May 21, 2013
The American Lockdown State
Posted on Feb 5, 2013
By Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch
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.
As is often true of ruling groups, Bush and his cronies weren’t just manipulating us with the fear of nightmarish future attacks, but themselves as well. Thanks to New Yorker journalist Jane Mayer’s fine book The Dark Side, for instance, we know that Vice President Dick Cheney was always driven around Washington with “a duffel bag stocked with a gas mask and a biochemical survival suit” in the backseat of his car.
The post-9/11 National Security Complex has been convulsed by such fears. After all, it has funded itself by promising Americans one thing: total safety from one of the lesser dangers of our American world—“terrorism.” The fear of terrorism (essentially that bin Laden tax again) has been a financial winner for the Complex, but it carries its own built-in terrors. Even with the $75 billion or more a year that we pump into the “U.S. Intelligence Community,” the possibility that it might not discover some bizarre plot, and that, as a result, several airliners might then go down, or a crowd in Washington be decimated, or you name it, undoubtedly leaves many in the Complex in an ongoing state of terror. After all, their jobs and livelihoods are at stake.
Think of their fantasies and fears, which have become ever more real in these years without in any way becoming realities, as the building blocks of the American lockdown state. In this way, intent on “taking the gloves off”—removing, that is, all those constraints they believed had been put on the executive branch in the Watergate era—and perhaps preemptively living out their own nightmares, figures like Dick Cheney and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld changed our world.
The Powers of the Lockdown State
As cultists of a “unitary executive,” they—and the administration of national security managers who followed in the Obama years—lifted the executive branch right out of the universe of American legality. They liberated it to do more or less what it wished, as long as “war,” “terrorism,” or “security” could be invoked. Meanwhile, with their Global War on Terror well launched and promoted as a multigenerational struggle, they made wartime their property for the long run.
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