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The Nervous American Empire or Raise Your Hands Over Your Head and Don’t Move

by Peter Block on February 10, 2011

Tagged as: Acceptance of Fallibility / Safety

It will soon be ten years since 9/11 and the effects are still with us. One of the obvious ones is the U.S. military’s adventures in the rest of the world. Just as important, we keep expanding our militarism towards ourselves as citizens. If you need proof of this, take a plane trip. There is something in the aggressive security measures that is worth a moment of reflection.

For the un-traveled among us, let me explain. When you go through security in most airports, you not only subject your coat and luggage to x-ray inspection, which we have done since 9/11. Now you must also remove your shoes, belt, watch, jewelry and present them for scrutiny along with your money, electronics, papers and all the contents from your pockets. Exactly what happens when you are arrested.    

Then, you are guided into a large machine. Once inside, you place your feet on yellow-painted footprints, raise your arms over your head, bend your elbows, open your hands and touch your thumbs to your head, while not moving for ten seconds. This moves you from arrest to an act of surrender. Hands over your head, assets removed, dignity gone.

You walk out of the machine and once again place your feet on painted footprints on a mat. You are now detained by a uniformed TSA officer who waits in silence until getting the message in their earphones that you are cleared to travel. 

This increasingly repressive drama is enacted in the name of security. Your property removed and inspected, your person stripped and surveyed in the name of keeping America safe.

I want to set aside whether this policy truly prevents terror, nor am I going into the assault of the actual experience on us as human beings. What’s striking here is how this produces the final evidence that we live in an imperial culture that holds to the illusion that we have a divine and historical right to our dominant position in the world. What we must acknowledge is that we treat our own citizens as though sustaining our superpower status abroad requires us to have a docile and child-like citizenry at home.

Walter Brueggemann writes in Out of Babylon that “there was, in 9/11, a loss of innocence, the loss of certitude, the loss of entitlement, and the fresh recognition of vulnerability.”

This loss came short on the heels of the “Great American Century,” the twentieth century, when the U.S. came into unparalleled economic and political prominence in the world. We became an Empire, an imperial nation.

The World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks were a sign that the twenty-first century would see that prominence, our Empire, be put at risk: at best, we would be one among equals. Either way a loss hard to absorb.  

Brueggemann points out that the problem for this culture is not so much in the loss, but in the denial of the loss. A denial of the reality of vulnerability. This is the Achilles heel of Empire: its inability to accept its humanity and its limits. Empire needs to assert itself and be dominant in each venture, each negotiation, each market, and each response to a crisis. To support the American Empire in the world, in the face of the clear evidence that it is in decline, requires us to become more repressive at home, all in the name of security. It is the bravado and anxiety born of vulnerability. We now have more prisoners, more prisons, an constantly expanding security industry, more media that market fear and danger, a new wall built between us and our neighbor to the south, and now more moments of surrender at the airport — and beware the water bottle, that delivery vehicle of disaster.

An equally important dimension of all of this is our compliance as citizens. Our longing for safety, our own participation in denial, produces our willingness to submit to Empire and its need for control. I empty my pockets, remove my dangerous belt, stand on the yellow footprints, and raise my arms, hoping to pass scrutiny and get me to the gate on time.   

This pattern of Empire and compliance does not have to be. There is no need for me to surrender my dignity and belongings to get on an airplane. We have the possibility of a culture of participation and compassion. Abroad and at home. A culture which can accept its loss and choose greatness over dominance. A culture that realizes that the disparity in wealth and consumption at home and abroad destabilizes all we believe in.

There is no shame in accepting our vulnerability and the grief that goes with it. We are going to die and so be it. There were moments in our history when we chose greatness over Empire. The Constitution and Bill of Rights. Reconstruction after the Civil War. The Marshall Plan after WWII. The Civil Rights Act of 1964. Resistance to Vietnam. We have nobility in our bloodstream; it is just now in remission.

Despite living in a world of turmoil, we can turn away from Empire, and reject its policies against our own citizens in the name of safety. The alternative is a commitment to the world of neighborliness.

We can decide that a response to Empire is always local. There are those we thought to be strangers who are within walking distance of where we live. We can decide to greet them. Our politics become the politics of next door. We no longer need to deny our loss of dominance in the world; we do not have to continue to alienate ourselves from other nations and each other.

We have a choice about this. If we create the possibility of neighbor in the intimacy of our own life, we join a movement that is the antidote to a Nervous Empire, and in time, what we thought was a loss in standard of living will be a gain in quality of living. No need for Empire, only for the belief that each of us constructs the world within which we live. The politics of all that is local and not based on fear.

~ Peter ~