Selling September 11

(This essay was published in the upcoming issue of Perpectives on Evil and Human Wickedness under the title "Paradigm Bait & Switch")

Freedom and fear are at war. The advance of human freedom - the great achievement of our time, and the great hope of every time - now depends on us.
- US President George W. Bush, September 20, 2002

The Bush Mythology

Much has been said about the epic, almost biblical response America made to the appalling terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. "This will be a monumental struggle of good versus evil," said US President George W. Bush on September 12, in what was to become characteristic of post-September 11 rhetoric, "but good will prevail."(1) Naturally, in the mythology of September 11, which we may call the Bush Mythology, America represents all that is good and just in the world, while the shadowy global network of terror represents all that is evil. I use the word "mythology" (from the Greek words mythos, meaning "story" as opposed to logos, which means "speech") deliberately, defining it for these purposes as a story of events that serves to endorse or embody a world-view by explaining it in terms of a particular underlying divine plan for the universe.

In the Bush Mythology, America represents God's plan for the human race, a nation of virtue, benevolence and justice. Starting post-September 11, the ancient Graeco-Christian saga is modernized, or Americanized if you will. To the noble virtues are added liberty, democracy and - perhaps oddly - free enterprise. America, of course, embodies all that is worthy: courage, resolve, enterprise, tolerance, justice, compassion, generosity, tolerance, patience, determination, ingenuity, heroism and patriotism. As Bush explains, "This great state is known for its diversity - people of all races, all religions, and all nationalities. They've come here to live a better life, to find freedom, to live in peace and security, with tolerance and with justice. When the terrorists attacked America, this is what they attacked. And when we defend America, this is what we defend."(2)

Perhaps most importantly, according to the Bush Mythology, America recognizes the intrinsic value of righteousness. In America, we are told, virtue is its own reward. Even in war, America extends the hand of brotherhood to all peoples, including its victims. "We're fighting evil people," Bush told the students and faculty of Thurgood Marshall Extended Elementary School in Washington, DC. "[But] we're fighting evil with good. And one way to fight evil with good is, you can help by writing letters to boys and girls your age. You can let boys and girls know what you think are important. You can let boys and girls know what your dreams are, and ask them about theirs, too."(3) Elsewhere, Bush extols America's beneficence, sending food and humanitarian aid to Afghanistan even as it sends bombs. This entails selfless sacrifice, but such behaviour is proper to nations that are dedicated to the cause of justice.

Transcendental Evil

By contrast, the enemy represents all that is evil and despicable: fear, cowardice, intolerance, hatred, jealousy, envy, murder, secrecy. "They hate our freedoms,"(4) Bush warns, in an attempt to explain why anyone would want to lash out at the global beacon of light. They hate democracy, the rule of law, the path of diplomacy. They kill not to gain bargaining power, but to disrupt and undermine a way of life they abhor. In the narrative twist that ties terrorism to the larger American mythology of the 20th century, terrorists become a kind of extranational, post-modern fascist bogeyman. As such, declaring war on terror simply becomes the latest phase in America's historical struggle to bring the torch of freedom to every nation on Earth. "We have seen their kind before," Bush tells us ominously. "They are the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century." Terrorists pursue their goals "by sacrificing human life to serve their radical visions - by abandoning every value except the will to power."(5) Contained in the "will to power" is a profound sense that the ends justify the means, a philosophy that cannot coexist with the stated American principles of self-evident freedom, self-determination and human dignity.

