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Tom Engelhardt, The OED of the National Security State

7:06 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Dictionary

A Devil’s Dictionary for the Surveillance State?

In the months after September 11, 2001, it was regularly said that “everything” had changed.  It’s a claim long forgotten, buried in everyday American life.  Still, if you think about it, in the decade-plus that followed — the years of the PATRIOT Act, “enhanced interrogation techniques,” “black sites,” robot assassination campaigns, extraordinary renditions, the Abu Ghraib photos, the Global War on Terror, and the first cyberwar in history — much did change in ways that should still stun us.  Perhaps nothing changed more than the American national security state, which, spurred on by 9/11 and the open congressional purse strings that followed, grew in ways that would have been alien even at the height of the Cold War, when there was another giant, nuclear-armed imperial power on planet Earth.

Unfortunately, the language we use to describe the world of the national security state is still largely stuck in the pre-9/11 era.  No wonder, for example, it’s hard to begin to grasp the staggering size and changing nature of the world of secret surveillance that Edward Snowden’s recent revelations have allowed us a peek at.  If there are no words available to capture the world that is watching us, all of us, we’ve got a problem.

In ancient China, when a new dynasty came to power, it would perform a ceremony called “the rectification of names.”  The idea was that the previous dynasty had, in part, fallen because a gap, a chasm, an abyss, had opened between reality and the names available to describe it.  Consider this dispatch, then, a first attempt to “rectify” American names in the era of the ascendant national — morphing into global — security state.

Creating a new dictionary of terms is, of course, an awesome undertaking.  From the moment work began, it famously took 71 years for the full 10-volume Oxford English Dictionary to first appear!  So we at TomDispatch expect to be at work on our new project for years to come.  Here, however, is an initial glimpse at a modest selection of our newly rectified definitions.

The Dictionary of the Global War on You
(Preliminary version, July 2, 2013)

Secret: Anything of yours the government takes possession of and classifies.

Classification: The process of declaring just about any document produced by any branch of the U.S. government — 92 million of them in 2011 — unfit for unclassified eyes.  (This term may, in the near future, be retired once no documents produced within, or captured by, the government and its intelligence agencies can be seen or read by anyone not given special clearance.)

Surveillance: Here’s looking at you, kid.

Whistleblower: A homegrown terrorist.

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Tom Engelhardt: You Are Our Secret

6:54 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

NSA HQ

NSA Headquarters in Ft. Meade. Snowden’s whistleblowing has revealed much about what goes on in places like this.

As happens with so much news these days, the Edward Snowden revelations about National Security Agency (NSA) spying and just how far we’ve come in the building of a surveillance state have swept over us 24/7 — waves of leaks, videos, charges, claims, counterclaims, skullduggery, and government threats.  When a flood sweeps you away, it’s always hard to find a little dry land to survey the extent and nature of the damage.  Here’s my attempt to look beyond the daily drumbeat of this developing story (which, it is promised, will go on for weeks, if not months) and identify five urges essential to understanding the world Edward Snowden has helped us glimpse.

1. The Urge to be Global

Corporately speaking, globalization has been ballyhooed since at least the 1990s, but in governmental terms only in the twenty-first century has that globalizing urge fully infected the workings of the American state itself.  It’s become common since 9/11 to speak of a “national security state.”  But if a week of ongoing revelations about NSA surveillance practices has revealed anything, it’s that the term is already grossly outdated.  Based on what we now know, we should be talking about an American global security state.

Much attention has, understandably enough, been lavished on the phone and other metadata about American citizens that the NSA is now sweeping up and about the ways in which such activities may be abrogating the First and Fourth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.  Far less attention has been paid to the ways in which the NSA (and other U.S. intelligence outfits) are sweeping up global data in part via the just-revealed Prism and other surveillance programs.

Sometimes, naming practices are revealing in themselves, and the National Security Agency’s key data mining tool, capable in March 2013 of gathering “97 billion pieces of intelligence from computer networks worldwide,” has been named “boundless informant.”  If you want a sense of where the U.S. Intelligence Community imagines itself going, you couldn’t ask for a better hint than that word “boundless.”  It seems that for our spooks, there are, conceptually speaking, no limits left on this planet.

Today, that “community” seeks to put not just the U.S., but the world fully under its penetrating gaze.  By now, the first “heat map” has been published showing where such information is being sucked up from monthly: Iran tops the list (14 billion pieces of intelligence); then come Pakistan (13.5 billion), Jordan (12.7 billion), Egypt (7.6 billion), and India (6.3 billion).  Whether you realize this or not, even for a superpower that has unprecedented numbers of military bases scattered across the planet and has divided the world into six military commands, this represents something new under the sun.  The only question is what?

The twentieth century was the century of “totalitarianisms.”  We don’t yet have a name, a term, for the surveillance structures Washington is building in this century, but there can be no question that, whatever the present constraints on the system, “total” has something to do with it and that we are being ushered into a new world. Despite the recent leaks, we still undoubtedly have a very limited picture of just what the present American surveillance world really looks like and what it plans for our future.  One thing is clear, however: the ambitions behind it are staggering and global.

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Rebecca Solnit: Civil Society at Ground Zero

7:41 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

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When it set up its campsite at Zuccotti Park, Occupy Wall Street was facing in only one direction: toward the financial heart of the planet two blocks away.  The police, who promptly surrounded the encampment and organized their own occupation of the neighborhood, were in a sense facing in the other direction: toward Ground Zero, where new glass-sheathed towers were rising to replace those destroyed on September 11, 2001.  The police, up-armored in full riot gear, with the sort of surveillance paraphernalia, helicopters, and high-tech cameras that were a far more minimal aspect of domestic policing before 9/11, were clearly thinking counter-terrorism. 

They were the representatives not just of New York’s billionaire mayor and the bankers and brokers who had previously made the area their own, but of the ever more militarized national security state that had blossomed like some errant set of weeds in the ruins of the World Trade Center towers.  They were domestic grunts for a new order in Washington as well as New York that has, by now, lost the ability to imagine solving problems in a civil and civilian fashion. 

They represent those who have ruled this country since 9/11 in the name of our safety and security, while they made themselves, and no one else, safe and secure.  It is an order that has based itself on kidnapping, torture, secret prisons, illegal surveillance, assassination, permanent war, militarized solutions to every problem under the sun, its own set of failed occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the closest of relations with a series of crony capitalist corporations intent on making money off anyone’s suffering as long as the going is good. 

Behind the police, directly or indirectly, stands that bureaucratic monster of post-9/11 domestic “safety,” the Department of Homeland Security.  And behind both of them, without a doubt, that giant tangle of agencies — 17 in all — with an $80 billion-plus budget that go under the rubric of “intelligence” and dwarf the intelligence bureaucracy of the Cold War era, when the U.S. actually had an enemy worth speaking of.

All of this is the spawn of the 9/11 moment, which is why, on November 15th when the NYPD entered the encampment at Zuccotti Park, a weaponless and peaceable spot filled with sleeping activists and the homeless, they used pepper spray, ripped and tore down everything, and tossed all 4,000 books from the OWS “library” into a dumpster, damaging or mangling most of them.  Books couldn’t escape the state’s violence, nor could the library’s tent, bookshelves, chairs, computers, periodicals, and archives.  Even librarians were arrested

Much was literally trashed and, though “books are pretty sturdy objects,” as one Zuccotti Park librarian wrote me, “when you throw them into a dumpster a lot of them get destroyed. We have recovered about one third of our books and of that number many are far too damaged to re-circulate.”  Novelist Salman Rushdie tweeted a perfectly reasonable response to the police action: “Please explain the difference between burning books and throwing thousands in the trash and destroying them.”

Stop for a moment and imagine what the headlines here would have been like if Iranian or Chinese police had broken into a peaceful oppositional encampment and literally trashed its library without a second thought.  The barbarians!  Imagine what a field day the pundits would have had.  Imagine what Fox News would have said. 

Nothing, of course, had to be this way.  That it was makes it part of the official legacy of 9/11 and Osama bin Laden.  In the wake of that day, this is what Washington did to itself, and so to us.  In the process, it did one other thing: it put the Constitution in the dumpster.  Which makes it stirring to see, as only TomDispatch regular Rebecca Solnit could see it, the return of civil society, of us.  We’re back on the scene a decade later, like the cavalry, and it might just be in the nick of time.  Tom

Civil Society at Ground Zero
You Can Crush the Flowers, But You Can’t Stop the Spring

By Rebecca Solnit

Last Tuesday, I awoke in lower Manhattan to the whirring of helicopters overhead, a war-zone sound that persisted all day and then started up again that Thursday morning, the two-month anniversary of Occupy Wall Street and a big day of demonstrations in New York City. It was one of the dozens of ways you could tell that the authorities take Occupy Wall Street seriously, even if they profoundly mistake what kind of danger it poses. If you ever doubted whether you were powerful or you mattered, just look at the reaction to people like you (or your children) camped out in parks from Oakland to Portland, Tucson to Manhattan.

