The Price of Paranoia
It is both amusing and frightening to European allies, and also bringing a collective unease to American citizens. This (largely) unknown commodity? Nothing other than Washington's increasingly bizarre strategy for defending the motherland.
In short, the "war on terror" is being fueled by paranoia and that is precisely why it is being lost.
Quite Reasonably, Fears Are Rising
Undoubtedly, terrorism is a serious threat to the United States and many other countries. Bin Laden is back, and now seems more dangerous than ever. However, the US government's plan for dealing with that threat to proliferate bureaucracy and infrastructure (through the Homeland Security bill) and to develop a massive database for tracking the purchases of every American (TIA) has raised more fears than it has assuaged.
Civil libertarians question the implications of secret courts, non-accountable and unknown government agencies, all-seeing computers, and unwanted invasions of privacy. And even "ordinary Americans" who never considered themselves libertarians (civil or otherwise) are starting to get nervous, as the SF Chronicle's witty Rob Morse points out in an article called "Fighting terror by terrorizing US citizens."
Ignorance Plus Fear Equals Poor Judgment
And that's pretty much it. To take a populace already frazzled by constant security alerts, and then throw in the idea of having the government track one's every move well, it can't possibly do much to raise collective spirits. Attorney General John Ashcroft's previous brilliant ideas to monitor all the potential dangers lurking in America's public libraries, and to turn every citizen into an informer exemplify all that is wrong with the government's paranoid approach to combating terrorism.
Apparently, the fearmongers don't want citizens to arm themselves with knowledge that could help in understanding the world's turbulent, rapidly-changing events. And apparently, they don't want the people to exercise the right to free speech and debate that have made possible so many of America's great innovations and achievements (like, say, the Constitution).
Paranoia is more easily sustained when wedded with ignorance, and the fearmongers in government are doing their share to help. Even if Ashcroft's TIPS informant proposal got the chop, the fact that it was even seriously considered is a troubling sign, a manifestation of that tyranny which can rule only by perpetuating fear, and a symptom of the government's "insatiable appetite for surveillance."
One must think twice, I guess, about criticizing US policy; you might end up like that guy in the San Francisco gym, getting a rap on the door from the Feds. Or, like the olive-skinned fellow I saw a few months ago, randomly stopped by police in the airport. Or, like the hapless crew from Global Exchange, detained amidst suspicions of "making anti-American statements."
It seems that it hasn't dawned on the authorities yet, but there is only one category of people certain to never attract attention by publicly criticizing the government the would-be terrorists, of course!
Forgetting the lessons of September 11th
For a solipsistic and insular county, last year's rude awakening brought up many troubling questions. First of all were the many speculations that sought to link the US' belligerence in the Middle East (as well as its unfailing support of Israel) with the arrival of Islamic terrorism on American soil. The tacit role of the government in training, arming and indoctrinating the Taliban came as further tragic confirmation of the "blowback" phenomenon.
Yet leaving aside all the nagging doubts about the connection between terrorism and America's foreign policy, one irrefutable lesson was learned: that terrorism is generally a poor man's game, and so is played according to his rules. Commentators have long picked up on the fact that exceedingly low-tech weapons, such as box-cutters, were used to help turn a common airplane into a guided missile. On one day in September, all of America's imposing and expensive technology not to mention its vast intelligence capabilities proved useless against a handful of poorly-armed (but clever) terrorists.
The Pentagon: Not A Quick Study
The only ones, it seems, who haven't learned this lesson are those in charge in Washington. Unfortunately, the Pentagon's huge new budget increase will mostly be wasted. Using those extra billions to upgrade America's armed forces is an unfortunate, highly questionable tactic: after all, what country would be suicidal enough to engage the United States in open warfare? The War Party, it seems, is not taking any chances.
Or so it would seem. This paranoia may just be staged as critics have repeatedly said, it provides an ideal cover for rushing through all kinds of "improvements" long-dreamt of by military planners. And the highly questionable element here is not long in coming.
