Posts Tagged ‘Social Criticism’
Last month, ABC News reported on the results of an undercover Department of Homeland Security test to assess the effectiveness of security screening procedures at US airports. Although the results of the study could not be independently confirmed, multiple media outlets repeated the claim that agents smuggling fake contraban through aiport security were able to get 95% of their fake weapons and explosves past screening agents the Transportation Security Administration’s travel checkpoints.
While most of the recycled news stories predictably framed the findings in terms of the ineptitude of the upopular TSA, from a statistical perspective the meaning of the report are much different.
A 95% security failure rate is the best empirical evidence we have to suggest there are no terrorists are airports. If there were terrorists smuggling guns and bombs into airports, then, presumably, we would have heard about some horrible jihadi shooting spree at an airport by now. It would seem the only people smuggling contraban into airports these days is the government itself.
This state of affairs — where the government bureaucracy terrorizes itself on TV, with the general population as collateral damage — has a long pedigree. It is, effectively, a Cold War phenomenon wrapped in a new garb to keep the boogieman scary.
During the Cold War, American schoolchildren were periodically terrorized by “duck and cover” drills, which presumed to offer some defense against a suprise Soviet nuclear attack. Despite all the hype about the Soviet nuclear threat, however, the only radioactive fallout Americans were ever exposed to during the Cold War came from the American government itself. Decades of atmospheric tests, thermonuclear tourism in Las Vegas, nuclear accidents like Mighty Oak (radiation from which was blamed on Chernobyl) and Midas Myth, all exposed Americans to nuclear fallout in the name of fighting the Soviet nuclear threat.
Today, during the War on Terror — which continues despite the retirement of that epithet — we have a similar scenario, where the Federal Bureau of Investigation incites and entraps would-be terrorists in order to justify the government’s anti-terrorism policies. From the “Detroit Sleeper Cell” (a farce created by prosecutorial misconduct) to the “Liberty City Seven”, most high-profile terrorism cases have been the creation of the FBI. Even if the charges in these cases are overturned, once the incident gets into the mass media, the damage is done. This is a reality TV replacement for the fruity loops terror alerts.
While the first victim in all this is the truth, the un-critical parroting of spurious claims by the media adds a new dimension to the current brainwashing. We like to assume that because of the Internet, information is more accessible than ever. Unfortunately, the critical distinctions between information, facts, truth, and intelligence has been lost.
Over the weekend, there was a security breach at JFK International Airport: a man, who fell off his jet ski, swam to shore, climbed an electric fence, and then walked across two runways to a terminal entrance. With little effort, he was able to defeat a new, state-of-the-art, $100 million Raytheon security system.
As the experts took to the airwaves demanding that heads roll, the more profound question remains unexamined: if a $100 million security can be so easily defeated, why haven’t fanatical terrorists done so since September 11, 2001?
The simplest explanation is that there are few — if any — active terrorists in the United States who are interested in targeting airports.
Of the high-profile terror cases that have targeted other types of locations, many have been cases of entrapment. In 2009, Hosam Maher Husein Smadi was arrested in Dallas; the other members of his “sleeper cell” were all Federal agents, who provided him with what he thought was a bomb. In 2010, Mohamed O. Mohamud was arrested in Portland; after being identified as “a person of interest,” he was approached by several undercover FBI agents, introduced to a fabricated bomb plot, given instructions for building a bomb, and given $3000 for living expenses. Also in 2010, a man with the alias Muhammad Hussain was arrested in Baltimore after meeting a paid informant, who led the man to an undercover FBI agent with a fake explosive. In 2006, the FBI broke up a cult in Miami, and the media packaged it as the Liberty City Seven Terror Plot; the group to which these men belonged was infiltrated by two paid FBI informants, who hired an additional infiltrator. The FBI also paid the rent for their meeting place and arrested the men when they tried to buy weapons from the FBI; their first two trials ended in a mistrial because the jury could not reach a verdict.
In 2004, Federal agents broke up the Detroit Sleeper Cell: four men went to Disney World, where they recorded some amusement rides; a fifth man, who had plead guilty to credit card fraud and identity theft, earned a reduced sentence by testifying against the other four men, two of whom were convicted. After these convictions were overturned, the Washington Post reported in 2005: “In its best light, the record would show that the prosecution committed a pattern of mistakes and oversights that deprived the defendants of discoverable evidence … and created a record filled with misleading inferences.” That many of these cases rely on paid informants underscores serious problems with the approach, which incentivizes the creation of the appearance of criminality: for example, one such FBI informant, Craig Monteilh, made $177,000 working for the FBI — tax free — in just over a year (the median household income in the US is just over $50,000). Without the encouragement of the FBI or paid informants, it seems unlikely that any of these people would have made any serious or successful attempts to disrupt the lives of Americans.