Of course, “camped out” doesn’t quite catch the spirit of the moment, because those campsites are the way people have come together to bear witness to their hopes and fears, to begin to gather their power and discuss what is possible in our disturbingly unhinged world, to make clear how wrong our economic system is, how corrupt the powers that support it are, and to begin the search for a better way. Consider it an irony that the campsites are partly for sleeping, but symbols of the way we have awoken.

When civil society sleeps, we’re just a bunch of individuals absorbed in our private lives. When we awaken, on campgrounds or elsewhere, when we come together in public and find our power, the authorities are terrified.  They often reveal their ugly side, their penchant for violence and for hypocrisy.

Consider the liberal mayor of Oakland, who speaks with outrage of people camping without a permit but has nothing to say about the police she dispatched to tear-gas a woman in a wheelchair, shoot a young Iraq war veteran in the head, and assault people while they slept. Consider the billionaire mayor of New York who dispatched the NYPD on a similar middle-of-the-night raid on November 15th. Recall this item included in a bald list of events that night: “tear-gassing the kitchen tent.” Ask yourself when did kitchens really need to be attacked with chemical weapons?

Does an 84-year-old woman need to be tear-gassed in Seattle? Does a three-tours-of-duty veteran need to be beaten until his spleen ruptures in Oakland? Does our former poet laureate need to be bashed in the ribs after his poet wife is thrown to the ground at UC Berkeley? Admittedly, this is a system that regards people as disposable, but not usually so literally.

Two months ago, the latest protests against that system began.  The response only confirms our vision of how it all works. They are fighting fire with gasoline. Perhaps being frightened makes them foolish.  After all, once civil society rouses itself from slumber, it can be all but unstoppable. (If they were smart they’d try to soothe it back to sleep.) “Arrest one of us; two more appear. You can’t arrest an idea!” said the sign held by a man in a Guy Fawkes mask in reoccupied Zuccotti Park last Thursday.

Last Wednesday in San Francisco, 100 activists occupied the Bank of America, even erecting a symbolic tent inside it in which a dozen activists immediately took refuge. At the Berkeley campus of the University of California, setting up tents on any grounds was forbidden, so the brilliant young occupiers used clusters of helium balloons to float tents overhead, a smart image of defiance and sky-high ambition. And the valiant UC Davis students, after several of them were pepper-sprayed in the face while sitting peacefully on the ground, evicted the police, chanting, “You can go! You can go!” They went.

Occupy Oakland has been busted up three times and still it thrives. To say nothing of the other 1,600 occupations in the growing movement.

Alexander Dubcek, the government official turned hero of the Prague Spring uprising of 1968, once said, “You can crush the flowers, but you can’t stop the spring.”

The busting of Zuccotti Park and the effervescent, ingenious demonstrations elsewhere are a reminder that, despite the literal “occupations” on which this protean movement has been built, it can soar as high as those Berkeley balloons and take many unexpected forms. Another OWS sign, “The beginning is near,” caught the mood of the moment. Flowers seem like the right image for this uprising led by the young, those who have been most crushed by the new economic order, and who bloom by rebelling and rebel by blooming.

The Best and the Worst

Now world-famous Zuccotti Park is just a small concrete and brown marble-paved scrap of land surrounded by tall buildings. Despite the “Occupy Wall Street” label, it’s actually two blocks north of that iconic place. It’s rarely noted that the park is within sight of, and kitty-corner to, Ground Zero, where the World Trade Center towers crumbled.

What was born and what died that day a decade ago has everything to do with what’s going on in and around the park, the country, and the world now. For this, al-Qaeda is remarkably irrelevant, except as the outfit that long ago triggered an incident that instantly released both the best and the worst in our society.

The best was civil society. As I wandered in the Zuccotti Park area last week, I was struck again by how much what really happened on the morning of September 11th has been willfully misremembered. It can be found nowhere in the plaques and monuments. Firemen more than deserve their commemorations, but mostly they acted in vain, on bad orders from above, and with fatally flawed communications equipment. The fact is: the people in the towers and the neighborhood — think of them as civil society coming together in crisis — largely rescued themselves, and some of them told the firefighters to head down, not up.

We need memorials to the coworkers who carried their paraplegic accountant colleague down 69 flights of stairs while in peril themselves; to Ada Rosario-Dolch, the principal who got all of the High School for Leadership, a block away, safely evacuated, while knowing her sister had probably been killed in one of those towers; to the female executives who walked the blind newspaper seller to safety in Greenwich Village; to the unarmed passengers of United Flight 93, who were the only ones to combat terrorism effectively that day; and to countless, nameless others. We need monuments to ourselves, to civil society.

Ordinary people shone that morning. They were not terrorized; they were galvanized into action, and they were heroic. And it didn’t stop with that morning either.  That day, that week they began to talk about what the events of 9/11 actually meant for them, and they acted to put their world back together, practically and philosophically.  All of which terrified the Bush administration, which soon launched not only its “global war on terror” and its invasion of Afghanistan, but a campaign against civil society.  It was aimed at convincing each of us that we should stay home, go shopping, fear everything except the government, and spy on each other.

The only monument civil society ever gets is itself, and the satisfaction of continuing to do the work that matters, the work that has no bosses and no paychecks, the work of connecting, caring, understanding, exploring, and transforming. So much about Occupy Wall Street resonates with what came in that brief moment a decade before and then was shut down for years.

That little park that became “occupied” territory brought to mind the way New York’s Union Square became a great public forum in the weeks after 9/11, where everyone could gather to mourn, connect, discuss, debate, bear witness, share food, donate or raise money, write on banners, and simply live in public. (Until the city shut that beautiful forum down in the name of sanitation — that sacred cow which by now must be mating with the Wall Street Bull somewhere in the vicinity of Zuccotti Park.)

It was remarkable how many New Yorkers lived in public in those weeks after 9/11. Numerous people have since told me nostalgically of how the normal boundaries came down, how everyone made eye contact, how almost anyone could talk to almost anyone else. Zuccotti Park and the other Occupies I’ve visited — Oakland, San Francisco, Tucson, New Orleans — have been like that, too. You can talk to strangers. In fact, it’s almost impossible not to, so much do people want to talk, to tell their stories, to hear yours, to discuss our mutual plight and what solutions to it might look like.

It’s as though the great New York-centric moment of openness after 9/11, when we were ready to reexamine our basic assumptions and look each other in the eye, has returned, and this time it’s not confined to New York City, and we’re not ready to let anyone shut it down with rubbish about patriotism and peril, safety and sanitation.

It’s as if the best of the spirit of the Obama presidential campaign of 2008 was back — without the foolish belief that one man could do it all for civil society.  In other words, this is a revolt, among other things, against the confinement of decision-making to a thoroughly corrupted and corporate-money-laced electoral sphere and against the pitfalls of leaders. And it represents the return in a new form of the best of the post-9/11 moment.

As for the worst after 9/11 — you already know the worst. You’ve lived it.  The worst was two treasury-draining wars that helped cave in the American dream, a loss of civil liberties, privacy, and governmental accountability. The worst was the rise of a national security state to almost unimaginable proportions, a rogue state that is our own government, and that doesn’t hesitate to violate with impunity the Geneva Convention, the Bill of Rights, and anything else it cares to trash in the name of American “safety” and “security.”  The worst was blind fealty to an administration that finished off making this into a country that serves the 1% at the expense, or even the survival, of significant parts of the 99%. More recently, it has returned as another kind of worst: police brutality (speaking of blind fealty to the 1%).

Civil Society Gets a Divorce

You can think of civil society and the state as a marriage of convenience. You already know who the wife is, the one who is supposed to love, cherish, and obey: that’s us. Think of the state as the domineering husband who expects to have a monopoly on power, on violence, on planning and policymaking.

Of course, he long ago abandoned his actual wedding vows, which means he is no longer accountable, no longer a partner, no longer bound by the usual laws, treaties, conventions. He left home a long time ago to have a sordid affair with the Fortune 500, but with the firm conviction that we should continue to remain faithful — or else.  The post-9/11 era was when we began to feel the consequences of all this and the 2008 economic meltdown brought it home to roost.

Think of Occupy as the signal that the wife, Ms. Civil Society, has finally acknowledged that those vows no longer bind her either. Perhaps this is one reason why the Occupy movement seems remarkably uninterested in electoral politics while being political in every possible way. It is no longer appealing to that violent, errant husband.  It has turned its back on him — thus the much-decried lack of “demands” early on, except for the obvious demand the pundits pretended not to see: the demand for economic justice.

Still, Ms. Civil Society is not asking for any favors: she is setting out on her own, to make policy on a small scale through the model of the general assembly and on a larger scale by withdrawing deference from the institutions of power.  (In one symbolic act of divorce, at least three quarters of a million Americans have moved their money from big banks to credit unions since Occupy began.) The philandering husband doesn’t think the once-cowed wife has the right to do any of this — and he’s ready to strike back. Literally.

The Occupy movement has decided, on the other hand, that it doesn’t matter what he thinks. It — they — she — we soon might realize as well that he’s actually the dependent one, the one who rules at civil society’s will, the one who lives off her labor, her taxes, her productivity. Mr. Unaccountable isn’t anywhere near as independent as he imagines. The corporations give him his little treats and big campaign donations, but they, too, depend on consumers, workers, and ultimately citizens who may yet succeed in reining them in.

