It’s finally coming into focus, and it’s not even a difficult equation to grasp. It goes like this: take a country in the grips of an expanding national security state and sooner or later your “safety” will mean your humiliation, your degradation. And by the way, it will mean the degradation of your country, too.
Just ask Rolando Negrin, a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screener who passed through one of those new “whole body image” scanners last May as part of his training for airport security. His co-workers claimed to have gotten a look at his “junk” and mocked him mercilessly, evidently repeatedly asking, “What size are you?” and referring to him as “little angry man.” In the end, calling it “psychological torture,” he insisted that he snapped, which in his case meant that he went after a co-worker, baton first, demanding an apology.
Consider that a little parable about just how low this country has sunk, how psychologically insecure we’ve become while supposedly guarding ourselves against global danger. There is no question that, at the height of Cold War hysteria, when superpower nuclear arsenals were out of this world and the planet seemed a hair-trigger from destruction, big and small penises were in play, symbolically speaking. Only now, however, facing a ragtag set of fanatics and terrorists — not a mighty nation but a puny crew — are those penises perfectly real and, potentially, completely humiliating.
Failed Bombs Do the Job
We live, it seems, in a national security “homeland” of little angry bureaucrats who couldn’t be happier to define what “safety” means for you and big self-satisfied officials who can duck the application of those safety methods. Your government can now come up with any wacky solution to American “security” and you’ll pay the price. One guy brings a failed shoe bomb on an airplane, and you’re suddenly in your socks. Word has it that bombs can be mixed from liquids in airplane bathrooms, and there go your bottled drinks. A youthful idiot flies toward Detroit with an ill-constructed bomb in his underwear, and suddenly they’re taking naked scans of you or threatening to grope your junk.
Two bombs don’t go off in the cargo holds of two planes and all of a sudden sending things around the world threatens to become more problematic and expensive. Each time, the price of “safety” rises and some set of lucky corporations, along with the lobbyists and politicians that support them, get a windfall. In each case, the terror tactic (at least in the normal sense) failed; in each case, the already draconian standards for our security were ratcheted up, while yet more money was poured into new technology and human reinforcements, which may, in the end, cause more disruption than any successful terror attack.
Directly or indirectly, you pay for the screeners and scanners and a labyrinthine intelligence bureaucracy that officially wields an $80 billion budget, and all the lobbyists and shysters and pitchmen who accompany our burgeoning homeland-security complex. And by the way, no one’s the slightest bit nice about it either, which isn’t surprising since it’s a national security state we’re talking about, which means its mentality is punitive. It wants to lock you down, quietly and with full acquiescence if possible. Offer some trouble, though, or step out of line, and you’ll be hit with a $10,000 fine or maybe put in cuffs. It’s all for your safety, and fortunately they have a set of the most inept terror plots in history to prove their point.
By now, who hasn’t written about the airport “porno-scans,” the crotch gropes and breast jobs, the “don’t touch my junk” uproar, the growing lines, and the exceedingly modest protests on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, not to speak of the indignity of it all?
Totally been there, completely done that; totally written about, fully read. Shouldn’t we move on?
Taking Off the Gloves (and Then Everything Else)
And yet there are a few dots that still need to be connected. After all, since the beginning of George W. Bush’s second term, Americans have been remarkably quiet when it comes to the national security disasters being perpetuated in their name. America’s wars, its soaring Pentagon budgets, its billion-dollar military bases, its giant new citadels still called embassies but actually regional command centers, its ever-escalating CIA drone war along the Pakistani tribal borderlands, the ever-expanding surveillance at home, and the incessant “night raids” and home razings thousands of miles away in Afghanistan, not to speak of Washington’s stimulus-package spending in its war zones have caused no more than the mildest ripple of protest, much less genuine indignation, in this country in years.
American “safety” has, in every case, trumped outrage. Now, for the first time in years, the oppressiveness of a national security state bent on locking down American life has actually gotten to some Americans. No flags are yet flying over mass protests with “Don’t Scan on Me” emblazoned on them. Still, the idea that air travel may now mean a choice between a spritz of radiation and a sorta naked snapshot or — thrilling option B — having some overworked, overaggressive TSA agent grope you has caused outrage, at least among a minority of Americans, amid administration confusion. (If you want evidence that Hillary Clinton is considering a run for president in 2012, check out what she had to say about her lack of eagerness to be patted down at the airport.)
Local authorities have threatened to bring sexual battery charges against TSA agents who step over the line in pat-downs. Some legislators are denouncing the TSA’s new security plans. Ron Paul has introduced the American Travel Dignity Act. And good for them all.
But here’s the thing: in our deluded state, Americans don’t tend to connect what we’re doing to others abroad and what we’re doing to ourselves at home. We refuse to see that the trillion or more dollars that continue to go into the Pentagon, the U.S. Intelligence Community, and the national security state yearly, as well as the stalemated or losing wars Washington insists on fighting in distant lands, have anything to do with the near collapse of the American economy, job-devastation at home, or any of the other disasters of our American age.
