The Marathon Bombings and the Lockdown of Boston: Was it really a Vindication of the Surveillance State?

 By Falguni A. Sheth and Robert E. Prasch

 

The sub-text of the official state view and media coverage coming out of Boston over the last week carried a crucial message to the American public: it was a vindication of the Counter-Terrorism Surveillance State and its massive expenditures and the associated erosion of American constitutional liberties.

To that end, the several days since the bombing of the Boston Marathon showcased a mesmerizing display of reality television mediated by the unquestioning officiousness of the fourth estate.   On vivid display was “proof through performance,” a validation, that the laws passed and massive expenditures incurred over the last decade were essential to the state’s  “protection of the public.”

Multiple banners flashed across the scene with short exciting spins about the status of the manhunt for the bombing suspects; they were accompanied by endlessly repeated images of Boston and Watertown police, SWAT teams and FBI officers, all carrying a dazzling array of complicated weapons, bordered by police cars.  There wasn’t a civilian in sight, since they all appeared to have accepted the ‘command’ (which was in fact a request) to stay inside. These images alternated with breathless images of reporters ‘at the scene,’ filibustering inanely, occasionally offering proud announcements about how they were asked to ‘move back’ as the focus of the police search for the suspects shifted. It was as if they were children proudly reporting how they were asked by their teacher to help clean the blackboards.

The past decade has seen Presidents, politicians — conservatives and liberals alike — champion pre-emptive policing laws such as the USA PATRIOT Act, FISA, NDAA 2012 and 2013, to TSA security practices and searches, to “See Something, Say Something” practices—all in service to fighting the War on Terror.  As a cable-news talking head cooed Friday morning: “There are cameras and social media everywhere. There is nowhere to hide!” That statement seemed indisputable: store cameras, street cameras, private cellphone cameras and videos could be integrated to give an astonishingly wide record of the tens of thousands of people who were at last Monday’s event.  Yet, the most important truth of that day seemed to be lost in the gush of self-congratulation: the explosion of the bombs confirmed that a massive extension of the surveillance-state did NOT protect people in Boston.

Remarkably, this message of the paramilitarized surveillance state was in no way challenged merely because it was inaccurate. By the time Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick ended the “shelter in place” request, the second suspect had still not been found. Suddenly, the Boston public was supposed to believe that they were magically safer after the lock-down ended than before.   But lest one come to conclude that this suggested a failure of the militant and closely watchful surveillance state—Rachel Maddow, Erin Burnett, and other cable news heads happily rushed to its vindication—by triumphantly exclaiming the insightful fruits of the years-long “See Something, Say Something” campaign by the DHS.

The rough description that the media had in common was this: A guy walked out to his boat to smoke a cigarette, saw something moving, and lifted the tarp—only to find the injured suspect. At which point, he retreated and called the police!  Would the boat-owner have acted differently prior to the “See Something, Say Something” campaign?  Never mind.

Indeed, the vaunted magic of (decades-old) infrared technology, increased surveillance, and the absence of restraints on law enforcement, of this massive martial state could be all be justified through the lens of the state itself, a breathless and supine media, and an ostensibly cowering but now relieved public. Yeah! The War on Terror is so successful! See?

But the show did not end there.  As Erin Burnett crowed: “They took him alive! This proves that there is justice in America! Innocent til proven guilty.” Despite its nonsensical meaning, this oblique message was reiterated by the President, who cautioned us against a “rush to judgment”—certainly about groups of people. Apparently, “[t]hat’s why we have courts.”  Hmmm. That’s going to be news to some folks still languishing in Cuba.

Not to be outdone by an illusory call for order by a President who has supported multiple renewals of FISA and pressured the Senate into the approving an expansion of executive power to arrest and detain any suspected terrorist (US citizen or foreign national) anywhere in the world (in NDAA 2012 and 2013), Sen. Lindsay Graham insisted that we were seeing proof that the homeland was the battlefield. And indeed, it’s hard to disagree with him—even if one is critical.  Moreover, according to Graham and Sen. McCain, even a 19 year old naturalized citizen (vaguely fingered as Chechnyan and Muslim) CAN and should be treated as an enemy combatant.

What further cements this view of the Homeland as a Battlefield– is the public, collective, and casual insistence that a 19 year old should not be read his Miranda rights—because an asserted “public safety exception” can be invoked in view of the fact that other IED’s or pressure-cooker bombs might have been set.  With this, we are halfway to Alan Dershowitz’ favored fantasy: next, let’s torture him–because we ‘know’ a bomb might be set somewhere by him that threatens to hurt Americans. However—shockingly–even Dershowitz refuses to be fear-mongered, arguing instead that that the only logical outcome was a civilian trial, insisting that “It’s not even clear under the federal terrorism statute that this qualifies as an act of terrorism.”

