You can’t leave the bones that you were born with You’re trapped in the world that you’ve been torn with …
Middle-aged crazies, unrequited lovers, the repressed, the refused, the confused, the misplaced, living in dreams, personal, political … feeling the heat, never touching the fire …. For such as these, herewith the draft of a brief, syncopated essay.
*Below is a slightly revised version of my column in the latest print version of CounterPunch magazine.
Alex Cox was in full flow, holding forth across the candle-glittered wine glasses and fine china plates. The two of us had more or less gate-crashed High Table at an Oxford college. He had been artist-in-residence there for a year, but that year had passed and it was not entirely clear that he retained his dining privileges -- much less the right to invite a hick from the sticks for a free feed with the Fellows. But there we were.
He was in town trying to drum up money for a series of films based on Jacobean plays; I was, very briefly and completely ineffectually, helping him. Ignoring High Table protocol, which dictates a change of conversational partner with each new course, Alex kept up his passionate dialogue with me. He was talking of 9/11, then just a couple of years past, and how the official story was full of holes.
It’s still full of holes, of course. All the “official” stories -- 9/11, both Iraq Wars, Iran-Contra, Libya, Kosovo, the Osama rub-out, on and on -- are full of holes. Holes, evasions, misdirections, outright lies: black oil-smoke to hide the enormity and ubiquity of state crime, which each scandal and catastrophe threatens to expose, whether or not there is some direct official culpability in the particular matter at hand. The whole business of empire is carried out in a rolling, heaving hairball of infinitely tangled connections between the upperworld and the underworld, where ruthless factions use, betray, fight and ally with each other in ever-changing combinations. Any sliver of light falling anywhere on the hairball must be snuffed out immediately, lest it illuminate the true nature of the system.
I don’t remember us drawing any profound conclusions between the many courses that night. But the scorching skepticism we shared toward official stories had its origin in the same place, in the mother of all hole-ridden, oil-smoked hairballs: the Kennedy assassination.
As Cox notes in his new book, The President and the Provocateur, he was 8 years old when John Kennedy was killed. (I was five, but I remember it too; or rather, what I most remember was not Kennedy's assassination but Oswald's, being reported on our grainy black-and-white television as we came home from church.) Even then, Cox was struck by the strangeness of the event; shortly after reporting Kennedy was shot, he writes, the BBC suddenly went off the air for several hours -- an unprecedented event. Afterwards, the entire bipartisan British Establishment, mimicking its American counterpart, closed ranks around the official account, locking out the questions even of such redoubtable figures as Bertrand Russell. It was only a few years later that Cox ran across a pamphlet voicing the credible concerns that Russell and others had raised about the Warren Commission's obvious oil-smoke job -- a serendipitous find that set him off on the decades of diligent research summed up in the book. (And on its accompanying website here.)
Cox synthesizes a vast corpus of investigation into the hydra-headed morass of the Kennedy murder to succinct and powerful effect. With a director’s eye for cinematic jump cuts and well-paced narrative, Cox juxtaposes the parallel lives of Kennedy and Oswald as they race toward their joint rendezvous with death in Dallas in November 1963. Cox is especially good at laying out Oswald’s remarkable trajectory, which was surrounded in still-impenetrable murk even from his earliest years. (The “official story” has young Oswald attending two different junior highs in two different states at the same time, for example.) Oswald’s innumerable contacts with the “National Security State” are laid bare – including the fact that this brazen ‘defector’ to the Soviets, who openly declared his intent to reveal state secrets (from his work in the U2 intelligence-gathering program), was not only allowed back into the United States, but was even given a loan by the government to cover the expenses of his return.
Meanwhile, Kennedy is shown dealing with open insubordination from the military-industrial-security complex, enduring a level of hatred and vitriol from these armed and dangerous factions that makes the Tea Party look like purring pussycats – even as he cravenly appeased them at nearly every turn. Cox is careful not to paint JFK in falsely heroic colors; his Kennedy is no liberal saint brought down by evildoers, but an active accomplice in imperial crime who, toward the end of his short life, was -- perhaps – just beginning to grasp the enormity of the devil’s bargain he had made to win power.
Cox comes to no ultimate conclusions. Among the many power factions that wanted Kennedy removed, Cox seems to incline toward his mentor Mark Lane’s view that the CIA was likely a prime mover. But whatever else the mysterious Oswald might have been (including, without doubt, an agent or asset of the security state), the book’s skillful mastering of the facts makes it clear that he was, in the end, exactly what he claimed to be after his arrest: a patsy.
And so are we all, fifty years on: a nation of patsies, still being played by the brutal power-gamers of our unlovely imperium.
Glen Ford brings the heat, and the truth, about one of the most important -- and unreported -- stories of our day: the shackling of Detroit. Over the past year, we have seen the citizens of a major American city openly, 'legally' stripped of the right to govern themselves and forced into a form of indentured servitude in order to enrich a small predatory elite whose own machinations had driven the city to ruin.
It is an extraordinary -- and sickening -- spectacle. Detroit is now under the control of an unelected "Emergency Financial Manager," Kevyn Jones, forcibly imposed by the state governor, with all real power -- the power of the purse -- placed in his hands. And Jones is wielding this power with ruthless efficiency.
As Ford notes, Detroit is being looted and disenfranchised without the slightest peep from the great compassionate progressive community organizer in the White House. And 'white' is the operative word here; Detroit's population is more than 80 percent black, but the first African-American president will not lift a finger to help the city -- although he was more than happy to lavish trillions of dollars in bailouts on Wall Street (whose population is, shall we say, somewhat less than 80 percent black).
But Ford makes the salient point that Detroit's plight goes far beyond race. The city is in fact a test case, a template, a dry run for the extinguishing of any kind of genuine democracy across the land, and its replacement by overt corporate control. You should read the whole piece, but here are a few telling excerpts:
The “restructuring” of Detroit through bankruptcy is the model for drastically downsizing what’s left of democracy in all of urban America. Already, Black voting rights have been rendered null and void “on a scale not seen since the death of Reconstruction.” However, the legal precedents that are being established in mostly Black Detroit will obtain throughout the nation…..
