Panic Attack

I hope you have seen the 25 minute interview with Ed Snowden, the man who blew the whistle on the NSA. The interview was conducted in Hong Kong where Snowden now resides until he has determined what the future will bring. He comes across as a bright, articulate, well-informed, and conscientious young man who knows whereof he speaks and also knows exactly what he did. I will not  spoil the interview for you because it is well worth your time, no matter how busy you are. I will simply attach the link here and hope you will check it out.

Toward the end of his interview Mr. Snowden expresses his main concern: that after the dust settles, things will go back to the way they were — except that the intelligence gathering community will become even more efficient and they will continue to gather information about all of us and we have no idea whatever how that information will be used by a government that increasingly borders on paranoia. Actually, I paraphrase and added the bit about paranoia myself. But if you listen to the interview you will see what Mr. Snowden actually does say. He certainly hopes that American citizens will become riled up enough about the situation that they will put pressure on their representatives so that present policies in Washington can be changed and this surveillance nonsense can be thwarted. And he is realistic enough to worry that this will not happen.

So am I. I am put in mind of some comments made by Andrew J. Bacevich, a West Point graduate who fought in Viet Nam in 1970 and 1971, served as a career Army officer, rising to the rank of Colonel. Bacevich recently testified to a Senate committee that Americans have “fallen prey to militarism, manifesting itself in a romanticized view of soldiers, a tendency to see military power as the truest measure of national greatness, and outsized expectations regarding the efficacy of force. To a degree without precedent in U.S. history.” As Bacevich went on to say, “The mystical war on Communism finds its counterpart in the mystical war on terrorism. It prevents us from seeing things as they are.”

Bacevich, like Snowden, also knows whereof he speaks. And given this present aura of “mysticism” in Washington, one can conclude that the Congress in the grips of the military and the intelligence community to a degree that even a full-fledged effort by the American people will not penetrate that fog and result in alterations of national policy. This is the case because it is not only the American citizens who have “fallen prey to militarism,” it is our leaders as well. And with this fog thickening every day, it will become even more difficult to penetrate and messages to Congressional leaders from their constituents will simply not get through. The truly unsettling thing about this situation is that it is largely built on a fiction. Ours is one of the safest countries on earth.

We are separated from much of the world by two oceans and bordered by allies, as we are reminded by Jill Lepore in a recent New Yorker article (1/28/13). The country is, “by dint of geography among the best-protected countries on earth. Nevertheless, six decades after V-J Day nearly three thousand American troops are stationed overseas, including fifty-five thousand in Germany, thirty-five thousand in Japan, and ten thousand in Italy.” Further, our intelligence community, despite its excesses, is considerably better informed about the goings on of suspected terrorists than it was before the attacks on the Twin Towers.  And yet, despite these protections the nation shakes in fear of what we seem convinced is an inevitable terrorist attack that will bring this nation to its knees and wreak havoc among our citizens. We have become increasingly apathetic and are losing our collective sense of perspective. Despite the fact that the odds of any single American being killed by terrorists is approximately the same as that same American winning the lottery, we seem perfectly content to hand over our freedoms and even our consciences to the government in the name of “national security.”

Thus, it would seem, Mr. Snowden’s fears are well founded.  After the dust settles — and it will settle sooner rather than later — things will almost certainly go back to the way they were. The mystique of militarism has us all in its grips, and we seem perfectly content to leave it that way.

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Free From Fear

Stories abound about long-time prisoners who are finally set free and who then commit an illegal act in order to be arrested and sent back to jail. The freedom they have finally achieved scares them and they prefer the security of three meals a day, a place to sleep, and a routine they are familiar with. When the Wall fell separating East and West Berlin there were also reports of people from East Germany who went into a panic because they were suddenly free to make of their lives what they wished. Freedom can be a fearsome thing because it involves both risk and responsibilities and it requires courage and self-confidence to “go it alone.” Freedom varies inversely with fear: the exercise of that freedom demands that we conquer our fear.

