December 7, 2001
As the portentous sixtieth anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor approached, the scene was set for yet another vague warning of an imminent terrorist threat, this time from the Chicken Littles over at the Office of Homeland Defense:
"The threats we are picking up are very generic. They warn of more attacks but are not specific about where or what type. We do know that the next several weeks, which bring the final weeks of Ramadan and important religious observations in other faiths, have been times when terrorists have planned attacks in the past."
Thus spake Tom Ridge, whose haplessness is hardly reassuring. When Ridge was appointed to head up this newest layer of the national security bureaucracy, one official told the Washington Post: "We want to brand Tom Ridge. When people see him, we want them to think: 'My babies are safe.'" With this, the third nebulous alarm sounded since 9/11, now when people see him they think: "Why bother having babies, since we're all toast anyway?
Many have wondered: why issue these endless warnings? After all, if we aren't "alert" by now, we never will be. And just what are we supposed to do, anyway: must I stand guard at the Golden Gate Bridge (after all, it's just down the street), and personally check out each passing auto? Should I keep a 24-hour watch on the Arab grocers down the block, hoping to catch them anthraxing their falafel? What could possibly be the purpose of these nonspecific "terror alerts" other than to spread fear and a sense of impending doom? They've "branded" Ridge, all right as the harbinger of helplessness in the face of horror.
For how else is such an announcement supposed to make us feel other than utterly powerless? At the core of each us, when we look at Ridge's puffy frightened face, is the secret fear that the government is just as helpless as we are in the face of the oncoming catastrophe. On the idiot box, our "patriotic" talking heads hail the great victory of Kunduz and eagerly call for "phase two" while we huddle in our homes, afraid to fly, afraid to buy, waiting for the other terrorist shoe to drop.
Who gives a damn about the fall of Khandahar? What worries me is the fall of the Transamerica pyramid. The War Party wants us to go "on to Iraq," Syria, Somalia, and perhaps even North Korea but what about bringing those troops home where the real danger is and stationing them in the streets of American cities?
The government claims these warnings are not based on thin air, but on intercepted messages exchanged by the terrorists. This raises all sorts of questions, the first one being: don't the terrorists realize they're being eavesdropped on? Surely they do. In that case, it seems this might be a tactic to instill fear and demoralize the American populace. By trumpeting these threats, Ridge is merely playing into their hands. Just as the Bin Ladenites used our vaunted technology against us, turning airliners into deadly weapons, so they are using our own government as their trumpet of fear, turning government bureaucrats and their ass-covering ways into potent psychological weapons.
A letter from a reader, Judy W., offers an explanation for the otherwise inexplicable policy of fear-mongering:
"Is it just me, or are the continued 'threats' to the American public just a way for the President and the military to keep us in fear so we don't question any of the ethics of this war or the ever-decreasing civil liberties we once took for granted?"
No, Judy, it isn't just you: not anymore. Weeks ago, when attorney general John Ashcroft issued the first terrorist advisory, on October 11, it occurred to me that what you suggest might indeed be the motive behind such an otherwise pointless exercise. However, I immediately dismissed the thought from my mind: after all, we're all Americans, and we're all in this together aren't we? The man, I thought, is simply trying to do his job, however ineptly: at least I hoped the feds were trying to make up for having failed to prevent the 9/11 atrocity in the first place. But when California governor Gray Davis got in on the act, declaring the Golden State's bridges to be in imminent danger, I began to have my doubts….
Aside from just publicity-seeking, wasn't Davis's startling pronouncement quickly pooh-poohed by the feds a classic example of an official following the first principle of government service: cover-thy-derriere? But then came the second and the third ominous warning out of Washington, and one would think they were fully covered by now.
Judy, I fear you may be right: it appears, in retrospect, that I was being naive. I really believed the administration was putting politics aside, and, in the weeks after 9/11, even took seriously all that "United We Stand" baloney, at least to some extent: whatever our differences over foreign policy matters, I thought all Americans would put America first. What I didn't expect, as the World Trade Center came crashing down, was that the "protectors" of America would try to pull the Constitution down along with it.
Ridge probably wishes he had stayed in Pennsylvania, especially when asked to explain the rationale behind this senseless series of maddeningly amorphous "alerts." Okay, so what are we supposed to do? According to the Washington Post: "Mr. Ridge said he did not want Americans to cancel holiday plans, but he also did not want them to relax unduly." In other words: go visit your loved ones but go in fear.
These apocalyptic warnings, delivered in such a manner, can only be intended to create an atmosphere where the seizure of unprecedented power by the executive branch seems almost inevitable. How else will Americans stand by and give up their rights unless they stand in fear of something worse than the loss of liberty?
It has been a long time since Patrick Henry's "give me liberty or give me death" exemplified the American spirit: today, if you believe the polls, Americans appear to prefer an illusory sense of security over liberty by an overwhelming margin. This hardly comes as a surprise: from the age of Jefferson to the era of William Jefferson Clinton is a long way down, and so this result the imposition of a police state over only a few scattered protests was to be expected. What was not expected, at least by me, is the speed with which all this is coming about. The fear-mongering tactic is working, and the American people are cowed not by Osama Bin Laden, but by the pronouncements of their own government.
The government is now confident that it can roll over the American people. To paraphrase that old fraud Aleister Crowley: as far as our rulers are concerned, do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law. But they had better be careful. If they go too far, too fast, there is likely to be some kind of a reaction, at least from a remnant of the population that retains its distinctively American orneriness. This is especially true if Ridge and the Chicken Littles are right, and we witness yet another terrorist horror on American soil. For in that case, although this may give the coup plotters a perfect pretext for completely abolishing the Constitution, the State would also lose a great deal of its credibility and, with it, the key to its power.
No State can afford to lose the mystique of its invincibility the true source of its legitimacy and hope to survive for long. Which is why I hope the Powers That Be take my advice, before it's too late, and bring our troops in Afghanistan back home a.s.a.p. where the real threat to their power lies.
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