Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, Gore Vidal (Book, 2002)

When I select books to read, I tend to choose one of two types: new books that are immediately relevant and old books that are immediately relevant. In other words, I read for content that I can apply, not for simple enjoyment or curiosity about other people’s lives.

At first glance, Gore Vidal’s 2002 book, “Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace,” would seem an odd choice.  The subtitle is “How We got To Be So Hated.” Written just after 9-11, it looks like a retread of a now very tired discussion. No, the terrorist do not hate us for our freedoms or our prosperity, but rather for what our government has done and continued to do around the world.

If that’s all Vidal was trying to say, I would have put this back on the shelf without much thought, but I discovered in my brief skimming that Vidal was making a far more interesting and controversial commentary about the use of government force worldwide. 

Seventeen years ago today, Timothy McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City killing almost 170 people including 19 children. Nineteen years ago today, the FBI launched operation “Show Time” in which the agency launched an assault against the compound of David Koresh and his church, the Branch Davidians. The attack was McVeigh’s primary motivation for bombing the Murrah building two years later. In short, he felt that the Waco incident proved the federal government had become more than just tyrannical, but a direct threat to the lives of its citizens.

While the author does not attempt to justify McVeigh’s motives, he agrees that these incidents are best viewed as “attack” and “counterattack.”  In the shadow of 9-11, Vidal asserts that it too should be viewed as a counterattack. That even if it was unjustifiable, that doesn’t mean it can’t be understood.

Just before being sentenced to death, McVeigh was given the opportunity to speak before the court.  He said:

“I wish to use the words of Justice Brandeis dissenting in Olmstead to speak for me. He wrote: ‘Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by its example.’ That’s all I have.”

The quote was originally from Justice Louis Brandeis’s dissenting opinion in the 1928 Supreme Court decision, Olmstead vs. United States, in which the court upheld the government’s use of warrant-less wiretaps. McVeigh was saying that he was following the government’s example.  Even civilian deaths were acceptable under such a scenario. In a letter to Fox News, McVeigh wrote:

“[B]orrowing a page from U.S. foreign policy, I decided to send a message to a government that was becoming increasingly hostile, by bombing a government building and the government employees within that building who represent that government. Bombing the Murrah Federal Building was morally and strategically equivalent to the U.S. hitting a government building in Serbia, Iraq, or other nations.  Based on observations of the policies of my own government, I viewed this action as an acceptable option.”

Of course that two wrongs don’t make a right, but Vidal doesn’t apologize for stating very explicitly that there is an escalation of violence taking place. His book is refreshing in its unapologetic attempt to answer the most dangerous of all questions, “Why?”

There is a danger of conflating understanding with absolution or approval. Only by understanding McVeigh’s point of view can we make the best effort to avoid future disasters without having to sacrifice our liberties.

Vidal makes several very accurate predictions which took me by surprise. In November 1998, Vidal wrote:

“Nevertheless, new devices, at ever greater expense, are coming onto the market—and, soon, to an airport near you—including the dream machine of every horny schoolboy. The “Body Search” Contraband Detection System, created by American Science and Engineering, can “X-ray” through clothing to reveal the naked body, whose enlarged image can then be cast onto a screen for prurient analysis.

The proud manufacturer boasts that the picture is so clear that even navels, unless packed with cocaine and taped over, can be seen winking at the voyeurs. The system also has what is called, according to an ACLU report, “a joystick-driven Zoom Option” that allows the operator to enlarge interesting portions of the image. During all this, the victim remains, as AS&E proudly notes, fully clothed.”

The newly passed anti-terrorism laws, like the anti-drug laws, has shred the Bill of Rights and all for very little substantive gain. Even the supposedly temperate elements of the Federal government, like the IRS, regularly seize property without due process and often in do so in error. Vidal writes:

“The current Supreme Court has shown little interest in curbing so powerful and clandestine a federal agency as it routinely disobeys the 4th, 5th, and 14th Amendments. Of course, this particular court is essentially authoritarian and revels in the state’s exercise of power while its livelier members show great wit when it comes to consulting Ouija boards in order to discern exactly what the founders originally had in mind, ignoring just how clearly Mason, Madison, and company spelled out such absolutes as you can’t grab someone’s property without first going to a grand jury and finding him guilty of a crime as law requires.”

He is saying that whether you live in the United States or not, there is good reason to fear and even hate the US government.

In 1996, President Clinton signed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act which selectively suspends Habeas Corpus rights and gives the President the power to use “all necessary means including military force” to fight terrorism, effectively suspending Posse Comitatus. In effect, it allows the president to deploy troops anywhere in the US if it has to do with terrorism.

When criticized, Clinton said, “There is nothing patriotic about our pretending that you can love your country but despise your government.” Vidal replied, “This is breathtaking since it includes, at one time or another, most of us. Put another way, was a German in 1939 who said that he detested the Nazi dictatorship unpatriotic?”

The book isn’t traditionally written, rather it is a selection of articles collected under a common theme, most of which are available for free on the internet.  Still, repetition is kept to a minimum and overall the book is brief and direct. At about 150 pages, I read it in just one day. Definitely recommended.


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