Moreover, there was nearly no element of the recently reinforced surveillance state that contributed to the capture or killing these two suspects.  As an example, let’s assume every detail of the attack is the same except that it occurred in 1977 (to pick a random date prior to our ubiquitous Counter-Terrorism surveillance state; remember how we used to have “bad guys” before September 11?). If the “bad guys” had put together such a plan in 1977, would events have unfolded any differently?  Would there have been a lot of photography at the finish line of such a prominent public event?  Yes, although in the pre-digital age, it would have taken a little longer to gather and sort through the pictures.  Hence, this aspect of this past week’s outcome can’t be ascribed to the massive expenditures and “federalization” of “homeland security,” but rather to a change in consumer electronics.

Would the two brothers have been flushed out by the police response to a nearby and unrelated robbery that led to the tragic shooting of a MIT police officer, the carjacking and ensuing chase that ended with the shootout in Watertown?  It is hard to credit this sequence of events, which were initiated by a mere coincidence, to the success of the modern surveillance state.  Would the initial shootout in Watertown, the escape of one of the brothers, and the eventual spotting of blood on the side of a boat and the calling in of that observation have unfolded in more or less the same way in 1977?  Probably.

Where is the added value?  In what way have the massive expenditures, intrusive surveillance practices, and stripping away of our liberties been vindicated by the events of this past week?  In fact, no one can truthfully say “Aha!  This is where these new practices have made a difference!  Thank goodness George W. Bush and Barack Obama have so little regard for the American Constitution or everything would have really gone badly at that particular point in these events.”

What we witnessed was a tragic — but sadly – too familiar sequence of events.  In a nation of over 340 million, we have a few demented or damaged souls with real or imagined grievances that cause them to wish to harm people whom they do not know.  We also have good, brave, and competent local and state police forces that are able and willing to solve these crimes.  It was true back in 1977—and long before–and remains true today.

So what in fact did change? We now have a “War on Terror” that permeates every public news event and action. The immediate leap to the familiar “Terrorists In Our Midst” narrative is facilitated and amplified by a bovine mainstream media amped up by endless alerts issued by a Department of Homeland Security and two Presidential Administrations about insane foreigners here, there, and everywhere. In other words, what’s changed is the presence of a fear-mongering narrative of the War on Terror, along with the billions in expenditures that are used to justify it, that reframe a centuries old story about crime.

The events of the past week in Boston do not vindicate the rise of the Homeland Security bureaucracy and certainly do not vindicate the stripping of our liberties, the shutting down of a major city, or the instantiation of a police state. But they certainly affirm the future as it was perceived by George Orwell.

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This article has been republished on Salon.com.

 

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Election Year Redux

When it rains…2 posts on Translation Exercises on the same day! This one, by me, follows on the heels of the sobering piece by Marcellus Andrews.

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As I’ve said repeatedly, by the time the New York Times acknowledges my reality, it must be obvious to the most comatose of creatures. On Tuesday of this week, The New York Times’ Jo Becker and Scott Shane published a long piece that appeared to have very intimate knowledge of Obama’s strategy on counterterrorism.   It was a weird mix of criticism and glorification of the POTUS.  The title was a bit on the breathless side: “Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will.”

On the critical side:

1. The article pointed Obama’s unadulterated interest in centralizing and accumulating as much executive authority as possible to determine who would be next on the “Secret Kill” list.

“Obama is the liberal law professor who campaigned against the Iraq war and torture, and then insisted on approving every new name on an expanding “kill list,” poring over terrorist suspects’ biographies on what one official calls the macabre “baseball cards” of an unconventional war. When a rare opportunity for a drone strike at a top terrorist arises — but his family is with him — it is the president who has reserved to himself the final moral calculation.”

 

2. It seemed to confirm what the crazies on the left (myself included) have been saying for over 3 years, namely that

“[w]ithout showing his hand, Mr. Obama had preserved three major policies — rendition, military commissions and indefinite detention — that have been targets of human rights groups since the 2001 terrorist attacks.”
 

3. It pointed to criticisms that Obama’s own conservative staff had leveled about the personal assassination program, ranging from lack of accountability, indiscriminatory assassination of civilian adults and children (Children? Killed by Military? Why does that sound so familiar this week?). Folks as Neanderthal on the spectrum as:

Obama’s ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron P. Munter, who “has complained to colleagues that the C.I.A.’s strikes drive American policy there, saying “he didn’t realize his main job was to kill people,” a colleague said.”

 

Dennis C. Blair, the former director of national intelligence “until he was fired in May 2010,” [w]ho is quoted by the NYT  as commenting, “The steady refrain in the White House was, ‘This is the only game in town’ — reminded me of body counts in Vietnam,” said Mr. Blair, a retired admiral who began his Navy service during that war.”  A former head of national intelligence who served during Vietnam? Suggesting that Obama’s war is like Vietnam?

William Daley, chief of staff for Obama until 2011: “One guy gets knocked off, and the guy’s driver, who’s No. 21, becomes 20?” Mr. Daley said, describing the internal discussion. “At what point are you just filling the bucket with numbers?”  Given that Daley’s not the sharpest knife, how obvious must it be that Obama is hoarding power for himself much like squirrels accumulate acorns in the late fall?

