Boston Overkill

For anyone who watched the World Trade Center collapse on television in the days after September 11, 2001, the repetitive display of pictures of the terror attack on the Boston Marathon was déja vu all over again.

Not having been there, I can’t judge the mood, but reports of the demonstrations after the capture of nineteen year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were disturbingly familiar too.  The chant – “USA, USA” – recalled the reaction to the news that Barack Obama’s assassins had finally gotten to Osama Bin Laden and dumped his body into the sea – in time for the upcoming elections.

Perhaps the comparison is unfair.  As in New York and Washington after 9/11, the crowd was surely expressing solidarity with the victims and also relief that the ordeal was finally over.  Civic pride, an estimable virtue, was on display too.

And even if the demonstrations had a jingoistic tinge, people cooped up inside all day watching Wolff Blitzer can justifiably plead mitigating circumstances.  It requires fortitude to endure mindless commentary masquerading as journalism – cable news, in other words — and not run amok.

Greek tragedies, those of Aeschylus especially, recount the (fragile) triumph of civilization over primitive longings for revenge.  This is the basis for the rule of law and the monumental advances that follow from it.

Too bad for us, and for the world, that, under the leadership of our two twenty-first century Presidents, the Lesser Evil one especially, we Americans seem to be abandoning lessons learned nearly two and a half millennia ago.

It isn’t just the rule of law that George W. Bush and Barack Obama have put in jeopardy.  Under their leadership, ours is becoming a “civilization” that, without shame, uses revenge as a pretext for war.

This is how Bush got the Afghanistan War going in 2001, and it is how a “bipartisan” consensus has kept it alive to this day.  Even as the anti-war movement grew, and as Democrats set out to capitalize on war weariness in time for the 2004 elections, liberal Democrats like Howard Dean had no problem with that Bush war; it was only the one in Iraq that they found objectionable.

Obama agreed even as he encouraged the idea that he was the peace candidate in 2008.  Then, upon assuming office, he put the demonstrably pointless and already lost Afghanistan War on the front burner – hardly pausing even to accept the Nobel Prize for Peace (seriously!).

Like other revenge-minded Democrats, it was only the Iraq War that Obama thought “dumb” – not that he did much to stop it in or out of office.  Instead he repackaged it enough to convince a gullible public and the “forward leaning” pundits of MSNBC that America’s role in it was over.  By then, faking an exit had long been a Republican objective too.  Still, it took Obama several years to pull it off.

He was right, though, to see a difference in the way the Bush Administration promoted its two wars.  Afghanistan was about revenge.  In pressing for the Iraq War, deeper – paradoxically, more “civilized” — pathologies were at work.


Dysfunctional Bush family dynamics had a lot to do with it, as did Dick Cheney’s and Donald Rumsfeld’s neoconservative proclivities.  And, of course, there was the curse that has afflicted our republic for the past six decades; the relentless call of the military-industrial and (lately) national security state apparatus.

Liberal Democrats only came on board later – reluctantly.  And they jumped ship just as soon as they could — once it became clear that “the mission,” whatever it was, was definitely not, and never would be, “accomplished.”

Needless to say, that didn’t stop them from enabling Bush’s and Cheney’s predations in Iraq.  How could it, given their imperialist genes?   Hegemons, like playground bullies, cannot permit insubordination.

And neither can they let political violence perpetrated by non-state actors seem effective.   This is why they cannot help but wage what Bush called a War on Terror.

By this, they don’t mean state terror; that, in fact, is their own stock-in-trade.  They make no secret of it.  Recall how proud George Bush was of the “shock and awe” with which he launched the assault on Iraq.

Neither do they mean the terror that transpired during the most radical phase of the French Revolution, the Reign of Terror, or, to cite another example, the kind of terror that Stalin imposed on the Soviet Union in the mid 1930s and again early in the Cold War.

Imperial hegemons hardly mind when governments terrorize their own populations, though ours sometimes does find the screeds of “humanitarian interveners” useful.  When governments of client states terrorize their citizenry, they don’t mind at all.

