Saturday, September 10, 2011

National Security and the American People — "Boiling the Frog"

At his 1933 inauguration, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke about fear, a declaration that bears repeating in these times: "So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear... is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance".

FDR was referring to economic problems, and may have slightly overstated his point, but he was mostly correct. Nowadays, his words might well be applied, with equal accuracy, to the issue of terrorism. We've come a long way since September 11, 2001; unfortunately the journey has been very much in the wrong direction. Since 9/11, Americans have made fear into an art form, and dangerously incorporated it into our political, legal, economic, and social systems. We've begged our government to protect us from terrorism risks that are not only quite small by absolute metrics but also completely dwarfed by other dangers. Consider: In the ten years since 9/11, approximately 380,000 Americans have died in motor vehicle accidents, more than 125 times as many as were killed by those airline terrorists. During the past ten years, heart disease has claimed over 6 million American lives, more than 2,000 times as many as were lost on 9/11. Even as I type this, perhaps a fatal obstruction is forming in one of my arteries — or yours. Irrespective of terrorism, our lives are finite, as are our resources. Reason suggests that efforts and expenditures should be at least roughly related to risk and benefit, but that basic principle is grossly violated by most of our terrorism-rationalized security actions (including our current Afghanistan presence). Despite their grandiose aspirations and occasional tragic impacts, terrorists are unlikely to be more than a small pit in the windshield of history for most Americans, and in the grand scheme of things. But as we continue to pour a fortune down the anti-terrorism rat-hole, the opportunity costs mount, and this nation slips further into decline. A deteriorated infrastructure, a priority on military and security spending, the off-shoring of manufacturing (unless the product is missiles or warplanes), a blank check for the financial manipulators, free rein for corporations, indifference to human needs and planetary ecological woes — what an embarrassing legacy this nation seems intent on leaving.

An even larger indirect danger exists, one entirely of our own making. Establishing a multitude of so-called "security" measures during the past ten years, both Republican and Democratic politicians together with enabling judges and the security-industrial complex have been all too eager to shred more than 200 years of Constitutional safeguards. Seeking absolute safety from terrorism, we are building an infrastructure for tyranny. And make no mistake, tyranny is by far the greater danger, clearly demonstrated by history. The three major totalitarian states of the 20th century are estimated to be collectively responsible for over 100 million deaths, many of them their own citizens. (See Matthew White's detailed compilation of casualties at for a sobering perspective on risk).

In many ways the issue of airline security is emblematic of what is wrong — and perhaps indicative of a broad solution. Beyond the danger from their contribution to the developing surveillance infrastructure and the way they condition us to accept totalitarian-style control, the airline "security" measures that have been imposed are also absurd, for they are neither likely to stop a knowledgeable determined terrorist, nor particularly effective compared to alternate methods, nor warranted by the actual threat level (which, even including 9/11, is statistically less than the risk of choking to death on a piece of food). Between the airlines which already treat their customers like livestock and the security apparatchiki who treat them like criminals, the situation for sentient commercial airline passengers has become intolerable. Yet, like sheep, so many passengers put up with it, applaud it, even bleat for more.

Several years ago, I decided that I would not fly until the treatment of passengers improved substantially. I haven't flown since. If enough people simultaneously boycotted the airlines for a sufficiently long time — one year of serious boycott should get their attention — we might see the necessary improvement. Some believe that we should tolerate absurdity and abuse; I suggest that the next twelve months be a self-imposed no-fly year for anyone who wishes to retain any self-respect (and actually see "change we can believe in"). Supplement that with a determination not to patronize stores, malls, cities, counties, and states where either rent-a-cops or official law enforcement violate common decency and infringe civil liberties — and inform management, government, and news media in those locations of the reason you are withholding spending. The boycott is a non-violent tactic with a long and largely honorable history, and some notable successes such as during the struggle for desegregation. It is broadly applicable across a wide range of corporate-governmental policies, and it may be the only tactic that corporate America and its governmental lackeys cannot easily dismiss.

As a closing note, I recommend that current politicians, would-be politicians, and security policy-makers and enforcers, whether they fly or not, all undergo mandatory full body searches and scans — but with particular focus on the cranium, to determine whether they have any common sense, any comprehension of relative risk, any appreciation of opportunity costs and the need for moral uses of capital, any understanding of historical paths to tyranny, and any belief in the value of liberty. What I fear is that they do not.

Fred Drumlevitch


  1. Valerie Long TweedieSeptember 10, 2011 at 9:06 PM


    This is a really outstanding analysis of our national security state and the terrible price we are paying in terms of our democracy. I will write more in another comment, but I can see by the clock that my very limited time in the library (our Internet has been down for over a week at home) is about to expire. - Just wanted to thank you for your thought provoking essay.

  2. Thanks for the compliment, Valerie.

    By the way, I want to compliment you on the important point that you made over at RealityChex the other day, that those of us to the left of center shouldn't automatically demonize all conservatives, that even some of those we think of as irrational rightists may — sometimes — have some legitimate grievances and objections, objective consideration of which may produce some common ground and beneficial results. We shouldn't bend over backwards (or is it forward?) for them, as Obama has done, but we should retain objectivity. And that other point you made there, about television entertainment helping to insidiously manufacture consent for hyper-security, is very true.