It might be argued that these people, nevertheless, harbored hostile sentiments toward the United States, and that we’re better off without them. Aside from the problems associated with such ends-justify-the-means thinking, however, is a more basic problem of priorities: reckless bankers and speculators harm Americans, but they walk free. Enron collapsed over a decade ago and the LIBOR affair has been unwinding for years: if entrapment tactics are legitimate, why don’t we see the FBI entrapping crooked accountants, or CEO’s engaged in fraudulent schemes, or bankers who launder drug money, or investors who gamble with the retirement accounts of hard-working Americans?
It might be argued that these so-called terrorists represent only the high-profile cases, and that, due to national security concerns and the need to protect “sources and methods,” we don’t hear about the many smaller cases that are successfully prosecuted. The plea of “state secrets,” however, is often little more than a justification used to avoid oversight: our enemies often already know they’re being targeted, and it is taxpaying Americans who are kept in the dark.
During World War II, the Germans and the Russians knew about the Manhattan project before Americans learned of it. Cuba knew we invaded their island, even when this information was kept from Americans; Fidel Castro even complained to the UN that he was being targeted. Cambodians knew they were being carpet-bombed even when this was being kept secret from the American citizens financing the bombing. Russia knew about the U2 spy plane well before Americans learned of it. Everybody involved in the Iran-Contra affair knew of US involvement well before Americans learned of it. The very nature of such “state secrets” justifications prevents us not only from knowing if any such smaller cases exist, but moreover prevents us from knowing whether they represent legitimate prosecutions, or cases of questionable conduct. If there are smaller cases, it would seem that they have been treated as the criminal matters that they are, rather than as instances of organized international terrorism.
In any event, there is other evidence that terrorism is not treated as the priority it is made out to be in the news: the PATRIOT ACT, for example, which was passed in the wake of the 911 attacks, provides expanded powers for police to conduct “sneak and peek” searches. Between 2006 and 2009, these PATRIOT ACT searches were used 100x more often in drug cases than in terror cases.
At present, it seems like a good possibility that the “War on Terror” is simply a substitute for the military and industrial subsidies put in place during the Cold War. Now, instead of a shadowy global network of communist infiltrators, we face a shadowy network of “al Qaeda franchises.” Just like McDonald’s or Starbucks, an al Qaeda “franchise” may be lurking around any city street corner.
If we are to extract any major lessons from the Cold War, it should include these: first, if, during the Cold War, the world had two powerful, ideologically-motivated governments each struggling for the global dominance of its ideology, and each was willing to destroy the entire planet with weapons of mass destruction for the sake of that struggle, it is a dubious “victory” for humanity that either side should come out on top. Second, we should remember that, despite the “duck and cover” drills and media propaganda about Soviet nuclear attack, the only radiation to which Americans were exposed during the Cold War came from the American government itself: atmospheric tests in the Southwest and over the Pacific Ocean, a cloud of strontium-90 floating over the US in the late 1950’s, soldiers used as guinea pigs, prison inmates and the mentally ill deliberately and secretly injected with radioactive material…
Guns are abundant in the United States, and easy to acquire; yet, there have been no terrorist shooting sprees. If a terrorist were willing to die for his or her cause, it would not be hard to take out several Americans too. Former “Freedom Fighters” in Afghanistan seem to have little difficulty constructing improvised explosive devices, but jihadis stateside seem wholly incapable of this feat when removed from an impoverished desert environment swarming with US military personnel. A terrorist could drive a car into a crowd, or sit in a boat by an airport with a high-powered rifle; if a terrorist wanted to disrupt American life, that terrorist could drive cross-country in the middle of the night attacking high-tension power lines without being caught. If any of these things were happening with the regularity that would justify something like the PATRIOT ACT or a new bureaucracy the size of the Department of Homeland Security, “state secrets” wouldn’t be able to keep it out of the news for very long. And yet, for over a decade now, we’ve remained under the same state of emergency declared by George W. Bush. President Obama has repeatedly extended this state of national emergency. Congress is required under the 1976 National Emergencies Act (50 U.S.C. 1601-1651) to review presidential emergencies every six months; this oversight, however, does not appear to be much of a priority, and Congress has not been actively reviewing this emergency declaration.
In the US, terror is spread almost exclusively by the media. Most people traumatized on 911 were traumatized by watching TV in their kitchen or school classroom. Whereas terrorists have killed around 3000 Americans in the past decade, in the same period, automobiles have been responsible for some 400,000 deaths. The typical American is astronomically more likely to be killed or injured in a car accident than in a terrorist attack; yet, rather than treat effective mass transit as a life-saving national priority, politicians like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker make a show of turning down $1 billion in Federal funds for commuter rail.
In an important sense, we are our own worst enemy: Congress and the President have done more to disrupt the American Way of Life than any terrorist could have hoped to accomplish. As the media obsesses over dramatic fictions, as the federalization of local law enforcement continues, as local police procure military hardware, as civil liberties are swept aside, as drones and dirigibles with high-resolution cameras appear over major urban centers, keep in mind that it is not just Muslims that are targeted: during the recent G-20 summit in Toronto, police have been accused of profiling protestors with “black backpacks” and women with “hairy legs.” A Canadian police watchdog group calls these claims “substantiated.” Over 1,000 protesters were arrested — mostly without charge — and only around 40 were successfully prosecuted. Police profiling isn’t strictly a religious or an ethnic issue: control freaks don’t discriminate. If they don’t come to lock you up in person, be sure that they’ll come for your heart and your mind.
