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September 11, 2010

Today Is the Ninth Anniversary of an Enormous Opportunity

Oh good, it's time to rerun this again.

There's a short post (scroll down) by me in The Hill responding to the question "Are we safer now?":

Let's try asking different questions

The question of whether America is safer today is sort of strange, for two reasons.

First, the U.S. is unquestionably the safest country that's ever existed.

I don't say that to diminish the terrorist attacks nine years ago — I lived about a mile north of the World Trade Center then, and was on Seventh Avenue watching when the north tower collapsed. Let me tell you, Osama bin Laden & friends really put the "terror" back in "terrorism."

But the sad reality of life on Earth is that horrible things happen all the time. What was unusual about the terrorist attacks wasn't that they happened, but that they happened to us. We have two giant oceans on either side of us; two weak, friendly neighbors; and the most powerful military in the world. As awful as that one day was, what was true before is still true afterward: No one has less reason to be scared than Americans. Wondering whether we're safer is a little unseemly, like Yao Ming wondering whether he's ever going to get taller.

Second, making Americans safer is not a serious goal of the people who run the United States.

The rest.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at September 11, 2010 06:02 PM

Bravo Jon! But: you're wrong. I don't think that the U.S. is the safest country that's ever existed. Since the 1950's nuclear buildup we've constantly been only a few fried computer circuits or one really bad call away from complete destruction in minutes. In this situation, we can scarcely be considered safer than any country at any time prior to the advent of the Cold War.

I think of it in terms of expectation value. Since we don't really expect the missiles to fly at all, we discount it. But the idea that our country, civilization, or even existence is secure is totally untrue.

Of course, we are safe from any form of conventional aggression, which is what you're writing about. I guess this means that our enemies really are of the worst sort: us.

Posted by: Aaron Datesman at September 11, 2010 07:44 PM

Much as I worship you Jon, I can't help but see a logical non seq in this.

1) The USA is the safest country ever because US policy made it that way (a war with Mexico, no war with Canada when they promised to behave and be all supine forever amen, building up that military might thingy, Monroe Doctrine, shitloads of cash to spend on friendlt govts etc).

2) Today's US policy ISN'T designed around making the US safer.

What's changed? I see no point at which the US foreign or domestic policy did some 180º move, y'see.

Posted by: otto at September 11, 2010 08:02 PM

Otto, if that is indeed your name, first of all, nice way to spend your Saturday night. Don't you have some writing to do? Second, he didn't say "US policy isn't designed around making the US safer." He said "making Americans safer..." The U.S. as an institution, and its big high-value targets, are easily distinguished from the meat and bone creatures called Americans. You can make the Pentagon safer by putting a bunch of guards outside. The guards aren't necessarily safer.

Posted by: setty at September 11, 2010 10:05 PM

WE may or may not be safe from them, BUT, I think I can speak with some assurance history bears me out, they AREN'T safe from US. NOBODY IS.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at September 11, 2010 11:20 PM

Americans are the center of the universe. It’s always about us. I agree with Mike Meyer, nobody is safe from us. In a way we are rather democratic in that respect, we don’t really care who we kill as long as we get something out of it.

Posted by: Rob Payne at September 12, 2010 02:50 AM

Nice piece in The Hill, especially given how rarely readers there encounter anything outside the parameters of Beltway conventional wisdom.

Posted by: Nell at September 12, 2010 11:33 AM

Good point, but Rob, but "we" (in "as long as we get something out of it") is incorrect. It's more like "as long as the richest 1% of the population gets something out of it."

Posted by: Duncan at September 12, 2010 11:39 AM

How ya gonna make it, Baby?
Thats the question to be asked
Life goes on around you
In so many different ways
I know my share of history
How hard it is to be free
Wearing masks that turn to skin
Hiding what you could have been--Steppenwolf

Posted by: Mike Meyer at September 12, 2010 12:53 PM

Duncan, I agree with you on that, the top one percent for sure.

Posted by: Rob Payne at September 12, 2010 01:17 PM

>we don’t really care who we kill as long as we get something out of it.

