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“Everyone is talking all about crime, crime; But tell me: who are the criminals?”
– Peter Tosh, “Equal Rights”
To paraphrase Peter Tosh, everyone is talking about terrorism; but who are the terrorists? These two words – “terrorism” and “terrorist” – have come into common usage, but their meanings often vary, depending on who is using them and to what ends. Here is my working definition: “Terrorism” is an act or series of acts designed to create feelings of terror in a target population, thereby influencing and/or inhibiting its actions; a “terrorist” is an individual or a member of an organization which perpetrates such an act or series of acts.
Many have spoken about the courage of recent whistle-blowers. Others have spoken about the lack of documented evidence of the effectiveness of government anti-terrorism policies in preventing or discovering terrorist actions. It’s time to put these two together.
If whistle-blowers require courage to reveal government lies and abuses, then there must be a reason: a fear they need to overcome when they decide to come forward. The two latest prominent cases – those involving Pfc. Manning and Mr. Snowden – are stark examples of what happens to those who do. Manning has been called many names disparaging his actions, intentions, emotional state and character. Snowden has suffered similar abuse. In his case they range from pseudo-psycho-babble (“narcissist”) to the moralistic “hypocrite” for seeking asylum in Russia, whose government is regarded by some as being less open to criticism than the U.S. government. All rhetorical guns have been trained full force on these two whistle-blowers.
But it wasn’t merely rhetoric; punitive treatment was the order of the day. Manning was subjected to torture in several forms prior to the show trial. Moreover, the government ignored the defendant’s constitutional right to a speedy trial. Snowden, learning from Manning’s experience, chose to avoid, successfully so far, though not without travails of its own, the tentacles of American justice. Since Snowden wasn’t available in person for torture or detention, the government was reduced to depriving him of his passport (without so much as a hearing) as the most punitive action it could muster (aside from stopping and frisking the Ecuadoran presidential plane). It made sure to do this promptly. In both instances, the government was perfectly willing to break domestic and/or international law in its desire to come down as heavily as possible.
At Manning’s sentencing hearing, the prosecutor said, in calling for a heavy sentence, that an example had to be made of Manning, thus revealing the primary aim of the prosecution: to act as an admonitory lesson for other possible whistle-blowers. While the 35 years Manning received was less than the 60 the prosecution had asked for, it certainly is a daunting sentence. Many believe Manning should have been released without having to serve any additional time.
Thus we see the people of the United States being shown, through their government’s words and actions, that potential whistle-blowers should think twice, or thrice, before taking this risk: real and extreme negative consequences flow from attempting to illustrate publicly governmental malfeasance. The government’s actions – in order to dissuade people from indulging in, or even contemplating, whistle-blowing – are carefully designed to create terror in their minds. All this is in aid of preventing the truth from coming out. This explains why the administration has shown such a penchant for “classifying” as much as possible: most of the secrets are being kept, not from the terrorists, but from the people. Nevertheless, while many might be dissuaded from revealing these secrets, inevitably someone, another Snowden, will come forward because his/her conscience will not rest while they remain hidden from us.
On another hand, this same government, which claims to be using surveillance as a necessary tool to detect terrorists’ plans (rather than detecting details about us), has not demonstrated much success in doing so. They had been alerted to the Boston Marathon bombers’ tendencies by the Russian government; it didn’t help. They had been warned about aircraft being used as bombs before 9/11; it didn’t help.
On a third hand, this same government staged an unprovoked attack on Iraq, based on lies, leading to widespread destruction in that country, including much loss of life and huge population displacement. This same government sends drones that kill and wound people – both alleged terrorists and non-combatants – currently mostly in Pakistan and Yemen, two countries with which the United States is not at war. Unlike the President, sitting in comfort in the White House while he decides on who should die that week thousands of miles away, and for the drones’ operators who feel they are “playing video games,” for those in the target countries this is deadly serious business. To them, being on the drones’ receiving end has had the natural effect of creating widespread fear and hatred of the United States in those countries and elsewhere. But, similar to the whistle-blowers, while many will suffer from a fear-induced paralysis, some will become anti-U.S. terrorists and thus, future targets of drones. (I am deliberately not differentiating between the Bush and Obama administrations, nor between the Democrats and the Republicans. When it comes to these policies, the two parties are pretty much indistinguishable and the latter administration is a continuation and extension of the former. The mindset that produced “shock and awe” in Iraq is much the same in its desire to create terror as is the more current use of drones.)