We find the culmination of the Bush Mythology in Bush's infamous "axis of evil" speech, in which he paints a vast global conspiracy of evil that threatens the foundations of liberty everywhere. "Our second goal is to prevent regimes that sponsor terror from threatening America or our friends and allies with weapons of mass destruction," Bush explains in a joint address to Congress and the American public:

North Korea is a regime arming [sic] with missiles and weapons of mass destruction, while starving its citizens. Iran aggressively pursues these weapons and exports terror, while an unelected few repress the Iranian people's hope for freedom. Iraq continues to flaunt its hostility toward America and to support terror ... States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming [sic] to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic [emphasis added].(6)

Note that the word axis carries a reference to the Axis powers of the Second World War that cooperated in their campaign against England, France and America. To call North Korea, Iran and Iraq an "axis" implies that the countries are somehow cooperating in a shared campaign. In truth, the only commonality between these three countries - which certainly do not see each other as allies! - is America regards all three as its enemies. Viewed through the perspective of the Bush Mythology, however, they become de facto allies, agents of the same evil, actively seeking to spread their poison across the world and provide fertile ground in which terrorists can proliferate.

The White Hat's Burden

This clash of values between America's heartfelt dedication to virtue and the terrorists' shameless power mongering is, of course, insoluble. There can be no negotiating with terrorists, because every compromise and concession simply feeds their fire. Every retreat represents an advance of terror against justice. It then becomes America's duty to eradicate terror, to seek it out wherever it hides and to destroy the supports that allow it to persist. "We must be strong and we must be decisive," Bush advises, explaining that America can defeat terrorism only through acting with a righteous moral clarity. "We must stop the evil ones, so our children and grandchildren can know peace and security and freedom in the greatest nation on the face of the Earth." Nobly he tells us, "We are in a fight for our principles, and our first responsibility is to live by them."(7) The war on terror involves tremendous sacrifice, both of energy and of lives, but in keeping with the American value of intrinsic virtue, no amount of sacrifice is too great to make the world safe for freedom and justice.

Nevertheless, war is an ugly prospect. It involves much death and destruction, often visiting misery on civilians and belligerents in equal measure. Regrettably, the defense of freedom knows no compromise. George W. Bush maintains that September 11 was an "act of war," not a criminal act. It was an insidiously orchestrated outrage, planned long in advance and made possible through the support and guidance of a global network with a hateful agenda. "They stand against us, because we stand in their way,"(8) maintains Bush. Therefore, America goes to war reluctantly but purposefully. "This nation is peaceful, but fierce when stirred to anger,"(9) Bush tells us. America has no choice but to go to war against all that would support or accommodate terror. Further, in order to eradicate terror, America must wage war tirelessly and give no quarter. In Senator John McCain's chilling words as the US Congress authorized military force in response to the attacks, "God may have mercy on [the terrorists]. We won't."(10)

The Bush Paradigm

Bush's division of the world along epic lines is stark and merciless: "Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists."(11) In keeping with the Bush Mythology, there is no room for moral complexity, ambivalence or even, apparently, neutrality. America is good, terror is evil, and only one can survive the inevitable conflagration. But mythology alone was not sufficient to let slip the dogs of war. The mythology needed to be built into a model that could then dictate an appropriate course of action. This model I call the Bush Paradigm (from the Greek words para, related to pro, which means "for" or "ahead", and deiknynai, which means "to show"), by which I mean the Bush administration produced a definitive, archetypal model that was presented in order to provide the right framework for making decisions. Of course, the right framework is the framework that allows America to go to war strictly on its own terms.

The moral taxonomy contained in the Bush Paradigm has many advantages. As an abstraction from real events, it is exceedingly simple to explain and apply; it provides a ready template within which every political event and involved party is sorted into "us" or "them"; it hangs on a moral reaction to September 11 that is all but immune to criticism; and most importantly, it provides a clear justification for America to "direct every resource at our command - every means of diplomacy, every tool of intelligence, every instrument of law enforcement, every financial influence, and every necessary weapon of war"(12) in its response. In this view, evil is as evil does, and we need go no further than to identify the perpetrators of attacks against American civilians. All other considerations are set aside; context itself becomes irrelevant or, worse, misleading. As New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani explained, "There is no moral equivalent to this attack. There is no justification for it. The people who did it lost any right to ask for justification for it,"(13) and attempting to understand the attack in terms outside of the Bush Paradigm resembles treason. More profoundly, attempting to understand America's response to the attack in terms outside the Bush Paradigm is equally dangerous. If the Bush Paradigm grossly oversimplifies real world events and forces everyone into the false alternative of either supporting America uncritically or opposing America, well, according to the Paradigm itself, that sounds suspiciously like equivocation or, worse, justification for the enemies of freedom. The Bush Paradigm thus cleverly remakes the world in its own image to insulate itself from opposition.