The post-Civil Rights era vision to consolidate Black Power through purely electoral means in the major cities of the United States has all but evaporated. Wherever possible, capital has reclaimed the urban centers for upscale white habitation, most often with the active collaboration of a venal Black political class concerned primarily with its own upward mobility …
Some cities, including New Orleans and Detroit, were, in the words of Public Enemy, “too Black, too strong,” with African American majorities of 67 and 80-plus percent, respectively. Hurricane Katrina brought those numbers down to manageable size, creating the conditions for near-instantaneous Disaster Capitalist renaissance, in 2005. That same year, in Detroit, the so-called “Hip Hop Mayor,” Kwame Kilpatrick – actually the spoiled, morally degenerate spawn of the historical Black Misleadership Class – strapped the Black metropolis into a suicide vest wired with interest rate swap derivatives. Similar devices are embedded in the fiscal structures of cities around the country, ready to bring down what’s left of home rule so that capital can feast on the public space, unconstrained. …
The scheme is general, part of the worldwide offensive by Wall Street and its global annexes to absorb the public sphere wherever it exists, reducing humanity to total dependence on the dictatorship of money. In the United States, the finance bourgeoisie’s bacchanal is, like all American politics, organized along racial lines – the perfect, crowd-pleasing cover for the destruction of Black voting rights on a scale not seen since the death of Reconstruction. In place of an already straitjacketed, comprador-dominated home rule, Michigan’s Republican Gov. Rick Snyder governor imposed his own regent in the noxious form of Emergency Financial Manager Kevyn Orr, who was until this year a bankruptcy attorney from the multinational firm Jones Day, which is the mercenary legal arm for much of the Fortune 500, including most of the banks that have conspired to destroy Detroit’s tax base. …
Earlier in the week, Judge Rhodes rejected the NAACP’s challenge to Kevyn Orr’s Emergency Financial Manager powers on the grounds that they unconstitutionally disenfranchise a majority of Michigan’s African American citizens. The judge said the public has a more “substantial interest in the speedy and efficient resolution of a municipal bankruptcy case that affects as many people and institutions, and as much of the local, regional and national economy, as this case does.” He said the NAACP could continue its suit after the bankruptcy is done.
In other words, the people’s right to vote is secondary to working out the financial claims brought by derivatives-wielding bankers. If the people’s franchise stands in the way of the Lords of Capital’s right to “restructure” Detroit to their liking, then the franchise must be rendered inoperative, at least until the spoils have been divvyed up – that is, until all the issues that matter have been made moot.
A great deal has been mooted in Detroit, whose fate will become the model, the legal precedent, for the rest of the country. We are witnessing the death of, not just dreams of urban Black power, but of previous notions of American democracy, itself.
This is my latest column for the print version of CounterPunch, published last month.
I flew into Washington the day the government shut down. I had come back to America to scatter my mother's ashes in the sea. It was her last request: to put her to rest in the Atlantic Ocean, off Myrtle Beach, where she had spent some happy times more than half a century ago.
I made my way to Tennessee, where her ashes were waiting in a black plastic box on the mantlepiece in our family home. All along the line, facilities and services were shutting down from a dispute over a corporate boondoggle -- "Obamacare" -- based on a conservative Republican template drawn up to enrich the rapacious insurance-healthcare complex, whose heavy, grinding gears had harrowed both my sick and aged parents to their graves, one inch from bankruptcy. But now, in the bizarre and ugly weirdness of our failing United States, this plan -- once the farthest feather on the rightest right-wing -- had become a commie monstrosity to be resisted at all costs.
While bullshit ruled the public world, private life -- and private death -- went on. My brother and I, the family's last remnants, set out on the 600-mile journey through the old Confederacy to carry out our filial duties. Beer, whisky, Coca-Cola, BC Powder and beef jerky carried us through Marietta, Atlanta, Lithonia, Augusta, Red Bank, Columbia and finally down the dark, moonless ribbon of Highway 501 to the coast.
Near midnight, we reached the sprawling, garish tourist trap that had grown up where that stunning young woman and her handsome soldier husband had once stolen away from his Army base for quiet seaside weekends. We found the town had been besieged, occupied, overwhelmed by swarms of growling, roaring hogs: it was Biker Week in Myrtle Beach! Up and down and around the streets they rolled, gunning their engines in bravura displays, hour after hour after hour. A motley mix of part-time hobbyists -- pudgy accountants and middle managers, hauling their soft bulk on wide, well-appointed suburban machinery -- and hard-core, black-leathered, tattooed lifers, leaning back on bad-ass Harleys.
Not quite the dignified setting she might have imagined for this last act, but what the hell. "It is what it is," my brother said, as he always says, and we set off for the beach. It was nearly empty in the post-midnight hour. The deep white sand was indirectly lit from the hotels behind, but the sea itself was black, fused with the black sky. The whitecaps seemed to emerge from utter darkness and disappear into it again. The rhythmic roar of the invisible waves filled the air. Only days before, I'd finished a reading novel about the Zen master, Hakuin, and now it suddenly struck me: this is what he was talking about – this is the sound of one hand clapping.
Such exalted thoughts vanished in the bleary morning after. The day of the scattering was at hand. The public world, where normally I spent hours greedily scarfing the news, had shriveled to nothing more than a few headlines glimpsed in a box on the street. The shutdown was still going on, and apocalyptic default was imminent; the entrails of polls were being examined to assess the all-important political ramifications. The Peace Prizer had kidnapped somebody in Libya; one of his hit squads had been chased out of Somalia. The never-ending, all-devouring, pointless, heartless psycho circus rolled on.