4. It raises the question of whether the “single digit figures” of civilian deaths could be accurate:

But in interviews, three former senior intelligence officials expressed disbelief that the number could be so low. The C.I.A. accounting has so troubled some administration officials outside the agency that they have brought their concerns to the White House. One called it “guilt by association” that has led to “deceptive” estimates of civilian casualties.

“It bothers me when they say there were seven guys, so they must all be militants,” the official said. “They count the corpses and they’re not really sure who they are.”
 
 

Wow. It bothers this guy that random people killed by drone strikes are automatically assumed to be militants, just because the drones hit them where they lived. Hmm. The upstanding moral conscience of those surrounding the POTUS makes me shiver in awe. Given that fact that they’re dead, the more urgent question might be why so few pols are interested in effectively challenging Obama’s accumulation of power to decide who lives and who dies. A little arbitrary friend/enemy distinction is happening all around us. Which means it could happen to you, too. Carl Schmitt, anyone?

Now, on the warm, puppy-love, side:

  1. Becker and Shane point out how Obama’s acute constitutional lawyerly background would have no deterrent effect on diluting or minimizing the war on Muslims that was initiated under the Bush administration. If anything, Obama’s strength has been to figure out how to weave and finesse a path that bypasses Constitutional principles—even as he pretended that he was keeping campaign promises to shut down Guantanamo Bay and ban torture:

What the new president did not say was that the orders contained a few subtle loopholes. They reflected a still unfamiliar Barack Obama, a realist who, unlike some of his fervent supporters, was never carried away by his own rhetoric. Instead, he was already putting his lawyerly mind to carving out the maximum amount of maneuvering room to fight terrorism as he saw fit.

2.  The article suggests that the supposed near-miss on Christmas 2009 by Underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab seemed to push Obama toward a more aggressive anti-terrorism stance).

He asked them to use the close call to imagine in detail the consequences if the bomb had detonated. In characteristic fashion, he went around the room, asking each official to explain what had gone wrong and what needed to be done about it.

“After that, as president, it seemed like he felt in his gut the threat to the United States,” said Michael E. Leiter, then director of the National Counterterrorism Center.

More aggressive counterterrorism stance, and I might add, more illegal. But really, let’s think back: wasn’t Obama’s edgy anti-constitutionality approach already in play by February 2009? Remember, in August 2008, he returned to Washington, DC from campaigning to record his vote in favor of the renewal of the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). He had done nothing to abate ICE’s policy to step up on deportations of migrants (and no, this is hardly just a policy affecting migrant workers. Secure Communities, implemented in October 2008, targets anyone that the police come across in the course of their duties that might have immigration violations. This too is a counterterrorism policy, per the description of S.Comm on ICE’s own website:

In a memo issued by ICE Director John Morton in June 2010, ICE outlined the way it prioritizes removals. Specifically, ICE prioritizes the removal of those who pose a danger to national security or public safety, repeat violators who game the immigration system, those who fail to appear at immigration hearings, and fugitives who have already been ordered removed by an immigration judge. 

3. It points to Obama’s “pragmatic” reasoning in helping “maintain his options” with regard to renditions, detention, assassinations, drones, and less precise massacrous events, i.e. those that were to be certain of avoiding civilian deaths. (Regarding the term “massacrous”: is there such an adjective? I think we need one, given the long-standing popularity of mass murders by the state).

The NYT also offered a bit of accuracy at the conclusion of the article:

Mr. Blair, the former director of national intelligence, said the strike campaign was dangerously seductive. “It is the politically advantageous thing to do — low cost, no U.S. casualties, gives the appearance of toughness,” he said. “It plays well domestically, and it is unpopular only in other countries. Any damage it does to the national interest only shows up over the long term.”

Blair is certainly right: strikes, like rounding up and deporting innocent civilians in the name of fighting crime, like prosecuting kangaroo court cases against young Muslim men like Tarek Mehanna and Fahad Hashmi (and so many others) for “terrorism.” As Blair insists of drone strikes, these are all politically advantageous strategies—no US casualties, gives the appearance of toughness, plays well domestically, and unpopular only in other countries.

But along with that accuracy came a bit of sentimental disingenuity:

But Mr. Blair’s dissent puts him in a small minority of security experts. Mr. Obama’s record has eroded the political perception that Democrats are weak on national security. No one would have imagined four years ago that his counterterrorism policies would come under far more fierce attack from the American Civil Liberties Union than from Mr. Romney.
 
 

Come on, NYT, really: Some of us called this one, and insisted that Obama would be no more interested in abiding by the constitution than Bush.  And here we are in June 2012, with four months til the next election. Kind of feeling like Charlie Brown. The Dem have snatched that football away time and time again. Long past time to walk away from the field and look for a new president. But change is coming. And it is not something I can believe in.