Although many elected officials lay claim to the title of “leader,” it is becoming increasingly self-evident that such a title only applies insofar as they are leading us off a cliff. It is profoundly problematic that the media unquestioningly reinforces such baseless claims to leadership by routinely using so inappropriate a term to describe these officials.
While various “leaders” may market themselves as catalysts for social change, and seek to secure the confidence of voters who also seek social change, a change in “leadership” rarely brings about the promised social changes. Not only is electoral politics first and foremost a means of legitimating those very power structures voters would seek to change, but belief in leadership is furthermore a tool to enforce conformity among voters, since following leaders is a form of conformity. Conformists don’t bring about social change.
That few officials, out of humility, demure that they are not “leaders” but, rather, public servants, offers an important glimpse into a profoundly disturbing dynamic underlying the facade of “politics as usual.”
Many politicians are literally sociopaths. Compare the behavioral profile of the sociopath with the actions and attitudes of the typical politician: sociopaths don’t have normal moral reservations about manipulating people like objects; this is precisely how politicians get elected. Sociopaths understand little about human emotion beyond ego gratification; the prestige of high office satisfies this desire for the politician. Sociopaths wear a facade of normalcy and are often charming, but lie compulsively. Politicians speak in polite terms while plotting to stab their colleagues in the back. If they’re not telling outright lies, they’re “spinning” facts to suit their needs. Sociopaths don’t feel guilt or remorse or empathy; no US official to date has apologized for invading Iraq on false pretenses, turning five million Iraqi’s into refugees, pumping Fallujah full of depleted uranium, or engaging in torture. Nobody in government has publicly investigated the Bush Administration’s use of torture or civil liberties violations. Sociopaths are glib, superficial, impulsive; their goal is the creation of a dependent, willing victim. Elected office is the ideal job description for a sociopath. The desire to attain office should disqualify a person from holding such a position.
The term “sociopath” is imprecise. Often, “sociopath” is used interchangeably with “psychopath,” whereas other times, “psychopath” is used to designate a genetic predisposition, and “sociopath” a set of learned behaviors. Either way, the prevalence of this sort of anti-social personality disorder among the general population is estimated at between 1-4%.
It may not be a coincidence that 1% of the population controls some 40% of the wealth in the US, and that the top 5% controls close to 70% of the wealth. Competitive society is in many ways optimized to benefit those who exhibit sociopathic personality traits, and it reinforces sociopathic tendencies among the general population as a behavioral adaptation.
In competitive society, people are trained by sociopaths to think like sociopaths. The public relations and marketing firms employed by both commercial and political interests train people to be opportunistic and calculating, to always be on the lookout for ways to treat other people as means that can be manipulated to various ends. People are taught to be individualistic and egocentric rather than compassionate and cooperative. Much of the advertising with which individuals are daily inundated promotes impulsive behavior and acculturates individuals to the distortions of reality that characterize most advertising and marketing. As young people are brought into the fold, they become adults who are active participants in this process of training others to think like sociopaths — to think in the terms expounded by commercial marketers and political spin doctors — to such an extent that genuinely different worldviews become completely incoherent, in virtue of a sociopathic lack of empathy.
Beyond accommodating the lies and distortions that characterize so much advertising, marketing, and political posturing, individuals are, in numerous other ways, trained to think like sociopaths. The aesthetic appreciation of violence in films, TV, and video games is an obvious example; a less obvious example is the popularity of “funniest home video” programs.
While slapstick comedy may be the cultural context in which “funniest home video” programs are appreciated, these programs contain none of the observational humor or physical ingenuity that characterize most slapstick. The “funniest home video” programs are not, in any substantive terms, the products of creativity or skill. They harvest moments of trauma from among the general population, and, in terms of their presentation, they train audiences to override natural empathy responses and to find humor in the misfortune of others.
Without an awareness of these dynamics, little can be done about them. It is hard to criticize or correct a social trend without being able to even name it. But such contemporary developments as the imposition of “austerity measures” or the renewed effort to disrupt labor organization and revoke “collective bargaining rights” can be understood in a precise historical context; to the extent that ordinary citizens support such measures, these citizens are being manipulated by criminal sociopaths.
In The Second Treatise on Civil Government, John Locke wrote, “he that in the state of society would take away the freedom belonging to those in that society or commonwealth must be supposed to design or take away from them everything else, and so be looked on as in a state of war” (¶19). John Locke is not some fringe figure; the Preamble to the US Constitution is more or less a summary of Locke’s basic ideas on legitimate authority. What is happening today has happened before, has been studied, and named, and diagnosed already. In the past, monarchs caused civil unrest; today it is powerful sociopaths who have rigged the game to serve their own ends, who create for themselves an aura of respectability, and thus wrest from citizens assent to a degenerate state of affairs.