Creating Enemies, Defining Terror, and Justifying Anything

We are known by the enemies we keep creating. Of course, one can point almost anywhere and find barbarism, now and in the past, there and also here. The dictionary definition of “Terrorism” is “government by intimidation.” It most recently devolved in the U.S. lexicon of endless war “on terror” – since 9/11– as any violence by those the ‘patriotic’ U.S. speaker perceives as a threat to U.S. “interests” anywhere in the world. Anyone who may object to U.S. military incursions into his/her country is not a “patriot” or “freedom fighter,” but a “terrorist.” In its recent usage, the term “terrorist” has become loaded with emotional content.

The term has pretty much lost its traditional meaning. It is now so widely used to refer to anyone the speaker hates or opposes that it means little more than to designate an evil other. Someone who protests the clear cutting of old growth timber in the Northwest is now called an “eco-terrorist.” The term has simply devolved into a symbol of hatred — regardless of whether the hatred is ‘justified’ by specific behavior — especially when the speaker, as is typical, represents the interests of the global business elite. The terrorism meme has become an effective tool in maintaining endless wars by fanning the fires of hatred of the evil other. Hence, the growing number of hate crimes directed at anyone who appears to the ignorant observer to look ‘Islamic.’

Empires of Terror

So-called “non-Western cultures” have experienced localized terror for centuries. Afghans suffered British attempts to colonize and later Soviet attempts to install puppet governments. The Mujahideen fought off the Russians, ran drugs, took millions of dollars in cash delivered by CIA operatives, killed villagers and became the Taliban. The U.S. has also attempted to govern the Afghans by intimidation (and bribes) ever since its first bungled attempt to kill Osama bin Laden, and has continued to do so since killing him.

Governments everywhere are corrupt, but some have more technical ‘fire power’ while others have an unfamiliar fanaticism. Taliban brutality is more than matched by the techno-terror reigned down upon wedding parties, villages, and even “insurgents,” via CIA drones. Indiscriminant murder-at-a-distance can easily be just as brutal as by those ISIS fighters who would more directly behead innocents. But one can maintain a psychological distance from one’s own brutal acts by the lexicon of “targeting” in the detached mode of video games. A person’s willingness to invoke the term “terrorist” seems mostly based on whose side executes the terrifying acts of ruthless violence. It is also an easy means of dehumanizing the ‘object’ targeted by the killing machine’s operator. Beheading is barbaric and maybe even insane, but it is as brutally honest as it is physically direct.

What, exactly, is so special about Western culture that it’s violence escapes the label of terror? Is it merely that it perfected more powerful technologies of violence and deployed them on other cultures before anyone else? That resulted in colonialism, imperialism, and now economic ‘globalization’ – global financial domination supported by military intervention wherever thought useful to retain economic control. Is that more rational or less brutal than tribal fighters resisting U.S. invasions?

Cultural one-upmanship is pointless. Those with more power can invent and deploy more clever technologies. But remember: technology is simply a material way to do something. But, what is to be done? Well, since most money for “innovation” in technological development is spent for military purposes, death and destruction are its primary purpose. In any case, the globalized war machine continues to inflict more damage on the planet as well as its people, than any other institution – even Wall Street. But of course, Wall Street is one of the prime movers of the military-industrial-political complex and its drive for endless billions in contracts for esoteric often unworkable technologies of warfare, which cost billions to operate, and are inappropriate for the military operations they are supposed to enhance.

Justifying Terror by Creating Enemies

Does the U.S. incarcerate more people than any other nation because over the last few decades we have produced more and more evil people who must be arrested and imprisoned? The so called drug war has criminalized a huge segment of society by targeting vulnerable Black and Brown youth in neighborhoods, ignoring the white college and working classes that uses drugs at about the same rates. Is that not a form of governing by intimidation? The growing chorus of reports of police killings of Black and Brown young men on America’s streets reflects the governing of those neighborhoods by intimidation. Yet the “terrorist” meme is reserved for those others who are on the other side of the authoritarian mission of the corporate state.

The Kill Team,” a recent production of PBS’s Independent Lens, documents a platoon of U.S. soldiers some of whom participated in gratuitous killings of Afghan civilians. In their naïve boot-camp brainwashed minds, they felt the need to do what they had been trained to do: kill people. It is hard to not be stunned by the mindless dehumanization of The Other by these barely past teenage boys. Officially sanctioned night raids of civilian homes, excused by the flimsiest ‘intelligence’ are not really that different.

We know of many incidents and patterns of practice in the military from Abu Graeb to Guantanamo that are at least as irrational and brutal. Jeremy Scahill’s book, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield, chronicles the covert wars of intimidation waged around the world in the name of “the War on Terror.” These wars on diverse peoples only breed resentment and hatred for those who have invaded their countries. The terrorism meme has worked as domestic propaganda, even though the intimidation of the peoples of Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and beyond, cannot salvage the empire.