We kill people even when we don't get anything out of it. But then I suppose WE may be defined in many ways-military contractors definitely get something out of it.

Anyways, nice post, Jon. And I like the title "Let's try asking different questions." I'm reminded of the Thomas Pynchon character in Gravity's Rainbow who says, "If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about answers."

Posted by: Paul Avery at September 12, 2010 01:28 PM

I realise that this post is related to "Feeling safer from a terrorist attack, specifically by Al-Qaeda or Jihadists)" but that is translated to "safety from physical harm". I believe, sense ( or feeling ) of being safe is a state of mind. I would definitely be more worried about being shot at by a gang member if I am in the vicinity where two gangs are shooting it out ( or as it happened, they came to our ER, with guns waving, to kill one of their opponents whom they had shot but had survived and they wanted to make sure, they killed him ) than I am worried about being a victim of an Al-Qaeda attack. However, I also believe, certain events are beyond one's control in this life and one has learn to accept it so one does not have be afraid all the time and worry about being safe.
Below is a great write up by Mr Woodward....
"What makes Americans afraid?

Posted by: Rupa Shah at September 12, 2010 04:09 PM

Paul Avery,

That is true about mercenaries etc. but I still agree with Duncan because it is the top one percent that are driving the Terror Wars.

Posted by: Rob Payne at September 12, 2010 04:32 PM

Very cool piece of writing, Jon. Let us hope some heads exploded at high tea on Capitol Hill.

Posted by: Rick Perlstein at September 12, 2010 05:57 PM

Setty, if that is indeed your name, what's wrong with a dude taking 10 minutes out from splaying 12k words onto a PDF to write a few over at a blert?

And yeah, you're right. Jon, you rule. Long live rhinos.

Posted by: otto at September 12, 2010 08:39 PM

Rob Payne,

Yes, yes, they encourage it, they profit from it, but do they DRIVE it? I'm not so sure. I don't think we should blithely dismiss Thanatos from the stage . Death and destruction can be very alluring to we humans as to be seemingly self-propelled.

Posted by: Paul Avery at September 13, 2010 03:12 AM

Paul Avery,

Your reference to Freudian theory emboldens me to cite Maurice Nicoll, British psychiatrist who was initially a Jungian, before taking up the esoteric approach known as the Fourth Way. He states (in Psychological Commentaries On Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, Vol. 1, written in 1941), "The hypnotism of life is very powerful. The object of nature is to keep man asleep and to keep him based on violence, so that he serves the purposes of nature."

William Hutton goes on to summarize:

Nicoll explains that humanity on this planet is in a strange situation. Looking at history, man has not really developed. Yet people are prone to imagine that passing time means progress, and that any contradictions to this perception are exceptional. People usually regard war as exceptional, but most of history deals with war. Indeed, history repeats itself because groups of individuals attract again and again the same circumstances, feel the same things, say the same things, and so on. But almost nothing actually changes because people's beings have not changed. We need to realize that each of us is at a different level of being. However, a higher level of being lies immediately above each of us at this very moment, now. It does not lie in the future of time. All work on oneself deals with stopping negative emotions, not being identified with one's personal troubles, with not keeping accounts ["keeping accounts" = holding grudges - mc], and with self observation; that is, with actions that can take place now.

Samuel Copley wrote PORTRAIT OF A VERTICAL MAN: Maurice Nicoll - An Appreciation. From a description of the book:

Maurice Nicoll and his work deserve to be known far more generally. A pioneering psychiatrist, who valued his close association with C.G. Jung, he was one of the first to recognize the shell shock of the First World War as a psychological illness and not moral weakness.

When in 1921 he heard P.D.Ouspensky lecture it proved to be a turning point in his life. Soon afterwards, together with his wife, he spent a year at G.I.Gurdjieff's Institute near Fontainebleau and was later authorised to teach what is known as 'the Work'. This became the main focus of his life. To it he brought his own profound understanding of the human psyche, and his Commentaries are for many, the most helpful approach to the Work.