While the total costs are not clearly known and perhaps never will be what is fairly certain is that the billions of taxpayer dollars needed for funding defense and the Homeland Security monstrosity will be funneled directly back to those huge corporations who can successfully lobby for and win the lucrative contracts that have multiplied in the wake of September 11th. This does little for the average American (especially when many of the companies, like Germany's Siemens, are foreign), but it does perpetuate the mentality of "Wall St. Socialism" currently visible in the Beltway. And the interested parties aren't being shy about it, either:
"Walter White of the Dutko Group lobbying firm is trying to help at least eight companies win domestic security contracts. With few specifics on what the federal government, including the upcoming Homeland Security Department, will be spending, White said he advises company executives to focus on building relationships so they can win contracts when more anti-terrorism money starts to flow."
The "anti-terrorism money" in question, of course, can only be generated so long as the public believe in terrorism as a facet of life that, like death and taxes, can't be avoided. Unsurprisingly, many of the same companies that see a gold mine in anti-terror contracts also see a bonanza in perpetuating endless war soon, they hope, in Iraq. In the end, the funds for defense and other contractors can flow only so long as the levels of war and terrorism hysteria are cranked up across the country.
But that's not even the worst thing. Should America suffer another major terrorist attack in the near future, the immediate explanation will be that not enough money had been spent, not enough liberties had been curtailed, and not enough surveillance had been installed. The blame will never fall at least, as far as White House policy makers are concerned on the drawbacks inherent to some of the brave new plans that Washington is making to eliminate the terrorist threat. The belief that total information access will result in a totally safe country is, at best, naïve. At worst, the desire for absolute control manifested in TIA is, as Justin Raimondo aptly put it, "the impossible dream of tyrants."
Totally Useless Information Awareness
The implications of this quixotic plan were roasted, I might add, by many other editorialists from all across the land. TIA is being run by an appropriately sketchy character convicted felon John Poindexter. In case anyone out there may have missed the salient details and also because they are so entertaining we will print Fox's coverage again:
"Edward Aldridge, undersecretary of Acquisitions and Technology, told reporters that the Pentagon is developing a prototype database to seek "patterns indicative of terrorist activity." Aldridge said the database would collect and use software to analyze consumer purchases in hopes of catching terrorists before it's too late. "The bottom line is this is an important research project to determine the feasibility of using certain transactions and events to discover and respond to terrorists before they act," he said.
Aldridge said the database, which he called another "tool" in the war on terror, would look for telltale signs of suspicious consumer behavior. Examples he cited were: sudden and large cash withdrawals, one-way air or rail travel, rental car transactions and purchases of firearms, chemicals or agents that could be used to produce biological or chemical weapons."
This scenario has endless comic applications, some of which Raimondo points out in the article cited above. To those I might add the college student draining his funds before spring break, the woman who must rent a car while hers is in the shop, that Iowa farmer buying (conceivably explosive) fertilizerů the list goes on. The frazzled Feds, apparently, just want everything "normalized" so that their work will go smoother. For these discriminating thinkers, variant and unpredictable human behavior just does not compute despite the fact that life is unpredictable, and always will be.
Freeing Government From That Cumbersome Accountability Thing
That said, other potential dangers lurk underneath the new cloak of secrecy implicit in DARPA and the increasingly powerful Ashcroftian secret courts. An article in the Christian Science Monitor outlines all of the ways in which one's life can be affected by the new policies. One troubling example is the possibility of future forced vaccination programs. Under new laws, drug companies may not even be accountable for the vaccines they produce even if they are defective and cause health problems.
Now, American democracy thrives because the citizenry has (or should have) oversight over governmental decisions. Yet over the past 14 months, the trend in "homeland security" has been to remove that very government from civilian oversight. To be sure, there exists some sensitive, security-related information that the government cannot and should not share publicly. However, in its quasi-socialistic desire to protect both itself and its corporate partners from being accountable, the Bush administration has taken things too far. For indeed, high-level protectionism the kind that allowed Enron (and perhaps now, Halliburton) to live on imaginary funds is just as much a part of "homeland security" as is the fight against terrorism.
