I never fail to be amazed — and that’s undoubtedly my failing. I mean, if you retain a capacity for wonder you can still be awed by a sunset, but should you really be shocked that the sun is once again sinking in the West? Maybe not.
The occasion for such reflections: machine guns in my hometown. To be specific, several weeks ago, New York Police Commissioner William J. Bratton announced the formation of a new 350-officer Special Response Group (SRG). Keep in mind that New York City already has a police force of more than 34,000 — bigger, that is, than the active militaries of Austria, Bulgaria, Chad, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Kenya, Laos, Switzerland, or Zimbabwe — as well as its own “navy,” including six submersible drones. Just another drop in an ocean of blue, the SRG will nonetheless be a squad for our times, trained in what Bratton referred to as “advanced disorder control and counterterror.” It will also, he announced, be equipped with “extra heavy protective gear, with the long rifles and machine guns — unfortunately sometimes necessary in these instances.” And here’s where he created a little controversy in my hometown. The squad would, Bratton added, be “designed for dealing with events like our recent protests or incidents like Mumbai or what just happened in Paris.”
Now, that was an embarrassment in liberal New York. By mixing the recent demonstrations over the police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and others into the same sentence with the assault on Mumbai and the Charlie Hebdo affair in France, he seemed to be equating civil protest in the Big Apple with acts of terrorism. Perhaps you won’t be surprised then that the very next day the police department started walking back the idea that the unit would be toting its machine guns not just to possible terror incidents but to local protests. A day later, Bratton himself walked his comments back even further. (“I may have in my remarks or in your interpretation of my remarks confused you or confused the issue.”) Now, it seems there will be two separate units, the SRG for counterterror patrols and a different, assumedly machine-gun-less crew for protests.
Here was what, like the sun going down in the West, shouldn’t have shocked me but did: no one thought there was any need to walk back the arming of the New York Police Department with machine guns for whatever reasons. The retention of such weaponry should, of course, have been the last thing to shock any American in 2015. After all, the up-armoring and militarization of the police has been an ongoing phenomenon since 9/11, even if it only received real media attention after the police, looking like an army of occupation, rolled onto the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, in response to protests over the killing of Michael Brown.
In fact, the Pentagon (and the Department of Homeland Security) had already shunted $5.1 billion worth of military equipment, much of it directly from the country’s distant battlefields — assault rifles, land-mine detectors, grenade launchers, and 94,000 of those machine guns — to local police departments around the country. Take, for example, the various tank-like, heavily armored vehicles that have now become commonplace for police departments to possess. (Ferguson, for instance, had a “Bearcat,” widely featured in coverage of protests there.)
Since 2013, the Pentagon has transferred for free more than 600 mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles, or MRAPs, worth at least half a million dollars each and previously used in U.S. war zones, to various “qualified law enforcement agencies.” Police departments in rural areas like Walsh County, North Dakota (pop. 11,000) now have their own MRAPs, as does the campus police department at Ohio State University. It hardly matters that these monster vehicles have few uses in a country where neither ambushes nor roadside bombs are a part of everyday life.
Post-Ferguson, a few scattered departments have actually moved to turn these useless vehicles back in. It’s clear, however, that police forces “kitted out with Marine-issue camouflage and military-grade body armor, toting short-barreled assault rifles, and rolling around in armored vehicles” — that is, almost indistinguishable from soldiers — are now the future of American policing and there’s no walking that back. Since Ferguson, President Obama has essentially refused to do so and Congress certainly won’t. Despite a small uproar over the pile of military equipment being transferred to the police, there is no indication that the flow will be staunched.
When it comes to all this militarized equipment, as the president has emphasized (and the task force he appointed to look into these matters will undoubtedly reemphasize), “reform” is mainly going to be focused on “better training” in how to use it. In other words, reform will prove to be a code word for further militarization. And don’t count on anyone returning those 94,000 machine guns either in a country that seems to be in some kind of domestic arms race and in which toddlers now regularly find their parents’ loaded guns and wound or kill them.
Not so long ago, that 9/11 “changed everything” seemed like the hyperbolic cliché of a past era. From the present moment, however, it looks ever more like a sober description of what actually happened. Congratulations, that is, are due to Osama bin Laden. Even dead and buried at sea, he deserves some credit. He proved to be midwife to the exceedingly violent birth of a new American world. Today, 13 years after the attacks he launched, an exceptionally healthy, well-armed teenage America is growing fast. Under the banner of Fear and Terror that bin Laden inspired, this country has been transformed in myriad ways, even if we only half notice because we’re part of it. And it isn’t a world much interested in walking anything back.