Mohamedou Slahi has been imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay since 2002, despite being cleared by multiple courts of any wrong doing. Even with heavy blacking out of major portions, his Guantanamo Diary reveals much more than what is widely known about the torture that goes on there. It also expresses the power of the human spirit in the face of incalculable suffering, torture, and intimidation. His enduring humanity cannot be destroyed by the terrorist meme. Can our humanity survive it too?

Sometimes a Cigar is Just a Cigar, and Sometimes a Spy is Just a Citizen

The media response to the revelations of NSA whistle blower Edward Snowden has been, well, interesting.  At first, he was either vilified as a ‘traitor’ or as a fake or incompetent fool.  Then, as more embarrassing information on the unconstitutional surveillance of Americans was made public, and James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, was revealed to have directly lied to Congress about the extent of NSA spying on citizens – and was not fired – some called Snowden a hero while others still insisted that he had caused (always-unspecified) “major damage” to national security.

Having viewed or listened to every interview with Snowden I have been able to locate, I was somewhat surprised at what was, for a ‘techie,’ such articulate elucidation of the political and constitutional issues involved in the mass surveillance practices he has revealed.  Yet, his employment history reported in the media reveals a pattern similar to many whistle blowers – a conversion from initial idealism to informed outrage.  His attempt to complete Special Forces training to fight in Iraq, cut short by broken legs, had ended his idealistic military aspirations.

Then, applying his deep computing skills working for the CIA and the NSA, and subsequently for Booze-Allen, a major NSA contractor, he had access to the highest levels of secret NSA operations, because as a network system administrator, he had to in order to maintain information system operations.  Now it appears that he may have also obtained some passwords that expanded his access.

With access comes knowledge.  That is where his patriotism apparently clashed with his growing awareness of the unconstitutionality of operations NSA was conducting without serious congressional oversight.  His idealism about his government was shattered by his knowledge of what it was doing in the name of ‘national security’ and ‘democracy.’  Now, some conspiracy theorists claim that he was somehow duped into revealing information that was planted for him to find.  Why?  I have no idea.  The claim that some lowly ‘insignificant’ employee could have access to such super-secret information is seen by some folks as impossible, unless some conspiracy was afoot to manipulate him… Well…

Why Edward Snowden is real – it’s easy.  Some clues had emerged from my past experience as a low-level member of the military with a Top Secret clearance and also from having worked with highly technically skilled people who contracted with the NSA, as well as with a semi-retired CIA operator/assassin. I was at first shocked, then bemused at the level of INsecurity of information involved in a number of “national security” operations from detailed data on missile sites to extremely sensitive software development for the NSA.  In the late 1980s I also learned of boots-on-the-ground absurdities in Reagan’s War on Central America, from my friend the semi-retired CIA assassin.

I eventually understood that it is quite common for “lower participants” in large organizations, who have special skills, to be given far more access to “sensitive” information than most people would expect.  The reason for this is simple: those in authority need those with technical skills to carry out the operations needed in a complex system — be they super technical or super dangerous.  Who is more capable of drilling down into the bowels of a giant complex network and “administer” its many information processing and communications functions, including security, than the proverbial young geek who learned as a child the deepest computational processes and the many ways to “hack” a system [in the sense of working one’s way around in it and seeing whatever is there] and who by young adulthood has skills that his “superiors” will never understand?

People like Edward Snowden are hired for their performance in areas and at high technical levels where very few can in fact perform effectively.  This exemplifies what sociologists call “the power of lower participants.”  There are other related powers too, such as that of the lowly administrative assistant or secretary who, by virtue of her/his position knows all the boss’s dirty secrets as well as the politics of outwardly routine actions.  It is pretty clear that Edward Snowden is one of those ‘geeks’ who can get those deep technical tasks done — or he would not have been hired by CIA, NSA, or their contractors more than once.

Then at 29, he recognized some of the political consequence of the systems he maintained, especially for the Constitution he believed he was obligated to faithfully defend.  So, having reflected on the role of secrecy and surveillance in transforming a democracy into a totalitarian state with a democratic façade, he rebelled against participating in that corrupt process and risked his life – just as he might have as a Special Forces operator – in defense of the constitution he believes in.  Edward Snowden, it would appear, is still an idealistic citizen.

Citizenship knows no rank.  And rank does not necessarily correlate with intelligence or even military or business skills.  How do you think all those generals and admirals got to the top of the security/surveillance establishment?  Conformity, group-think, bureaucratic maneuvering, etc., are entirely different skills than creative analysis, whether of information systems software and hardware or of organizational situations or technical or tactical operations.  They are very different from critical thinking – the former are the skills it takes to rise to the rank of general.

Critical thinking, in contrast, leads to understanding.  That is why William Boyd, known as the greatest fighter pilot who ever lived, and the man who changed air combat and Marine maneuvering strategy forever, despite his huge accomplishments never made the rank of general – he frequently bucked a corrupt military-contractor system to achieve valued goals.  Boyd’s work was anything but superficial, nor do I suspect was Snowden’s, both of whom had special skills and seriously took creative risks for what they believed was right.  In an era of extreme cynicism, it is hard for many to imagine that a lowly systems analyst would risk his life to take an action based on an idealistic belief in his responsibility as a citizen, yet there you have it.