“In order to get our message before the public with some chance of making a lasting impression, we’ve had to kill people.”
-Ted Kaczynski, The Unabomber Manifesto, 1995
April 19, 2013, is a date to remember, not so much for the killing and capture of two “terrorists,” but as a milestone in the rise of the 21st century American surveillance police state.
A well-oiled fusion of federal, state and local police authorities went through hundreds of hours of surveillance video and employed all sorts of secret technological and human assets to quickly identify the perpetrators of the crime that captivated the nation’s imagination. Then, thanks to a carjack victim who apparently escaped, the nation witnessed a daylong, blow-by-blow media account of one of the most oppressive manhunts in history. A major northeastern metropolitan area was completely shut down in what amounted to a state of martial law.
After Tamerlan Tsarnaev had been killed and his brother Dzhokhar captured, instead of a “perp walk,” TV watchers were given a triumphalist parade of all the gathered police and FBI vehicles with lights still flashing. The vehicles passed one-by-one through a gauntlet of relieved Watertown residents who began to spontaneously applaud, cheer, grin, pump their fists in the air and even thrust delighted, giggling babies into the air.
Sitting at home bouncing around between MSNBC, CNN and Fox News, by that point I would not have been surprised to see local suburban police units touring my neighborhood in a sympathetic triumphalist procession with the lights on their squad cars and SUVs blazing and my neighbors cheering.
But then the internet conspiracy theorists went into rabid mode certain the federal government had done the bombing, while their counterparts, nationalist war-lovers, began to work feverishly to link the bombers to some large and menacing Muslim threat of suitable grandeur for such a magnificent display of surveillance police power.
Just another day in America, circa 2013.
I’m certainly glad the two (alleged) bombers are dead or in custody. But the fusion of forces that accomplished that feat scares the hell out of me for two reasons: One, 4/19 feels like a point-of-no-return in the steady growth of a contagious variety of 21st century surveillance police state, and two, the fact I’m politically critical of this growing monster puts me on a potentially very slippery slope toward being declared by some officious operative in some secret cell an enemy of this police state. All it might take is becoming a bit more effective as a political organizer.
Watching a You Tube of geared-up SWAT cops hollering rudely at Watertown residents to keep their hands on their heads as they are ordered to leave their home gave me the creeps. I could feel my anger rising as I watched it. I realize I may march to a different drummer and I know it’s asking a lot, but I feel SWAT cops jacked up on adrenaline, dressed like rhinoceroses and waving automatic weapons should be especially humble and polite. For the sake of solidarity with the citizens they claim so vociferously to be protecting, it would be nice if they could shoulder the risk necessary for treating citizens with a bit more dignity. OK, they’re scared; but so is everybody else.
The danger is that this kind of us-versus-them relationship between cops and citizens is beyond repair. So much of 4/19 was akin to the fantasy crap we’re spoon-fed day-in-day-out on TV and in movies as entertainment that you had to wonder whether the SWAT cops weren’t playing out some inner movie plot. Like, what Hollywood stud is gonna play me on the big screen?
I realize cheerleaders for this surveillance police state may call me paranoid and say it’s trite of me to quote Thomas Pynchon that “even paranoids have enemies.” I feel like someone at a wild party who refuses to go along and ingest the intoxicant of the moment. “Hey, try some. It’s cool.” Or maybe I’m like the guy in Ionesco’s absurdist play Rhinoceroses who’s always looking out the window as all his neighbors turn into rampaging rhinos. In an obit for Anna Merz, a woman who loved rhinoceroses and build a huge reserve for them in Africa, the writer said she felt rhinos were maligned; it was due to poor eyesight that they “charge first and ask questions later.”
Meanwhile, as everything stopped to watch our fusion police state shut down Boston on April 19th over the tragic deaths of three at a public event, 50 people were killed in Iraq by bombings; 15 were killed in an explosion at a fertilizer plant in Texas because its executives had ignored regulators; 86 Americans were killed on US highways; in inner city Chicago and Philadelphia absurd, self-destructive violence was still the norm; our various justice systems continued to reek of unfairness and our prisons remained overcrowded with unnecessary POWs in a failed drug war; unemployment and underemployment continued to plague the most powerful economy in the world; our drones continued to kill and terrorize villagers in Pakistan and Yemen and make more enemies; our infrastructure was still crumbling at home; and last but certainly not least, our infant mortality statistics and educational output still compared unfavorably with most of the developed world.