Consider the National Security Agency. In June 2013, it was faced with the beginning of a devastating rollout of a trove of top-secret documents exposing its inner workings. Thanks to Edward Snowden, Americans (and Germans and Brazilians and Mexicans and Afghans) came to know that the agency had, in the post-9/11 years, set up a surveillance state for the ages, one for which the phrase Orwellian might be distinctly inadequate. The NSA was listening in on or intercepting the communications of 35 chancellors, presidents, and other world leaders, the secretary-general of the U.N., the offices of the European Union, foreign corporations, peasants in the backlands of the planet, and oh yes, American citizens galore (and that’s just to start down a far longer list). All of this effort has — from the point of view of “intelligence” — been remarkably expensive but (as far as anyone can tell) relatively useless. Few terrorists have been found, next to no plots broken up, and little useful, actionable intelligence provided to the government, despite the yottabytes of data collected. The whole effort should have been written off as a bust and scaled back radically. The agency’s methods arguably violated the Constitution, made a mockery of the idea of privacy, and tore up sovereignties of every sort. Instead, that global surveillance system remains embedded in our world and growing, its actions sanctified.
Clearly, in the new post-9/11 American rulebook, no one was to have the right to keep a secret — except the national security state itself, which was madly classifying anything in sight, while the Obama Justice Department went after anyone who leaked anything about it or blew a whistle on it with a fierceness never before experienced in our history. Hence, the towering anger of top NSA officials (and their retired colleagues) at Edward Snowden when he exposed their “privacy” to scrutiny, too.
If ever there was a system in need of “reform,” this was it. And yet the NSA has successfully outlasted the long Snowden moment without a single thing being walked back, not even the most shocking revelation for Americans: that the agency was gathering and storing their bulk phone “metadata.” A year ago, a presidential advisory board on privacy concluded that the bulk data collection was “illegal and unproductive” and recommended changes. None have yet taken place. “Reform” efforts on the NSA collapsed in Congress even before the Republicans took the Senate. As with the police, so the president has announced minor “tweaks” to the system of data collection and it’s marching right on.
Similarly, the CIA outlasted Senator Dianne Feinstein. After years of effort, a truncated, redacted version of the executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Torture Report that she oversaw was finally released, filled with American horrors and barbarities. The result, as with Snowden’s revelations, was nada. For torture, no one at the CIA is to be held responsible or accountable; nor did the CIA pay any price for hacking into the computer systems of the committee’s staff or turning on the woman once known as the senator from the national security state. The whole process seemed to signal that congressional oversight of the U.S. intelligence community was now more fiction than fact.
Admittedly, when President Obama came into office, in what may be the single exception to the rule of the era, he walked back one crucial set of Bush administration policies, ending torture and closing the “black sites” at which much of it occurred. Since then, however, the CIA has expanded, while its power, like the national security state within which it is lodged, has only grown.
The process of expanding that shadow government and freeing it from supervision has, in fact, been unending. Only last week, for instance, the Obama administration announced that the 17 intelligence outfits that make up the U.S. Intelligence Community were about to get a new baby. Amid a thicket of outfits now devoted to cyberintelligence, including “cyber-operations centers” at the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and the National Security Agency, the new Cyber Threat Intelligence Integration Center, which will be housed in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, will “analyze cyberthreats and coordinate strategy to counter them.” It will assumedly be the civilian equivalent of the military’s 2009 creation, the U.S. Cyber Command. And keep in mind that all this is happening in the country that is responsible for launching the planet’s first cyberwar.
Or consider another growth industry: drones and their progeny. They are spinning off into domestic air space at a startling rate and can now be found from America’s borderlands to thousands of feet up in the skies above commercial jetliners to the White House grounds (reportedly thanks to the recreational activities of a drunken employee of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency). Abroad, Washington’s drones have been this country’s true “lone wolf” hunters, inflicting terror from the skies on Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya in 2011, and most recently Syria. In five of those seven countries they have been at it for years, in the case of Pakistan flying hundreds of strikes in its tribal borderlands.
