The American Lockdown State
Post-Legal Drones, the Bin Laden Tax, and Other Wonders of Our American World
By Tom Engelhardt
Consider Inauguration Day, more than two weeks gone and already part of our distant past. In its wake, President Obama was hailed (or reviled) for his "liberal" second inaugural address. On that day everything from his invocation of women's rights ("Seneca Falls"), the civil rights movement ("Selma"), and the gay rights movement ("Stonewall") to his wife's new bangs and Beyonce's lip-syncing was fodder for the media extravaganza. The president was even praised (or reviled) for what he took pains not to bring up: the budget deficit. Was anything, in fact, not grist for the media mill, the hordes of talking heads, and the chattering classes?
One subject, at least, got remarkably little attention during the inaugural blitz and, when mentioned, certainly struck few as odd or worth dwelling on. Yet nothing better caught our changing American world. Washington, after all, was in a lockdown mode unmatched by any inauguration from another era -- not even Lincoln's second inaugural in the midst of the Civil War, or Franklin Roosevelt's during World War II, or John F. Kennedy's at the height of the Cold War.
Here's how NBC Nightly News described some of the security arrangements as the day approached:
"[T]he airspace above Washington... [will be] a virtual no-fly zone for 30 miles in all directions from the U.S. capital. Six miles of the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers will be shut down, with 150 blocks of downtown Washington closed to traffic, partly out of concern for car or truck bombs... with counter-snipers on top of buildings around the capital and along the parade route... [and] detectors monitoring the air for toxins... At the ready near the capital, thousands of doses of antidotes in case of a chemical or biological attack" All this security will cost about $120 million dollars for hundreds of federal agents, thousands of local police, and national guardsmen from 25 states."
Consider just the money. It's common knowledge that, until the recent deal over the renewal of the George W. Bush tax cuts for all but the richest of Americans, taxes had not been raised since the read-my-lips-no-new-taxes era of his father. That's typical of the way we haven't yet assimilated the new world we find ourselves in. After all, shouldn't that $120 million in taxpayer money spent on "safety" and "security" for a single event in Washington be considered part of an ongoing Osama bin Laden tax?
Maybe it's time to face the facts: this isn't your grandfather's America. Once, prospective Americans landed in a New World. This time around, a new world's landed on us.
Making Fantasy Into Reality
Bin Laden, of course, is long dead, but his was the 9/11 spark that, in the hands of George W. Bush and his top officials, helped turn this country into a lockdown state and first set significant portions of the Greater Middle East aflame. In that sense, bin Laden has been thriving in Washington ever since and no commando raid in Pakistan or elsewhere has a chance of doing him in.
Since the al-Qaeda leader was aware of the relative powerlessness of his organization and its hundreds or, in its heyday, perhaps thousands of active followers, his urge was to defeat the U.S. by provoking its leaders into treasury-draining wars in the Greater Middle East. In his world, it was thought that such a set of involvements -- and the "homeland" security down payments that went with them -- could bleed the richest, most powerful nation on the planet dry. In this, he and his associates, imitators, and wannabes were reasonably canny. The bin Laden tax, including that $120 million for Inauguration Day, has proved heavy indeed.
In the meantime, he -- and 9/11 as it entered the American psyche -- helped facilitate the locking down of this society in ways that should unnerve us all. The resulting United States of Fear has since engaged in two disastrous more-than-trillion dollar wars and a "Global War on Terror" that shows no sign of ending in our lifetime. (See Yemen, Pakistan, and Mali.) It has also funded the supersized growth of a labyrinthine intelligence bureaucracy; that post-9/11 creation, the Department of Homeland Security; and, of course, the Pentagon and the U.S. military, including the special operations forces, an ever-expanding secret military elite cocooned within it.
Given the enemy at hand -- not a giant empire, but scattered jihadis and minority insurgencies in distant lands -- all of these institutions, which make up the post-9/11 National Security Complex, expanded in ways that would have boggled the minds of previous generations (as would that most un-American of all words, "homeland"). All of this, in turn, happened in a poisonously paranoid atmosphere in Washington, and much of the rest of the country.
Even if you ignore that Inauguration Day no-boating zone or the 30-mile no-fly zone (the sort of thing the U.S. once imposed on enemy lands and now imposes on itself), consider those "thousands of doses of antidotes in case of a chemical or biological attack." Just about nothing on this planet is utterly inconceivable, but it's worth noting that, as far as we know, the national security bureaucracy made no preparations for an unexpected tornado on Inauguration Day. Given recent extreme weather events, including tornado warnings for Washington, that would at least have been a plausible scenario to consider.
Certainly, a biological or chemical attack is a similarly imaginable possibility. After all, it actually happened in Tokyo in 1995, when followers of the Aum Shinrikyo cult set off Sarin gas in that city's subway system, killing 11. But the likelihood of any conceivable set of Islamic terrorists attacking those inaugural crowds with either chemical or biological weapons was, to say the least, microscopic. As something to protect Washington visitors against, it ranked at least on a par with the (nonexistent) post-9/11 al-Qaeda sleeper cells and sleeper-assassins so crucial to the plot of the TV show "Homeland."
And yet, in these years, what might have remained essentially a nightmarish fantasy has become an impending reality around which the national security folks organize their lives -- and ours. Ever since the now largely forgotten anthrax mail attacks that killed five soon after 9/11 -- the anthrax in those envelopes may have come directly from a U.S. bioweapons laboratory -- all sorts of fantastic scenarios involving biochemical attacks have become part and parcel of the American lockdown state.
In the Bush era, for instance, among the apocalyptic dream scenes the president and his top officials used to panic Congress into approving a much-desired invasion of Iraq were the possibility of future mushroom clouds over American cities and this claim: that Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein had drones (he didn't) and the means to get them to the East Coast of the U.S. (he didn't), and the ability to use them to launch attacks in which chemical and biological weaponry would be sprayed over U.S. cities (he didn't). This was a presidentially promoted fantasy of the first order, but no matter. Some senators actually voted to go to war at least partially on the basis of it.