We drove down to nearby Murrell's Inlet, where our rented boat awaited. The two-lane road was lined with bars, roadhouses, restaurants, all of them crammed to overflowing with bikers. Cops were out to direct traffic through the metal morass. We finally found the rental place. They brought the boat around. We went three miles out to sea, as the law requires. We did what we came to do. Then we headed back to Tennessee, to clear out and close up the house for good.
In the inevitable self-centeredness of grief, I couldn't help but see it all as the emblem of something larger, the end of an era. My mother was born in the depths of Depression, to a sharecropper who'd been born in the 19th century. She worked the tobacco fields, helped in the hog-killing, wore flour-sack dresses until she was 10. Public schooling, electrification and government work lifted her family up. She got out of the holler -- though not far enough to suit her -- and lived the long, post-war, middle-class life that is now ending, in blood, absurdity and degradation, all around us.
The American Dream, I guess. But we know now its seeming solidity was built on sand -- or ashes. Built on the death and suffering of countless, faceless "others" around the world, and in our own streets. Built on the poisonous myth of "exceptionalism,” the cargo cult of “the market,” and the tragic denial of our commonality.
It didn't have to be that way -- but it is what it is. Her life rose and fell with this historic arc, like a wave going back into the dark. She is free now, drifting on the open sea; where are we?
Just a reminder: this is the true nature of the bipartisan, militarized "security state" now headed by the progressive Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. When you support the Laureate -- however "savvily" and "critically" -- when you support the system -- hoping to "reform" it from within -- this is what you are supporting. From the Guardian:
The last time I saw my mother, Momina Bibi, was the evening before Eid al-Adha. She was preparing my children's clothing and showing them how to make sewaiyaan, a traditional sweet made of milk. … The next day, 24 October 2012, she was dead, killed by a US drone that rained fire down upon her as she tended her garden.
Nobody has ever told me why my mother was targeted that day. The media reported that the attack was on a car, but there is no road alongside my mother's house. Several reported the attack was on a house. But the missiles hit a nearby field, not a house. All reported that five militants were killed. Only one person was killed – a 67-year-old grandmother of nine.
My three children – 13-year-old Zubair, nine-year-old Nabila and five-year-old Asma – were playing nearby when their grandmother was killed. All of them were injured and rushed to hospitals. Were these children the "militants" the news reports spoke of? Or perhaps, it was my brother's children? They, too, were there. They are aged three, seven, 12, 14, 15 and 17 years old. The eldest four had just returned from a day at school, not long before the missile struck. ...
We want to understand why a 67-year-old grandmother posed a threat to one of the most powerful countries in the world. We want to understand how nine children, some playing in the field, some just returned from school, could possibly have threatened the safety of those living a continent and an ocean away.
Most importantly, we want to understand why President Obama, when asked whom drones are killing, says they are killing terrorists. My mother was not a terrorist. My children are not terrorists. Nobody in our family is a terrorist.
My mother was a midwife, the only midwife in our village. She delivered hundreds of babies in our community. Now families have no one to help them. And my father? He is a retired school principal. He spent his life educating children, something that my community needs far more than bombs. Bombs create only hatred in the hearts of people. And that hatred and anger breeds more terrorism. But education – education can help a country prosper.
I, too, am a teacher. I was teaching in my local primary school on the day my mother was killed. I came home to find not the joys of Eid, but my children in the hospital and a coffin containing only pieces of my mother.
Our family has not been the same since that drone strike. Our home has turned into hell. The small children scream in the night and cannot sleep. They cry until dawn …
Drone strikes are not like other battles where innocent people are accidentally killed. Drone strikes target people before they kill them. The United States decides to kill someone, a person they only know from a video. A person who is not given a chance to say – I am not a terrorist. The US chose to kill my mother.
No, Barack Obama didn't physically push the button on this particular murder. That was done by some video-game jockey sitting in a padded chair somewhere, very safe, very protected. But the murder was a direct result of the decisions made by the "Commander-in-Chief" to set up a framework of state murder -- sorry, "extrajudicial assassination" -- sorry, "protection for the security of the American people" -- that allows any number of lower-level agents and officers to carry out these high-tech mob hits on their own authority, for their own reasons. (Though no doubt these decisions are processed through a complex and sophisticated "decision matrix" made up of multifarious determining factors -- like, "Dark-skinned bodies in an open field; could be terrorists; what the hell, rub 'em out.")
Of course, the Commander-Laureate does, like Stalin, personally sign off on death lists on a regular basis, giving the direct order for a rub-out. But as heinous as the White House death squad is, the murder program is actually far more widespread than that, with faceless bureaucrats -- military and civilian (if indeed these distinctions still have any real meaning in our militarised and paramilitarized security state) -- making the call to kill as they see fit. We have no idea who these people are, or how or why they make their choices to kill, or who they will target next.
This is the system we have now. This is what you must deal with -- not the hallucinatory fantasy where a good guy "progressive" battles heroically against the bad guy "teabaggers," and needs our help to keep him on the good path toward "reform." It's not a comic book, it's not a civics book, it's a not a movie with a happy ending. It's a brutal, murderous, lawless, dangerous, out-of-control engine of destruction, encompassing the entire political establishment and all those who support it, politically and financially.
1. Clancy Lives! Take heart, you fans of slam-bang super-spy adventure stories! Tom Clancy is not dead; he lives on in the pages of the Washington Post, channeled through the airport-thriller prose of Barton Gellman -- one of the small coterie of media custodians doling out dollops from the huge archive of secret NSA documents obtained by whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Drawing on that archive of what should be shocking, empire-undermining revelations, Gellman and his co-authors last week penned a story that is, in almost every respect, a glorification of state-ordered murder: a rousing tale of secret ops in exotic lands, awesome high-tech spy gear, flying missiles, deadly explosions, and dogged agents doing the grim but noble work of keeping us safe. No doubt Hollywood is already on the horn: it's boffo box office!