Insofar as it has served America's interest in engaging Afghanistan by simultaneously bolstering support and silencing criticism, the Bush Paradigm has been repeated tirelessly and relentlessly to Americans and to the rest of the world. It quickly achieved its intended effect, which was to assert and solidify a worldview in which the American government feels justified to undertake whatever measures it deems appropriate to achieve its goals. Further, America feels justified to act unilaterally in carrying out its agenda. The Bush Paradigm is crucial to this, as it draws no distinctions between the constructive criticism of America's allies and the detractions of its enemies. In this regard, the Bush Paradigm has been remarkably successful; virtually all the debate within America, and even much of the debate without, has been firmly cast in terms of good versus evil. America received something of a global carte blanche to wage war - exclusively on American terms, of course - without having to endure foreign or domestic dissent.

Paradigm Strain

But then reports began to trickle into the American and foreign news media about blown up villages, civilian casualties, and missile strikes on Red Cross depots and hospitals. After nearly every accusation, the American government first tried to deny the civilian deaths until the weight of independent third-party reports overwhelmed the denials. In one passage that would be comical if it were not so tragic, New York Times journalists Thom Shanker and Steven Lee Myers write, "[US Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld said he had seen 'absolutely no evidence' that American bombs or missiles had hit a hospital or killed 100 people. By tonight, however, one Pentagon official said it appeared that an American missile had gone astray near Herat, and might have struck a nonmilitary target, which might have been a hospital. Still, the official emphasized that the Taliban's claims of deaths and damage appeared to be exaggerated".(14) In the meantime, Bush appointed advertising executive Charlotte Beers, former Chair of mammoth agencies J. Walter Thompson and Ogilvy & Mather, to be Under Secretary of State for public diplomacy and public affairs. Taken together, these events smack of a slick propaganda campaign, something that does not sit well alongside the myth of America the Good.

In another alarming development, the Northern Alliance group of anti-Taliban rebels engaged in mass executions and other atrocities during its rapid advance across Afghanistan. Supported actively through an American strategy that coordinated the efforts of the two armies, the Northern Alliance rushed to wrest control from the Taliban in what can only be described as a gruesome campaign. The Northern Alliance - like the Mujahideen from which it originated - was no more than a loose patchwork of minority groups that shared one thing: they all loathed the ruling party and wanted to see the government toppled. They were many of the same warlords who terrorized parts of Afghanistan before the Taliban gained control of the country, and only became de facto allies of America on account of their common enemy. Supporting the Northern Alliance certainly strained America's moral purity; it seems incongruous that a government opposed to terrorists might encourage and align itself with other terrorists whose agendas match America's interests!

The outrcy continued. Humanitarian groups complained that the war prevented them from delivering aid. Observers noted that the US government humanitarian food packets looked almost identical to undetonated cluster bombs that would explode when touched. Perhaps most damning, University of New Hampshire economist Marc Herold compiled mainstream media reports and calculated that between 3,000 and 4,000 Afghan civilians had been killed from October 7, 2001 through March, 2002. Herold concluded that "the critical element [in the high number of civilian casualties] remains the very low value put upon Afghan civilian lives by U.S. military planners and the political elite, as clearly revealed by U.S. willingness to bomb heavily populated regions."(15) Herold argued that the evidence of America's bombing campaign, which indiscriminately targeted civilian population centres and civil infrastructure, contrasted sharply with the American government's pious insistence that great care was being taken to avoid civilian casualties. Set next to the approximately 3,000 American civilians killed on September 11, this number - and the grim strategic calculus it implied - came as a shock to everyone who read Herold's report.

