprisonment, torture and, again, illegal wiretapping. Then it was presidential assertion of “executive privilege”; now it is a full-scale reinterpretation of the Constitution to give the “unitary executive” power to do anything it likes in “wartime.”

Of course, there are obvious differences. In the early 1970s, the opposition party controlled both houses of the legislature, which launched vigorous investigations and, eventually, impeachment proceedings. Now of course the President’s party controls the legislative branch and possibly (it’s still too early to say, given the traditional independence of the judiciary and its consequent unpredictability) the judicial branch as well. Then, the movement against the war had forced a decision to withdraw; now the anti-war movement is much weaker. On the other hand, when the crisis began back then, the President’s popularity was high; now it is low.

Yet what remains most striking and most surprising is the degree of continuity of the systemic disorder in the face of radical, galloping change in almost every other area of political life. After all, the cold war, which seemed at the time to be the seedbed of the Watergate crisis, ended sixteen years ago, in the greatest upheaval of the international system since the end of World War II. How is it, then, that the United States has returned to a systemic crisis so profoundly similar to the one in the early 1970s? By looking at external foes, are we looking in the wrong place for the origins of the illness? Is this transformation what a more “conservative” public now wants? Or is there instead something in the dominant institutions of American life that push the country in this direction? Those are some of the questions that will be taken up in “Crisis of the Republic.”

Jonathan Schell is The Nation Institute’s Harold Willens Peace Fellow. He is the author of The Unconquerable World, among many other books.

Copyright 2005 Jonathan Schell

This article will appear in the March 6th issue of The Nation Magazine.