Gore Vidal, Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace; How We Got To Be So Hated (New York: Thunder's Mouth Press/Nation Books, 2002), 160pp.
Is there a connection between Timothy McVeigh's 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, which killed 168 people and is still the deadliest terrorist act in America except for 9/11; the FBI's ambush of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, that killed eighty-two people (1993); and the Iraq war? Well, maybe. In this slender volume of occasional essays the controversial writer Gore Vidal tries to connect the dots.
Vidal borrows the phrase "perpetual war for perpetual peace" from the American historian Charles Beard (1874–1948), famous for his outspoken criticisms of American interventionism abroad. To punctuate his point Vidal includes a list from the Federation of American Scientists that identifies 201 instances of American military intervention between Pearl Harbor and September 11, 2001 (pp. 22–41). In fact, this grossly underestimates American military incursions if Cullen Murphy of Vanity Fair is right that in any given year American forces conduct 170 "operations" abroad (Are We Rome?). At any rate, the Iraq war that began in March 2003 was, sadly, only one more instance of pre-emptive and unilateral state violence by America, some of it against its own citizens.
Whereas the press demonized McVeigh, Vidal tries to understand him. Based upon his three-year correspondence with McVeigh, who invited him to be one of the five witnesses of his execution (Vidal couldn't attend), Vidal concludes that Oklahoma City was McVeigh's revenge for Waco. Without the latter the former never would have happened. McVeigh clearly explained his motives in a letter to Vidal in which he quoted Justice Louis Brandeis in the Olmstead case of 1928, where the Supreme Court upheld the right of the federal government to wiretap private telephone conversations and use them as evidence: "Our government," wrote Brandeis in the dissenting opinion, "is the potent, the omnipotent teacher. For good or ill, it teaches the whole people by its example." Thus did McVeigh "declare war on a government [at Oklahoma City] that he felt had declared war on its own people" at Waco. Later Vidal continues the Brandeis quote where McVeigh had left off: "Crime is contagious. If the government becomes the law breaker, it breeds contempt for laws; it invites every man to become a law unto himself." Lawless government invites anarchy; it will reap what it sows.
In Vidal's scenario, pre-emptive war in Iraq is of the same piece as the FBI slaughtering Branch Davidian cultists. "Now, with the revolt of the Praetorian Guard at the Pentagon, we are entering a new and dangerous phase," he writes. "Although we regularly stigmatize other societies as rogue states, we ourselves have become the largest rogue of all. We honor no treaties. We spurn international courts. We strike unilaterally wherever we choose. We give orders to the United Nations but do not pay our dues. We complain of terrorism, yet our empire is now the greatest terrorist of all. We bomb, invade, subvert other states. Although We the People of the United States are the sole source of legitimate authority in this land, we are no longer represented in Congress Assembled" (158–159). And so private citizens like McVeigh follow the example of government atrocities in Waco and Baghdad.