Of course, the US Government tried to argue that Herold's criteria were not stringent enough, but the damage was done. It became increasingly difficult to justify America's violence in Afghanistan on the grounds of a righteous war against evil. At this point, the American government subtly and deftly shifted the moral paradigm it used to evaluate its activities. The al-Qa'ida attack on America was an unjustifiable outrage, purely and ineffably evil. However, America's response contained many of the very elements that the US government had highlighted in condemning September 11. The Bush administration tried to pressure al-Jazeera, the Arab news service, to censor its reports in such a way that American interests were served. After al-Jazeera refused, its Kabul office was blown up in a missile strike that the US government insisted was an accident. Later, a leaked report illustrated the US government's plans to feed foreign press agencies with falsified news reports. If observers applied the same template to America's attack that they had applied to the al-Qa'ida attack, America would be revealed as a bully at best, and a terrorist state at worst.

This obviously could not do.

Consequentialism Tags In

It becomes impossible to maintain the model of intrinsic Good versus self-evident Evil when the forces of good are just as destructive as the forces of evil. In order to sidestep the consequences of the Bush Paradigm applied to American activities, the government dropped the mythology of transcendental good and began to apply a consequentialist definition of good to its own activities. This definition - goodness as efficiency, where the best act is the act that produces the most good (or, conversely, the least harm) - is a form of utilitarianism, a thoroughly modern philosophy. The government that, just a few months previous, was "fighting evil with good," began to defend the consequences of its actions as necessary evils. Therefore, the American government is good because it narrowly targets enemies, uses smart bombs and field maps, and only aims for the perpetrators. The casualties of American activities become miscellaneous, collateral damage, unfortunate accidents. America does its best to avoid such unpleasantness, and points out that a bombing campaign is the lesser evil, which is to say it is the greater good. As Bush explained in a speech in Tennessee, "The best way to fight evil is to do some good. Let me qualify that - the best way to fight evil at home is to do some good. The best way to fight them abroad is to unleash the military."(16)

Generally, President Bush has served as the caretaker of the epic mythology, while other key members of his administration - notably Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of National Security Condoleeza Rice, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and White House Spokesperson Ari Fleischer - have acted as apologists for the consequentialist paradigm. Rumsfeld explained away the bombing of the Red Cross building in Kabul - twice! - by saying that "There are instances where there are unintended consequences of this conflict and ordinance [sic] ends up where it should not."(17) When another attack killed 93 civilians in the farming village of Chowkar-Karez, a Pentagon spokesperson answered by saying, "the people there are dead because we wanted them dead."(18)

Consequentialism Applied

In a line of reasoning lifted directly from the hawkish Israeli Likud Party, the American government insists that there is no moral equivalence between terrorists who deliberately fly a passenger airplane into a commercial building, and a military that "accidentally" shells a hospital or an aid warehouse or a news agency. In his speech to the US Senate on April 10, 2002, former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stressed the similarities he saw between America's response to al-Qa'ida terrorism and Israel's response to Palestinian terrorism. He spoke about what he called "the appearance of a reprehensible moral symmetry that equates Israel, a democratic government that is defending itself against terror, with the Palestinian dictatorship that is perpetrating it. The deliberate targeting of Israeli civilians is shamefully equated with the unintentional loss of Palestinian life that is the tragic but unavoidable consequence of legitimate warfare."(19)

Of course, it is not at all certain that the targeting of civilians was always accidental. In what he called a "terminology game," U.S. Army Special Forces Team 555 Chief Warrant Officer Dave Diaz explained how he instructed his soldiers to find targets. "Yes, it is a civilian village, mud hut, like everything else in this country. But don't say that. Say it's a military compound. It's a built-up area, barracks, command and control. Just like with the convoys - if it really was a convoy with civilian vehicles they were using for transport, we would just say, hey, military convoy, troop transport." Team 555 was in Afghanistan from the middle of October 2001 until January 2002, and its primary purpose was to identify targets. When soldiers complained about the targets they were being asked to strike, one sergeant who asked to remain unnamed answered, "there are no good guys there anymore." Other officers advised soldiers that, when women and children were among the targeted, they should be regarded as combatants.(20)


The Bush Mythology spoke of America as a nation that reaches out to other nations to build a common platform of peace, security and prosperity. On September 11, Bush said, "America and our friends and allies join with all those who want peace and security in the world, and we stand together to win the war against terrorism." As recently as May 23, 2002, in a Speech to the German Bundestag, he exclaimed, "As we build the house of freedom, we must meet the challenges of a larger world. And we must meet them together."(21) After Bush's collaborative language, it comes as a surprise that his administration is the most unilateralist in recent memory.