What hegemons will not tolerate is non-state violence directed at them, or at the regimes they support in client states.  That is what they use the word “terrorism” to denounce.

But they really can’t have their way, not for long anyway, because when there are no more effective outlets for resistance, as there usually are not, domineering state policies breed terrorists.

In short, imperialism puts domestic populations at risk.  Paradoxically, our media and our political leaders currently find it expedient to exaggerate the extent of the danger, even as they disavow their role in causing it.

No one yet knows what role, if any, the reality behind the exaggerations played in the Boston Marathon bombing.  What is clear is just that because hegemons will not, of their own volition, promote justice and dignity for the peoples they dominate, and because “homeland security” is impossible to guarantee, atrocities like the one in Boston are bound to happen.

When they do, the terrorists must be made to pay; on this, all strategists agree.  They agree too that terrorists must never be allowed to think that they have won.

Implementing the first of these imperatives is easy because it accords with the instinct for revenge.   Implementing the second is hard; it requires determination to overcome a natural propensity to succumb to fright.

This is why, in European countries that have also had to deal with imperial blowback, and in Israel, where a large segment of the dominant population regards justice and dignity for indigenous Palestinians as an “existential threat,” and in states with separatist movements that have taken violent turns, it is well understood that, when terrorists strike, no matter how great the fear, it is crucial to restore normalcy as quickly as circumstances permit.

This is why the events in Boston – not the bombing itself, but the reaction to it  — were so patently absurd.

An entire metropolis in lockdown?  Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of militarized police arrayed against a lone wounded kid who, it turns out, was bleeding almost to death under a tarp covering a boat in someone’s driveway?

Austerity got left behind.  Millions for the illusion of “homeland security,” not one penny for anything that actually makes people better off!

The absurdity is all the more remarkable because our securers of the homeland are not beyond learning from foreign police.  They surely got advice from the Israelis and from Britain and other European countries about how to fashion a surveillance state that seldom discomfits the Herrenvolk and that therefore only rarely elicits complaints.

Indeed, one of the more disconcerting aspects of the coverage of the events in Boston was what it revealed about how pervasive surveillance has now become in the Land of the Free.

Privacy was once an American’s birthright, and its protection used to be a source of national pride.  Since 9/11, largely outside public view and therefore with hardly any significant opposition, that priceless part of our heritage has all but faded into oblivion.

The level of surveillance in Boston was doubtless more intrusive than viewers were shown.  We do now know that Lord and Taylor doesn’t just look out for shoplifters; its cameras observed the entire area around their store.  But then the area was flooded with cameras, every place of business seemed to have some; and there were surely other ways that privacy was invaded too.  We haven’t a clue, for example, about the information the authorities get from their (presumably not-yet-weaponized) drones.

Maybe, at first, the disproportionate response was just a case of erring on the side of caution: arguably, before they killed “suspect number one,” the police weren’t sure what they were up against.  Maybe it really did make sense, in those circumstances, to call upon all the forces of heaven and earth.

But by the time it came down just to finding the one wounded kid, it ought to have dawned on them that they were overdoing it – by orders of magnitude.  Instead, they ratcheted up the overkill.

The disproportion was so flagrant that even the talking heads on the cable channels had to acknowledge it.  And so viewers were told repeatedly that Watertown and surrounding areas had been put into what was, for all practical purposes, a state of siege because the authorities are first and foremost dedicated to saving innocent lives.

Really?  How, then, do they account for their easy tolerance of gun violence and environmental perils?   For that matter, why don’t they drastically lower speed limits?   It would be annoying, especially to Boston drivers, but it would save lives.  And it would not be nearly as inconvenient as “sheltering” an entire metropolitan area “in place.”

And, of course, there is also the point that the networks and cable channels including MSNBC, the ostensibly liberal one, systematically evade: that, for our authorities, some innocent lives are more important than others.  The important ones can mainly be found within our borders.  Throughout the Middle East (except for Israel), but also in Africa, central Asia, and on the Indian sub-continent, they are rarer than snowstorms in July.