In the meantime, a domestic-violence-prone government is squandering a fortune on a little-mentioned extravagance in financially strapped American cities: police brutality, wrongful arrest, and lawsuits over civil-rights violations. New York City — recall those pepper-sprayed captive young women, that legal observer with a police scooter parked on top of him, and all the rest — you’re going to have a giant bill due in court, just as you did after the 2004 Republican convention fiasco: New York has spent almost a billion dollars paying for the collateral damage already done by its police force over the past dozen years.

The desperately impoverished city of Oakland paid out more than $2 million in recompense for the behavior of the Oakland Police at a nonviolent blockade at the Oakland Docks after the invasion of Iraq broke out in 2003, but seems to have learned nothing from it. Surely payouts in similar or larger quantities are due to be handed out again, money that could have gone to schools, community clinics, parks, libraries, to civilization instead of brutalization.

Out of the Ruins

Maybe the teardown of Zuccotti Park last Wednesday should be seen as a faint echo of the attacks of September 11, 2001. Structures, admittedly far more flimsy, were destroyed, violently, by surprise attack, and yet resolve was only strengthened — and what was lost?

The encampment had become crowded and a little chaotic. There was the admirable bustle of a village — bicycle-powered generators on which someone was often peddling; information, media, and medic sites whose staff worked devotedly; a kitchen dispensing meals to whoever came; and of course, the wonderful library dumpstered by the agents of the law. There were also a lot of people who had been drawn in by the free food and community, including homeless people and some disruptive characters, all increasingly surrounded by vendors of t-shirts, buttons, and other knick-knacks trying to make a quick buck.

One of the complicating factors in the Occupy movement is that so many of the thrown-away people of our society — the homeless, the marginal, the mentally ill, the addicted — have come to Occupy encampments for safe sleeping space, food, and medical care.  And these economic refugees were generously taken in by the new civil society, having been thrown out by the old uncivil one. 

Complicating everything further was the fact that the politicians and the mainstream media were more than happy to blame the occupiers for taking in what society as a whole created, and for the complications that then ensued. (No mayor, no paper now complains about the unsanitariness of throwing the homeless and others back onto the streets of our cities as winter approaches.)

Civil society contains all kinds of people, and all kinds have shown up at the Occupy encampments. The inclusiveness of such places is one of the great achievements of this movement.  (Occupy Memphis, for instance, has even reached out to Tea Party members.) Veterans, students, their grandparents, hitherto apolitical people, the employed and unemployed, the housed and the homeless, and people of all ages and colors have been drawn in along with the unions.  And yes, there are also a lot of young white activists, who can be thanked for taking on the hard work and heat. We can only hope that this broad coalition will hang together a while longer.

It Gets Better

And of course just as civil society is all of us, so some of us have crossed over to become that force known as the state, and even there, the response has been more varied than might be imagined. New York City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez got scraped up and arrested by the NYPD when he tried to walk past a barricade two blocks from Wall Street while the camp was being cleared. And retired New York Supreme Court judge Karen Smith got shoved around a little and threatened with arrest while acting as a legal observer.

A councilwoman in Tucson, Regina Romero, has become a dedicated advocate for the Occupy encampment there, and when the San Francisco police massed on the night of November 3rd, five supervisors, the public defender, and a state senator all came to stand with us. 

I got home at 2 a.m. that night and wrote, “Their vows to us felt like true representative democracy for the first time ever, brought to us by the power of direct democracy: the Occupy Movement. I thought of the Oath of the Horatii, David’s great painting in the spirit of the French Revolution. The spirit in the plaza was gallant, joyous, and ready for anything. A little exalted and full of tenderness for each other. Helicopters hovered overhead, and people sent back reports of buses and massed police in other parts of town. But they never arrived.”

Former Philadelphia Police Captain Ray Lewis actually came to Wall Street to get arrested last week. “They complained about the park being dirty,” he said. “Here they are worrying about dirty parks when people are starving to death, where people are freezing, where people are sleeping in subways, and they’re concerned about a dirty park. That’s obnoxious, it’s arrogant, it’s ignorant, it’s disgusting.”

And the Army, or some of its most honorable veterans, are with the occupiers, too. In the Bay Area, members of Iraq Veterans Against the War have been regular participants, and Occupy Wall Street has had its larger-than-life ex-marine, Shamar Thomas, clad in worn fatigues and medals.  He famously told off the NYPD early on: “This is not a war zone. These are unarmed people. It doesn’t make you tough to hurt these people. It doesn’t. Stop hurting these people!”

To my delight, at Occupy Wall Street I ran into him, almost literally, still wearing his fatigues and medals and carrying a sign that said, “There’s no honor in police brutality” on one side and “NO WAR” on the other. Which war — the ones in the Greater Middle East or on the streets of the U.S.A. — hardly seemed to matter: they’re one war now, the war of the 1% against the rest of us. I told him that his tirade was the first time I ever felt like the U.S. military had actually defended me.

Right now everyone is trying to figure out what happens next and quite a few self-appointed outside advisors are telling the Occupy movement exactly what to do (without all the bother of attending general assemblies and engaging in the process of working out ideas together). So far, the Occupy instigators and Occupy insiders have been doing a brilliant job of improvising a way that civil society can move forward into the unimaginable.

As for me, the grounds of my hope have always been that history is wilder than our imagination of it and that the unexpected shows up far more regularly than we ever dream. A year ago, no one imagined an Arab Spring, and no one imagined this American Fall — even the people who began planning for it this summer. We don’t know what’s coming next, and that’s the good news. My advice is just of the most general sort: Dream big. Occupy your hopes. Talk to strangers. Live in public. Don’t stop now.

I’m sure of one thing: there are a lot more flowers coming.

The first sign regular TomDispatch contributor Rebecca Solnit carried at an OWS protest said “99% hope. 1% fury.” The author of A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster and Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas, she is working, mostly from San Francisco, on her 14th book. And marching, occupying, and wondering.

Copyright 2011 Rebecca Solnit

Tomgram: Mike Davis, How Obama Became the Curator of the Bush Legacy

6:40 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

Tom Engelhardt

Tom Engelhardt

This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com

If I hear one more radio or TV journalist or pundit tell me what Mitt Romney must do, I think I’ll scream.  Election 2012 is still 14 months away and yet the nattering commentators, the Iowa straw poll — we were told it was meaningless and to prove it 800 reporters showed up from a downsizing media — the first “debates,” the instant rise and fall of possible candidates (and the ignoring of others) have already been part of the scenery for months.  If the job of journalists is now to tell us what Mitt Romney or any other candidate must do, then we, the viewers or listeners or readers, essentially become millions of mute political advisors in an endless campaign.

I mean what do I think Mitt Romney must do, now that what’s-his-name is on the rise and Michele Bachman’s advisors are jumping ship like so many proverbial rats, and what about that crowd in the Ronald Reagan library cheering Rick Perry’s Texas execution record, or the idea of social security as a Ponzi scheme, and — sorry to harp on it — but really what should Mitt do about the Tea Party, or evolution, or Obama-rama-care?  Or really, at this point, who cares?

And don’t think you can find relief by visiting oppositional websites online.  They’re already geared up 24/7 to feed off mainstream “reporting,” while discussing what Mitt and his pals have done — their gaffes, stupidities, idiocies, etc. — presumably for the next 14 months.  And here’s the shameful thing: they’re not even making real money off it!

For the mainstream media, especially TV, it’s another matter.  In fact, it’s one of the great, unmentioned conflict-of-interest stories of our time.  If, in a different context, someone was selling you on the importance of a phenomenon and at the same time directly benefiting from it, that would be considered a self-evident conflict of interest.  For campaign 2012, TV alone is likely to have close to $3 billion in ad money dropped into its electronic lap — especially if news shows can drum up attention for the eternal election season as the political event of a lifetime.  So whenever those pundits go on about Mitt and his musts, they are functionally shilling for their owners’ bottom lines, though no one in our world bothers to say so.

Focused on picking and handicapping candidates, the media version of the political campaign is a process which now begins the day after the previous campaign ends. Read the rest of this entry →

Tomgram: Engelhardt, Tear Down the Freedom Tower

4:38 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com

Let’s Cancel 9/11
Bury the War State’s Blank Check at Sea

By Tom Engelhardt

Let’s bag it.

I’m talking about the tenth anniversary ceremonies for 9/11, and everything that goes with them: the solemn reading of the names of the dead, the tolling of bells, the honoring of first responders, the gathering of presidents, the dedication of the new memorial, the moments of silence.  The works.

