Notes from the start of a war without end

The danger of “total war” against the spectre named Osama bin Laden, then, is that it will reinforce the worst tendencies in our society, and that far from preserving the conditions of democracy it will undermine the cultural and institutional foundations upon which democracy rests. It will be war without end, without boundaries, without even a coherent conception of itself save as the expression of an impulse to vengeance.


That’s a passage from an essay written by Phil Agre, a professor in the Department of Information Studies at UCLA, on September 15 2001.  Moreso than on any of the eight  9/11 anniversaries we’ve ripped through, the failed Christmas Day attack on the Amsterdam-Detroit flight prompted me to go back and read some of Agre’s writing.

In the days immediately after the 9/11 attacks, I had no idea what had really happened, and the fact- and context-free opinionating that dominated the newspapers was not much help. What did shape my thinking, more than anything I read in those early days and weeks, was the writing of Phil Agre. This was before blogging had taken off, long before Twitter and Facebook and everything else. What there was was the Red Rock Eater News Serice, Agre’s mailing list on which he delivered a torrent of links, arguments, comments, and essays.

On September 15 he produced a 5000 word essay Imagining the Next War: Infrastructural Warfare and the Conditions of Democracy. It explored the relationship between asymmetric warfare and democratic legitmacy, and offered as its organizing principle the idea that

The only moral justification for war is to preserve the conditions of democracy…. Instead of permanent, total war, conducted under rules that subordinate democracy to an authority that draws its legitimacy from the absolute evil of its foe, we need a conception of permanent, total security, conducted under rules that keep the ends squarely in view. Those ends are the preservation, indeed expansion, of the conditions of democracy.

Five days later, Agre produced Some Notes on War in a World Without Boundaries, a 10 000 word essay looking at the changing conception of war, our ideological blind spots, and the false opposition between security and civil liberties. Throughout all this writing, Agre focused on the idea that commentary had to focus on constructive solutions to real problems. It was smart, clear, and original thinking that managed to remain respectably non-ideological at one of the most ideologically riven times of the past twenty years.  It was a remarkable output, and did more to shape my understanding of what was going on and what should happen than just about anything else I read at the time.

Phil Agre stopped updating the RRE in 2004.  There’s an unhappy coda to this, which is that Phil Agre has been missing for quite a while, though his disappearance was only made public late this fall. Boing Boing had a story on it a few weeks ago; there’s a also website for friends to leave messages.

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