People Who See Killing as a Change Agent
There’s one aspect of this murder-tragedy that’s tricky to discuss, since it makes me vulnerable to demagogic abuse. This matter first occurred to me back in the days of Theodore Kaczynski, better known as The Unabomber. Like young Dzhokhar, he was also an American citizen. He killed three people and injured 23. He was not a Muslim. As we know, Kaczynski did his killing over time with mail bombs while he lived in a plywood shack deep in the Montana woods.
When I read some of Kaczynski’s long-winded manifesto run in The New York Times, what was disturbing was that I agreed with some of what he was saying. In his hermetic madness, the man with an IQ of 170 saw himself (he liked to use the royal “we”) as some kind of modern John Brown committed to kicking off “a revolution against the industrial system.” Here’s how he opened his manifesto:
“The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race.” Continuing the modern industrial age will “subject human beings to greater indignities and inflict greater damage on the natural world, it will probably lead to greater social disruption and psychological suffering, and it may lead to increased physical suffering even in ‘advanced’ countries.”
Here’s his analysis of individual freedom in America:
“Constitutional rights are useful up to a point, but they do not serve to guarantee much more than what could be called the bourgeois conception of freedom. According to the bourgeois conception, a ‘free’ man is essentially an element of a social machine and has only a certain set of prescribed and delimited freedoms; freedoms that are designed to serve the needs of the social machine more than those of the individual.”
Kaczynski was quite critical of what he called “modern leftism” and sometimes sounded like Ann Coulter:
“Leftists tend to hate anything that has an image of being strong, good and successful. They hate America, they hate Western civilization, they hate white males, they hate rationality. … If our society had no social problems at all, the leftists would have to INVENT problems in order to provide themselves with an excuse for making a fuss.”
But then he said this about the right:
“The conservatives are fools: They whine about the decay of traditional values, yet they enthusiastically support technological progress and economic growth. Apparently it never occurs to them that you can’t make rapid, drastic changes in the technology and the economy of a society without causing rapid changes in all other aspects of the society as well, and that such rapid changes inevitably break down traditional values.”
The entire 34,000 word manifesto was run in The New York Times and The Washington Post on September 19, 1995, at the request of the FBI. Ted’s younger brother David, thus, recognized his brother’s ravings and called the FBI. Kaczynski is now doing life-without-parole at a federal supermax prison in Florence, Colorado.
Kaczynski was right; there are real, serious problems associated with advanced industrialized capitalist society. Consider the inexorable rise of global warming and the polluting of Earth, for one. These problems are systemic and chronic, and for the most part they go unaddressed. From his forest shack, Kaczynski saw our “social machine” cruising along blithely as if its technological advances and mythic sense of exceptionalism would save it from the disaster he saw coming down the road. Sometimes I feel that way too.
As I listened on 4/19 to the Tsarnaev brothers’ uncle, Ruslan Tsarni, speak to the media outside his home in Maryland, he seemed to be tip-toeing through this same kind of minefield. He was furious with his nephews for the cruel and stupid thing they had apparently done. He stressed over and over that their act had nothing to do with ideology or religion; they did it because “they are losers … not being able to settle themselves, and thereby just hating everyone who did.”
While it’s not what our demagogues want to hear, there would seem to be a lot of truth in the idea these men had alienation issues — especially Tamerlan. Where they learned to make a pot bomb seems not the most relevant detail to motivation for anonymous murder. Dzhokhar has apparently told investigators he and his brother were angry over US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. I’m also angry at these invasions and know many others who are as well.
Brian Fishman studies “terrorism” at the New American Foundation, and he suggested to The New York Times that the brothers faced “divided loyalties.” In the violent and demagogic climate of 2013, he suggested the question that haunted them was: were they Americans first or Muslims first? This kind of question too often, especially for healthy young males, he said, comes down to “proving yourself as a man of action.” This mindset, of course, applies to young, militarily recruitable US males as well. All parties in the madness that is war rely for cannon fodder on frustrated young males fearful of being “losers.”
(It’s interesting that in the area of Chechnya and the Russian Caucuses, Tamerlan — or Tamerlane — is the legendary name for Emir Timur, a 14th century ruler based in Samarkand, a city now in Uzbekistan. Tamerlane’s empire reached from Egypt to India and ended short of China, which he failed to conquer before he died. Edgar Allen Poe wrote a romantic narrative poem called “Tamerlane,” which includes these lines: “Aye I did inherit / That hated portion, with the fame, / The worldly glory, which has shown / A demon-light around my throne.”)