His interpretations of the esoteric meaning of the New Testament Scriptures (The New Man, The Mark) are equally illuminating.

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at September 13, 2010 08:13 AM

Thank you for the reference, mistah charley. I'm intrigued enough to look more into Nicoll. I always found Pavlovian psyc. rather empty of anything beyond simple mechanics, a tangent on a much larger curve, it ultimately doesn't explain anything.

Posted by: Paul Avery at September 13, 2010 11:37 AM

Very cool piece of writing, Jon

I have gotten SO USED to awesome writing by Mr Schwarz, I expect no less!

And here is an awesome poem, a MUST READ by Emmanuel Ortiz
"Before I Start This Poem"

Posted by: Rupa Shah at September 13, 2010 12:09 PM

Paul Avery,

Actually people have very little interest in war. Most people want to just get on with their lives. It is always the job of the national leader, in this case working for the elite, to instigate war. And in order to instigate war in even a shabby democracy like ours people have to be pushed into war which is where people like Tom Friedman and Obama come in. It is their job to convince the masses that we must wage war albeit ever so sadly, and as a last resort of course.

Posted by: Rob Payne at September 13, 2010 12:13 PM

Canada is friendly, but hardly 'weak'. You forget, I fear, that we kicked your asses in 1812. Don't believe for a minute that we couldn't do it again.

Posted by: Chip at September 13, 2010 02:53 PM

Maurice Nicoll's Wiki page shows him with a very kind face. That makes me wish he were here.

The "Fourth Way," unfamiliar to me, reminds me that there was quite a diversity of interesting ideas out there before technology and mass media turned us into angry robots, which reminds me of some even older human wisdom:

"As rational metaphysics teaches that man becomes all things by understanding them, this imaginative metaphysics shows that man becomes all things by not understanding them; and perhaps the latter proposition is truer than the former, for when man understands he extends his mind and takes in the things, but when he does not understand he makes the things out of himself and becomes them by transforming himself into them.”*

--Giambattista Vico, Scienca Nuova

*I probably don't even really understand this; I just love it anyway.

Posted by: N E at September 13, 2010 03:18 PM

I really like Ph.d.-Charley's comment, and also, "quite a diversity of interesting ideas out there before technology and mass media turned us into angry robots".

Reminds me of a sentiment I expressed to a friend yesterday: "It feels more and more to me like computers will indeed be our undoing. We forgot how malleable our brains are, and now postmodern-medianet-culture has us all bouncing around between periods of ecstasy over viral memes, punctuated by empty depression."

(By "we" I mean Americans about my age (24) and younger, the raised-to-be-feckless humans Neal Stephenson warned you about ten years ago in In The Beginning ... Was The Command Line.)

Posted by: Cloud at September 13, 2010 03:59 PM

Thanks, mistah charley. An exhortation to be what one truly can be is welcome in the wasteland. Nothing is done for you merely through the exhortation; but being inspirited by the possibility permits the work to begin. Shanti.

Posted by: JerseyJeffersonian at September 13, 2010 05:04 PM

more about the Fourth Way

"The Fourth Way" is an approach to human development which began to be taught by G. I. Gurdjieff in the early part of the 20th century. It is specifically mystical, in the sense that it asserts that the Universe is a process which is here not by accident, that people can participate meaningfully in this process, that some can do so more than others, and that it's possible to improve your ability "to do God's will", to put it in theistic terms. Although it urges the use of experience, not faith, the Fourth Way is not inconsistent with religion and G. said it could be considered "esoteric Christianity." To me, it seems clear that the Fourth Way heavily influenced Monty Python's The Meaning of Life. At another blog, a fellow commenter said BTW, I think my favorite Monty Python lines are from The Meaning Of Life: “Well, that's the end of the film, now here's the meaning of life…Well, it's nothing special. Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations”.

Yes, it's "nothing special" - in the Zen sense of that phrase, I think. And yet why is it so hard for people to do it?

The answer appears in the Central Scene of the film, in the boardroom of the Very Big Corporation of America, Inc.


