Writing History Before It Happens
By Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatchThis piece first appeared at TomDispatch.
It’s commonplace to speak of “the fog of war,” of what can’t be known in the midst of battle, of the inability of both generals and foot soldiers to foresee developments once fighting is underway. And yet that fog is nothing compared to the murky nature of the future itself, which, you might say, is the fog of human life. As Tomorrowlands at world fairs remind us, despite a human penchant for peering ahead and predicting what our lives will be like, we’re regularly surprised when the future arrives.
Remind me who, even among opponents and critics of the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq, ever imagined that the decision to take out Saddam Hussein’s regime and occupy the country would lead to a terror caliphate in significant parts of Iraq and Syria that would conquer social media and spread like wildfire. And yet, don’t think that the future is completely unpredictable either.
In fact, there’s a certain repetition factor in our increasingly bizarro American world that lends predictability to that future. In case you hadn’t noticed, a range of U.S. military, intelligence, and national security measures that never have the effects imagined in Washington are nonetheless treasured there. As a result, they are applied again and again, usually with remarkably similar results.
The upside of this is that it offers all of us the chance to be seers (or Cassandras). So, with an emphasis on the U.S. national security state and its follies, here are my top nine American repeat headlines, each a surefire news story guaranteed to appear sometime, possibly many times, between June 2015 and the unknown future.
1. U.S. air power obliterates wedding party: Put this one in the future month and year of your choice, add in a country somewhere in the Greater Middle East or Africa. The possibilities are many, but the end result will be the same. Dead wedding revelers are a repetitious certainty. If you wait, the corpses of brides and grooms (or, as the New York Post put it, “Bride and Boom!”) will come. Over the years, according to the tabulations of TomDispatch, U.S. planes and drones have knocked off at least eight wedding parties in three countries in the Greater Middle East (Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen) and possibly more, with perhaps 250 revelers among the casualties.
And here’s a drone headline variant you’re guaranteed to see many times in the years to come: “U.S. drone kills top al-Qaeda/ISIS/al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula/[terror group of your choice] leader” — with the obvious follow-up headlines vividly illustrated in Andrew Cockburn’s new book, Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins: not the weakening but the further strengthening and spread of such organizations. And yet the White House is stuck on its drone assassination campaigns and the effectiveness of U.S. air power in suppressing terror outfits. In other words, air and drone campaigns of this sort will remain powerful tools not in a war on terror, but in one that creates terror with predictable headlines assured.
2. Latest revelation indicates that FBI [NSA, CIA] surveillance of Americans far worse than imagined: Talk about no-brainers. Stories of this sort appear regularly and, despite a recent court ruling that the NSA’s mass collection of the phone metadata of Americans is illegal, there’s every reason to feel confident that this will not change. Most recently, for instance, an informant-filled FBI program to spy on, surveil, and infiltrate the anti-Keystone XL Pipeline movement made the news (as well as the fact that, in acting as it did, the Bureau had “breached its own internal rules”). In other words, the FBI generally acted as the agency has done since the days of J. Edgar Hoover when it comes to protest in this country.
Beneath such reports lies a deeper reality: the American national security state, which has undergone an era of unprecedented expansion, is now remarkably unconstrained by any kind of serious oversight, the rule of law, or limits of almost any sort. It should be clear by now that the urge for ever more latitude and power has become part of its institutional DNA. It has already created a global surveillance system of a kind never before seen or imagined, not even by the totalitarian regimes of the last century. Its end goal is clearly to have access to everyone on the planet, Americans included, and every imaginable form of communication now in use. There was to be a sole exception to this blanket system of surveillance: the official denizens of the national security state itself. No one was to have the capacity to look at them. This helps explain why its top officials were so viscerally outraged by Edward Snowden and his revelations. When someone surveilled them as they did others, they felt violated and deeply offended.
When you set up a system that is so unconstrained, of course, you also encourage its opposite: the urge to reveal. Hence headline three.
3. FBI [NSA, CIA, DIA, or acronym of your choice] whistleblower charged by administration under the Espionage Act for revealing to reporter [any activity of any sort from within the national security state]: Amid the many potential crimes committed by those in the national security state in this period (including torture, kidnapping, illegal imprisonment, illegal surveillance, and assassination), the record of the Bush and Obama administrations is clear. In the twenty-first century, only one act is a crime in official Washington: revealing directly or indirectly to the American people what their government is doing in their name and without their knowledge. In the single-minded pursuit and prosecution of this single “crime,” the Obama administration has set a record for the use of the Espionage Act. The tossing of Chelsea Manning behind bars for 35 years; the hounding of Edward Snowden; the jailing of Stephen Kim; the attempt to jail CIA whistleblower Jeffrey Sterling for at least 19 years (the judge “only” gave him three and a half); the jailing of John Kiriakou, the sole CIA agent charged in the Agency’s torture scandal (for revealing the name of an agent involved in it to a newspaper reporter), all indicate one thing: that maintaining the aura of secrecy surrounding our “shadow government” is considered of paramount importance to its officials. Their desire to spy on and somehow control the rest of us comes with an urge to protect themselves from exposure. As it happens, no matter what kinds of clampdowns are instituted, the creation of such a system of secrecy invites and in its own perverse way encourages revelation as well. This, in turn, ensures that no matter what the national security state may threaten to do to whistleblowers, disclosures will follow, making such future headlines predictable.
