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Not yet safe

Risk management, five years on

On the fifth anniversary of 9/11, George W Bush announced:

Today, we are safer, but we are not yet safe.

Naturally, it makes sense for the President to claim that Americans are safer because of strategic triumphs such as invading Iraq. It makes sense, too, for him to claim that they are not yet safe, because if they were, there would be no point in continuing the “war on terror”. How long, some Americans might have been wondering, should the war go on? Bush tossed out some clues:

It is the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century, and the calling of our generation […] We are in a war that will set the course for this new century — and determine the destiny of millions across the world. […] We are now in the early hours of this struggle between tyranny and freedom.

Looks like it’s going to last a good while longer, then. Is there no hope of an end? Well, there is the following charming picture:

We look to the day when moms and dads throughout the Middle East see a future of hope and opportunity for their children. And when that good day comes, the clouds of war will part, the appeal of radicalism will decline, and we will leave our children with a better and safer world.

This is a cunning feint. Bush at first seems to be describing a moment when the “war on terror” will be at an end – the clouds of war will part – but, curiously, he takes this back at the end of the very same sentence. After all, he is foreseeing only a safer world. Those paying attention since the beginning of the speech will have remembered that merely safer is not good enough. A world that is safer but not yet safe is hardly a world in which you can hang up your “war on terror” six-shooter . . .

Of course the condition that the world, or even just Americans, be safe is one that is almost satirically engineered to be unfulfillable. There are no circumstances under which any American president would tell the nation: “Hey, chill out! We’re safe! There is no threat to you from anyone or anything!” To imply that the “war on terror” should persist until such an announcement is possible is to argue, not very subtly, for eternal war.

Even so, the “yet” of Bush’s formulation – not yet safe – deliberately dangles the fantasy of this impossible condition’s fulfilment in some as-yet-unimaginable future. It implies that the “war on terror” will eventually do the job; and indeed that it is the only path that leads towards the Shangri-La of absolute safety.

There is another rhetorician who demands an impossible condition of absolute safety for laying down arms. It is, as you might have guessed, Osama bin Laden, who in his 1998 declaration against “Jews and Crusaders” said that the killing would not stop until “the Americans and their allies” were “defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim”. Really, any Muslim? And unable to threaten one with anything? The only way to be certain that was the case would be to make sure that all “the Americans and their allies” were dead.

Similarly, one hypothetical scenario in which Bush might finally be able to tell Americans that they are safe – at least from foreigners – is a future in which all foreigners are dead. Alternatively, he could offer to guarantee absolute security under some regrettably necessary flavour of totalitarianism, as has been the wont of dictators. But that can’t be the plan. Rather, the plan, as described by the President near the end of his speech on Monday, is to “lead the 21st century into a shining age of human liberty”. Global glow-in-the-dark freedom may itself turn out to be not yet safe, but we can worry about that when we get there.

Not yet safe is a potent mix of insinuation and psychological warfare. It construes safety as uniquely a matter of avoiding acts of terrorism, though there is no shortage of other, statistically larger risks to the lives of Americans. It speaks the “war on terror” as the only way to increase this safety, and Unspeaks any alternatives. And as shining reward, it makes a beautifully vague promise that, one day, Americans will indeed be safe as a result of George W Bush’s actions. As Unspeak, it is masterful. As commemoration, it is breathtakingly cynical.

  1. 1  minerva  September 13, 2006, 8:25 am 

    Ah, the early hours. The war: It’s still so fresh and new. Wars! They grow up so fast. We need to cherish these times and hold them to our bosom for soon they will be gone.

  2. 2  dsquared  September 13, 2006, 1:19 pm 

    A quite wonderful article in response to Martin Amis’ latest essay on the Guardian blog:

  3. 3  dsquared  September 13, 2006, 1:19 pm 

    I’m terribly sorry about that vast chunk of whitespace: I have no idea how it got there and it wasn’t in the preview

  4. 4  SP  September 13, 2006, 1:29 pm 

    Thanks for the link. Yes, the trite verbal inflation of “horrorism” was so rubbish I couldn’t be bothered to blog about it. ;)

    The whitespace was only visible in Internet Exploder, which for reasons best known to itself goes apeshit over long urls in this design. Should be fixed now.

