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Tomgram: Engelhardt, A Ripley's Believe It or Not National Security State

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Headlined to H3 1/6/14

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

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: We're back, ready  to roll in 2014.  On Tuesday, expect a major story from Nick Turse. In  the meantime, I just wanted to thank you again for your staggering  generosity toward this website as 2013 ended. (The donations poured  in!) Your support truly means the world to us and is a moving vote of  confidence in what we do and plan to keep doing. A deep bow to all of  you as the new year begins. Tom]

American Jihad 2014
The New Fundamentalists
By Tom Engelhardt

In a 1950s civics textbook of mine, I can remember a Martian landing  on Main Street, U.S.A., to be instructed in the glories of our political  system.  You know, our tripartite government, checks and balances,  miraculous set of rights, and vibrant democracy.  There was, Americans  then thought, much to be proud of, and so for that generation of  children, many Martians were instructed in the American way of life.   These days, I suspect, not so many.

Still, I wondered just what lessons might be offered to such a  Martian crash-landing in Washington as 2014 begins.  Certainly checks,  balances, rights, and democracy wouldn't top any New Year's list.  Since  my childhood, in fact, that tripartite government has grown a fourth  part, a national security state that is remarkably unchecked and  unbalanced.  In recent times, that labyrinthine structure of  intelligence agencies morphing into war-fighting outfits, the U.S.  military (with its own secret military, the special operations forces,  gestating inside it), and the Department of Homeland Security, a  monster conglomeration of agencies that is an actual "defense  department," as well as a vast contingent of weapons makers,  contractors, and profiteers bolstered by an army of lobbyists, has never  stopped growing.  It has won the undying fealty of Congress, embraced  the power of the presidency, made itself into a jobs program for the  American people, and been largely free to do as it pleased with almost  unlimited taxpayer dollars.

The expansion of Washington's national security state -- let's call  it the NSS -- to gargantuan proportions has historically met little  opposition.  In the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations, however, some resistance has arisen, especially when it comes to the "right" of one part of the NSS to turn the world into a listening post and gather, in particular, American communications of every sort.  The  debate about this -- invariably framed within the boundaries of whether  or not we should have more security or more privacy and how exactly to  balance the two -- has been reasonably vigorous.  The problem is: it  doesn't begin to get at the real nature of the NSS or the problems it  poses.

If I were to instruct that stray Martian lost in the nation's  capital, I might choose another framework entirely for my lesson.  After  all, the focus of the NSS, which has like an incubus grown to  monumental proportions inside the body of the political system, would  seem distinctly monomaniacal, if only we could step outside our normal  way of thinking for a moment.  At a cost of nearly a trillion dollars a year, its main global enemy consists of thousands of lightly armed jihadis and wannabe jihadis scattered mainly across the backlands of the planet.  They are capable  of causing genuine damage -- though far less to the United States than  numerous other countries -- but not of shaking our way of life.  And yet for the leaders, bureaucrats, corporate cronies, rank and file, and acolytes of the NSS, it's a focus that can never be intense enough on behalf of a  system that can never grow large enough or be well funded enough.

None of the frameworks we normally call on to understand the national  security state capture the irrationality, genuine inanity, and actual  madness that lie at its heart.  Perhaps reimagining what has developed  in these last decades as a faith-based system -- a new national religion  -- would help.  This, at least, is the way I would explain the new  Washington to that wayward Martian.

Holy Warriors

Imagine what we call "national security" as, at heart, a proselytizing warrior religion.  It has its holy orders.  It has its sacred texts (classified).  It has its dogma and its warrior priests.  It has its sanctified promised land, known as "the homeland."  It has its seminaries, which we call think tanks.  It is a monotheistic faith in that it broaches no alternatives to itself.  It is Manichaean in its view of the world.  As with so many religions, its god is an eye in the sky, an all-seeing Being who knows your secrets.

Edward Snowden, the man who in 2013 pulled back the curtain on part of this system, revealing its true nature to anyone who cared to look, is an apostate, never to be forgiven by those in its holy orders.  He is a Judas to be hunted down, returned to the U.S., put on trial as a "traitor," and then -- so say some retired NSS warriors (who often channel the opinions and feelings of those still in office) -- hung by the neck until dead or swung "from a tall oak tree."

Al-Qaeda is, of course, the system's Devil, whose evil seed is known to land and breed anywhere on the planet from Sana'a, Yemen, to Boston, Massachusetts, if we are not eternally and ever more on guard.  In the name of the epic global struggle against it and the need to protect the homeland, nothing is too much, no step taken a point too far.  (As the Devil is traditionally a shape-shifter, able to manifest himself in many forms, it is, however, possible that tomorrow's version of him may be, say, China.)

The leaders of this faith-based system are, not surprisingly, fundamentalist true believers.  They don't wear long beards, wave the Koran, shout "Death to the Great Satan," or live in the backlands of the planet.  Instead, they speak bureaucratically, tend to sport military uniforms and medals, and inhabit high-tech government facilities.  Fundamentalist as they are, they may not, in the normal sense, be religious at all.  They are not obliged to believe in the importance of being "born again" or fear being "left behind" in a future End Times -- though such beliefs don't disqualify them either.

They issue the equivalent of fatwas against those they proclaim to be their enemies.  They have a set of Sharia-like laws, both immutable and flexible.  Punishments for breaking them may not run to stoning to death or the cutting off of hands, but they do involve the cutting off of lives.

Theirs is an implacable warrior religion, calling down retribution on people often seen only poorly by video feed, thousands of miles distant from Washington, D.C., Langley, Virginia, or Fort Meade, Maryland.  It's no mistake that the weapons fired by their fleet of drone aircraft are called Hellfire missiles, since it is indeed hellfire and brimstone that they believe they are delivering to the politically sinful of the world.  Nor is it a happenstance that the planes which fire those missiles have been dubbed Predators and Reapers (as in "Grim"), for they do see themselves as the annointed deliverers of Death to their enemies.

While they have a powerful urge to maintain the faith the American public has in them, they also believe deeply that they know best, that their knowledge is the Washington equivalent of God-given, and that the deepest mysteries and secrets of their faith should be held close indeed.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
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And it ruins, destroys, or kills anyone who is a g... by Derryl Hermanutz on Friday, Jan 10, 2014 at 4:53:04 PM