Let’s just can it all.  Shut down Ground Zero.  Lock out the tourists.  Close “Reflecting Absence,” the memorial built in the “footprints” of the former towers with its grove of trees, giant pools, and multiple waterfalls before it can be unveiled this Sunday.  Discontinue work on the underground National September 11 Museum due to open in 2012.  Tear down the Freedom Tower (redubbed 1 World Trade Center after our “freedom” wars went awry), 102 stories of “the most expensive skyscraper ever constructed in the United States.” (Estimated price tag: $3.3 billion.)  Eliminate that still-being-constructed, hubris-filled 1,776 feet of building, planned in the heyday of George W. Bush and soaring into the Manhattan sky like a nyaah-nyaah invitation to future terrorists.  Dismantle the other three office towers being built there as part of an $11 billion government-sponsored construction program.  Let’s get rid of it all.   If we had wanted a memorial to 9/11, it would have been more appropriate to leave one of the giant shards of broken tower there untouched.

Ask yourself this: ten years into the post-9/11 era, haven’t we had enough of ourselves?  If we have any respect for history or humanity or decency left, isn’t it time to rip the Band-Aid off the wound, to remove 9/11 from our collective consciousness?  No more invocations of those attacks to explain otherwise inexplicable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and our oh-so-global war on terror.  No more invocations of 9/11 to keep the Pentagon and the national security state flooded with money.  No more invocations of 9/11 to justify every encroachment on liberty, every new step in the surveillance of Americans, every advance in pat-downs and wand-downs and strip downs that keeps fear high and the homeland security state afloat.

The attacks of September 11, 2001 were in every sense abusive, horrific acts.  And the saddest thing is that the victims of those suicidal monstrosities have been misused here ever since under the guise of pious remembrance.  This country has become dependent on the dead of 9/11 — who have no way of defending themselves against how they have been used — as an all-purpose explanation for our own goodness and the horrors we’ve visited on others, for the many towers-worth of dead in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere whose blood is on our hands.

Isn’t it finally time to go cold turkey?  To let go of the dead?  Why keep repeating our 9/11 mantra as if it were some kind of old-time religion, when we’ve proven that we, as a nation, can’t handle it — and worse yet, that we don’t deserve it?

We would have been better off consigning our memories of 9/11 to oblivion, forgetting it all if only we could.  We can’t, of course.  But we could stop the anniversary remembrances.  We could stop invoking 9/11 in every imaginable way so many years later.  We could stop using it to make ourselves feel like a far better country than we are.  We could, in short, leave the dead in peace and take a good, hard look at ourselves, the living, in the nearest mirror.

Ceremonies of Hubris

Within 24 hours of the attacks of September 11, 2001, the first newspaper had already labeled the site in New York as “Ground Zero.”  If anyone needed a sign that we were about to run off the rails, as a misassessment of what had actually occurred that should have been enough.  Previously, the phrase “ground zero” had only one meaning: it was the spot where a nuclear explosion had occurred.

The facts of 9/11 are, in this sense, simple enough.  It was not a nuclear attack.  It was not apocalyptic.  The cloud of smoke where the towers stood was no mushroom cloud.  It was not potentially civilization ending.  It did not endanger the existence of our country — or even of New York City.  Spectacular as it looked and staggering as the casualty figures were, the operation was hardly more technologically advanced than the failed attack on a single tower of the World Trade Center in 1993 by Islamists using a rented Ryder truck packed with explosives.

A second irreality went with the first.  Almost immediately, key Republicans like Senator John McCain, followed by George W. Bush, top figures in his administration, and soon after, in a drumbeat of agreement, the mainstream media declared that we were “at war.”  This was, Bush would say only three days after the attacks, “the first war of the twenty-first century.”  Only problem: it wasn’t.  Despite the screaming headlines, Ground Zero wasn’t Pearl Harbor.  Al-Qaeda wasn’t Japan, nor was it Nazi Germany.  It wasn’t the Soviet Union.  It had no army, nor finances to speak of, and possessed no state (though it had the minimalist protection of a hapless government in Afghanistan, one of the most backward, poverty-stricken lands on the planet).

And yet — another sign of where we were heading — anyone who suggested that this wasn’t war, that it was a criminal act and some sort of international police action was in order, was simply laughed (or derided or insulted) out of the American room.  And so the empire prepared to strike back (just as Osama bin Laden hoped it would) in an apocalyptic, planet-wide “war” for domination that masqueraded as a war for survival.

In the meantime, the populace was mustered through repetitive, nationwide 9/11 rites emphasizing that we Americans were the greatest victims, greatest survivors, and greatest dominators on planet Earth.  It was in this cause that the dead of 9/11 were turned into potent recruiting agents for a revitalized American way of war.

From all this, in the brief mission-accomplished months after Kabul and then Baghdad fell, American hubris seemed to know no bounds — and it was this moment, not 9/11 itself, from which the true inspiration for the gargantuan “Freedom Tower” and the then-billion-dollar project for a memorial on the site of the New York attacks would materialize.  It was this sense of hubris that those gargantuan projects were intended to memorialize.

On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, for an imperial power that is distinctly tattered, visibly in decline, teetering at the edge of financial disaster, and battered by never-ending wars, political paralysis, terrible economic times, disintegrating infrastructure, and weird weather, all of this should be simple and obvious.  That it’s not tells us much about the kind of shock therapy we still need.

Burying the Worst Urges in American Life

It’s commonplace, even today, to speak of Ground Zero as “hallowed ground.”  How untrue.  Ten years later, it is defiled ground and it’s we who have defiled it.  It could have been different.  The 9/11 attacks could have been like the Blitz in London in World War II.  Something to remember forever with grim pride, stiff upper lip and all.

And if it were only the reactions of those in New York City that we had to remember, both the dead and the living, the first responders and the last responders, the people who created impromptu memorials to the dead and message centers for the missing in Manhattan, we might recall 9/11 with similar pride.  Generally speaking, New Yorkers were respectful, heartfelt, thoughtful, and not vengeful.  They didn’t have prior plans that, on September 12, 2001, they were ready to rally those nearly 3,000 dead to support.  They weren’t prepared at the moment of the catastrophe to — as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld so classically said — “Go massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not.”

Unfortunately, they were not the measure of the moment.  As a result, the uses of 9/11 in the decade since have added up to a profile in cowardice, not courage, and if we let it be used that way in the next decade, we will go down in history as a nation of cowards.

There is little on this planet of the living more important, or more human, than the burial and remembrance of the dead.  Even Neanderthals buried their dead, possibly with flowers, and tens of thousands of years ago, the earliest humans, the Cro-Magnon, were already burying their dead elaborately, in one case in clothing onto which more than 3,000 ivory beads had been sewn, perhaps as objects of reverence and even remembrance.  Much of what we know of human prehistory and the earliest eras of our history comes from graves and tombs where the dead were provided for.

And surely it’s our duty in this world of loss to remember the dead, those close to us and those more removed who mattered in our national or even planetary lives.  Many of those who loved and were close to the victims of 9/11 are undoubtedly attached to the yearly ceremonies that surround their deceased wives, husbands, lovers, children, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters.  For the nightmare of 9/11, they deserve a memorial.  But we don’t.

If September 11th was indeed a nightmare, 9/11 as a memorial and Ground Zero as a “consecrated” place have turned out to be a blank check for the American war state, funding an endless trip to hell.  They have helped lead us into fields of carnage that put the dead of 9/11 to shame.

Every dead person will, of course, be forgotten sooner or later, no matter how tightly we clasp their memories or what memorials we build.  In my mind, I have a private memorial to my own dead parents.  Whenever I leaf through my mother’s childhood photo album and recognize just about no one but her among all the faces, however, I’m also aware that there is no one left on this planet to ask about any of them.  And when I die, my little memorial to them will go with me.

This will be the fate, sooner or later, of everyone who, on September 11, 2001, was murdered in those buildings in New York, in that field in Pennsylvania, and in the Pentagon, as well as those who sacrificed their lives in rescue attempts, or may now be dying as a result.  Under such circumstances, who would not want to remember them all in a special way?

It’s a terrible thing to ask those still missing the dead of 9/11 to forgo the public spectacle that accompanies their memory, but worse is what we have: repeated solemn ceremonies to the ongoing health of the American war state and the wildest dreams of Osama bin Laden.

Memory is usually so important, but in this case we would have been better off with oblivion.  It’s time to truly inter not the dead, but the worst urges in American life since 9/11 and the ceremonies which, for a decade, have gone with them.  Better to bury all of that at sea with bin Laden and then mourn the dead, each in our own way, in silence and, above all, in peace.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s as well as The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, The United States of Fear (Haymarket Books), will be published in November. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s 100th Tomcast interview in which I discuss the role that the original 9/11 ceremonies played in the creation of TomDispatch.com click here, or download it to your iPod here.

[Note on further reading: I recommend two recent pieces that, amid the mountain of usual writing about 9/11 ten years later, have something out of the ordinary to say: Ariel Dorfman’s “Epitaph for Another September 11” in the Nation magazine on the two 9/11s and how differently two American nations reacted to their disasters, and Lawrence Weschler’s “Memory” in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the shame of a squandered decade.]

