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American Jihad 2014

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Posted on Jan 6, 2014
Tsevis (CC BY-SA 2.0)

By Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch

This piece first appeared at TomDispatch.

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.

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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.


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