The story describes how the NSA's determined leg-work helped Barack Obama shred the sovereignty of a US ally in order to kill a man -- in the usual cowardly fashion, by long-distance, remote-control missile -- without the slightest pretense of judicial process. It's really cool! Just watch our boys in action:
In the search for targets, the NSA has draped a surveillance blanket over dozens of square miles of northwest Pakistan. In Ghul’s case, the agency deployed an arsenal of cyber-espionage tools, secretly seizing control of laptops, siphoning audio files and other messages, and tracking radio transmissions to determine where Ghul might “bed down.” …
“NSA threw the kitchen sink at the FATA,” said a former U.S. intelligence official with experience in Afghanistan and Pakistan, referring to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, the region in northwest Pakistan where al-Qaeda’s leadership is based. … Surveillance operations that required placing a device or sensor near an al-Qaeda compound were handled by the CIA’s Information Operations Center, which specializes in high-tech devices and “close-in” surveillance work. “But if you wanted huge coverage of the FATA, NSA had 10 times the manpower, 20 times the budget and 100 times the brainpower,” the former intelligence official said.
I mean, get a load of these guys: 100 times the brainpower of ordinary mortals! Didn't I say they were super-spies?
The target was Hassan Ghul, an al-Qaeda operative who was once in American custody but was released after giving his captors the tip that eventually led them to Osama bin Laden. (He was also tortured after giving the information -- because, hey, why not? Even super-powerful brains need to let off steam once in a while, right?) Returned to his native Pakistan, Ghul evidently became a bad Injun again in eyes of the imperium, so, after snooping on his wife, they found out where he was and ordered some joystick jockey with his butt parked in a comfy chair somewhere to push a button and kill him.
There is not a single word in the entire story to suggest, even remotely, that there is anything wrong with the government of the United States running high-tech death squads and blanketing the globe with a level of invasive surveillance far beyond the dreams of Stalin or the Stasi. There is not even a single comment from some token 'serious' person objecting to the policy on realpolitik grounds: i.e., that such actions create more terrorists (as the Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai told Obama to his face), engender hatred for the US, destabilize volatile regions, etc. etc. There is not a shred of even this very tepid, 'loyal opposition' type of tidbit that usually crops up in the 15th or 25th paragraph of such stories. But there was, of course, plenty of room for quotes like this:
“Ours is a noble cause,” NSA Director Keith B. Alexander said during a public event last month. “Our job is to defend this nation and to protect our civil liberties and privacy.”
Makes you want to puddle up with patriotic pride, don’t it? These noble, noble guardians of ours: peeping through our digital windows, rifling through our in-boxes, listening to our personal conversations, reading our private thoughts, tracking our purchases (underwear, fishing gear, sex toys, books, movies, tampons, anything, everything), recording our dreams, our interests, our beliefs, our desires, skulking in the shadows, pushing buttons to kill people … yes, noble is certainly the first word that comes to mind. 2. Habituation Blues It was once thought that the Snowden trove -- which details the astonishingly pervasive and penetrative reach of America's security apparatchiks into every nook and cranny of our private lives -- might prove to be a stinging blow to our imperial overlords, rousing an angry populace to begin taking back some of the liberties that have been systematically stripped from them by the bipartisan elite. But instead of a powerful tsunami of truth -- a relentless flood of revelations, coming at the overlords from every direction, keeping them off-balance -- we have seen only a slow drip-feed of polite, lawyer-scrubbed pieces from a small portion of the trove, carefully filtered by a tiny circle of responsible journalists at a handful of respectable institutions to ensure, as the custodians constantly assure us, that the revelations will "do no harm" to the security apparat's vital mission.
The perverse result of this process has been to slowly habituate the public to the idea of ubiquitous surveillance. The drawn-out spacing of the stories -- and the small circle of well-known venues from which they come -- has given the apparatchiks and their leaders plenty of time to prepare and launch counter-attacks, to confuse and diffuse the issues with barrages of carefully-wrought bullshit, and to mobilize their own allies in the compliant media to attack the high-profile producers of the stories -- such as the angry assaults in recent days by Britain's right-wing papers, accusing the Guardian of treason, etc., and, once again, diverting attention from the dark and heavy substance of the revelations to the juicier froth of a media cat-fight.
And so, as we have seen time and again over the years, an outbreak of "dissident" revelations is slowly being turned into a means of habituating people to the horrors they expose -- such as the widespread use of torture, which became a widely accepted practice during the last decade. Remember the first Abu Ghraib stories, when even U.S. senators were shell-shocked as they came out of briefings on the horrors, and there was serious talk of criminal prosecutions shaking -- perhaps breaking -- the Bush administration? Outraged editorials rang across the land: "This is not what we are!" But most of the Abu Ghraib material was kept from the public, both by the government and by our respectable, carefully-filtering media outlets. We were told, by our masters and our media, that the facts and images were "too disturbing" for public viewing; and their exposure would threaten our soldiers and agents with retaliation by outraged Muslims.
Within months, many of those same outraged papers were endorsing Bush for re-election. And even in "liberal" bastions, like the New York Times, torture had become a matter not for outright, automatic condemnation and rejection – as it would be in any civilized society -- but instead was presented as an issue requiring “serious” debate. (Debate! About torture!). And so we had a series of serious players weighing in on the pros and cons of "strenuous interrogation" -- with the emphasis largely on whether it was effective or not. This became the respectable, savvy “liberal” perspective on the question: not that torture was an unspeakable, untouchable evil, but that, hey, it doesn’t really work, you get too much garbage data, so it’s not really a useful tool for our noble security forces.
And we all know what happened in the end: the initially shocked and outraged bipartisan elite agreed that no one should ever be prosecuted for these brazen war crimes (aside from a few bits of low-ranking trailer trash, of course), and that those who approved and perpetrated these acts should be protected, honored, and enriched by our society. By the time the smoke cleared, large percentages of the public voiced their support for the torture of imperial captives and the stripping of rights (constitutional rights, human rights) from anyone arbitrarily designated as a "terrorist" by our leaders.