Copyright 2011 Tom Engelhardt

Tomgram: Noam Chomsky, The Imperial Mentality and 9/11

4:34 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com

This is, of course, the week before the tenth anniversary of the day that “changed everything.”  And enough was indeed changed that it’s easy to forget what that lost world was like.  Here’s a little reminder of that moment just before September 11, 2001:  

*****

The “usually disengaged” president, as New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd labeled him, had just returned from a prolonged, brush-cutting Crawford vacation to much criticism and a nation in trouble. (One Republican congressman complained that “it was hard for Mr. Bush to get his message out if the White House lectern had a ‘Gone Fishing’ sign on it.”) Democrats were on the attack. Journalistic coverage seemed to grow ever bolder. Bush’s poll figures were dropping. A dozen prominent Republicans, fearful of a president out of touch with the national mood, gathered for a private dinner with Karl Rove to “offer an unvarnished critique of Mr. Bush’s style and strategy.” Next year’s congressional elections suddenly seemed up for grabs. The president’s aides were desperately scrambling to reposition him as a more “commanding” figure, while, according to the polls, a majority of Americans felt the country was headed in the wrong direction. At the Pentagon, Donald Rumsfeld had “cratered”; in the Middle East “violence was rising.”

That’s a taste of the lost world of September 6-10, 2001 — a moment when the news was dominated by nothing more catastrophic than shark attacks off the Florida and North Carolina coasts — in a passage from a piece (“Shark-Bit World”) I wrote back in 2005 when that world was already beyond recovery.  A few days later, we would enter a very American hell, one from which we’ve never emerged, with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney leading the way.  Almost a decade later, Osama bin Laden may be dead, but his American legacy lives on fiercely in Washington policy when it comes to surveillance, secrecy, war, and the national security state (as well as economic meltdown at home).

This week, TomDispatch will attempt to assess that legacy, starting with this post by Noam Chomsky.  It’s a half-length excerpt from a new “preface” — actually a major reassessment of America’s war-on-terror decade — part of Seven Stories Press’s 10th anniversary reissue of his bestseller on 9/11.  Entitled 9-11: Was There an Alternative?, its official publication date is this Thursday, and it includes the full version of the new essay, as well as the entire text of the older book.  It can be purchased as an e-book and is being put out simultaneously in numerous languages including French, Spanish, and Italian. Thanks to the editors at Seven Stories, TomDispatch is releasing this excerpt exclusively, but be sure to get yourself a copy of the book for the complete version.  Tom

Was There an Alternative?
Looking Back on 9/11 a Decade Later

By Noam Chomsky

We are approaching the 10th anniversary of the horrendous atrocities of September 11, 2001, which, it is commonly held, changed the world. On May 1st, the presumed mastermind of the crime, Osama bin Laden, was assassinated in Pakistan by a team of elite US commandos, Navy SEALs, after he was captured, unarmed and undefended, in Operation Geronimo.

A number of analysts have observed that although bin Laden was finally killed, he won some major successes in his war against the U.S. “He repeatedly asserted that the only way to drive the U.S. from the Muslim world and defeat its satraps was by drawing Americans into a series of small but expensive wars that would ultimately bankrupt them,” Eric Margolis writes. “‘Bleeding the U.S.,’ in his words.” The United States, first under George W. Bush and then Barack Obama, rushed right into bin Laden’s trap… Grotesquely overblown military outlays and debt addiction… may be the most pernicious legacy of the man who thought he could defeat the United States” — particularly when the debt is being cynically exploited by the far right, with the collusion of the Democrat establishment, to undermine what remains of social programs, public education, unions, and, in general, remaining barriers to corporate tyranny.

That Washington was bent on fulfilling bin Laden’s fervent wishes was evident at once. As discussed in my book 9-11, written shortly after those attacks occurred, anyone with knowledge of the region could recognize “that a massive assault on a Muslim population would be the answer to the prayers of bin Laden and his associates, and would lead the U.S. and its allies into a ‘diabolical trap,’ as the French foreign minister put it.”

The senior CIA analyst responsible for tracking Osama bin Laden from 1996, Michael Scheuer, wrote shortly after that “bin Laden has been precise in telling America the reasons he is waging war on us. [He] is out to drastically alter U.S. and Western policies toward the Islamic world,” and largely succeeded: “U.S. forces and policies are completing the radicalization of the Islamic world, something Osama bin Laden has been trying to do with substantial but incomplete success since the early 1990s. As a result, I think it is fair to conclude that the United States of America remains bin Laden’s only indispensable ally.” And arguably remains so, even after his death.

The First 9/11

Was there an alternative? There is every likelihood that the Jihadi movement, much of it highly critical of bin Laden, could have been split and undermined after 9/11. The “crime against humanity,” as it was rightly called, could have been approached as a crime, with an international operation to apprehend the likely suspects. That was recognized at the time, but no such idea was even considered.

In 9-11, I quoted Robert Fisk’s conclusion that the “horrendous crime” of 9/11 was committed with “wickedness and awesome cruelty,” an accurate judgment. It is useful to bear in mind that the crimes could have been even worse. Suppose, for example, that the attack had gone as far as bombing the White House, killing the president, imposing a brutal military dictatorship that killed thousands and tortured tens of thousands while establishing an international terror center that helped impose similar torture-and-terror states elsewhere and carried out an international assassination campaign; and as an extra fillip, brought in a team of economists — call them “the Kandahar boys” — who quickly drove the economy into one of the worst depressions in its history. That, plainly, would have been a lot worse than 9/11.

Unfortunately, it is not a thought experiment. It happened. The only inaccuracy in this brief account is that the numbers should be multiplied by 25 to yield per capita equivalents, the appropriate measure. I am, of course, referring to what in Latin America is often called “the first 9/11”: September 11, 1973, when the U.S. succeeded in its intensive efforts to overthrow the democratic government of Salvador Allende in Chile with a military coup that placed General Pinochet’s brutal regime in office. The goal, in the words of the Nixon administration, was to kill the “virus” that might encourage all those “foreigners [who] are out to screw us” to take over their own resources and in other ways to pursue an intolerable policy of independent development. In the background was the conclusion of the National Security Council that, if the US could not control Latin America, it could not expect “to achieve a successful order elsewhere in the world.”

The first 9/11, unlike the second, did not change the world. It was “nothing of very great consequence,” as Henry Kissinger assured his boss a few days later.

These events of little consequence were not limited to the military coup that destroyed Chilean democracy and set in motion the horror story that followed. The first 9/11 was just one act in a drama which began in 1962, when John F. Kennedy shifted the mission of the Latin American military from “hemispheric defense” — an anachronistic holdover from World War II — to “internal security,” a concept with a chilling interpretation in U.S.-dominated Latin American circles.

In the recently published Cambridge University History of the Cold War, Latin American scholar John Coatsworth writes that from that time to “the Soviet collapse in 1990, the numbers of political prisoners, torture victims, and executions of non-violent political dissenters in Latin America vastly exceeded those in the Soviet Union and its East European satellites,” including many religious martyrs and mass slaughter as well, always supported or initiated in Washington. The last major violent act was the brutal murder of six leading Latin American intellectuals, Jesuit priests, a few days after the Berlin Wall fell. The perpetrators were an elite Salvadorean battalion, which had already left a shocking trail of blood, fresh from renewed training at the JFK School of Special Warfare, acting on direct orders of the high command of the U.S. client state.

The consequences of this hemispheric plague still, of course, reverberate.

From Kidnapping and Torture to Assassination

All of this, and much more like it, is dismissed as of little consequence, and forgotten. Those whose mission is to rule the world enjoy a more comforting picture, articulated well enough in the current issue of the prestigious (and valuable) journal of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. The lead article discusses “the visionary international order” of the “second half of the twentieth century” marked by “the universalization of an American vision of commercial prosperity.” There is something to that account, but it does not quite convey the perception of those at the wrong end of the guns.

The same is true of the assassination of Osama bin Laden, which brings to an end at least a phase in the “war on terror” re-declared by President George W. Bush on the second 9/11. Let us turn to a few thoughts on that event and its significance.

On May 1, 2011, Osama bin Laden was killed in his virtually unprotected compound by a raiding mission of 79 Navy SEALs, who entered Pakistan by helicopter. After many lurid stories were provided by the government and withdrawn, official reports made it increasingly clear that the operation was a planned assassination, multiply violating elementary norms of international law, beginning with the invasion itself.

There appears to have been no attempt to apprehend the unarmed victim, as presumably could have been done by 79 commandos facing no opposition — except, they report, from his wife, also unarmed, whom they shot in self-defense when she “lunged” at them, according to the White House.

A plausible reconstruction of the events is provided by veteran Middle East correspondent Yochi Dreazen and colleagues in the Atlantic. Dreazen, formerly the military correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, is senior correspondent for the National Journal Group covering military affairs and national security. According to their investigation, White House planning appears not to have considered the option of capturing bin Laden alive: “The administration had made clear to the military’s clandestine Joint Special Operations Command that it wanted bin Laden dead, according to a senior U.S. official with knowledge of the discussions. A high-ranking military officer briefed on the assault said the SEALs knew their mission was not to take him alive.”

The authors add: “For many at the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency who had spent nearly a decade hunting bin Laden, killing the militant was a necessary and justified act of vengeance.” Furthermore, “capturing bin Laden alive would have also presented the administration with an array of nettlesome legal and political challenges.” Better, then, to assassinate him, dumping his body into the sea without the autopsy considered essential after a killing — an act that predictably provoked both anger and skepticism in much of the Muslim world.