As a result, those porno-scanners and enhanced pat-downs are indignities without a cause — except, of course, for those terrorists who keep launching their bizarre plots to take down our planes. And yet whatever inconvenience, embarrassment, or humiliation you suffer in an airport shouldn’t be thought of as something the terrorists have done to us. It’s what the American national security state that we’ve quietly accepted demands of its subjects, based on the idea that no degree of danger from a terrorist attack, however infinitesimal, is acceptable. (When it comes to genuine safety, anything close to that principle is absent from other aspects of American life where — from eating to driving, to drinking, to working — genuine danger exists and genuine damage is regularly done.)
We now live not just with all the usual fears that life has to offer, but in something like a United States of Fear.
So think of it as an irony that, when George W. Bush and his cronies decided to sally forth and smite the Greater Middle East, they exulted that they were finally “taking the gloves off.” And so they were: aggressive war, torture, abuse, secret imprisonment, souped-up surveillance, slaughter, drone wars, there was no end to it. When those gloves came off, other people suffered first. But wasn’t it predictable — since unsuccessful wars have a nasty habit of coming home — that, in the end, other things would come off, and sooner or later they would be on you: your hat, your shoes, your belt, your clothes, and of course, your job, your world?
And don’t for a second think that it’s going to end here. What happens when the first terrorist with a suppository bomb is found aboard one of our planes? After all, such weapons already exist. In the meantime, the imposition of more draconian safety and security methods is, of course, being considered for buses, trains, and boats. Can trucks, taxis, cars, and bikes be far behind? After all, once begun, there can, by definition, be no end to the search for perfect security.
You Wanna Be Safer? Really?
You must have a friend who’s extremely critical of everyone else but utterly opaque when it comes to himself. Well, that’s this country, too.
Here’s a singular fact to absorb: we now know that a bunch of Yemeni al-Qaeda adherents have a far better hit on just who we are, psychologically speaking, and what makes us tick than we do. Imagine that. They have a more accurate profile of us than our leading intelligence profilers undoubtedly do of them.
Recently, they released an online magazine laying out just how much the two U.S.-bound cargo-bay bombs that caused panic cost them: a mere $4,200 and the efforts of “less than six brothers” over three months. They even gave their plot a name, Operation Hemorrhage (and what they imagined hemorrhaging, it seems, was not American blood, but treasure).
Now, they’re laughing at us for claiming the operation failed because — thanks reportedly to a tip from Saudi intelligence — those bombs didn’t go off. “This supposedly ‘foiled plot,’” they wrote, “will without a doubt cost America and other Western countries billions of dollars in new security measures. That is what we call leverage.”
They are, they claim, planning to use the "security phobia that is sweeping America” not to cause major casualties, but to blow a hole in the U.S. economy. "We knew that cargo planes are staffed by only a pilot and a co-pilot, so our objective was not to cause maximum casualties but to cause maximum losses to the American economy" via the multi-billion-dollar U.S. freight industry.
This is a new definition of asymmetrical warfare. The terrorists never have to strike an actual target. It’s not even incumbent upon them to build a bomb that works. Just about anything will do. To be successful, they just have to repeatedly send things in our direction, inciting the expectable Pavlovian reaction from the U.S. national security state, causing it to further tighten its grip (grope?) at yet greater taxpayer expense.
In a sense, both the American national security state and al-Qaeda are building their strength and prestige as our lives grow more constrained and our treasure vanishes.
So you wanna be safer? I mean, actually safer? Here’s a simple formula for beginning to improve American safety and security at every level. End our trillion dollar wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; set our military to defending our own borders (and no, projecting power abroad does not normally qualify as a defense of the United States); begin to shut down our global empire of bases; stop building grotesque embassy-citadels abroad (one even has a decorative moat, for god’s sake!); end our overseas war stimulus packages and bring some of that money home. In short, stop going out of our way to tick off foreigners and then pouring our treasure into an American war machine intent on pursuing a generational global war against them.
Of course, the U.S. national security state has quite a different formula for engendering safety in America: fight the Afghan War until hell freezes over; keep the odd base or two in Iraq; dig into the Persian Gulf region; send U.S. Special Operations troops into any country where a terrorist might possibly lurk; and make sure the drones aren’t far behind. In other words, reinforce our war state by ensuring that we’re eternally in a state of war, and then scare the hell out of Americans by repeatedly insisting that we’re in imminent danger, that shoe, underwear, and someday butt bombers will destroy our country, our lives, and our civilization. Insist that a single percent of risk is 1% too much when it comes to terror and American lives, and then demand that those who feel otherwise be dealt with punitively, if they won’t shut up.
It’s a formula for leaving you naked in airports, while increasing the oppressive power of the state. And here’s the dirty, little, distinctly Orwellian secret: the national security state can’t do without those Yemeni terrorists (and vice versa), as well as our homegrown variety. All of them profit from a world of war. You don’t — and on that score, what happens in an airport line should be the least of your worries.
The national security state is eager to cop a feel. As long as Americans don’t grasp the connections between our war state and our “safety,” things will only get worse and, in the end, our world will genuinely be in danger.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com, where this article originally appeared. His latest book is The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s (Haymarket Books).