The same thing happened -- in a much quicker, more telescoped form -- in 2012 when the New York Times revealed the details of Barack Obama's formal, official death squad program, run directly out of the White House in weekly meetings. Indeed, this entire "revelation" was stage-managed by the White House itself, which "leaked" the details and provided "top administrative figures" to paint the scene of thoughtful, even prayerful leaders doing the grim but noble work of keeping us safe. Of course, snippets about the White House murder program had been made public before, going back to 2001. (I wrote my first column on the subject in November 2001, based on laudatory stories about Bush's self-proclaimed license to kill in the Washington Post.) And of course, Bush himself openly boasted of the assassination program on national television in his State-of-the-Union address in 2003. So the NYT story was more of a culmination of the habituation process.
Still, many people -- perhaps most people -- had never stitched together the horrendous reality behind these scattered snippets over the years; but the NYT story made it crystal clear, front and center. This time there was not even the brief spasm of outrage that followed the Abu Ghraib revelations. A nation that had already accustomed itself to systematic torture, to "indefinite detention" of captives in concentration camps, indeed to what was described at the Nuremberg Trials as the "supreme international crime" -- aggressive war -- was no longer a nation that would be troubled by news of a White House death squad. It was just part of the "new normal." And it goes without saying that these revelations did not prevent any serious and respectable liberal and "progressive" figure from endorsing Obama's re-election months later.
Yet the Snowden revelations had the potential, at least, to cut through the murk of moral deadness that now envelops America. This is because, unlike distant wars and "black ops" and brutality against swarthy, meaningless foreigners with funny names, the NSA's surveillance programs are also aimed at them, at real people, Americans! For once, they could see a direct impact of overweening empire on their own sweet lives. (Aside from the innumerable indirect impacts which have degraded national life for decades.) There was a chance -- a chance -- that this might have galvanized a critical mass across the ideological spectrum to some kind of substantial pushback, And the series of confused, panicky, self-contradictory lies that government officials and their sycophants told when the Snowden story first hit gave some indication that, for a moment at least, our noble (and Nobelled) overlords were on the back foot.
But then -- well, not much happened. Stories based on the NSA documents appeared at intervals -- often rather lengthy intervals --- and always from the same sources, in the same dry, dense, Establishment style, interspersed with relentless counterblasts from the power structure -- and, always, mixed in with the million other bright, shiny things that pop and flash and draw the eye on the hyperactive screens that ‘mediate’ reality for us. (And what if you were one of the billions of people on earth who -- perish the thought! -- didn't read the Guardian, the Times and the Post?) So the Snowden-based stories rumbled away on the sidelines, the momentum was lost, the power structure got its bootheels back firmly on the ground.
3. The Rain it Raineth Every Day
"Fine word, legitimate." Edmund, King Lear
But what a minute, you say! Hold on just a rootin' tootin' minute there, Mister Cynical Blog Guy! What about the debate? What about the fierce debate -- in the press, on TV, even in the halls of legislatures around the world -- that the finely filtered NSA stories have already brought about? After all, provoking debate was the point, wasn't it? Over and over, custodians of NSA trove such as Gellman and Glenn Greenwald have told us that this has been the raison d’etre behind publishing the stories. Not to "harm" the security apparatus in any way, but to spark a debate over surveillance policies. For according to the serious and the savvy, debate is an inherent good in itself.
Snowden himself underscored this point in his interview with the New York Times last week. In fact, in one extraordinary passage, he says point-blank that he believes the lack of debate is more egregious than the actual liberty-stripping, KGB wet-dream abuses being perpetrated by the security apparat:
[Snowden] added that he had been more concerned that Americans had not been told about the N.S.A.’s reach than he was about any specific surveillance operation.
“So long as there’s broad support amongst a people, it can be argued there’s a level of legitimacy even to the most invasive and morally wrong program, as it was an informed and willing decision,” he said. “However, programs that are implemented in secret, out of public oversight, lack that legitimacy, and that’s a problem. It also represents a dangerous normalization of ‘governing in the dark,’ where decisions with enormous public impact occur without any public input.”
Even “the most morally wrong program” can have a “level of legitimacy” if it has “broad support amongst a people.” Well, if I may quote Mel Brooks quoting old Joe Schrank, I can hardly believe my hearing aid. Snowden apparently put his life and liberty at risk just to see if the American people supported blanket surveillance of themselves and the world. And if they do – well, that gives the whole sinister shebang “a level of legitimacy.” So if the polls eventually show that most people are down with the invasive-pervasive spy program – because, after all, “if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to hide” – then it’s all A-OK. Because there would have been a debate, you see, and that’s the main thing. That’s what gives even morally wrong programs their legitimacy. As long as, say, invasive surveillance, torture, aggressive war and hit squads have been given a sufficient modicum of ‘public input,’ of ‘transparency,’ then that’s all that matters. It would be too radical, too harmful, if one were to condemn such practices out of hand as sickening acts of depravity and state terror.
My word, we don’t want that kind of thing, do we? What we want – as our custodians have repeatedly declared – is to have our carefully vetted revelations provoke a debate that will lead to reform.
But "reform" of what? Reform of the very system that has produced these egregious abuses and capital crimes in the first place. 'Reform' which accepts the premises of imperial power, but simply wishes for a more tasteful, “transparent” application of them, with more “oversight” from the power structure. Such "reform" -- which, as Arthur Silber notes, buys into the basic premises of authoritarianism -- can never be anything other than cosmetic. The result will be what we have already seen with murder, torture and mass surveillance: a "legitimization" of state crimes, and their retrospective justification and entrenchment. For example, witness Candidate Obama's vote to "legitimize" the Bush Regime's unlawful surveillance programs (and to indemnify the powerful corporations suborned in these unconstitutional crimes) in 2008. And his zealous post-election assurances to the security apparat that they will never, ever face justice for their brutality, their murders and their abominable constitutional abuses.
