The San Bernardino massacre, in which a seemingly harmless county worker and his wife murdered 14 people in cold blood and wounded 21 others, marks a new phase in the cycle of war and repression that characterizes the post-9/11 era. The authorities recognize this, and they are moving swiftly to take advantage of their opportunity. As Rahm Emmanuel famously put it:
“You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”
On the left as well as the right, the cry goes up: Give the government more power! Protect us! Oh, and there’s always this old standby: Bombs away!
As Jeh Johnson, Homeland Security chieftain, put it to the New York Times: “We have moved to an entirely new phase in the global terrorist threat and in our homeland security efforts.” Terrorists have “in effect outsourced attempts to attack our homeland. We’ve seen this not just here but in other places. This requires a whole new approach, in my view.”
What is this “new approach”? The Times gives us a few hints:
“Unable to curb the availability of guns at home or extremist propaganda from overseas, the authorities may have to rely more on encouraging Americans to watch one another and report suspicions. Federal and local governments already have programs urging friends, families and neighbors to identify people targeted for recruitment.
“The attack may reignite the privacy-versus-security debate about encryption software sold by private-sector providers over government objections. And some administration officials said they needed to escalate efforts to stimulate contrary Muslim voices to counter extremist propaganda by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.”
Add to this the reality of universal government surveillance of American citizens – which, you’ll note, failed to uncover the San Bernardino plot – and what it boils down to is: an extensive system of government informers, akin to the American Protective League (APL) that terrorized the country during World War I.
That’s right: there’s nothing new about what they have in store for us. Given semiofficial status by the Justice Department in 1917, the APL investigated those suspected of evading the draft, spied on people in factories, public gatherings, and neighborhoods, looking for evidence of “subversion” everywhere. At its height, the APL claimed 250,000 dues-paying members.
Proposals for countering jihadist propaganda have their precedent in another World War I effort: the Committee on Public Information, headed up by journalist George Creel. The CPI was established by Woodrow Wilson’s executive order, with a mandate to build support for the war on the home front. Posters, news releases, pamphlets and a brigade of speakers called the “four minute men” – whose speeches were supposed to be no longer than the four minutes judged to be the attention span of the average American – aimed at refuting domestic skeptics of the war as well as German propaganda. The CPI was also used as a political pressure group to pass the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act, which paved the way for a general crackdown on free speech.
While not engaging in direct censorship, the CPI issued “guidelines” to newspapers and magazines of the day, and following these was mandatory if reporters wanted access to government officials. The alternative press was outright banned, and in their absence the “mainstream” media followed the “guidelines” meekly and often willingly. The CPI had separate divisions dealing with every aspect of modern communications and opinion-making, including not only the newspapers and magazines but also film, the visual and musical arts, theater, academia, and even the comics.
A twenty-first century version of the CPI will no doubt start out with propaganda aimed at those thought to be susceptible to “terrorist” propaganda here at home as well as overseas, but given the tendency of all such government agencies to engage in “mission creep,” it won’ be long before a broader “outreach” effort is in the works. One can easily envision an attempt to reconcile the American public with the extensive surveillance system thought necessary to ensure “security” against a threat that could arise anywhere.
Already the cry has gone up to restore the unbridled power of government agents to spy on our communications without a warrant, as contained in the original version of the Patriot Act. Not that the USA Freedom Act really reclaimed our right to privacy, except in a limited and highly conditional way: but even this faux-protection from government power is in danger of being stripped away in the stampede to provide “security.”
Yet what kid of “security” is possible in a world where your neighbor could be harboring an arsenal of IEDs and plotting to machine-gun the upcoming Christmas party? The “war on terrorism” has abolished the very concept of security as it applies to our everyday lives. As long as we are invading the world, we are inviting the world to invade us: it’s as simple as that.
As Garet Garrett, the wise old “isolationist” editorial writer for the Saturday Evening Post, put it in his last book, The American Story:
“How, now, thou American, frustrated crusader, do you know where you are?
“Is it security you want? There is no security at the top of the world.
“To thine own self a liberator, to the world an alarming portent, do you know where you are going from here?”
Where we are going – if we aren’t stopped – is down the road to Caesarism. With every new “crisis” provoked by some terrorist incident, new controls are proposed, advanced, and encoded into law, and both the left and the right cooperate in this process – with the former advancing measures like gun control and the latter demanding tougher surveillance measures and a general crackdown on dissent. Both wings of the political class come together in seeking to expand the scope of our foreign policy of global intervention – the catalyst that unleashed the terrorist incubus in the first place.
How will it all end?
By creating a problem that cannot be solved – the problem of how to deal with a terrorist movement based on the concept of “leaderless resistance” – our leaders have created a perfect pretext to expand their power exponentially. As the cycle of war and repression continues, unchecked, the ultimate result will be the end of the free society and the descent into tyranny that the Founders of this country warned against.
As we watch terror unfold around us, wondering when the next murderous rampage will strike – as we listen to demagogues rail in the public square, mobilizing frustrated masses under the banner of intolerance – people long for a return to normalcy. And the ideologues of permanent war are there to tell us: this is the New Normal.
No, it isn’t. It can’t be. It mustn’t be.
The key to stopping this descent into darkness and restoring our old republic is a radical change in US foreign policy. Our “war on terrorism” – and, further, our presumption that “American leadership” is the solution to most of the world’s problems – is what fuels the engine of war and repression that is destroying everything that makes life worth living: our freedom, our sense of security, and the social bonds that hold us together. Once we rid ourselves of an Empire that has become a millstone hung around our necks, dragging us down into endless wars and the threat of bankruptcy, we can turn things around – but not until then. The dying body of our republican form of government can and must be rescued – but only if we can cure it of the disease of imperialism.
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NOTES IN THE MARGIN