  3. Fred, this is indeed an editorial that should appear in the mainstream press. Instead, papers fill their columns with ruminations on 9/11 and its aftermath by discredited neocons and other bottom feeders from the stagnant pools of policy think tanks. These are the wisdom figures who led the nation astray. Why are they still being consulted?

    I would draw your attention to the feature article "Did the U.S. Overreact?" in the WSJ of September 9. There "experts" Paul Wolfowitz, Mark Helprin, Robert Mcfarlane, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Leon Wieseltier and Joe Lieberman lay the foundation for ten more years of disproportionate fear, state-sponsored slaughter and the steady curtailment of civil liberties at home and abroad.

    The fear business is "rational" only when we understand it in the way Naomi Klein described it in "The Shock Doctrine" -- as an excuse to expand wild capitalism and diminish the push back power of ordinary citizens.

    For a stiff chaser to maudlin and self-serving articles about 9/11 in the MSM , I would strongly recommend this from TomDispatch: "Let's Cancel 9/11: Burry the War State's Blank Check at Sea."

  4. I forgot to add approval of your idea about boycotts. Boycotts are something just about everybody can do, with great effect, without waiting for the spark, a third party or a new national leader. It is also a measure of commitment to our own professions of distaste for wild and abusive capitalism.

  5. @Jay - Ottawa:

    Thanks for the compliment, and thanks for the reading recommendations.

    With regard to the WSJ "9/11: Did the U.S. Overreact?", yeah, their article was mostly poor rationalizations of the past ten years, undoubtedly with intent to project similar action forward, as you concluded. I was particularly struck by Robert McFarlane's statement: "However ill-conceived politically, the war in Iraq has been executed extremely well militarily." What alternative reality does the man inhabit?

    With regard to the TomDispatch article, it was an absolutely correct and relevant analysis. (I periodically check TomDispatch, but hadn't done so for a few weeks, so I hadn't seen it prior to your mention of it). To borrow Karen Garcia's recent Sardonicky allusions to advertising as political metaphor, the military-industrial-financial-governmental-imperial complex will continue the 9/11 "advertising campaign" as long as it continues to work to get Americans to "buy" the ideology it is selling, and therefore the complex's continued power; when it stops working for that purpose, they'll either create or latch on to some new crisis, and new "campaign".

    I keep meaning to read Naomi Klein's "The Shock Doctrine", but haven't gotten around to it. Next up (when I can find some time) are Tom Engelhardt's "The American Way of War", and Andrew Bacevich's "Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War", both of which I bought three days ago.

  6. "Seeking absolute safety from terrorism, we are building an infrastructure for tyranny. And make no mistake, tyranny is by far the greater danger, clearly demonstrated by history." Brilliant statement, Fred. I think what many progressives are starting to fear is just that, tyranny. I certainly am. I have written elsewhere that I have friends who are afraid to attend the protest in Washington DC in October for fear of reprisal. They are either afraid they will be arrested and then will have a record, or are afraid that with all the technology their very presence will noted and ultimately punished. This sentiment really scares me and I think it is more widespread than we realise. I think it was William (who sometimes comments on Sardonicky) who pointed out that the young people, understanding the power of these new technologies, understand that their presence can be monitored and punished – if nothing more than it will keep them from getting employment – and this explains their reluctance to take part in protests.

    As I see it, Bush/Cheney had a diabolical but brilliant three pronged strategy that has been either made worse by Obama or not countered by Obama. First, was to load up all the lower courts and regulatory agencies with pro-corporate lackeys. Second, to use 9/11 as an excuse to erode as many civil rights as possible. I have said it for ten years, 9/11 was Bush/Cheney's Burning of the Reichtag. It allowed them, in the name of keeping the American people safe from terrorism, to override our civil liberties with the Patriot Act and other national security legislation. Third, by weakening the regulatory agencies and the oversight, they continued what was started under Clinton, turning the power of our government over to the plutocracy.

    I do think there will be a point in the future when Americans will have enough. They will remember what they had, both materially and in terms of security (jobs, retirement, health care) and they will be angry and frustrated at losing it. It is not that people will decide to be violent; it is that the frustration inside of them will burst out them. They will be (and are) like dry tinder and the spark that will cause the fire is that one final insult – that one final frustration or indignity. Their pain and suffering will be untenable and they will be looking for someone to blame – the government and the corporations and banks who run the government. At that point, like in all countries with tyrannical rulers/governments, the government will use the national security agencies against its own people – in the name of law and order.

    From time to time my husband wants to watch American television and I have noticed that several popular “cop” shows have characters that use threats of extraordinary rendition or calling in Homeland Security to get the bad guys to talk. Of course, the public mindlessly watching these shows thinks it is great; the government finally has the power to make these bad guys shake in their shoes. But to me the reaction is the same reaction people used to have about the S.S. in old WWII movies. Call in the S.S. and people disappear to experience a fate no one wants to think about. It makes me wonder if it is just more of the brainwashing that the citizens of the U.S. are getting which keeps them compliant about forgoing their civil rights in favour of safety – safety from an “other” which you have pointed out isn’t even that much of a threat.