Without making false equivalences, let us momentarily indulge in an assay of alternative history to put these remarkable assertions in some context. Entertain for conjecture this passage from some fictional Berlin newspaper in, say, 1943:
“A spokesman for the Berlin Herald said the paper is publishing the revelations of government whistleblower Dietrich Schmidt because it wants to 'spark a debate' about the Hitler administration’s systematic murder of Jews in the occupied territories. The spokesman said that the Herald is carefully screening the documents they've seen detailing the mass killings.
'We would never simply dump the entire trove of documents on the general public,' said the spokesman. 'That could do a lot of harm to people in the national security apparatus. No, what we are doing is simply what journalists always do: select and edit material that we think the public has a right to know, without doing undue harm to the nation and those who serve it. There has been almost no debate on the policy of killing the Jews of Europe, and we think such a debate would be healthy. If the government believes it's a good idea, then let them make their case to the public, let's all weigh the pros and cons and have a serious discussion of these policies. Perhaps then we can get some real reform and more oversight of the mass murder program. That would give the operations a level of legitimacy they now lack and reduce the administration’s unfortunate propensity for ‘governing in the dark.’”
Of course Snowden and the custodians of his archive would vehemently reject any compromise, any “debate” or “reform” concerning Nazi-style genocide. The example is meant to set a moral question in the starkest relief. But let us be clear: we are talking about moral compromise here. What is at issue is not the level of “legitimacy” that might or might not be produced by a broader “debate” or “reform” of the system. What is at issue is the actual moral content of actual policies being perpetrated by the government: the killing of human beings on the arbitrary order of the state, outside even the slightest pretense of judicial process; invasive surveillance, overturning even the slightest pretense of the integrity, autonomy and individual liberty of citizens; and all that falls between these two poles – such indefinite detention, black ops, and torture. (Obama’s early PR moves to ban some forms of torture by some government agencies have hardly ended government brutality in this regard, as – to take just one known example from this vast, secret world -- the truly horrendous force-feeding of captives in the Guantanamo Bay concentration camp has recently shown.)
Yet we are to believe that an imperial, militaristic system which produces such crimes and abuses as naturally and inevitably as storm-clouds make rain can be “reformed” by a “debate” within the power structure itself.
But again, let’s not be cynical. For surely, the carefully circumscribed NSA revelations will doubtless produce a modicum of reform – perhaps along the lines of the Church Committee reforms of the 1970s, when truly horrendous abuses of invasive government surveillance produced … the secret FISA court, which for decades has secretly approved secret government surveillance with a reliable diligence that would shame a rubber stamp. I’ll bet the “debate” provoked by the Snowden documents might possibly, eventually, expand the number of corporate-bought senators and representatives who sit on the committees overseeing, in secret, the government’s all-pervasive spy programs. Why, we might even get a new secret court to preside over the existing secret court that secretly approves the apparat’s operations. And maybe even a few more Hollywood movies out of it, like Zero Dark Thirty and The Fifth Estate. Now won’t that be something?
Meanwhile, we can divert ourselves with death-squad porn like the piece Gellman and the Post have wrought from the Snowden archive, complete with state-approved leaks from insiders and “former top intelligence officials” eager to turn Snowden’s dissident gold into self-serving imperial dross.
Here is my most recent column for the print version of CounterPunch, which was published last month.
As we all know, the use of chemical weapons is the most heinous crime that can be committed by a brutal, aggressive government: a brazen act of state terror, an offense against all humanity. Those who perpetrate such actions put themselves beyond the pale; indeed, they rank themselves with Hitler himself, as a succession of America’s highest officials has pointed out in recent weeks.
And that’s why the details of the infamous chemical attack in the Middle East resonate with stark moral horror. Especially chilling are the reports of some of the soldiers who actually took part in the chemical attacks, coming forward to offer evidence after the regime they served denied its obvious crime. As one regime soldier noted, the chemical weapon involved in the attack “burns bodies; it melts the flesh all the way down to the bone. I saw the burned bodies of women and children. Anyone within a radius of 150 meters is done for.”
A document produced by the regime’s own military said the chemical weapon “proved to be an effective and versatile munition. We used it for screening missions and as a potent psychological weapon against the insurgents … We [were] using [chemical weapons] to flush them out and high explosives to take them out.” Another soldier involved in these chemical weapons attacks said: "There is no way you can use [it] without forming a deadly chemical cloud that kills everything within a tenth of a mile in all directions from where it hits. Obviously, the effect of such deadly clouds weren't just psychological in nature."
But of course, chemical weapons were only part of this attack on the rebel position – an attack absolutely replete with war crimes violations. Before assaulting the civilian quadrants with a barrage of chemical weapons, the regime cut off the city’s water and power supplies and food deliveries. One of the first moves in the attack was the destruction of medical centers; indeed, 20 doctors were killed, along with their patients – innocent women and children – in a savage blitz before the chemical weapons were unleashed. But why would even a regime full of rogue barbarians attack a hospital? It’s simple, one of the regime’s “information warfare specialists” told the New York Times: hospitals can be used as “propaganda centers” by rebels trying to stir up sympathy for their cause.
Meanwhile, the BBC managed to penetrate the rebel-held areas and report on the results of the combined attack of chemical and conventional weapons:
“There are more and more dead bodies on the street, and the stench is unbearable … There are dead women and children lying on the streets. People are getting weaker from hunger. Many are dying from their injuries because there is no medical help left in the city whatsoever. Some families have started burying their dead in their gardens.”
By the end of the attack, vast areas lay in ruins. More than 36,000 homes were destroyed, along with 60 schools and 65 mosques and religious centers. Medical workers estimated the civilian death count at between 4,000 and 6,000, which, the Guardian noted, was “a proportionally higher death rate than in Coventry and London during the Blitz.”