The bombers’ uncle was furious because his stupid nephews had undermined the underdog identity of Chechnya in its long struggle for independence against the Russian empire. With one stupid act, his nephews had branded Chechnyan liberators for TV-addled, middle-brow Americans as “terrorists.” (Like in Syria, the Chechnyan insurgent movement is currently conflicted between radical Muslims and non-sectarian, pro-western elements.)
Thanks to these stupid young men Americans would now be more in solidarity with Vladimir Putin and the Russian imperial forces out to crush Chechnya. Putin, of course, is highly invested in seeing Chechnyans as terrorists to be shot down like dogs, much as the Nazis also used the term terrorist to brand those resisting their rule. Putin was now sending condolences to President Obama for America’s suffering at the hands of Chechnyan terrorists.
Their Uncle knew America enough to know demagogues in the US government would trip over themselves to use his nephews’ stupid crime to whip up a vengeful militarist climate.
Sure enough, Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham (an odd couple sometimes called los amigos) rose to the occasion and immediately called for trying the surviving Tsarnaev brother, an American citizen, as an “enemy combatant.” Graham, a veteran military lawyer, seemed aware that this was illegal, but that didn’t seem to matter to him. All he wanted was for US intelligence agents to be given 30-days to interrogate (I read that as, to torture) young Tsarnaev without the presence of an attorney. Graham is reportedly a very smart caballero, and fairly liberal for a Republican. But he fights hard to use the law as a weapon to reinforce a runaway imperial reality and its concomitant domestic police state.
Graham went further and quickly introduced legislation that would shine suspicion on all immigrants residing in America. His language raised the spectre of vast police sweeps to check all immigrants for their terrorist potential. Suddenly, the Boston bombing was a demagogic monkey wrench in Senate Judiciary Committee hearings that had been gaining a rare bi-partisan consensus.
Like 9/11 before it, the danger is that 4/19 will become what many of us fear our most militarist demagogues have been waiting for, the provocation to allow them to do what they’ve wanted to do for some time. You can almost smell the lust in the media air for intelligence operatives to shoe-horn these Chechynan clowns as a jihadist cell with connections to the al Qaeda in our minds. Anything to link these guys to the boogie man of the moment, extremist Islam, today’s equivalent to communists during Joseph McCarthy’s run during the Cold War.
Coping With The Fear
In one of the murkier aspects of this public murder case, a number of men from a private security firm known as Craft International were photographed hovering around the murder scene. Craft was founded by Chris Kyle, the much admired SEAL Team author of American Sniper who was mysteriously shot dead in February by a fellow veteran. The company’s logo is a skull encircled by the motto Despite what your momma told you … Violence does solve problems.
Who hired these men from Craft International and what were they doing all over the marathon site? These kinds of secret, murky operations inside the United States concern many citizens, and the government owes them a straight answer.
Fortunately, so far President Obama has not caved into the militarists, and his justice department says it will try young Tsarnaev in federal court and either execute him or give him life without parole. He deserves no sympathy. A fair trial, yes — then exit stage whatever.
Dr. Dan Gottleib who has a long-running PBS radio show in Philadelphia on psychiatric and counseling topics did a show on the aftermath of the Boston bombing. He characterized the ad-nauseum media follow-up as “like picking at a scab.”
Many are, indeed, invested in keeping the Boston bombing an open, suppurating wound. Unless it’s allowed to close, the wound won’t heal and there will be no room for solutions to all the really festering social problems in America. But we know how addressing social problems in America is inimical to a well-greased police state. War is so much more fun.
Boston is now the proverbial bloody shirt useful to militarists to move us even farther along on a pernicious journey. A police state relies on fear and the perennial reminder of that fear that contributes to a more infantilized citizenry. The bargain goes like this: The police state promises to protect its infantilized citizens as long as they agree to relinquish sharing any of the risks and dangers their passivity has had a hand in allowing and sustaining.
The drill is: Shut up! And leave the rest to us. It’s the condition FDR warned of when he said, “All we have to fear is fear itself.”
Susan Sontag’s words following 9/11 are still seared into my brain. She wrote a short piece in The New Yorker for which she was pilloried. Yes, truth is often hard to swallow. Her words should be re-seared into our brains after 4/19:
“Let’s by all means grieve together. But let’s not be stupid together.”