Exec #1: Item six on the agenda: "The Meaning of Life" Now uh, Harry, you've had some thoughts on this.
Exec #2: Yeah, I've had a team working on this over the past few weeks, and what we've come up with can be reduced to two fundamental concepts. One: People aren't wearing enough hats. Two: Matter is energy. In the universe there are many energy fields which we cannot normally perceive. Some energies have a spiritual source which act upon a person's soul. However, this "soul" does not exist ab initio as orthodox Christianity teaches; it has to be brought into existence by a process of guided self-observation. However, this is rarely achieved owing to man's unique ability to be distracted from spiritual matters by everyday trivia.
Exec #3: What was that about hats again?
Exec #2: Oh, Uh... people aren't wearing enough.
Exec #1: Is this true?
Exec #4: Certainly. Hat sales have increased but not pari passu, as our research...
Exec #3: [Interrupting] "Not wearing enough"? enough for what purpose?
Exec #5: Can I just ask, with reference to your second point, when you say souls don't develop because people become distracted...
[looking out window]
Exec #5: Has anyone noticed that building there before?

At this point, the Crimson Permanent Assurance firm makes its hostile take-over bid.

This scene can be viewed at tinyurl dot com slash 6qba8l

"Wearing enough hats" is being used in both a literal and a metaphorical sense in this scene. When it is said that "Hat sales have increased, but not pari passu", we must be talking about literal hats. But metaphorically, "to wear more than one hat" is to take on more than one role in a setting or organization - which would increase the opportunities for "guided self-observation" to assist in the development of the soul. This is the film's deepest explanation of how to find life's meaning.

British psychiatrist Robin Skynner, who wrote two books with John Cleese, was a member of the Gurdjieff Society. The resemblance of this scene to Gurdjieff's teaching is clear to informed observers.

Pete Porter wrote a very interesting essay, “The Case for Menippeanism: The Meaning of Life”, which begins:

Menippean movies and their literary kin are welcome friends known singly without recognizing the family resemblance. Those who have delighted in the books Gulliver's Travels, Candide, and Alice in Wonderland, or in the movies Duck Soup (McCarey, 1934), Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (Jones and Gilliam, 1983), and The Big Lebowski (Coen, 1998) have appreciated the peculiar charms of Menippeanism. These and other Menippean works set out spectacular banquets of incongruous elements that suggest the incompetence (or whimsy) of the author as their lone constructive principle. Further scrutiny, however, reveals a commodious form that encourages such oddities: an aesthetic of parody and violating decorum, storytellers who are ridiculous, burlesques of language and learning, a fantastic setting, and the theme of the wisdom of common sense.

Which brings us back to being nice to people, taking walks, reading good books, etc.

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at September 13, 2010 06:15 PM


You might be interested in Nicholas Carr's new book The Shallows, which is pretty fascinating though I'm not far into it. (The subtitle is What the Internet is Doing to our Brains.) Despite that subtitle, what I've read of it isn't sensationalistic and is fascinating. The brain, as one neurologist is quoted as saying, is "massively plastic". Thinking of it as hard-wiring is apparently wrong. There's obviously some bad in the good that comes with that.

Posted by: N E at September 13, 2010 06:46 PM

Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.

After enlightenment...

Intentionality, but of a one-pointed sort. Difficult to traverse, like a razor's edge.

Posted by: JerseyJeffersonian at September 13, 2010 07:20 PM

Hopefully the answer to this won't get into any trade secrets, but: how did an interesting radical like you get into an insider publication like this?

Posted by: ArsenoChomskyite at September 14, 2010 03:51 AM

Rob Payne,

Yes, at first. But once convince by our leader that it is the right thing to do, the gung-ho-ness of the masses can be overwhelming, (not to mention mindless).


A lasting impression: Over 20 years passed since I read Betrand Russell's autobiography, however, I still vividly recall his description of the general joy and happiness felt by fellow Londoners, at the start of WWI, upon hearing the announcement that they were going to war with Germany.

