The war of the terrified

Sam Smith

As news continues to gather of NSA’s abuse of the Constitution and those it is meant to serve, I find myself thinking of castles again. As I noted some time back:

The medieval  bifurcation of society into a weak, struggling, but sane, mass and a manic depressive elite alternately vicious and afraid, unlimited and imprisoned, foreshadows what we find today – leaders willing, on the one hand, to occupy any corner of the world and, on the other, terrified of young men with box cutters.

Similarly, many years ago some people built castles, walled cities and moats to keep the terror out. It worked for a while, but sooner or later spies and assassins figured how to cross the moats and opponents learned how to climb the walls and send balls of fire into protected compounds. The Florentines even catapulted dead donkeys and feces over the town wall during their siege of Siena.

The people who built castles and walled cities and moats are all dead now and their efforts at security seem puny and ultimately futile – unintended monuments to the vanity of human presumption.

Yet, like the castle-dwellers behind the moats, our elite is now spending huge sums to put themselves inside prisons of their own making.

While the NSA’s activities and similar offenses against the American people have been rightfully attacked for their criminal nature, hardly any attention is given to the fact that the same people who can destroy, damage and eliminate are also driven by paranoia and a fear that their present power is precarious and perhaps transitory. It is not an accident that the White House and Capitol grounds are the most heavily policed public spaces in America.

In 2009 I wrote:

After 9/11 the Capitol turned into an armed camp. The Capitol Visitors Center, under construction, was modified to serve as a bunker for members of Congress in case of an attack and the Capitol police force soared to three officers per member of Congress with the greatest number of police per acre of any spot in America. In the end the visitor’s center/bunker would cost over $600 million, just slightly less than the city’s new baseball stadium. Perhaps the most telling change was when the Capitol police, as a security measure, moved all tourist bus traffic a few blocks away. In essence, the police declared the lives of residents of 3rd & 4th Streets less important than those of officials working at or near the Capitol.

I would later tell people that I knew exactly where the war on terror ended: 2nd Street. Living four blocks further to the east, there would never be the slightest sign that my safety was of any concern to the White House or Homeland Security.

It was an important lesson that made me realize the War on Terror was not about protecting me, but about protecting those extremely frightened men and women who ran our government, our major corporations and other large institutions. It was not about me, but about easing the fear of some Republican congressman from Idaho who was scared shitless.

The bipartisan politics that have brought us to this place has also ruined our economy, destroyed jobs and endangered the environment. Neither castles nor mass wiretapping can avoid the consequences of such behavior. Are our leaders in Washington as afraid of us as they are of Al Qaeda? Is this why they want to know what our emails say?

Here’s Wikipedia’s description of the late years of the Middle Ages:

Troubles were followed in 1347 by the Black Death, a disease that spread throughout Europe during the following three years. The death toll was probably about 35 million people in Europe, about one-third of the population. Towns were especially hard-hit because of their crowded conditions. Large areas of land were left sparsely inhabited, and in some places fields were left unworked…Urban workers also felt that they had a right to greater earnings, and popular uprisings broke out across Europe….

 Meanwhile, the ultimate protection of the elite, the castle, was under attack. As one historian notes:

After the 16th century, castles declined as a mode of defense, mostly because of the invention and improvement of heavy cannons and mortars. This artillery could throw heavy cannonballs with so much force that even strong curtain walls could not hold up.

And not much later things like the French and American revolutions further damaged the once comfortable role of the nobility.

Which doesn’t mean it didn’t try to recover. One could argue that the Southern Confederacy was an attempt to reinstitute the values of the Middle Ages over those created in a new American republic the previous century.

And one can argue that the First American Republic, which ended about three decades ago, has drifted so far out of our moral, political and  philosophical consciousness that a cabal of maniacally greedy corporations, a new GOP confederacy, and a Democratic Party that sold its soul to campaign contributors has successfully headed us back towards a society of nobles and castles, without even the feudal responsibilities toward the less powerful that its predecessors had accepted.

And there are things that NSA wiretaps can’t tell. Like when is climate change going to start causing spontaneous rebellion? When is labor going to rediscover its true foe? And when are food and water shortages going to energize revolt as is occurring in Egypt?

For the sane and still semi-autonomous parts of America – those places Thomas Jefferson called our “little republics” – substantial potential and security remain because we still cling to values, relationships and feelings that guided our nation through its first two centuries. I live in a small town in Maine and am repeatedly stunned by how much better my daily life is compared to the larger America I read, think and write about. These are two massively different places, and I, fortunately, live in the right one. Were I playing the game of the one percent in New York, Washington or Los Angeles it would be a whole different story.

There is a huge strength in this difference of place and purpose that, in the end, could save America. Those of us in the little republics – whether geographic, ethnic, or cultural – need to recognize this power and find ways to work together so that when the one percent has to confront the reality of its failure, there will still be an alternative America worth reviving.

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