Washington’s grimly named Predator and Reaper drones have been hunting their prey in the backlands of the planet 24 hours a day for more than a decade now. Thousands of people have been wiped out, including women, children, and wedding parties, as well as numerous significant and insignificant figures in terror outfits of every sort. And yet in not one of those countries has the situation improved in any significant way in terms of U.S. policy goals. In most of them it has grown worse and the drones have been a factor in such developments, alienating whole populations on the ground below. This has been obvious for years to counterinsurgency experts. But a reconsideration of these drone wars is beyond the pale in Washington. Drone assassination is now a sacrosanct act of the American state, part of a “global” war 13 years old and ongoing. No one in any position of power, now or in the immediate future, is going to consider flying them back.
The CIA has sometimes been called the president’s private army. Today, it’s running most (but not all) of Washington’s drone campaigns and so those robotic lone wolves could be considered the president’s private air force. In the process, the twenty-first-century White House has been officially and proudly turned into an assassin’s lair and don’t expect that to change in 2016 or 2020 either.
Similar points could be made about the 13-year-old “global war” the Bush administration launched and the specific wars, raids, conflicts, invasions, and occupations that have been carried out under its aegis. President Obama has been fighting Iraq War 3.0 and Syria War 1.0 for six months, claiming that Congressional post-9/11 authorizations allow him to do so. Now, he wants a three-year extension on something he claims he doesn’t need and has delivered a text to Congress filled with enough loopholes to send an army (and air force) through — and not just in Iraq and Syria either. Not getting this authorization wouldn’t, however, significantly affect the administration’s plans in the Middle East. So much for the “power” of Congress to declare war. That body is nonetheless evidently going to spend months holding hearings and “debating” a new authorization, even as fighting goes on without it, based on informal agreements pounded out by the White House and the Pentagon. (Alice would have found Wonderland sane by comparison.)
In this way, the White House has in our time become a war-making and assassination-producing machine. In the same period, terror groups and membership in them have leapt across the Greater Middle East and Africa; no terror organization has been destroyed (though the original al-Qaeda, a modest enough outfit to begin with, has been weakened); most have expanded; the Islamic State, the first mini-terror state in history, has taken over significant parts of Iraq and Syria and is expanding elsewhere; Libya is a chaos of competing militias, some of an extreme Islamic nature; Yemen is believed to be in a state of collapse with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula on the rise; Afghanistan remains a war disaster area; Pakistan is significantly destabilized; and so on. And yet, as the president’s authorization request indicates, there is no walking any of this back.
In the meantime, on the domestic front in this “too big to fail” century, the country that eternally sallies forth under the banner of democracy has been working on a new political system which, as yet, has no name. Here’s what we do know about our latest version of “democracy”: in a period when plenty of American citizens weren’t too small to fail, the inequality gap has grown to yawning proportions. On the principle that what goes up must come down, some part of the vast infusion of money flowing to the .01% or even the .001% has, with a helping hand from the Supreme Court, been raining down on the electoral system.
In the same way that the national security state was funded to the tune of almost a trillion dollars a year and war became perpetual, the new political system, focused on TV advertising, has created a perpetual campaign season. (It is now estimated that the 2016 presidential campaign alone could cost $5 billion, essentially doubling the $2.6 billion spent in 2012.) And here’s the most recent news from that round-the-clock campaign, whose focus is increasingly on donors, not voters: the Koch brothers and their allied donor networks have pledged nearly one billion dollars for election season 2016 (more than double the amount they contributed in 2012). And they already have pledges for $249 million, which suggests that they may even exceed their present guesstimate.
Despite comments from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg about her personal desire to roll back the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that opened the floodgates of money, it’s clear that this court won’t be walking its election-financing positions back anytime soon. In donor terms, think of what that court did as the equivalent of the Pentagon putting all those machine guns and MRAPs in the hands of the police.
And keep in mind that, as the U.S. changes, the world does, too. Consider it a form of reverse blowback, as from drones to surveillance to cyberwar, Washington helps lay the groundwork for a new more extreme century in which, from sovereignty to privacy, boundaries are there to be broken, new kinds of weaponry to be tested out in the real world, and new kinds of conflicts to be launched.
In sum, we, the people, are ever less in control of anything. The police are increasingly not “ours,” nor are the NSA and its colleague outfits “our” intelligence agencies, nor are the wars we are fighting “our” wars, nor the elections in which we vote “our” elections. This is a country walking back nothing as it heads into a heavily militarized future. In the process, an everyday American world is being brought into existence that, by past standards, will seem extreme indeed. In other words, in the years to come an ever-less recognizable American way of life will quite expectably be setting in the West. Don’t be shocked.
Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His new book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World (Haymarket Books).