Posted by: Paul Avery at September 15, 2010 01:47 PM

Paul Avery,

I can agree with that, people can be manipulated to do awful things under the right circumstance. That’s a good example you gave. I’ve never liked crowd mentality, it’s scary.

Posted by: Rob Payne at September 15, 2010 02:28 PM

I see that Consortium News' Robert Parry is making up lies about the left so as to present himself as some sort of "centrist". You know the thing. If I point out how the right lies then I have to point out the lies of the left (even if it means manufacturing those "lies" from nothing), so I look cool and unbiased.

Because "obviously" the right and the left are just the same you know. That's "reality" by definition.

This really pisses me off -- and he makes up these lies in an article supposedly complaining about people lying for political purposes.

On the Alternet version the lies about the left are on page six here:

Basically he claims that the American Left... well let his own words stand here:

"American leftists felt that it wasn’t enough to convince the people that Bush was simply a bonehead. The feeling was that Bush had so bamboozled the people that they needed to be shocked out of their trances by something bigger."

He then accuses the American Left of knowingly making up the rumour that the government was lying about 9-11 even though the Left knew that really the government was telling the truth all along.

That's the most insane shit I've heard this year so far. Half the truthers I see are right wing libertarians anyhow. As if anyone would have to make up shit about Bush to make him look bad. The idea that there's a committee of Lefties that sit around all day plotting what lies to make up about the government.

That's so insane I can't believe Robert Parry believes that nonsense so he's just lying to make his piece (about political lying) more "balanced". What a flaming hypocrite (as well as asshole).

Posted by: DavidByron at September 17, 2010 12:14 PM

How this for a kick in the balls? Five minutes well spent.

Posted by: Frankenstein Government at September 17, 2010 02:24 PM


I share your annoyance at Parry's article, though for different reasons. I think Parry, a fantastic and fantastically honest journalist, misses a lot of points and is too self-confident in his assessment, but it's easy to see what has him concerned. And rightfully so, since we're teetering on the verge of real social ugliness that may ultimately make even liberals nostalgic for Bush/Cheney.

Parry lays out his worries in his last three paragraphs, where he basically says we need to "rebuild" our former commitment to fact and reason because "telling the truth has always been a fundamental American value, one that is vital to democracy." And we need to return to rational discourse, which doesn't thrive in connection with 9/11 conspiracies.

What Parry wants would be super, but it's a hope grounded on a mythic past that never existed, and it ignores the reasons that disinformation flourishes now in place of the rational discourse we supposedly once had. And my personal opinion is that Parry has, for the above reasons, never been able to think clearly about some of the possibilities of what might have happened on 9/11. Or why, if just some of that happened, it's a really big deal. But hey, Parry is probably right about the social effect of the 9/11 Truth movement, and truth is so rare that it's probably crazy to fetishize one event even if it was The Big One.

So Parry is still one of my heroes, without even a little footnote.

Posted by: N E at September 17, 2010 08:37 PM

THE TRUTH, I should think, MUST be rather new and inovative to American Politics, concidering OUR history.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at September 17, 2010 10:01 PM

Mike Meyer

America is no more exceptionally bad than it is exceptionally good. I just wish we'd accentuate the positive.

Posted by: N E at September 17, 2010 10:24 PM

since WW2, America has slaughtered about 3 million innocent souls.

But we are in second place to DR Congo, who have finished off 5 or so million souls.

That's about as positive as I can get.....

Posted by: Susan at September 18, 2010 01:14 AM


Since WWII we've been in a rough patch, but we were once the world's great experiment in democracy. Great advances in the political and economic rights of women occurred here first, and though racism was horrible here for a long time, racism suffered its first great historic defeats here too. And this country really made considerable headway toward more economic democracy in the first half of the 20th century too, before we began to reverse that both for ourselves and the rest of the world.

Plus, not all American work abroad has been evil, even if the trend line has been bad for 50 years.

The National Security State was the trojan horse that let the elite take firm control of the country and the world.

Posted by: N E at September 18, 2010 08:32 AM