  7. So the Bottom Line is ----?

    For the middle class and poor, Civil Liberties are more important than Economic Security. By jumping up and down about deficits, safety nets, jobs and income disparity (brought about by bold theft by Wall Street and the big corporations), we have taken our eye off the real prize or the center ring of the circus in DC. It's not the economy, stupid. The economy is a sideshow.

    The real issue at stake here is the Bill of Rights, which our Ur-Fascists are more interested in taking away from us all. Not "Your money or your life," to quote the highway robber, but "Your money AND your life" (as a free citizen with rights). The middle class will never recover its old economic status, nor will it ever again enjoy the array of civil liberties once guaranteed to all, the rights that were a follow-through to the Declaration of Independence.

    Scarier than being poor is the state of being subject to tyranny.

  8. Excellent essay, Fred. I for one am glad the 9/11 festivities are over. Speaking of boycotting air travel: remember the nationwide "Say Nope to the Grope" protest being hyped for Thanksgiving Eve (busiest travel day of the year), and about a dozen people showed up? Even atrocities such as abusing children and terminally ill elders have not put a dent in sadistic security theater. Ditto for domestic spying. Oh, but Janet Napolitano thinks we should all thank her because pretty soon we won't have to take off our shoes. Whoopdy-doo.
    As long as we are recommending reading material, I highly suggest a book called "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed" by Jared Diamond. Some of it is a bit plodding and pedantic, but compelling. The author illustrates how societies, such as the Mayan and Norse Greenland, have failed due to extreme concentration of wealth at the top, clinging to groupthink, failure to respect the environment, and so on. The USA is doomed, unless we change direction fast and radically.

  9. Thanks Valerie, Jay, and Karen for your compliments — and insightful comments, here and in other forums.

    A New York Times Op-Ed of relevance to this thread:


    Yes, I know I may be tilting at windmills in urging an airline boycott, especially in light of the past meager response to calls for protest against airline security abuses — but perhaps it's not totally quixotic. There is the possibility that the past low level of protest was due to general fear of the consequences of anything that might, however erroneously, be construed as interfering with airline "security". Those consequences could include anything from missing one's flight, to arrest and legal costs, to a scarlet letter associated with one's person that, in an ill-defined way, would impede future travel or employment. What I'm urging — a total economic boycott of airlines and other venues where infringement of fundamental civil liberties occurs — takes place at an earlier, separate stage and therefore holds none of those aforementioned consequences. Such a boycott really carries no risk, and requires only that enough Americans value liberty, take offense at absurdity, and keep their wallets closed. That still may be too much to expect in twenty-first century America, but I hope not.


    Well put, when you say with regard to us all that the "Ur-fascists" want "your money AND your life". For some of them, the goal is simply power; for many, though, I believe that in the time-honored tradition of oligarchy and tyranny, they know that reducing the rights of the populace greatly facilitates the long-term taking of the people's money.

  10. @Valerie:

    Yes, intimidation and its handmaiden, fear, have been and remain the keystones of tyranny. But modern sophisticated propaganda techniques applied to a (truth be told) rather ignorant and psychologically-insecure American populace have taken us even further than that old characterization "the manufacture of consent". As you wrote, many Americans actually cheer the violation of civil liberties and constitutional rights both in fictional entertainment and in real life. That, I believe, is a dangerous trend in popular perception and behavior; oppressive measures are then not just borne by the populace, they are often being demanded by them.

    You're correct in labeling the political actions of Bush and Cheney as a multi-pronged strategy, though I would say that it had more than three parts, and I might differ with you a bit on the specifics.

    I think you are completely right about them loading up the courts and regulatory agencies with their lackeys. That, particularly the courts, produced harm that will last for decades. But for a very long time, Democrats have been complicit and/or incompetent about the process. While Republicans have shown no hesitation in putting forward right-wing ideologues as nominees, and blocking very moderate Democratic ones, Democratic politicians have been intimidated wimps in both the nomination and confirmation processes.

    With regard to Bush/Cheney's use of 9/11 to severely abrogate civil liberties, true, but I would argue that it wasn't 9/11 itself as much as the subsequent anthrax attacks that stand as this nation's "Reichstag Fire" equivalent. That's what really ramped up the fear, just as Congress was considering more 9/11 legislation. In my opinion, the proven U.S. origin of the anthrax strain, together with the U.S. bioweapons lab connections and other loose ends, plus the timing, and ample right-wing motive, seals the anthrax attacks as a deliberate attempt to amass governmental power.

    As to other elements of the multi-pronged Republican strategy, I would also note their actions to hijack religion for their cause, and delegitimize public education, which, based on your past as a teacher (noted in your guest post at Sardonicky), you are undoubtedly well aware of. One might also toss in the way they have successfully pushed privatization of many other governmental functions (seen most extremely in military and security areas), and tarred the concept of governmental planning.