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Et In Arcadia Ego

One of the smaller political furors of the past week has centered around a little-known columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Stu Bykofsky, who previous works include "Philly's Too Gay for Some Tastes" and "Cindy Sheehan's Sad Form of ADD", Bykofsky's latest ran with the headline "To Save America, We Need Another 9/11" – his thought is that another attack on U.S. soil would galvanize the country and its division ("division is weakness", he intones). People would die, sure, but they'd be holy martyrs in the service of some mythical unity that, Bykofsky feels, would lead to triumph.

This missive got Bykofsky a notoriety that all small-circulation writers crave. He was pilloried in progressive blogs and invited onto Fox News (where John Gibson approvingly said "I think it's going to take a lot of dead people to wake America up") and CNN. Roy at Alibublog does a great job of documenting, and making fun of, the manly approval on the right.

Bykofsky, no matter the outlet, maintained a tenuous defense against critics who said he was calling for another attack. It's a fine technicality, but it's true, as he pointed out, that his original column did not explicitly use the phrase "we need another 9/11". He said that phrase was shorthanded in by the editor who wrote the headline. Such things do happen in publishing, and writers rarely get to write their own headlines.

But what Bykofsky said was "I'm thinking another 9/11 would help America." Logically, "would help" is indeed not equivalent to "need", true. But inherent in his actual statement, the one he crafted to lovingly and diligently for publication in a work that carries his name, is the idea that a bomb, an attack, dead civilians, would be a Good Thing.

What does Bykovsky really want? He can't really want dead Americans, patriot that he is. Or, to be clear, he can't really want them dead just to kill them – it's still be good if they were dead, but as unwitting participants to his own goal.

Let's go back to one of his throwaway statements, the axiomatic "division is weakness". This is a common trope and talking point tossed out by commentators both in and out of the government.

Bykofsky hearkens back to the "community of outrage and national resolve" following the 9/11 attack. "We knew who the enemy was then," he adds.

(We'll leave aside the facts that "we" didn't really, not so much – the administration had ignored briefings about potential attacks, and to this day, a disconcerting number of Americans believe Saddam Hussein had something to do with the attacks.)

But though there was a worldwide sense of unity, a "we are all Americans now" – I saw it first-hand, being in Italy and surrounded by people from around the world who offered me support should I not be able to get back to the States – it was a unity of emotion, an empathy. Not a blank check.

The latter is how the administration took it. Using 9/11 as a club, it beat down any inkling of action that did not hew to its own notions. In the September 2007 issue of The Atlantic, Joshua Green wrote, "After 9/11... the administration could demand – and get – almost anything it wanted, easily flattening Democratic opposition."

This, to the winner who sees only a zero-sum game of politics, can seem like unity.

This is the kind of "strength" Bykofsky, and those who originated the talking points he has partially digested and regurgitated, are talking about. Argumentation, loyal dissent, all the messy stuff that makes the democracy that they so crow about, is by its nature deflating to authoritarianism. And if you want authority at all costs, this seems like weakness.

I'll leave it to others to parse the weird psychosexual bases and consequences in this political attitude. Digby has offered some historical context, while Dave and Sara at Orcinus have looked into those dark places.

But the overall idea? The path to strength is submission. Kind of kinky, Stu!

The Cigarette: A Political History (By the Book)

Sarah Milov's The Cigarette restores politics to its rightful place in the tale of tobacco's rise and fall, illustrating America's continuing battles over corporate influence, individual responsibility, collective choice, and the scope of governmental power. Enjoy this excerpt from Chapter 5. "Inventing the Nonsmoker".

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