4. Contending militias and Islamic extremist groups fight for control in shattered [fill in name of country somewhere in the Greater Middle East or Africa] after a U.S. intervention [drone assassination campaign, series of secret raids, or set of military-style activities of your choice]: Look at Libya and Yemen today, look at the fragmentation of Iraq, as well as the partial fragmentation of Pakistan and even Afghanistan. American interventions of the twenty-first century seem to carry with them a virus that infects the nation-state and threatens it from within. These days, it’s also clear that, whether you look at Democrats or Republicans, some version of the war-hawk party in Washington is going to reign supreme for the foreseeable future. Despite the dismal record of Washington’s military-first policies, such power-projection will undoubtedly remain the order of the day in significant parts of the world. As a result, you can expect American interventions of all sorts (even if not full-scale invasions). That means further regional fragmentation, which, in turn, means similar headlines in the future as central governments weaken or crumble and warring militias and terror outfits fight it out in the ruins of the state.
5. [King, emir, prime minister, autocrat, leader] of [name of U.S. ally or proxy state] snubs [rejects, angrily disputes, denounces, ignores] U.S. presidential summit meeting [joint news conference, other event]: This headline is obviously patterned on recent news: the announcement that Saudi King Salman, who was to attend a White House summit of the Gulf states at Camp David, would not be coming. This led to a spate of “snub” headlines, along with accounts of Saudi anger at Obama administration attempts to broker a nuclear peace deal with Iran that would free that country’s economy of sanctions and so potentially allow it to flex its muscles further in the Middle East.
Behind that story lies a far bigger one: the growing inability of the last superpower to apply its might effectively in region after region. Historically, the proxies and dependents of great powers — take Ngo Dinh Diem in Vietnam in the early 1960s — have often been nationalists and found their dependency rankling. But private gripes and public slaps are two very different things. In our moment, Washington’s proxies and allies are visibly restless and increasingly less polite and the Obama administration seems strangely toothless in response. Former President Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan may have led the way on this, but it’s a phenomenon that’s clearly spreading. (Check out, for instance, General Sisi of Egypt or Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel.) Even Washington’s closest European allies seem to be growing restless. In a recent gesture that (Charles de Gaulle aside) has no companion in post-World War II history, England, Germany, and Italy agreed to become founding members of a new Chinese-led Asian regional investment bank. They did so over the public and private objections of the Obama administration and despite Washington’s attempts to apply pressure on the subject. They were joined by other close U.S. allies in Asia. Given Washington’s difficulty making its power mean something in recent years, it’s not hard to predict more snubs and slaps from proxies and allies alike. Fortunately, Washington has one new ally it might be able to count on: Cuba.
6. Twenty-two-year-old [18-year-old, age of your choice] Arab-American [Somali-American, African-American or Caucasian-American convert to Islam] arrested for planning to bomb [drone attack, shoot up] the Mall of America [Congress, the Empire State Building, other landmark, transportation system, synagogue, church, or commercial location] by the FBI thanks to a Bureau informer: This is yet another no-brainer of a future headline or rather set of headlines. So far, just about every high-profile terror “plot” reported (and broken up) in this country has involved an FBI informer or informers and most of them have been significantly funded, inspired, or even organized by that agency right down to the fake weaponry the “terrorists” used. Most of the “plotters” involved turned out to be needy and confused losers, sometimes simply hapless, big-mouthed drifters, who were essentially incapable, whatever their thinking, of developing and carrying out an organized terror attack on their own. There are only a few exceptions, including the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013 and the Times Square car bombing of 2010 (foiled by two street vendors).