As the Atlantic inquiry observes, “The decision to kill bin Laden outright was the clearest illustration to date of a little-noticed aspect of the Obama administration’s counterterror policy. The Bush administration captured thousands of suspected militants and sent them to detention camps in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay. The Obama administration, by contrast, has focused on eliminating individual terrorists rather than attempting to take them alive.” That is one significant difference between Bush and Obama. The authors quote former West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, who “told German TV that the U.S. raid was ‘quite clearly a violation of international law’ and that bin Laden should have been detained and put on trial,” contrasting Schmidt with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who “defended the decision to kill bin Laden although he didn’t pose an immediate threat to the Navy SEALs, telling a House panel… that the assault had been ‘lawful, legitimate and appropriate in every way.’”

The disposal of the body without autopsy was also criticized by allies. The highly regarded British barrister Geoffrey Robertson, who supported the intervention and opposed the execution largely on pragmatic grounds, nevertheless described Obama’s claim that “justice was done” as an “absurdity” that should have been obvious to a former professor of constitutional law. Pakistan law “requires a colonial inquest on violent death, and international human rights law insists that the ‘right to life’ mandates an inquiry whenever violent death occurs from government or police action. The U.S. is therefore under a duty to hold an inquiry that will satisfy the world as to the true circumstances of this killing.”

Robertson usefully reminds us that “[i]t was not always thus. When the time came to consider the fate of men much more steeped in wickedness than Osama bin Laden — the Nazi leadership — the British government wanted them hanged within six hours of capture. President Truman demurred, citing the conclusion of Justice Robert Jackson that summary execution ‘would not sit easily on the American conscience or be remembered by our children with pride… the only course is to determine the innocence or guilt of the accused after a hearing as dispassionate as the times will permit and upon a record that will leave our reasons and motives clear.’”

Eric Margolis comments that “Washington has never made public the evidence of its claim that Osama bin Laden was behind the 9/11 attacks,” presumably one reason why “polls show that fully a third of American respondents believe that the U.S. government and/or Israel were behind 9/11,” while in the Muslim world skepticism is much higher. “An open trial in the U.S. or at the Hague would have exposed these claims to the light of day,” he continues, a practical reason why Washington should have followed the law.

In societies that profess some respect for law, suspects are apprehended and brought to fair trial. I stress “suspects.” In June 2002, FBI head Robert Mueller, in what the Washington Post described as “among his most detailed public comments on the origins of the attacks,” could say only that “investigators believe the idea of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon came from al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan, the actual plotting was done in Germany, and the financing came through the United Arab Emirates from sources in Afghanistan.”

What the FBI believed and thought in June 2002 they didn’t know eight months earlier, when Washington dismissed tentative offers by the Taliban (how serious, we do not know) to permit a trial of bin Laden if they were presented with evidence. Thus, it is not true, as President Obama claimed in his White House statement after bin Laden’s death, that “[w]e quickly learned that the 9/11 attacks were carried out by al-Qaeda.”

There has never been any reason to doubt what the FBI believed in mid-2002, but that leaves us far from the proof of guilt required in civilized societies — and whatever the evidence might be, it does not warrant murdering a suspect who could, it seems, have been easily apprehended and brought to trial. Much the same is true of evidence provided since. Thus, the 9/11 Commission provided extensive circumstantial evidence of bin Laden’s role in 9/11, based primarily on what it had been told about confessions by prisoners in Guantanamo. It is doubtful that much of that would hold up in an independent court, considering the ways confessions were elicited. But in any event, the conclusions of a congressionally authorized investigation, however convincing one finds them, plainly fall short of a sentence by a credible court, which is what shifts the category of the accused from suspect to convicted.

There is much talk of bin Laden’s “confession,” but that was a boast, not a confession, with as much credibility as my “confession” that I won the Boston marathon. The boast tells us a lot about his character, but nothing about his responsibility for what he regarded as a great achievement, for which he wanted to take credit.

Again, all of this is, transparently, quite independent of one’s judgments about his responsibility, which seemed clear immediately, even before the FBI inquiry, and still does.

Crimes of Aggression

It is worth adding that bin Laden’s responsibility was recognized in much of the Muslim world, and condemned. One significant example is the distinguished Lebanese cleric Sheikh Fadlallah, greatly respected by Hizbollah and Shia groups generally, outside Lebanon as well. He had some experience with assassinations. He had been targeted for assassination: by a truck bomb outside a mosque, in a CIA-organized operation in 1985. He escaped, but 80 others were killed, mostly women and girls as they left the mosque — one of those innumerable crimes that do not enter the annals of terror because of the fallacy of “wrong agency.” Sheikh Fadlallah sharply condemned the 9/11 attacks.

One of the leading specialists on the Jihadi movement, Fawaz Gerges, suggests that the movement might have been split at that time had the U.S. exploited the opportunity instead of mobilizing the movement, particularly by the attack on Iraq, a great boon to bin Laden, which led to a sharp increase in terror, as intelligence agencies had anticipated. At the Chilcot hearings investigating the background to the invasion of Iraq, for example, the former head of Britain’s domestic intelligence agency MI5 testified that both British and U.S. intelligence were aware that Saddam posed no serious threat, that the invasion was likely to increase terror, and that the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan had radicalized parts of a generation of Muslims who saw the military actions as an “attack on Islam.” As is often the case, security was not a high priority for state action.

It might be instructive to ask ourselves how we would be reacting if Iraqi commandos had landed at George W. Bush’s compound, assassinated him, and dumped his body in the Atlantic (after proper burial rites, of course). Uncontroversially, he was not a “suspect” but the “decider” who gave the orders to invade Iraq — that is, to commit the “supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole” for which Nazi criminals were hanged: the hundreds of thousands of deaths, millions of refugees, destruction of much of the country and its national heritage, and the murderous sectarian conflict that has now spread to the rest of the region. Equally uncontroversially, these crimes vastly exceed anything attributed to bin Laden.

To say that all of this is uncontroversial, as it is, is not to imply that it is not denied. The existence of flat earthers does not change the fact that, uncontroversially, the earth is not flat. Similarly, it is uncontroversial that Stalin and Hitler were responsible for horrendous crimes, though loyalists deny it. All of this should, again, be too obvious for comment, and would be, except in an atmosphere of hysteria so extreme that it blocks rational thought.

Similarly, it is uncontroversial that Bush and associates did commit the “supreme international crime” — the crime of aggression. That crime was defined clearly enough by Justice Robert Jackson, Chief of Counsel for the United States at Nuremberg.  An “aggressor,” Jackson proposed to the Tribunal in his opening statement, is a state that is the first to commit such actions as “[i]nvasion of its armed forces, with or without a declaration of war, of the territory of another State ….” No one, even the most extreme supporter of the aggression, denies that Bush and associates did just that.

We might also do well to recall Jackson’s eloquent words at Nuremberg on the principle of universality: “If certain acts in violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them, and we are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us.”

It is also clear that announced intentions are irrelevant, even if they are truly believed. Internal records reveal that Japanese fascists apparently did believe that, by ravaging China, they were laboring to turn it into an “earthly paradise.” And although it may be difficult to imagine, it is conceivable that Bush and company believed they were protecting the world from destruction by Saddam’s nuclear weapons. All irrelevant, though ardent loyalists on all sides may try to convince themselves otherwise.

We are left with two choices: either Bush and associates are guilty of the “supreme international crime” including all the evils that follow, or else we declare that the Nuremberg proceedings were a farce and the allies were guilty of judicial murder.

The Imperial Mentality and 9/11

A few days before the bin Laden assassination, Orlando Bosch died peacefully in Florida, where he resided along with his accomplice Luis Posada Carriles and many other associates in international terrorism. After he was accused of dozens of terrorist crimes by the FBI, Bosch was granted a presidential pardon by Bush I over the objections of the Justice Department, which found the conclusion “inescapable that it would be prejudicial to the public interest for the United States to provide a safe haven for Bosch.” The coincidence of these deaths at once calls to mind the Bush II doctrine — “already… a de facto rule of international relations,” according to the noted Harvard international relations specialist Graham Allison — which revokes “the sovereignty of states that provide sanctuary to terrorists.”

Allison refers to the pronouncement of Bush II, directed at the Taliban, that “those who harbor terrorists are as guilty as the terrorists themselves.” Such states, therefore, have lost their sovereignty and are fit targets for bombing and terror — for example, the state that harbored Bosch and his associate. When Bush issued this new “de facto rule of international relations,” no one seemed to notice that he was calling for invasion and destruction of the U.S. and the murder of its criminal presidents.

None of this is problematic, of course, if we reject Justice Jackson’s principle of universality, and adopt instead the principle that the U.S. is self-immunized against international law and conventions — as, in fact, the government has frequently made very clear.

It is also worth thinking about the name given to the bin Laden operation: Operation Geronimo. The imperial mentality is so profound that few seem able to perceive that the White House is glorifying bin Laden by calling him “Geronimo” — the Apache Indian chief who led the courageous resistance to the invaders of Apache lands. 