You're Needed In Aisle 6, Comrade
The idea of a supercomputer capable of databasing the output of every American bank histories, emails, medical records, all purchases, etc. conjures up some very bizarre images. One is instantly reminded of those enormous proto-computers that whirred, hummed, and took up entire rooms in films of the 1950's. There are also, of course, the Orwellian overtones. The conceivers of TIA have wedded the ideas of technological progress and benevolent surveillance to arrive at the conclusion that father (i.e., the state) knows best a sinister idea more evocative of Soviet Russia.
But at least the Russians had style. Indeed, the cigarette smoke rising in the darkness, the half-empty vodka bottles and Kalashnikovs stacked at that frigid Siberian outpost, only serve to enhance the thickly-accented "we'd like to ask you some questions, comrade." In contrast, these latter-day, would-be omniscients (in their infantile, agitated paranoia) come across as thoroughly unconvincing, and completely unable to control the situation.
In short, the desperation of the War Party is evidenced by this belief that technology and not human intelligence will save the day.
Looking In All The Wrong Places
It's not just that TIA (and other ventures like it) would be rendered unusable by being overloaded with irrelevant data. The system itself is prone to abuse and not only from prying officials.
For example, just think of the internet both indispensable to almost everyone, and a shadowy refuge conducive to anonymity. Here, one can easily imagine how some computer-savvy nine year-old prankster could paralyze the country, by sending "actionable intelligence" (as Aldridge like to call it) to the credulous analysts in Washington.
The answer to this "glitch in the system," however, is not to curtail liberties, destroy rights of privacy, and shine a light on that anonymity. To "smoke the terrorists out of their holes," as President Bush once put it, should not mean smoking the rest of us out as well. Indeed, for the Homeland Security crew, doing so will only mean getting smoke in their own eyes.
No, more and more the answer to America's security problem is pointing away from the giant toys of technology and weaponry that the grown-up children of the War Party seem to love so much. The real way to defeat terrorism aside from changing foreign policy, which is a separate topic in itself is to fight it as it is fought, mono e mono. For at the end of the day, only the common sense and cleverness of real live humans will be able to counter the efforts of their terrorist adversaries.
The first step here is to stop looking in the wrong places. A sure sign of state paranoia is unthinking, undiscerning action on the parts of those charged with promoting security. Should airport security detain that little old lady who forgot to leave her sewing needle at home? And should the FBI question some Berkeley hippie for attending the meetings of a pro-peace group? Indeed, should intelligence-gatherers waste ten minutes of valuable time looking in vain for "anti-American statements" in articles such as this?
The Rights Of The People
One thing is clear from all of the current confusion, and that is that the American people deserve to have a say in how the homeland should be secured. But their opinions have not been asked. Precisely now are being made enormous, far-reaching decisions, ones which will set the precedent for America's future path. It is especially important now for common citizens to think, debate and suggest not to obediently shut their mouths out of fear, trusting that father knows best. Now more than ever, the country needs an intellectual ferment.
The disturbing direction that "homeland security" is taking shows this clearly. Simply put, the future cannot be left up to those who would generate paranoia and ignorance in order to make a profit, or to destroy the civil liberties upon which America was founded. Otherwise, there will not be much of a homeland left to secure.
Previous articles by Christopher Deliso on Antiwar.com
Christopher Deliso is a journalist and travel writer with special interest in current events in the areas of the former Byzantine Empire the Balkans, Greece, Turkey, and the Caucasus. Mr. Deliso holds a master's degree with honors in Byzantine Studies (from Oxford University), and has traveled widely in the region. His current long-term research projects include the Macedonia issue, the Cyprus problem, and the ethnography of Byzantine Georgia. He just returned from a long stay in Turkey, near the Iraqi border.
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