As both President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have said so eloquently, those responsible for such a crime must be punished. To look away from such an atrocity, to fail to hold those responsible to account would be, as these eminent statesmen tell us, a crime in itself, tantamount to ignoring the Holocaust or the massacres in Rwanda …
But of course the crimes enumerated above did not take place in Syria in August of 2013. They were part of America’s Guernica-like destruction of the Iraqi city of Fallujah in 2004: one of the most egregious – and most sustained – war crimes since the Second World War. The widespread use of chemical weapons in the decimation of Fallujah – including the flesh-eating horror of white phosphorous, the future-maiming deployment of depleted uranium and other chemicals, which have led to an epidemic of birth defects in the region – is well-documented and, after years of outright lies and evasions, now cheerfully admitted by the United States government. Using these chemical weapons – along with good old-fashioned mass-murdering conventional munitions just like mother used to make – the United States government slaughtered thousands upon thousands of innocent people in its berserker outburst against Fallujah.
It goes without saying that the “international community” did not rise up in righteous indignation at this use of chemical weapons to slaughter far more civilians than even the Obama Administration’s wild exaggerations are claiming in Syria. It goes without saying that the drone-bombing Peace Laureate and his lantern-jawed patrician at Foggy Bottom have signally failed to criticize – much less prosecute! – the perpetrators of the Fallujah war crime, or make the slightest change in the system of military aggression that produced it. Instead they have expanded and entrenched this system at every turn, extending it far beyond the wildest dreams of Bush and Cheney.
Whatever his manifest crimes (and alleged exacerbations), Bashar Assad will remain a hapless piker next to these pious virtuosos of mass-murdering violence.
As the days and weeks go crawling by, bringing now and then another little drib, another little drab of revelations from the storehouse of secrets that Edward Snowden pried loose from the National Security Agency, the story turns slowly but surely from one of scandal and outrage bidding fair to trouble the well-cushioned bottoms on the seat of power to a dimmed, drained subject of "debate" amongst powerful insiders.
Indeed, we are now told by the dolers of the dribs that "debate" was the sole purpose of the exercise in the first place. Snowden was driven into permanent exile, his life and liberty put at constant risk, solely to provoke a "debate" in the national power structure, a conversation among the cognoscenti of political and media elites that will lead, eventually, to the holy grail of "reform." Naturally, this debate -- and the revelations themselves -- must be kept within careful parameters; nothing that might actually damage the "national security" operations of the brutal, bristling, maniacally militarized, quasi-Stasi, Gorgon-staring imperial state is to be allowed into the "conversation" our betters are now having among themselves on how best to bring a modicum of restraint and oversight to the NSA's all-pervading surveillance. (For more on this, see 'Oligarchs Approve the NSA Debate.')
"Thanks for a country where nobody's allowed to mind his own business."
But put this aside for now. And put aside the fact that this slow drip-feed of carefully curated stories has come to seem more like an inoculation than a revelation, inurring people to the shock with small doses which, over time, simply fade into the background noise, become part of the new normal -- while allowing the Security Apparat itself plenty of time to develop antibodies -- defenses, diversions -- to diffuse the impact of what could have been a powerful, multi-sided shock to the system.
Put all that aside, and let us grant, for a moment, the premise that the "debate" provoked by the Snowden revelations will indeed lead not to the usual application of skin-deep PR cosmetics but to a true "reform" of NSA practices: a more careful delineation of the scope of the agency's activities, and more rigorous oversight by a few select members of Congress, who will, in this case, for the first time in many decades, actually carry out their responsibilities.
In other words, let us grant that every dream of the debate-provokers comes true and the NSA is genuinely "reformed." The question then follows: so what?
As Arthur Silber points out in a powerful new essay, the NSA is only one small cog in a vast machinery of repression that already, right now, possesses -- and exercises -- an overwhelming level of control over the liberties and lives of every US citizen (not to mention the billions of meaningless non-entities and pieces of drone fodder who live beyond the sacred bounds of the Homeland). What's more, a preponderance of this repressive machinery is already "transparent" -- openly acknowledged, even advertised by the ruling elite in many cases.
What's more, almost all of this machinery is "legal" in one way or another. As Silber noted years ago, when a very similar "debate" was being carried out by "serious" people seeking "reform" after another set of revelations about government spying emerged:
With regard to FISA and issues of liberty and privacy in general, let me now ask you a few questions. How long do you think it would take you to identify, read, and understand every provision in every statute, regulation and other authorization that gives surveillance powers to the government? Furthermore: Would you know each and every place to look, or how to determine what those places were? Additionally: With a staff of 20, or 50, could it be done, even if you were provided with limitless time and limitless funds?
I submit to you, without qualification or reservation, that you could not do it. No one could. Consider that most legislators in Washington aren't even aware of much of what's in the bills they so eagerly vote on. Consider the prohibitive length and complexity of legislation that comes before Congress. That's true of what is going on now. If you tried to track down every piece of legislation, every regulation, every administrative agency ruling, and every other pronouncement still in effect that allows the government to surveil and otherwise keep track of you, me, the guy down the street, the woman next door and the man in the moon, based on alleged concern with and the need to protect us all from the ravages of drugs, "illicit" sex, any and all other suspected criminal activity and, natch, terrorism, how on God's green earth would you do it? You couldn't.
As he concludes today:
Certainly with regard to surveillance, the State has already granted itself entirely comprehensive, indeed omnipotent, powers. I guarantee you that, buried in the hideous bowels of all the laws, regulations, agency rulings, etc. and so on unto the ends of time, that give the State surveillance powers, the State has the power to spy on anything, anywhere, anytime, for any reason it manufactures, or for no reason at all.
Yes, do you remember that controversial FISA bill noted above? Remember the fierce "debate" after the New York Times revealed the extent of the Bush Administration's warrantless surveillance programs? Remember the "reform" this debate led to, when crusading presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama (breaking his solemn word) voted for a "reform" bill in 2008 that greatly expanded the reach of the surveillance system -- in effect, legalizing Bush's illegalities -- while absolving the telecom corporations of their illegal acquiescence to these crimes? Remember all that? How did that turn out, all that "debate" and "reform" and working within the system? Did it curtail in any way, did it slow to any degree, the relentless expansion of our Stasi-like security apparatus?
