During the recent memorial of the September 11 attacks, I heard a lot of discussion by people remembering where they were and how they felt when they first heard news of the attack on the World Trade Center. I remember it very vividly myself.
I was awakened by my clock radio while the local morning DJs were still excitedly discussing the plane impact on the first tower. Before long, another plane hit the second tower. It became pretty clear then that the first one hadn’t been an accident, and that some sort of terrorist attack was underway.
My first thought wasn’t fear of the terrorists. I didn’t think “Oh, my God — what will they do next?” I didn’t fear for my safety or that of my loved ones.
My first thought was that federal law enforcement and the intelligence community would drag out their Christmas list of police state legislation that they didn’t get passed after the Oklahoma City bombing, and that Congress would probably rubber stamp it.
My second thought was that George Bush would get a blank check for any war he wanted, anywhere in the world, in the name of fighting terrorism; “terrorism” would replace the previous fig leaves of “International Communism” and “narcotrafficking” as an all-purpose justification for attacking any country that looked crossways at global corporate rule.
After that, my thoughts turned closer to home. “Another wave of attacks like this,” I thought, “and my red card from the I.W.W. will get me a bunk with the other ‘subversives’ being detained without charge.”
The next several weeks, with the flag-waving and hysteria, struck me as unbridled lunacy. Americans, as usual in wartime, stopped exercising the skepticism of authority that is our defining feature and instead began acting like Good Germans. When Tom Daschle said “there’s no daylight between us and President Bush,” and Dan Rather said “tell me where to line up, Mr. President,” I wanted to spit on the floor. When USA PATRIOT passed, I wondered if the formal powers conferred on Bush were greater than those in the Reichstag Enabling Act.
Over the past ten years, if the clampdown hasn’t been as nightmarish as I feared, it’s still been massive: The whole security-industrial complex around Homeland Security, the TSA and their contractors; USA PATRIOT, warrantless wiretapping, and the use of “national security letters” for purposes entirely unrelated to terrorism; the wars all over the globe, and the doubling of “defense” spending; extraordinary rendition and torture at Gitmo, Abu Ghraib, Baghram and CIA black sites all over the world. It’s like the Paul Verhoeven version of Starship Troopers — with “freedom fries” for all.
There has been an enormous ratcheting upward of state power — sufficient to cause one email correspondent, the leader of a prominent libertarian organization, to express private despair that human liberty might be on the way to being extinguished in a new Dark Age of totalitarian barbarism.
I’m more optimistic. I don’t think the state will become any less authoritarian in its intent or policies, but its grasp will weaken faster than its reach extends. There is a breathtaking future in people taking advantage of new technical possibilities for rendering the state’s laws unenforceable and living as we want below its radar.
In the purely military realm, I have a hunch that the possibilities for cheap anti-ship missiles capable of taking out aircraft carriers (and other comparatively cheap “assassin’s mace” weapons with ROIs of 100,000% in terms of the value of the targets they take out) will continue to stay several steps ahead of attempts to counter them. If so, agile networked asymmetric war will acquire the same kind of generational advantage over the Sole Remaining Superpower’s legacy forces that the U.S. had over the Soviet bloc thirty years ago.
Domestically, I think Wikileaks, The Pirate Bay, Anonymous and Bitcoin’s essay at an encrypted currency were the first weak tremors of what will become a 9.0 earthquake shaking authoritarian hierarchies to their foundations. What emerges, in the aftermath of the long series of earthquakes, will be decentralized, networked, and largely beyond the control of whatever remains of the hollowed out states and corporations.
Regardless of the powers asserted in Executive Orders, “National Security Doctrines” that sound like a Thousand Year Reich, and corporate attempts to put the entire world under a DRM Curtain, their authoritarian claims will ultimately be about as efficacious as the edicts of the Emperor Norton.
Translations for this article:
- Portuguese, Reflexões a Partir da Pista de Aterrissagem Dois.