What the FBI has operated in these years is about as close as you can get to an ongoing terrorism sting-cum-scam operation. Though Bureau officials undoubtedly don’t think of it so crudely, it could be considered an effective part of a bureaucratic fundraising exercise. Keep in mind that the massive expansion of the national security state has largely been justified by the fear of one thing: terrorism. In terms of actual casualties in the U.S. since 9/11, terrorism has not been a significant danger and yet the national security state as presently constituted makes no sense without an overwhelming public and congressional fear of terrorism. So evidence of regular terror “plots” is useful indeed. Publicity about them, which runs rampant whenever one of them is “foiled” by the Bureau, generates fear, not to say hysteria here, as well as a sense of the efficiency and accomplishment of the FBI. All of this ensures that, in an era highlighted by belt-tightening in Washington, the funds will continue to flow. As a result, you can count on a future in which FBI-inspired/-organized/-encouraged Islamic terrorism is a repeated fact of life in “the homeland.” (If you want to get an up-close-and-personal look at just how the FBI works with its informers in the business of entrapping of “terrorists,” check out the upcoming documentary film (T)error when it becomes available.)
7. American lone wolf terrorist, inspired by ISIS [al-Qaeda, al-Shabab, terror group of your choice] videos [tweets, Facebook pleas, recordings], guns down two [none, three, six, other number of] Americans at school [church, political gathering, mall, Islamophobic event, or your pick] before being killed [wounded, captured]: Lone wolf terrorism is nothing new. Think of Timothy McVeigh. But the Muslim extremist version of the lone wolf terrorist — and yes, Virginia, there clearly are some in this country unbalanced enough to be stirred to grim action by the videos or tweets of various terror groups — is the new kid on the block. So far, however, among the jostling crowds of American lone mass murderers who strike regularly across the country in schools, colleges, movie theaters, religious venues, workplaces, and other spots, Islamic lone wolves seem to have been a particularly ineffective crew. And yet, as with those FBI-inspired terror plots, the Islamic-American lone wolf turns out to be a perfect vehicle for creating hysteria and so the officials of the national security state wallow in high-octane statements about such dangers, which theoretically envelop us. In financial terms, the lone wolf is to the national security state what the Koch Brothers are to Republican presidential candidates, which means that you can count on terrifying headlines galore into the distant future.
8. Toddler kills mother [father, brother, sister] in [Idaho, Cleveland, Albuquerque, or state or city of your choice] with family gun: Fill in the future blanks as you will, this is a story fated to happen again and again. Statistically, death-by-toddler is a greater danger to Americans living in “the homeland” than death by terrorist, but of course it raises funds for no one. No set of agencies broadcasts hysterical claims about such killings; no set of agencies lives off of or is funded by the threat of them, though they are bound to be on the rise. The math is simple enough. In the U.S., ever more powerful guns are available, while “concealed carrying” is now legal in all 50 states and the places in which you can carry are expanding. Well over 1.3 million people have the right to carry a concealed weapon in Florida alone, and a single lobbying group in favor of such developments, the National Rifle Association, is so powerful that most politicians don’t dare take it on. Add it all up and it’s obvious that more weapons will be carelessly left within the reach of toddlers who will pick them up, pull the trigger, and kill or wound others who are literally and figuratively close to them, a searing life (and death) experience. So the future headlines are predictable.
9. President claims Americans are ‘exceptional’ and the U.S. is ‘indispensible’ to the world: Lest you think this one is a joke headline, here’s what USA Today put up in September 2013: “Obama tells the world: America is exceptional”; and here’s Voice of America in 2012: “Obama: U.S. ‘the one indispensible nation in world affairs.'” In fact, it’s unlikely a president could survive politically these days without repetitiously citing the “exceptional” and “indispensable” nature of this country. Recently, even when apologizing for a CIA drone strike in Pakistan that took out American and Italian hostages of al-Qaeda, the president insisted that we were still “exceptional” on planet Earth — for admitting our mistakes, if nothing else. On this sort of thing, the Republicans running for president and that party’s war hawks in Congress double down when it comes to heaping praise on us, making the president’s exceptionalist comments seem almost recessive by comparison. In fact, this is a relatively new phenomenon in American politics. It only took off in the post-9/11 era and, as with anything emphasized too much and repeated too often, it betrays not strength and confidence but creeping doubt about the nature of our country. Once upon a time, Americans didn’t have to say such things because they seemed obvious. No longer. So await these inane headlines in the future and the repetitive litany of over-the-top self-praise that goes with them, and consider them a way to take the pulse of an increasingly anxious nation at sea with itself.
And mind you, this is just to scratch the surface of what’s predictable in the American future. I’m sure you could come up with nine similarly themed headlines in no time at all. It turns out that the key to such future stories is the lack of a learning curve in Washington, more or less a necessity if the national security state plans to continue to gain power and shed the idea that it is accountable to other Americans for anything it does. If it were capable of learning from its actions, it might not survive its own failures.
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 is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs TomDispatch.com. His latest book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.
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