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The Ministry of False Alarms


ISSUE:  Fall 2004

In post-9/11 America there has come to be what I think of as the Ministry of False Alarms. The Ministry of False Alarms constantly raises the level of fear inside the United States. I’m not sure what these various rainbow-colored alerts are supposed to do: How does one react when the alert goes from yellow to orange? What does one do to deal with orange danger that one would not do in dealing with yellow danger? How do you relax when the level drops? The only purpose of these alerts is to scare people. When you have a scared population, it becomes easier to do things on its behalf that it would not otherwise tolerate. That climate of fear, which is being deliberately maintained inside the United States, is something that needs to be fought.

One well-publicized manifestation of this is the USA PATRIOT Act, which enormously increases the power of the American government to enter into what should be private areas, such as what books people read, what thoughts people think. The idea that the libraries should become areas the American state feels it needs to control and that librarians could be dangerous outlaws is a disturbing one.

It is clear that terror does exist and must be fought, but state crime also exists, and it, too, must be fought. David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, reminded us in a recent article that from the beginning of the war in Iraq, the Bush administration’s rhetoric placed moral progress at the heart of its mission. He quotes President Bush in June 2003, emphasizing the ethical underpinnings of Operation Iraqi Freedom: “I call on all governments to join with the United States and the community of law-abiding nations in prohibiting, investigating, or prosecuting all acts of torture… . We are leading this fight by example.” It seems impossible not to view the activities at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq as the end of the American right to claim moral example. We now know what that example is. It’s tragic that these acts have damaged the ability of the United States to present itself as a representative of higher moral standards for perhaps a generation. Not just in the Arab world, not just in the Muslim world. Everywhere. It is an amazing systemic problem.

To begin to repair this damage—and to better understand the struggles we all are facing—the United States needs an open dialogue with the rest of the world. It needs to know, listen to, and understand what the rest of the world is saying. Paradoxically, at precisely this moment, it is becoming increasingly difficult to get those voices into the United States. As you go around the American academy, as you go around cultural institutions, artistic institutions, you will hear stories wherever you go of the failure of those institutions to bring people, whether they are artists, musicians, or academics, into the country.

Even the literature of other countries is failing to make its way into the United States. The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) regulations now restrict the editing of work from what are called enemy countries. If a text arrives from, let’s say, Iran or North Korea and is subjected to editing in the United States, that can be dubbed trading with the enemy and possibly lead to criminal prosecution. This is an amazing upside-down piece of insanity. If it were applied backwards to the period of the Soviet Union, it would mean that people editing samizdat texts in the West could be subject to prosecution. The madness in this is that if you publish the text unedited, as a mess, that’s all right, but if you try to perform the normal publishing function of editing so that you can present it to the public in a clean form, that’s a crime.

The essays that follow begin to address these problems. Art Spiegelman exposes the Ministry of False Alarms for what it is. Sarah P. Rubinstein reminds us of the bitter loss behind each death on September 11. Joseph Margulies and Jenny S. Martinez warn that the moral failures at Abu Ghraib may be continuing much closer to home—as close as the shores of Cuba or even a military base in South Carolina. Finally, Christopher Merrill makes an eloquent argument for why it is so important for this dialogue to remain open rather than closed, for writers not to be silenced but allowed to share their stories.

The need for this open dialogue was demonstrated on September 11. The world’s stories are no longer separate from each other. You don’t have the story of America over here, the story of Saudi Arabia over there. Most people in New York, in the United States, I suspect, would not have thought of the story of al Qaeda as having much to do with them, but then, on that terrible day, al Qaeda became the story of New York and Washington, D.C., and all of the United States as well. We can no longer seal our cultures away from each other. We cannot pretend they belong in separate baskets. Everyone’s story is everyone else’s story, or can become so in a flash—or in an explosion.

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