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WHAT AMERICA HAS BECOME

John Chuckman

Of course, the cozy popular myth of America’s Founding Fathers as an earnest, civic-minded group gathered in an ornate hall, writing with quill pens, reading from leather-bound tomes, and offering heroic speeches in classical poses – all resembling Greek philosophers in wigs and spectacles and frock coats – was always that, a myth. They were in more than a few cases narrow, acquisitive men, ambitious for their personal interests which were considerable, and even the more philosophic types among them were well-read but largely unoriginal men who cribbed ideas and concepts and even whole phrases from European Enlightenment writers and British parliamentary traditions.

And much of what they wrote and agreed upon involved what would prove mistaken ideas, with a lack of foresight into what the almost unchangeable concrete their words would shape. Americans today often are not aware that the word “democracy” for many of the Founders was an unpleasant one, carrying just about the same connotations that “communist” would a century and a half later. Men of the world of privilege and comparative wealth – Washington, Morris, and many others – were having nothing to do with ideas which rendered unimportant men important. That is why the country was styled as a “republic” – that most undefined term in the political lexicon, which then meant only the absence of a king with decisions made by a tight group of propertied elites.

False as they are, the very fact that there are such pleasant myths does tell us something about past popular ideals informing their creation. Now, how would any future Americans manage to weave attractive myths about a president who sits in the Oval Office signing authorizations for teams of young buzz-cut psychopaths in secret locked rooms to guide killing machines against mere suspects and innocent bystanders, often adopting the tactics of America’s lunatic anti-abortion assassins, sending a second hellish missile into the crowd of neighbors who come to the assistance of the victims of the first?

How would they weave attractive myths around the CIA’s International Torture Gulag, including that hellhole, Guantanamo, where kidnapped, legally-innocent people are imprisoned and tortured and given absolutely no rights or ethical treatment under international laws and conventions?

During the Revolutionary War, the battles were between armies, and captured soldiers were frequently granted their freedom upon their paroles, pledges of not returning to the fight. Spies were thought poorly of and often hung. Torture was uncommon and certainly not embraced as policy.

What myths can be written of two wars involving the deaths of a million or so people, the creation of millions of refugees, and the needless destruction of huge amounts of other peoples’ property, and all to achieve nothing but a change of government? Or about massive armed forces and secret security agencies which squander hundreds of billions in resources year after year, spreading their dark influence to all corners of the globe, and offering an insurmountable obstacle to America’s own citizens who might imagine they ever can rise against a government grown tyrannous? After all, polls in America show that its Congress is held in contempt by the overwhelming majority of its people, with percentages of disapproval rivaling those held for communism or Satanic rituals.

There are no myths about today’s Congressional figures. Everyone understands they are often to be found bellowing in ornate halls about points most Americans couldn’t care less about. Everyone understands that they are ready to go anywhere and say almost anything for large enough campaign contributions. That they take off on junkets paid for by groups hoping to influence votes and put faces to the exercise of future influence, trips commonly involving a foreign power trying to shape American policy. That their work is often steeped in secrecy from the voters, secrecy not governed by genuine national security concerns but by the often shameful nature of their work. That a good deal of the legislation and rules they create repress their own people’s interests and favor only special interests.

That their government regularly suppresses inconvenient truths and labels those who raise questions as foolishly addicted to conspiracy or even as treacherous. What are just a few of the events which have been treated in this fashion? The assassination of a President. The accidental or deliberate downing of at least three civilian aircraft by America’s military in recent years – an Iranian airliner, TWA Flight 800 on the East Coast, and the fourth plane of the 9/11 plot over Pennsylvania. The CIA’s past cooperation and engagement with the American Mafia during its anti-Castro terror campaign. The CIA’s use of drug trafficking to raise off-the-books income. The military’s assassination of American prisoners of war cooperating with their Vietnamese captors. Obfuscating Israel’s deliberate attack on an American intelligence-gathering ship during its engineered 1967 War. The huge death toll of locals, civilian and military, in America’s grisly imperial wars, from Vietnam to Iraq. 9/11.

I do not believe in 9/11 insider plots, but I know there has been strenuous official effort to disguise that event’s full nature. The motives? One suspects a great deal of embarrassment at demonstrated incompetence has been at work. Blowback from CIA operations in the Middle East seems more than likely. The documented involvement of Mossad in following and recording the plotters inside the United States leaves disturbing unanswered questions. One also knows that America’s establishment discovered in the wake of 9/11 the perfect opportunity for doing a great many nasty things it had always wanted to do anyway. You might say the terrorists did the military-industrial-intelligence complex a big favor. Anti-democratic measures involving surveillance, privacy in communications, secret prisons, torture, and effective suspension of some of the Constitution are all parts of the new American reality.