We certainly enjoy a great many freedoms in this country. But there are so many people on all sides who are only too happy to tell us how to live — our parents, friends, society at large and, of course, those who would sell us the things we don’t need, including politicians! But in the midst of all these many factors operating on us we still pretty much can come and go as we wish; we can visit the grocery store and marvel at the bounty from which to choose the items we take home to eat — if we have the money with which to make our purchases. That is always the hooker, of course, and there is an increasing number of people in this country who do not have the money to buy what they need to eat and who have no place to live. But the majority of us live relatively comfortable lives, free to come and go as we like and make of our lives what we wish.

When the Twin Towers fell on 9/11, however,  much of this changed. We suddenly felt vulnerable and fear began to enter the hearts of  those who really had no reason to be fearful. And there were those among us in positions of power who nurtured that sense of fear because they came quickly to realize that it was a way to get what they wanted. There followed the  monster known as “Homeland Security” that took away many of our civil liberties without our even knowing it. Our communications were open to prying eyes, guilt was presumed, and our right to privacy was rapidly becoming an empty phrase, dismissed in the name of greater national security. Security cameras started going up everywhere, especially in crowded cities, and access to public transportation is now carefully watched and monitored. Recently there has been serious talk about domestic drone flights in the name of surveillance in order to assure our government that another terrorist attack will not occur — even though the likelihood of anyone in this country being killed in such an attack is on a par with winning the lottery.

All indications are that the vast majority of American citizens are perfectly content to have it this way. We seem to be entering a phase in which we are willing to trade what freedoms we do have for greater security because of an exaggerated sense of fear of terrorists who may or may not ever attack us again. We begin to resemble the prisoner who seeks the safety and comfort of the jail cell rather than face the world on his own. We have crossed the threshold into an era in which we trade what is left of our freedom for the feeling of security — even though our safety is almost certainly not at risk. Fear trumps freedom.

Protecting Our Country

I have blogged about the reluctance of the Republican party to allow any cuts in “defense” spending — in spite of the fact that 60% of the budget they have pledged to cut to shreds is spent on the military in one form or another. In this regard a recent paragraph from a blogger friend jumped out and I thought it worth passing along:

Last year, the U.S. Army made an unusual request to Congress: Stop sending us tanks. That plea was issued after legislators ignored the Army’s objections and approved a defense appropriations bill that included $255 million for 42 new M1 Abrams tanks. With 2,300 M1s already deployed around the world, and 3,000 more sitting idle at a base in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, the military said it simply didn’t need any more tanks. But Ohio politicians pushed for the extra M1s, so as to keep open an 800-worker tank plant in the state. “A lot of lawmakers stuff funding into defense bills that could benefit their district,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. Republican Rep. Jim Jordan, whose district is home to the tank plant, insisted that he supported the program for reasons of national security. “I think it’s in the best interests of the U.S. to defend our country,” he said.

Clearly waste in the Department of Defense is beyond our comprehension. Another article I read recently (also here) spoke about the waste of $5 billion by the Army attempting by trial and error to find camouflage that would protect the troops around the world — and make them look as “cool” as the Marines. Their camouflage, it turned out, made them more visible in every possible environment! They were unable to find the proper color combinations while the Marines simply went to Home Depot and looked at paint swatches and found the colors they wanted and had a material made in those colors which was then made into camouflage that works remarkably well — saving the taxpayers millions of dollars in the process.

I dare say there are many more stories like this that will never leak out as politicians are unwilling to turn a critical eye on “defense” spending since (as the above paragraph suggests) it would translate into a “weaker” country. Obviously defense spending is really less about defending our country than it is about defending special political interests. In any event this “weak” country would presumably result from a scheduled “sequestering” [reduction] of the military (which is opposed by Republicans in Congress (despite the fact that it would save the country $1.5 trillion over ten years). Our “weak” country would look something like this: it would only have 426,000 soldiers in the Army, only 1,512 fighter planes, only 230 ships in the Navy — not to mention the tanks alluded to above that are sitting and getting rusty and the tactical weapons we dare not mention. The question needs to be asked: what on earth is going on here? Just who are we defending ourselves from? It should be from the fat-cat politicians who talk about “national security” while they bed down with the corporations that make millions from selling defense equipment and weaponry.