The casual choice of the name is reminiscent of the ease with which we name our murder weapons after victims of our crimes: Apache, Blackhawk… We might react differently if the Luftwaffe had called its fighter planes “Jew” and “Gypsy.”

The examples mentioned would fall under the category of “American exceptionalism,” were it not for the fact that easy suppression of one’s own crimes is virtually ubiquitous among powerful states, at least those that are not defeated and forced to acknowledge reality.

Perhaps the assassination was perceived by the administration as an “act of vengeance,” as Robertson concludes. And perhaps the rejection of the legal option of a trial reflects a difference between the moral culture of 1945 and today, as he suggests. Whatever the motive was, it could hardly have been security. As in the case of the “supreme international crime” in Iraq, the bin Laden assassination is another illustration of the important fact that security is often not a high priority for state action, contrary to received doctrine.

Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor emeritus in the MIT Department of Linguistics and Philosophy. He is the author of numerous bestselling political works, including 9-11: Was There an Alternative? (Seven Stories Press), an updated version of his classic account, just being published this week with a major new essay — from which this post was adapted — considering the 10 years since the 9/11 attacks.

Copyright 2011 Noam Chomsky

Tomgram: Stephan Salisbury, Extremism at Ground Zero (Again)

7:37 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

Hand it to Muslim terrorists, at least when it comes to truly long-term planning and the Fourteenth Amendment — according to Texas Republican Congressman Louie Gohmert.  On the floor of the House of Representatives, he recently offered the following explanation for his desire to change that amendment, which makes anyone born in this country a U.S. citizen:

“I talked to a retired FBI agent who said that one of the things they were looking at were terrorist cells overseas who had figured out how to game our system.  And it appeared they would have young women, who became pregnant, would get them into the United States to have a baby.  They wouldn’t even have to pay anything for the baby.  And then they would turn back where they could be raised and coddled as future terrorists.  And then one day, twenty… thirty years down the road, they can be sent in to help destroy our way of life.  ‘Cause they figured out how stupid we are being in this country to allow our enemies to game our system, hurt our economy, get setup in a position to destroy our way of life."

This may be mad, as well as a figment of Representative Gohmert’s feverish imagination.  It’s no joke, though, as Stephan Salisbury, author of Mohamed’s Ghosts: An American Story of Love and Fear in the Homeland, a rare reporter who has long been attending to what’s happening to Arab American communities in this country, indicates below.  The anger about the prospective “mosque at Ground Zero,” for instance, has caught the media eye, and in news reports has looked like a singularly strange “controversy” until last Sunday when the New York Times reported on several other examples, ranging from Tennessee to California, an indication of the sort of growing hysteria that two centuries ago here might have centered around imagined Catholic or Masonic plots. 

There’s no countering hysterias like this with reason or logic.  It doesn’t matter, for instance, that (as Justin Elliott pointed out recently in Salon.com) no “mosque” controversy ever developed around Pentagon prayer practices.  And yet Ramadan is celebrated in that building.  As the Washington Times reported in 2007, a Navy imam called to prayer 100 Department of Defense employees.  “Uniformed military personnel, civilians, and family members,” the Times’ reporter wrote, "faced Mecca and knelt on adorned prayer rugs chanting their prayers in quiet invocation to Allah.” All this happened, and continues to happen, not two blocks from Ground Zero, but, as Elliott writes, “inside the building where 184 people died on Sept. 11, 2001.”  It seems, however, that right-wing reverence for the U.S. military still exceeds right-wing mania about Muslims, and so “our infiltrated military” stories have yet to develop.

The present hysteria remains part of a process launched by the Bush administration in 2001 and since promoted by a veritable Fear Inc. in this country, which has blown anxieties about Islamic terrorism staggeringly (and profitably) out of all proportion, while turning this country into a nation of cowards.  But beware what you launch: often, you have no idea where it will end up — and in whose hands.  Tom

Mosque Mania 
Anti-Muslim Fears and the Far Right
 
By Stephan Salisbury

There is a distinct creepiness to the controversy now raging around a proposed Islamic cultural center in Lower Manhattan.  The angry “debate” over whether the building should exist has a kind of glitch-in-the-Matrix feel to it, leaving in its wake an aura of something-very-bad-about-to-happen.

It’s not just that opposition to the building has coalesced around a phony “Mosque at Ground Zero” shorthand (with its echoes of dust, death, and evildoers). Many have pointed out — futilely — that the complex will be more than two blocks from the former World Trade Center, around a corner on Park Place, and will feature an auditorium, spa, basketball court, swimming pool, classrooms, exhibition space, community meeting space, 9/11 memorial, and, yes, a prayer space for Muslims. The shorthand still sticks.

Nor is it just that this is only the most visible of a growing number of nasty controversies over proposed mosques in Tennessee, California, Georgia, Kentucky, Wisconsin, and Illinois as well as Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, and Midland Beach, Staten Island, in New York City.  Such protests are emerging with alarming frequency. Nor is it simply that political leaders — from Republican presidential wannabes to New York gubernatorial hopefuls — have sought to exploit the Lower Manhattan controversy. (Sarah Palin demanded that “peaceful Muslims” step up and “refudiate” the plan; Newt Gingrich denounced the building of such a “mosque” as long as Saudi Arabia bars construction of churches and synagogues; Rick Lazio, a Republican campaigning for the governorship of New York state, asserted that the plan somehow subverted the right of New Yorkers “to feel safe and be safe.”)

No, it’s the déjà-vu-ness of the controversy that kindles special unease, the sense that we’ve been here before as a country, and the realization that, for a decade, a significant number of our nation’s political leaders have been honing an anti-Muslim narrative which fertilizes anti-Muslim sentiment to the point where it is now spreading like a toxic plume, uncapped and uncontrollable.

The mosque controversy is not really about a mosque at all; it’s about the presence of Muslims in America, and the free-floating anxiety and fear that now dominate the nation’s psyche. The mere presence of Muslims at prayer is now enough to trigger angry protests, as Bridgeport, Connecticut, police discovered last week.  Those opposing the construction of the center in New York City are drawing on what amounts to a decade of government-stoked xenophobia about Muslims, now gathering strength and visibility in a nation full of deep economic anxieties and increasingly aggressive far-right grassroots groups. Lower Manhattan and Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and Temecula, California, are all in this together. And it is not going to go away simply because the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission gave its unanimous blessing to the Islamic center plan. Since that is the case, it’s worth pausing to consider what has happened here over the past 10 years.

Panic in the Streets

In the panicked wake of 9/11, revenge attacks on Muslims (and dark-skinned people mistaken for Muslims) swept the country. Hundreds of beatings and even some random reprisal killings were reported coast to coast.

On Sept. 17, 2001, the day after he told the nation that a “crusade” against terror was in order, President Bush stood in the Islamic Center of Washington and piously proclaimed that “Islam is peace.” At virtually the same moment across town, Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller III were at a press conference, announcing that 55,000 tips had flooded into their ballooning 9/11 investigation, an undisclosed number of immigration violators and uncharged material witnesses were being hauled into custody, Arabic and Farsi speakers were suddenly in demand at the FBI, and major legislation was already in the works to beef up government surveillance, immigration, and anti-terror capabilities. But no, Mueller said, there was nothing at all to complaints of ethnic targeting from Arab-American communities.

After the Patriot Act became law that October, Ashcroft launched a nationwide program of 5,000 “voluntary” interviews with Muslims from the Middle East. Internal Justice Department memos instructed interviewers to detain anyone suspected of immigration violations. “Let the terrorists among us be warned: If you overstay your visa — even by one day — we will arrest you,” Ashcroft proclaimed.

When that initial set of 5,000 interviews was deemed complete (leading to no terrorism arrests of any kind), Ashcroft announced that another 3,000 would be conducted. He vowed to find anyone who had skipped out on the previous “voluntary” round.

By the end of 2001, a minimum of 2,000 Middle Easterners and South Asians had been taken into custody, the vast majority without criminal charges of any kind being lodged. Arrests were often highly publicized; the aftermaths of those arrests were shrouded in secrecy as court and immigration hearings were closed to family, public, and press. Vague color-coded attack alerts were announced by federal officials, and citizens were instructed to be prepared for a second 9/11 at any time. In 2004, another round of 5,000 voluntary interviews with Arabs and Muslims was announced.

The FBI began toting up the number and location of mosques around the country. The Census Bureau was drawn into a scheme to identify and enumerate areas with large Middle Eastern populations. The Energy Department was engaged to monitor mosques for suspicious levels of radiation.

A year after the 9/11 attacks, a special immigration program was instituted that required men from two dozen predominantly Muslim nations (and North Korea) to register with immigration authorities. Nearly 84,000 did so, with about 3,000 abruptly detained and over 13,000 promptly subjected to deportation proceedings. Muslims began to “disappear” from the streets of America. Lawyers wearing yellow shirts with “Human Rights Monitor” written on the back sought to keep track of individuals heading into registration centers in New York and Los Angeles — and never leaving again.

