Gore Vidal: Reflections on 9/11
The legendary man of letters sees echoes of Rome’s devolution from republic to empire in America’s imperial misadventures since the Sept. 11 attacks.
Gore Vidal’s latest book “Point to Point Navigation: A Memoir” comes out November 7.
Earlier this year, he published “Clouds and Eclipses: The Collected Short Stories”
A version of this column first ran in The Independent (UK)
What a difference five years have made! The greatest nation in the country, as an American statesman once termed us, was attacked by a dozen or so Saudi Arabians who had, with astonishing ease, hijacked several airliners and flew two of them into a pair of New York skyscrapers as well as another into one of the five sides of the Pentagon at Washington, the heart of the greatest, most expensive military machine the world has ever known. I watched all this on CNN; in Italy where I then lived. The visual shock was great, of course. Particularly when our little president was discovered by the ubiquitous TV camera in a Florida school where he was reading to his peers from The Pet Goat,Ӕ an inspirational tale calculated to encourage small Americans to stand tall: like,Ӕ as he would put it, they should.Ӕ An aide interrupts the reading; murmurs something in the presidential ear: the presidential eyes widen. A moment akin to the Confederacy firing on Fort Sumter, or the Japanese sinking the American Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor. Two tall presidents were, happily for us, in office at those times. Lincoln acted with characteristic guile while Roosevelt, thundering anathema as Pontifex Maximus, flung open the doors of the temple of Janus and so the war that would bring us a global empire began while that of the Japanese sun goddess ended. What then did our very own Romulus Augustulus do during the rest of September 11th? He read some more of The Pet Goat,Ӕ knowing that his puppet-meister, Vice President Cheney, was safely embedded in some secret spot. Then the little emperor was hustled away in Air Force One for a tour of our most luxurious bunkers, where he might avoid the attentions of new attackers, should they come.
What, someone asked, was my first response? Amazement at how little protected we were despite all the megalomaniacal posturings during that cold war deliberately set in motion by Harry S. (for nothing, as he liked to say) Truman a half century ago with a son et lumire celebration at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is still not known to the American public that every single important commander of World War Two from General Eisenhower in Europe to Admiral Nimitz in the Pacific pleaded with our first really small president not to atomize two cities of a defeated nation desperately trying to surrender. But Truman, and his Metternich, Dean Acheson, wanted to replace Hitler and Fascism with Stalin and Communism. It was under Truman that the ever greater lie came into its glittering own. Despite the unanimous objections of the American military Truman insisted on dropping two nuclear bombs. I was serving in the Pacific theater of operations at the time and we were assured, along with the rest of the world, that 1 million of us would die in the coming invasion of Japan. Did we love the Bomb? Yes, we did. But little did we know that had we invaded as originally planned there was no way that we would have encountered the survivors of the Japanese army from the mainland of Asia as they did not have sufficient transport to return to their home islands.
I think it was Vico who noted that busy republics tend to turn themselves into empires. Certainly, the French intellectual godfather to the American republic, Montesquieu, warned that republics which took the empire route would cease to be republics all together, while Vico, in his cyclic view of human societies, saw imperial republics evolving into dictatorships, chaos, barbarism. In the last five years American behavior in the Middle East has been barbarous and will not soon be forgiven. Meanwhile, the gas-oil junta has hijacked the old American republic through the artful use of great quantities of corporate and church cash in order to falsify the electoral tallies of easily hacked electronic voting machinery; means now exist to nullify or alter any election returns as happened in Florida 2000; in Ohio 2004.
There is a good deal of grim comedy in the words if not the current deeds of the little president. Although he and his co-conspirators relish the use of the big lie (e.g. turning a dull but genuine war hero into a cowardly fraud while ignoring the slackerdom of Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld, who proudly fought in none of our many wars). Now in an attempt to avoid blame for the Iraq war and further confuse the world about why Iran and Syria must be destroyed, Old Rumsfeld and Old Cheney are trotting out dim, garbled images of Hitler and appeasement as they pretend that the antiwar American majority favors Islamic fascism. They pretend terrorism is a demonic person. And if we dont stop him in Tehran we蒒ll have to stop him here. This is ludicrous; unfortunately the Junta is as ignorant of history and geography as they believe the public to be. Meanwhile, the little president worries about his legacyӔ in the history books. But should he get World War Three going there might not be any more history books, a relief to a nonreader like himself, though, lately, he tells us that he is reading Camus and three Shakespeares.Ӕ No doubt tragedies. As we know, he lies with zest, yet he was actually revealed reading The Pet GoatӔ on television and the Greek word for goat is the same as the word for tragedy. If this is code, I am beginning to suspect him of irony, a fatal flaw in Freedoms home. After all, on his first trip to New Orleans, he promised to restore the drowned city. But, as usual, nothing was done. Then this Aug. 29 he was back in town to reassure high school students: ғIve come back to New Orleans to tell you the words that I spoke on Jackson Square are just as true today as they were then.Ҕ And so of course they were! Meanwhile, one hopes that some noble humanitarian will finally shut the doors of the temple of Janus, which have not been shut since December of 1941 when we went from one war to another and another without a pauseor thought.