The FBI can record what you borrow from the public library. The NSA captures your every phone call, text message, and e-mail. The TSA can strip search you for taking an inter-city bus. Drones are being used for surveillance, and the TSA actually has a program of agents traveling along some highways ready to stop those regarded as suspicious. Portable units for seeing through clothes and baggage, similar to those used at airports, are to tour urban streets in vans randomly. Agencies of the government, much in the style of the former Stasi, encourage reports from citizens about suspicious behavior. Now, you can just imagine what might be called “suspicious” in a society which has always had a tendency towards witch-hunts and fears of such harmless things as Harry Potter books or the charming old Procter and Gambel symbol on soapboxes.

America has become in many ways a police state, albeit one where a kind of decency veil is left draped over the crude government machinery. How can a place which has elections and many of the trappings of a free society be a police state? Well, it can because power, however conferred, can be, and will be, abused. And the majority in any democratic government can impose terrible burdens on the minority. That’s how the American Confederacy worked, how apartheid South Africa worked, and that’s how Israel works today. Prevention of those inevitable abuses is the entire reason for a Bill of Rights, but if you suspend or weaken its protections, anything becomes possible.

American police forces have long enjoyed a reputation for brutal and criminal behavior – using illegal-gains seizure laws for profit, beating up suspects, conducting unnecessary military-style raids on homes, killing people sometimes on the flimsiest of excuses – having earned international recognition from organizations such as Amnesty International. The reasons for this are complex but include the military model of organization adopted by American policing, the common practice of hiring ex-soldiers as police, the phenomenon of uncontrolled urban sprawl creating new towns whose tiny police forces have poor practices and training, and, in many jurisdictions, a long and rich history of police corruption. Now, those often poor-quality American police have unprecedented discretion and powers of abuse.

Further, according to the words of one high-ranking general a few years back, the American military is prepared to impose martial law in the event of another great act of terror. Certainly that is an encouraging and uplifting thought considering all the blunders and waste and murder and rape the American military has inflicted upon countries from Vietnam to Iraq.

Where it is possible, power prefers to know about and even to control what is going on at the most humble level of its society, and the greater the power, the more irresistible the drive to know and control. It is essential to appreciate that whether you are talking about the military or huge corporations or the security apparatus, you are not talking about institutions which are democratic in nature. Quite the opposite, these institutions are run along much the same lines as all traditional forms of undemocratic government, from monarchs to dictators. Leadership and goals and methods are not subject to a vote and orders given are only to be obeyed, and there is no reason to believe that any of these institutions cherishes or promotes democratic values or principles of human rights. Of course, corporations, in order to attract talent, must publicly present a friendly face towards those principles, but that necessary charade reflects their future behavior about as much as campaign promises reflect future acts of an American politician.

Those at the top of all powerful and hierarchical institutions inevitably come to believe that they know better than most people, and those with any hope of gaining top positions must adopt the same view. For centuries we saw the great landed gentry and church patriarchs of pre-democratic societies regard themselves as inherently different from the population. It is no different with the psychology of people who enjoy their wealth and influence through positions in these great modern, un-democratic institutions. The larger and more pervasive these institutions become in society – and they have become truly bloated in America – the more will their narcissistic, privileged views prevail. Also, it is axiomatic that where great power exists, it never goes unused. Large standing armies are the proximate cause of many of history’s wars. And just so, the power of corporations to expand through illegality of every description, this being the source of the many controversies about failing to pay taxes in countries where they operate or the widespread practice of bribery in landing large contracts with national governments.

So far as security services go (the United States, at last count, having sixteen different ones), they may well be the worst of all these modern, massive anti-democratic institutions. Their lines of responsibility to government are often weak, and citizens in general are often regarded as things with which to experiment or play. Their leaders and agents are freely permitted to perjure themselves in courts. The organizations possess vast budgets with little need to account for the spending. They can even create their own funds through everything from drug and weapons trading to counterfeiting currency, all of it not accounted for and subject to no proper authority. And their entire work is secret, whether that work involves legitimate national security or not. The nature of their work breeds a secret-fraternity mindset of superiority and cynicism. They start wars and coups, including against democratic governments sometimes, they pay off rising politicians even in allied countries, they use money and disinformation to manipulate elections even in friendly governments, and of course they kill people and leaders they seriously disapprove of. Now, does any thinking person believe that they simply forget these mindsets and practices when it comes to what they regard as serious problems in their own country?