America's unilateralism smacks of a reductive self-interest that puts the lie to the Bush Mythology. The same president who said, "The terrorists attacked the World Trade Center, and we will defeat them by expanding and encouraging world trade,"(22) has recently imposed a 30 percent tariff on steel imports, a 29 percent tariff on softwood lumber from Canada, and granted billions of dollars in farm subsidies, most of which will accrue to large agribusiness corporations. All of these actions are gratuitously self-serving. In other international affairs, America refuses to ratify the Non-Proliferation treaty, refuses to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban treaty, refuses to sign the Land Mine treaty, refuses to sign the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, walked out on a conference on how to enforce the Biological Weapons treaty, refuses to grant full access to international weapons inspectors, refuses to sign the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (only one other country, Somalia, also refused to sign), and refuses to ratify the International Criminal Court - an institution it ostensibly championed for many years. Recently America twisted enough arms to depose Dr. Robert Watson, the head of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and then orchestrated the dismissal of Brazilian diplomat Jose Bustani, the activist head of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, who tried to convince Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention. Of course, if he had been successful, America would have lost a major pretext for bringing its war on terror to Iraq.

This follows the recent disclosure of a secret report from the Bush administration that calls for the Pentagon to be prepared to launch nuclear attacks against enemies in any of the following scenarios: where targets could withstand non-nuclear attack, in retaliation for attack with nuclear, biological or chemical weapons, or "in the event of surprising military developments." The report, known as the "Nuclear Posture Review," also stresses the need to develop so-called "theater" nuclear weapons, smaller devices that could conceivably be used on targets without destroying too much of the surrounding area. Pentagon hard-liners argue that large-scale weapons are "self-deterring," because their sheer destructiveness precludes their use except under extreme conditions. Of course, any proposal that seeks to expand rather than limit the usability of nuclear weapons is terrifying. The idea of deploying small nuclear weapons on the assumption that they could more realistically be launched against an enemy is a grave violation of the principles of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. This may explain why Congress has not yet ratified the treaty. But because of its vagueness, the third scenario discussed in the "Nuclear Posture Review" is its most chilling aspect. Exactly what could constitute the "surprising military developments" that would justify a nuclear response? With smaller weapons and without a clear set of guidelines, the US government has essentially given itself the option to strike first.(23)


It is becoming clear that neither paradigm is flexible enough to reflect reality. When too much contradictory information surfaced in the media to sustain the Bush Paradigm, the American government introduced the Consequentialist Paradigm to justify its aggressive response. Now, even that paradigm is under attack, as America's global and domestic activities increasingly betray a self-serving, rather than virtuous, intent. Contradictions abound. What do we make, for example, of a nation that absolutely condemns the terrorists' "will to power" but then defends its own actions on instrumental grounds; a nation that claims to value free speech but then tries to censor news agencies and plant false information; a nation that insists on calling its response to terrorism a "war" but then refuses to treat captured fighters as prisoners of that war; a nation that builds international support for the "war on terror" but then turns its campaign into a shameless hegemony play, encompassing countries that share nothing other than a common animosity towards America; a nation that extols the virtues of expanding world trade but then unilaterally imposes protectionist trade restrictions on its allies; a nation that stands on fairness, cooperation and justice, but refuses to ratify international treaties; a nation that promised a "stimulus package" to help its own citizens put out of work by the 2001 recession, but then introduced a massive tax break for corporations and wealthy individuals? To contradict is literally "to speak against," and the gulf between what America says and what it does is widening daily.