Are we really to believe that getting a "debate" going among these same people, and/or the same types of people (products and beneficiaries of our militarized, super-profitable, ego-inflating 'national security' system), will actually produce a different result?
As Silber says, the NSA revelations do have value, shining a light on a pernicious corner of the Security Apparat's sinister operation. But he goes on to note:
To focus on the NSA as if that agency is the only or even a major source of the problem is entirely wrong. The NSA is only one source of the rot that is spread across numerous agencies and programs, the rot that has infected our government at every level (federal, state, county, municipal, etc.) and in countless ways. But the unique and restricted focus on the NSA is also an enormous boon to the State; it is largely the result of our culture's idiotic and myopic focus on the "hot" story of the moment, devoid of history, of context, of everything that should inform our understanding of the issues involved. It creates and supports the view that, if only we "fix" the NSA, then a significant part of the problem will be solved. But that is flatly untrue. As I already noted, you could eliminate the NSA entirely this very minute, and it wouldn't make a damned bit of difference. But the heightened focus on the NSA, while ignoring all the other agencies and programs involved in similar and even identical activities, leads directly to the "solution" that will make the State writhe in ecstasy. Congress will have some hearings, and they will provide for some "oversight" and "accountability," and most people, including most of the State's critics, will herald the great triumph of "the people" and "democracy." Meanwhile, the State will continue doing exactly what it was doing before.
2. "Thanks for the American dream, To vulgarize and to falsify until the bare lies shine through."
Silber's latest post gives a chilling example of just how meaningless even a genuine "reform" of the NSA would be. He sets down what could almost be a dystopian horror story from some adventure mag of the 1950s: the tale of an America under the boot of a tyrannical elite that lavishes its obedient insiders with perks and protection while abandoning the rest of the rabble to ravages of fate:
Imagine that there is a special class of American citizens. This special class is made up of individuals from private business, in fields such as agriculture, finance, the internet, academia, and utility companies. These people have certain responsibilities and, in exchange, they are granted certain privileges. These people are dedicated to providing information that, in their view, might be related in some way to possible threats to "national security." They are encouraged to report all such information they may come across, including information about their fellow employees. Imagine that there are tens of thousands of such "special" people, spread across the entire United States. ...
For their diligent work, members of the special class are given advance "secret" warnings about terrorist threats, before the general public learns of them (and sometimes even before elected officials). These special individuals receive "almost daily updates" on threats "emanating from both domestic sources and overseas." These special people enjoy being "special." They "are happy to be in the know." In the event that communications networks are seriously disrupted, this special class will be able to get phone calls and internet messages through when most people can't.
These special individuals also have specified roles when martial law is declared. That's what the State has communicated to them: when martial law is declared, not if. These people will be "expected to share all [their] resources," and to protect any parts of the "critical infrastructure" to which they have access. In return, they will have "the ability to travel in restricted areas and to get people out."
When martial law is declared, these special individuals are granted one further power. They will be expected "to protect [their] portion of the infrastructure." If necessary, the State expects them to use deadly force to do so. Because these are very special people, the State has told them that, should they use deadly force, they will not be prosecuted.
Imagine all that. Would such a state of affairs trouble you? Do you think it would be a cause for concern that the State employed an army of "private" Americans to be its spies in businesses of every kind, perhaps including the business where you work? Would it bother you that the State has deputized tens of thousands of otherwise "ordinary" Americans to be murderers when martial law is declared -- murderers who are given an advance blank check for their killings?
But you don't need to imagine any of this. All of this is true, and this program came into existence in 1996. The program is called InfraGard, and I wrote it about more than five years ago. As of February 2012, InfraGard had more than 45,000 members; roughly 7,000 new members join each year. There are at least 86 chapters spread across the United States.
Please note the following, as it is of special importance. Information about InfraGard has been easily available for years. ... The government isn't trying to keep InfraGard a secret. To the contrary, the State is enormously pleased with this program. It is more than happy to make its operations known -- and many Americans are very happy to join it. Most other Americans appear not to care about InfraGard at all -- for it is almost never talked or written about. You should find that profoundly disturbing. The State maintains a private army of tens of thousands of spies -- spies who are deputized to kill other people, possibly including you -- and no one seems to give a damn.
Here we come to the crux of the matter. The power of unlimited surveillance, as hideous and repulsive and inhuman as it is, still pales next to the greater power which our elites have granted to themselves: to kill -- without warning, without warrant, without trial, without mercy -- anyone they choose to kill. I have written about this astonishing situation reality many times (my first column on the subject appeared in November 2001), as has Silber, for years (and again, eloquently, in his latest piece).
But let's set it out clearly again: the American government has already reserved the right to kill anyone on the planet, including American citizens, at the arbitrary order of the President -- or any one of the many people he has deputized to make such decisions on their own. We live -- literally, entirely -- at the pleasure of the state, which can kill us at any time it likes, for whatever reason it decides is sufficient.
This was "secret" during the Bush Administration, although it was deliberately made known through government leaks to mainstream media outlets. Under Obama, of course, the death squad operation has been openly acknowledged, with his own national security advisor cheerfully discussing it under oath before Congress. This "transparency" -- which, after all, is the goal of every "reformer" of the system -- came after the White House leaked details of the program for a very favorable story in the New York Times, which portrayed the president and his death squad henchmen as deeply moral men struggling mightily through dark nights of the soul before parking their asses on a couple of couches every Tuesday and going through lists of people to be murdered, like Stalin and Beria in the Kremlin.
This arbitrary power to murder is the central political reality of our time; it is the bedrock, the foundation, of the American state as it actually exists today. The NSA surveillance program is merely an outgrowth -- a natural product -- of this system. Even if by some miracle, you could nip this single bud, the tree will continue to bring forth an abundance of poisonous fruit.
"Thanks for the last and greatest betrayal of the last and greatest of human dreams."