Not surprisingly, this frenzy of law enforcement activity led many Americans to believe that there must be a dark reason so much attention was being paid to so many Muslims. By 2003, announcements of elaborate terror “plots” and investigations had already taken over the news.  These would regularly serve, like booster shots, to revitalize public suspicions that foul things were afoot. Muslims in Lodi, California, were plotting to blow up supermarkets. In Columbus, Ohio, they were targeting malls. In New York City, it was the Herald Square subway station.

Dozens and dozens of such cases have been reported over the past decade.  Virtually all of them involved Middle Eastern and South Asian Muslims.  Virtually none of the supposed plots had any chance of happening, and many were, in fact, fueled by zealous government informers and covert agents. As with the numerous immigration detentions and deportations in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, much publicity surrounded announcements that violent and deadly “jihadist” plots had been thwarted. Often, when the suspects finally came to trial, charges and evidence amounted to something far less ominous (and so, far less publicized).

Nevertheless, the threat, said authorities, was everywhere — even if it couldn’t be seen.

New Administration, Old Story

Throughout this period, the number of vigilante attacks on mosques, as well as individual Muslims, continued to rise, though these received little press attention. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) received 602 credible Muslim civil rights complaints in 2002, 1,019 in 2003, and 1,522 in 2004.Such complaints included 42 hate crimes reported in 2002, 93 in 2003, and 141 in 2004. CAIR also cited and described several significant acts of violence against mosques, including bombings and arson, but did not specify the figures. 

In its 2009 civil rights report, CAIR said it had processed 2,728 civil rights violations, including 721 that involved mosques or Muslim organizations, up from 221 mosque incidents in 2006. The organization expressed some optimism in its report, however, because there had been a decline in the number of reported hate crimes to 116 in 2008 from 135 the previous year. Again, CAIR reported serious mosque attacks and vandalism without separating out the figures.

It seems hardly coincidental, at this point, that when authorities announce another incident or terror plot — the failed effort to blow up an SUV in Times Square in May, for instance — random attacks on Muslims and Muslim institutions as well quickly follow.  For example, a bomb was detonated at a mosque in Jacksonville, Florida, shortly after the Times Square incident.  As the Lower Manhattan controversy spread in the news, arsonists attacked a mosque in Texas, and a church in Gainesville, Florida, announced that it would hold a bonfire of Qurans on the anniversary of 9/11.

The change in presidential administrations has had no discernable moderating effect on such passions. In fact, as if to assert its own toughness, the Obama administration has now given its tacit blessing to legislation introduced in Congress late in July by Adam Schiff, a congressman from California, that would carve out “terrorism exceptions” to constitutionally mandated Miranda warnings. The legislation would extend to up four days the period when law enforcement agents can question terrorism suspects without informing them of their right to remain silent and to receive the assistance of an attorney. If past is prelude, such exceptions will initially have a disproportionate impact on Middle Eastern and South Asian Muslims in America, only later spreading to wider groups of Americans taken into custody.

Parallel to the federal law-enforcement focus on Muslims, the past decade has witnessed a proliferation of anti-Muslim “analysts,” “terror experts,” political commentators, and websites. This burgeoning industry, focused on Muslims as virtually a fifth column seeking to take over the country, has attracted ever more media attention, particularly as FOX News has chronicled and promoted the rise of the Tea Party movement.

It is in this alternate universe, after so many years of heightened anti-Muslim sentiments, that a Lower Manhattan prayer space designed to promote reconciliation has become the dreaded Mosque at Ground Zero, a “monument that would consist of a mosque for the worship of the terrorists’ monkey-god,” as Mark Williams, then-chairman of a group known as the Tea Party Express, put it.

Waiting for the Demagogue

Here we come to the real source of unease over what’s now going on — the realization that we’ve seen something like this developing before, only it wasn’t diaperheads and terrorism inflaming the country. It was dirty commies and Jews then.

Sixty years ago, on February 9, 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy rose before a Republican women’s club in Wheeling, West Virginia, and delivered the famous speech in which he waved a sheet of paper and claimed that on it were the names of — there is dispute — 57 or 205 known communists “working and shaping policy in the State Department.”  In doing so, he put his incendiary, eponymous stamp on the most oppressive period of the Cold War, and as it turned out, the nation was ready for the message.

McCarthyism did not emerge on that cold day solely from the fevered imagination of the Wisconsin senator. There had been a drumbeat of anti-Communist red-baiting, hearings, speeches, treason charges, and grandstanding coming from Washington for years. The House Committee on Un-American Activities, anti-communist informer Whittaker Chambers, ambitious congressman Richard Nixon, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, President Harry Truman — all did yeoman’s work in preparing the soil for McCarthy and his reckless accusations of “20 years of treason!”

There are some substantial differences between then and now. Most importantly, McCarthy operated from within the political system, using his subcommittee chairmanship as a vehicle for pseudo-investigations and attacks. When his Senate colleagues turned on him following a particularly reckless campaign against the U.S. Army, McCarthy was stripped of his chairmanship and his power. A true demagogue, he had no organization to speak of, only those who feared him and those who followed him.

By contrast, while some extreme anti-Muslim sentiment is in evidence in Washington, the real juice for an anti-Muslim movement is now bubbling up outside the Beltway, much as virulent racist hysteria has, in the past, bubbled up from the grassroots. In that regard, it’s worth noting that about a third of America’s five to eight million Muslims are African American.

Some mainstream politicians have actually tried to tamp down the Lower Manhattan controversy.  New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has, for instance, made numerous comments in support of the project and the principle of freedom of religion that goes with it.  Such statements have, however, had little effect in quieting the dispute, countered as they are by opposition not only from the fringes, but from some mainstream Republican politicians and establishment non-governmental organizations. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), for example, recently came out with a statement opposing the construction plan, despite the fact that the rest of the opposition, the group said, exhibited elements of bigotry.  It is better to side with bigots, the ADL essentially argued, than ignore the post-9/11 “healing process.”

Because of the decentralized, grassroots nature of this anti-Muslim movement and the accompanying hysteria, it will be no easy task to put the mosque-at-Ground-Zero genie back in its bottle. Those who think that the decision by the New York City Landmarks Commission to clear the way for construction is likely to end the antagonism are undoubtedly engaged in wishful thinking. There are virtually endless potential flashpoints embedded along the road ahead, nor are the issue and its passions purely dependant on what happens in Manhattan, where a recent poll showed a majority of residents favor construction (although a majority of all New York City residents do not).

In California, those opposed to mosque construction in Temecula were urged to protest by rallying at the mosque with their dogs. Muslims “hate dogs,” an unsigned email alert erroneously claimed. Counter-demonstrators turned out.  There, too, the dispute continues. “The Islamic foothold is not strong here, and we really don’t want to see their influence spread,” Pastor Bill Rench of Temecula’s Calvary Baptist Church told the Los Angeles Times.  “There is a concern with all the rumors you hear about sleeper cells and all that. Are we supposed to be complacent just because these people say it’s a religion of peace? Many others have said the same thing.”

In Kentucky, a fledgling controversy over a proposed mosque in Florence, south of Cincinnati, is also spreading thanks to anonymous communications. One unsigned protest flyer stated that “Americans need to stop the takeover of our country, our government is not protecting us.”

Such sentiments are common to virtually all anti-Muslim protests: somehow, Muslims are taking over.  Oklahoma legislators, fearing the imposition of Islamic law in Oklahoma courts, have even asked voters to amend the state constitution to forbid it.  The government, increasing numbers of Americans evidently believe, is passively allowing Muslim subversion, and citizens need to defend themselves.

In Tennessee, a rancorous fight over a planned mosque in Murfreesboro has been rife with such sentiments. Lou Ann Zelenik, a Tennessee Republican congressional candidate locked in a tough primary race, denounced the mosque plan, characterized its leaders as foreign agents with a “radical agenda,” and received strong support from the Wilson County Tea Party, a local group.

On its website, the Tea Party curtsies to the U.S. Constitution and then quickly cuts to the chase: “But this question must be asked based on repeated violence committed by Islamists in the name of religion: Is Islam nothing more than a front for terrorism?”  Tennessee’s lieutenant governor, Ron Ramsey, a Republican candidate for governor, went out of his way last month to characterize Islam as a “cult” which may not warrant First Amendment protection: “You can even argue whether being a Muslim is actually a religion, or is it a nationality, a way of life, or a cult — whatever you want to call it…”

The proliferation of, and acceptance of, such talk, particularly from major political candidates, may be preparing the American ground for the emergence of a leader who can synthesize the demonizing and scapegoating of Muslims, fears augmented by severe economic anxiety, the maturing of extreme rightwing activism, and a widespread and growing contempt for official Washington. If that happens, the nation — and American Muslims — could face something far worse than McCarthy, who held sway in a golden era of rising expectations and general economic growth.

Mosque controversies will be the least of it then.

Stephan Salisbury is cultural writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer. His most recent book is Mohamed’s Ghosts: An American Story of Love and Fear in the Homeland (Nation Books).

[Note on further reading:  The CAIR 2005 report on civil rights abuses with some comparative statistics can be found in .pdf format here.  The CAIR 2009 report and statistics, also in .pdf format, can be found here.]

Copyright 2010 Stephan Salisbury