But the capacity of the U.S.-identified “terrorists’” to do damage is dwarfed by that of the U.S. military. It is the latter that has ready access to almost unlimited and up-to-date weaponry, which it either employs as a threat or actually puts to use. This assorted weaponry kills, wounds and terrorizes large segments of populations, not merely “the terrorists.” When innocents are harmed, and such euphemisms as “collateral damage” are called into service, the reasons may be ignorance rather than malice on the part of the U.S. military, but the effect on the local population is the same: fear and paralysis in uneasy tension with rage and the desire for retribution.
It should be pointed out that U.S. use of terrorism as a tactic is not new, though the term itself was not applied until recently. The easy use of the military option was what led Martin Luther King, Jr. to say that his own government was the greatest purveyor of violence in the world. Earlier on, in 1945, the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki were an example. They were designed to terrorize not the Japanese, who had already recognized they had lost the war, but the Soviets, in the then-nascent Cold War to come.
In sum, the use of surveillance to discover terrorists’ plans and forthcoming actions has been mostly ineffective. But the use of U.S. military power, while undoubtedly effective in inflicting great damage, including killing some who may well have been terrorists, has had the overall effect of creating terror in the populations of wide swaths of Asia and the Middle East. Ultimately, however, it will also produce in some the opposite effect: swelling the ranks of those who the U.S. government then describes as “the terrorists.”
Thus, the U.S. government is using terrorism as an instrument of its foreign and domestic policy: in its foreign policy, through its widespread use of military force, domestically, through its punishment of whistle-blowers.
Let us now turn our attention more directly to surveillance. How does surveillance fit into the U.S. government’s terrorist matrix? Since surveillance has not been notably successful in accomplishing its stated purpose – keeping an eye on terrorists – could something else be its actual purpose? In practice, surveillance, both domestically and abroad, has created fear in the world at large as well as in the minds of virtually everyone inside the United States. The government line on this is: “If you’re innocent of wrong-doing, you have nothing to fear.” Surveillance is but one of many governmental terror tactics. Here are some others: a) people are put on airplane watch-lists with no possibility of appeal; b) people, such as David Miranda, are stopped and questioned for hours while in transit; c) grand juries are used to harass peace activists, as their organizations are infiltrated; d) the Occupy Movement and similar resisters are targeted by the police; e) employees of the NSA are “encouraged” to spy on each other. The more such practices become part of our daily experience, the more ordinary citizens come to realize that anyone and everyone can be treated as dangerous by a paranoid official of a paranoid government.
Perhaps it could be argued that the government did not intend for the Snowden disclosures to become public knowledge, and that it therefore did not want the populace to be terrorized. But even if the facts had not appeared as rapidly as they actually did, they would have eventually come out in dribs and drabs (if in no other way, then through planned leaks from “unidentified government sources”), as they had been doing prior to Snowden’s flight to Hong Kong. Snowden himself has said that his primary purpose was not to reveal facts, but to encourage discussion. The government wanted at least some of the facts to emerge but without engendering the nationwide discussion that Snowden’s disclosures did. They wanted the terror without the outrage.
The government has demonstrated a marked tendency toward concealment – or, rather, controlled disclosure, such as the outing of Valerie Plame – while simultaneously proclaiming its desire for transparency. This is coupled with treating the citizenry’s hostility toward government surveillance as a mere problem of public relations to be remedied by lying and obfuscation to Congress and the public, and rewarding, rather than punishing, those officials who participate in such distortion and concealment, whether or not their attempts are successful. In fact, the U.S. government has thoroughly perverted certain words in the language. “Transparency” masks concealment, “supporting whistle-blowers” becomes attacking them, “non-surveillance of U.S. citizens” turns into their total surveillance, and “spying on and attacking foreign terrorists” morphs into spying on and attacking domestic resisters. All this is in aid of a government bent on tyranny over our minds and spirits – a government afraid of its own people.
U.S. government domestic and foreign policies thus operate in tandem. Except for the elites, all of us – inside and outside the country – are the enemy. Citizens and foreigners alike are subject to similar treatment. The hallmark of this treatment is the production of fear. In order to achieve this, the Terrorism State is aiming to acquire the God-like qualities of omniscience and omnipotence. It hasn’t quite managed this as yet, but it is diligently and single-mindedly working toward it.
Have you become reluctant to speak out? Do you know of others who are now cautious about speaking their minds in public? Have you or others begun to hesitate to organize against a government with whose policies you disagree? This is the real purpose of the use of terrorism as a scare tactic. The “world-wide fight against terrorism” is being used as a smokescreen by the US government – the most formidable terrorist outfit of all – as a technique to cow us: to inhibit us from challenging it. But there will always be those whose conscience insists they rebel. It is to them we must look. It is they we must encourage, support and emulate.
Gene Glickman is a retired college professor of music. He now conducts a progressive chorus, called “Harmonic Insurgence,” and makes choral arrangements for it and other choruses. He lives in Brooklyn, NY and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.