On this, Obama’s double standard is appalling and so is his hypocrisy.   Is there anyone currently engaged in deploying lethal force who is responsible for as much killing and maiming as he?  In comparison, the Tsarnaev brothers are small potatoes.  And yet, from Newtown to Watertown, he emotes with consummate self-righteousness.

With Obama, it always seems as if it can’t get worse, and then it does.  But Boston last week was over the top.

Can any sense be made of it?

Perhaps the ambitions of some of the principals, Governor Deval Patrick for example, explains it in part.  And there is, of course, Obama’s interest in seeming strong, and the FBI’s in seeming competent.  Both would have suffered had anything untoward happened that greater diligence might have avoided.  But self-serving opportunism is not the whole story.

Islamophobia was surely a factor too.  Even before anyone knew who the perpetrators were, terror “experts” like Steven Emerson were on television stirring it up.  No doubt, islamophobes were praying for a boost to their cause, just as fervently as I was hoping that the bombers would turn out to be pot-bellied NRA fundamentalists or militant Dispensationalists awaiting Armageddon.

As it turns out, the islamophobes’ hopes now seem to rest just on the deceased older brother.  As far as anyone knows, that isn’t much to build on.  His uncle put the point succinctly last week: the boy was a “loser.”

Maybe the massive response was intended to revive fear now that it is flagging, and now that the color-coded danger level days of the early Bush years are fading into memory.  But that nonsense was mainly about stifling the peace movement and scaring people away from protesting the loss of rights and liberties legislated in the still very much with us Patriot Act.

Once Obama became President, however, all that became unnecessary.  His election effectively gutted the peace movement and muted liberal dissent.   Because so many were so determined for so long to cut the man endless slack, we now have more war and less freedom even than we did under George W. Bush.

Obama is not and never has been just a passive beneficiary of liberal gullibility and naivety.  At key moments, he has actively pushed America rightward.  Thus it is entirely true to form that he now seems determined not to let the Boston bombing go without gaining some policy advantage from it.

Lindsey Graham and John McCain and other leaders of the risible Right have called for treating the surviving Tsarnaev brother as an “enemy combatant” – denying him legal protections that were unassailable in the pre-Bush-Obama days.

Characteristically, the Obama Administration, already thinking along those lines, proposes, in effect, to meet Republican reactionaries halfway – by questioning Tsarnaev extensively before reading him his Miranda rights.

In this instance, Obama seems to be up to more than just his usual “compromising” for pusillanimity’s sake.

Indeed, what he has in mind is even worse than in the old story where the townsfolk scream: “string him up,” and the sheriff then quells the mob by saying: “no, we’ll give him a fair trial and then we’ll string him up.”  Sheriff Obama is willing, even eager, to loosen up on the fair trial part too.

Apparently, Attorney General Eric Holder has a quasi-justification at the ready.  He wants to appeal to a 1988 Supreme Court decision that established a very narrow “public safety exception” to the 1966 Miranda rule.

As everyone who watches television knows, Miranda requires that anyone arrested be told that they have a right to remain silent and also a right to an attorney, and that if they cannot afford one, one will be appointed for them.

According to legal experts, “Mirandization,” as we now call it, can be delayed for up to forty-eight hours, but only when there is an urgent need to obtain information about impending dangers.

As Glenn Greenwald points out in The Guardian, the Obama Administration has been using “national security” to go after Miranda rights for some time.  Since Democrats were the ones doing it, liberals haven’t shown much concern; indeed, few have even noticed, though the Administration’s machinations have been reported in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times and, more extensively, by Greenwald and others, Justin Elliott especially, in Salon.

How pathetic that, for this, the country fell into a rapt fascination, a TV news obsession, similar to the one set off by the slow moving car-chase between O.J. Simpson and the LA police.  The difference is that the car chase had more entertainment value, and did no serious political harm.

Back then, the authorities were less reckless too, and more respectful of longstanding and well established Constitutional rights.  Nowadays, we only see that on Law and Order reruns or on Criminal Minds.  For aesthetic reasons or perhaps thanks to budget constraints, the SWAT assaults on those shows are less disproportionate too, and executed with greater panache.

Reality used to be stranger than fiction; now it is just less salutary and more absurd.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).


ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).