  5. 5  DF  September 13, 2006, 2:31 pm 

    “…glow-in-the-dark freedom may itself turn out to be _not yet safe_”

    It’s not dark _yet_, but it’s getting there.

  6. 6  SP  September 13, 2006, 4:27 pm 

    Wanderin’ Bob has a gnomic, downbeat pearl for every occasion, it seems. Much like Proust.

  7. 7  Carl  September 13, 2006, 6:16 pm 

    Before I comment about this, I just want to say I just finished reading “Unspeak” which I learned a lot from. So much of what I learned will be of practical value to me.

    For a very amusing take on Bush’s recent comments on safety, that bear more than just a passing similarity to what you write about it, go here:

    The discussion of safety starts roughly half-way through the video, so you’ll just have to be amused by other “Daily Show” banter til you reach that point.

    A tidbit: “Pre-9-11, the idea of being safe without being safe, would be preposterous!”

    It makes me wonder if an appealing way of going after unspeak would be to have Monty Python-type skits about it.


  8. 8  SP  September 13, 2006, 7:04 pm 

    Carl, I surely can’t complain if the Daily Show did the jokes better and first. America: The Book was one of the inspirations for Unspeak. Thank you for the link, I’ll check it out. And I’m glad you got something out of my book. Monty Python-style skits on Unspeak is an excellent idea. Fortune and Bird on the Rory Bremner show in the UK already do something a bit like that.

  9. 9  Kevin Beck  September 13, 2006, 7:49 pm 

    Great analysis of the Unspeak-filled speech. One of the great lessons you’ve taught is that Mr Bush isn’t so brainless. There is a real calculation to his statements. 3 things jumped out at me.

    First, I don’t know if it ualifies for Unspeak or just slight of hand, but the speech essentially linked 9/11 and the Iraqi war. Mr Bush said, “On September the 11th, we learned that America must confront threats before they reach our shores, whether those threats come from terrorist networks or terrorist states. I’m often asked why we’re in Iraq when Saddam Hussein was not responsible for the 9/11 attacks. The answer is that the regime of Saddam Hussein was a clear threat.” So, he admits that Iraq had nothing to do with the war, but we must go to war anyway.

    Second, the “Islamo-fascist” phraesology did not go over well. So, why not link Al-Qaeda with the communists? “Our nation is being tested in a way that we have not been since the start of the Cold War.” WIll be now call them, “Islamo-pinkos”?

    Third, Mr Bush said, “We have learned that they are evil and kill without mercy — but not without purpose.” Do western militaries kill with mercy? Our armies have a purpose, and that is to kill w/o mercy. Just ask several grieving relatives of an Afghani wedding party.

    Sorry for rambling so long. Thanks for the space.

  10. 10  bobw  September 14, 2006, 4:40 am 

    I guess Martin Amis has few fans on this site. I personally like him, even when his writing seems full of self-loathing. I love the name “horrorism” (it comes from his novel The Information), but I admit the article wasnt that good. If I had any doubts, they were dispelled by the very excellent article on Al Q’aeda and its evolution in the current New Yorker (available online.)

  11. 11  SP  September 14, 2006, 7:42 am 

    Kevin, those are good points. It’s interesting to see that these days, though Bush cannot exactly say that Saddam was responsible for 9/11, he is very careful always to mention the two very close together. In a way, then, perhaps it doesn’t matter what his words are actually saying. The subliminal message remains: “9/11…Saddam…9/11…Saddam.”

    bobw: I admire a lot of Amis’s work, as I pointed out on the functioning insanity thread — just not this stuff. I agree that the New Yorker is a better source of analysis on this topic (as on most).

  12. 12  abb1  September 14, 2006, 9:31 am 

    America: The Book was one of the inspirations for Unspeak.

    What about George Carlin?

  13. 13  SP  September 14, 2006, 10:51 am 

    Not to mention George Formby. Where’s me washboard?

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