Clearly, rather than seeking to observe and explain events, the Bush and Consequentialist Paradigms seek to judge events according to a logos, or governing universal principle. It is instructive, to say the least, to note that the logos of both paradigms intrinsically supports and endorses America's goals and means. Both Paradigms - the transcendental and the consequentialist - are merely artificial constructions, produced and disseminated in order to provide justification for America's post-September 11 activities. It may not be possible to acquire a full understanding of the events that surround us until years, or perhaps decades, have passed. Internal documents will be declassified and agents who wish to protect themselves will no longer be involved in politics. Across the distance of time and geography, disinterested parties can weigh the evidence from outside the milieu. Until then, however, the intrusion and near-universal acceptance (at least, within the industrialized countries) of the Bush and Consequentialist Paradigms - not to mention the willingness of most observers to ignore the sudden shift in standards between America's judgment on its enemies and America's judgment on itself - has made it exceedingly difficult to think clearly about September 11 and the events that followed.

Ryan McGreal
September 11, 2002


  1. George Bush, in his remarks to the National Security Team, Washington D.C., September 12, 2001
  2. George W. Bush, in a speech to the California Business Association, Sacramento Memorial Auditorium, Sacramento, California, October 17, 2001,
  3. George W. Bush, in a speech to the students and faculty of Thurgood Marshall Extended Elementary School Washington, D.C., October 25, 2001
  4. George W. Bush, in an Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People, United States Capitol, Washington, D.C., September 20, 2001
  5. Bush, September 20, 2001
  6. George W. Bush, in an Address to a joint session of Congress and the American People, United States Capital, Washington, D.C., January 29, 2002,
  7. Bush, September 20, 2001
  8. Bush, September 20, 2001
  9. Charles Babington, "Bush: US Must 'Rid the World of Evil'" The Washington Post, September 14, 2001
  10. "Congress working on resolution authorizing force" CNN, September 13, 2001
  11. Bush, September 20, 2001
  12. Bush, September 20, 2001
  13. Michael Ellison, "Mayor spurns Saudi's $10m" The Guardian, October 12, 2001
  14. Thom Shanker & Steven Lee Myers, "Rumsfeld Says Attacks Seek to Help Rebels Advance" The New York Times, Oct. 23, 2001
  15. Marc W. Herold, "A Dossier on Civilian Victims of United States' Aerial Bombing of Afghanistan: A Comprehensive Accounting [revised]," reproduced in Cursor, March 2002
  16. George W. Bush, "President Promotes Citizen Corps for Safer Communities," Remarks by the President on Citizens Corps, Knoxville Civic Centre, Knoxville, Tennessee, April 8, 2002
  17. Mike Conklin, "U.S. spokesmen stumble through verbal minefield" The Chicago Tribune, November 1, 2001
  18. Seamus Milne, "The Innocent Dead in a Coward's War," The Guardian, December 20, 2001
  19. Benjamin Netanyahu, in an address to the United States Senate, April 10, 2002
  20. Dana Priest, "In a War, Mud Huts and Hard Calls" The Washington Post, February 20, 2002
  21. Text of George Bush's Speech in Berlin, The Guardian, May 23, 2002
  22. George W. Bush, "President Outlines War Effort," Speech to the California Business Association, Sacramento Memorial Auditorium, Sacramento, California, October 17, 2001,
  23. Nuclear Posture Review [excerpts], Submitted to Congress on 31 December 2001, reproduced on, January 8, 2002
  24. Valid HTML 4.01 / Valid CSS
    This page fully complies with the W3C standard for HTML 4.01 Transitional and uses Cascading Style Sheets (CSS).

Why does this site look so bland?

This site is designed to comply with current web standards - HTML 4.01 and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) - which separate style from content. Because your browser does not support style sheets, they have been "hidden" so that you only see the content and basic formatting.

Get more out of the internet and upgrade to a standards-compliant browser - check out the Web Standards Project for links to Standards-Compliant browsers

Copyright © 2000, 2002 by Ryan McGreal