The record of arrogance and abuse by security organizations, such as CIA or the FBI, is long and costly, filled with errors in judgment, abuse of power, incompetence, and immense dishonesty. Owing to the black magic of classified secrecy, much of the record involves projects about which we will never know, but even what we do know about is distressing enough. And I’m not sure that it can be any other way so long as you have Big Intelligence. Apart from Big Intelligence’s own propensity towards criminal or psychopathic behavior, one of the great ironies of Big Intelligence is that it will always agree to bend, to provide whatever suppressions and fabrications are requested by political leaders working towards the aims of the other great anti-democratic institutions, the military and the corporations. This became blindingly clear in the invasion of Iraq and, even before that, in the first Gulf War.

America’s political system, honed and shaped over many decades, fits comfortably with these institutions. National elections are dominated by a two-party duopoly (being kept that way through countless institutional barriers deliberately created to maintain the status quo) , both these parties are dominated by huge flows of campaign contributions (contributions which form what economists call an effective barrier to entry against any third party seriously being able to compete), both parties embrace much the same policies except for some social issues of little interest to the establishment, and election campaigns are reduced to nothing more than gigantic advertising and marketing operations no different in nature to campaigns for two national brands of fast food or pop. It takes an extremely long time for a candidate to rise and be tested before being trusted with the huge amounts of money invested in an important campaign, and by that time he or she is a well-read book with no surprising chapters.

If for any reason this political filtering system fails, and someone slips through to an important office without having spent enough time to make them perfectly predictable, there still remains little chance of serious change on any important matter. The military-industrial-intelligence complex provides a molded space into which any newcomer absolutely must fit. Just imagine the immense pressures exerted by the mere presence of senior Pentagon brass gathered around a long polished oak table or a table surrounded by top corporate figures representing hundreds of billions in sales or representatives or a major lobbying group (and multi-million dollar financing source for the party). We see the recent example of popular hopes being crushed after the election of Obama, a man everyone on the planet hoped to see mend some of the ravages of George Bush and Dick Cheney. But the man who once sometimes wore sandals and bravely avoided a superfluous and rather silly flag pin on his lapel quickly was made to feel the crushing weight of institutional power, and he bent to every demand made on him, becoming indistinguishable from Bush. Of course, the last president who genuinely did challenge at least some of the great institutional powers, even to a modest extent, died in an ambush in Dallas.

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URGENT CALL FROM CHEYENNE MOUNTAIN

John Chuckman

On the President’s desk in the Oval Office, a phone’s red light urgently flashes. It’s the signal for an incoming call. Only calls from deep inside the vast command-center redoubt known as Cheyenne Mountain come in on this line. Constructed during the Cold War, this hollowed-out mountain contains a virtual Pentagon satellite-city built to survive a hundred years behind million-ton blast-proof doors.

The president gleefully picks up the receiver. He just loves getting important calls.

“Howdee!”

“Mr. President, this is a secure line, so we may speak freely.”

“Dick, you old son of a gun, how’s it goin’ out there, livin’ under the mountain an’ all? T’aint getting’ to ya none?”

“I’m just fine, Mr. President, don’t concern yourself. You know, I spent a lot of time as a congressman with folks who live in abandoned missile silos and mine shafts.

“Anyway, compared to some of those places, this is just damn luxurious. The mountain’s totally climate-controlled, and we have an artificial beach under sun lamps on the distilled-water reservoir.”

“A goddam climate-controlled mountain! Jeez, Dick, I jus’ gotta get on out there one of these days an’ see that.”

“Good idea, Mr. President, uh, er, of course, once the crisis is over.”

“Crisis? Oh, y’all mean that there Osama guy? Don’t worry none ’bout him. He ain’t goin’ nowheres, an’, I’ll tell ya, the only damn climate-control his damn mountains got is two-thousand pound bombs re-arrangin’ the lan’scape…(guffaw, guffaw)”

“No, Mr. President, the crisis I’m talking about is the next election. We have to get you through that looking the part of commander-in-chief.”

“Oh, I get your meanin’, Dick. Well, I’m a working on that, real hard. Ain’t even thinkin’ of another month at the ranch. An’ I’m doin’ jus’ what ya said for me to do.

“After dinner, I come back here an’ jus’ sit by the window for a while, wearin’ my glasses, turnin’ pages on one them big reports. Once or twice, Laura comes in with a cup of hot cocoa to keep me goin’, an’ puts her arm on my shoulder jus’ like ya showed us.

“Don dropped by on the way home from the Pentagon t’other night an’ checked me out. He said I looked good, real presidenshul, in the window. He said the T.V. guys’d be eatin’ it up.”

“Wonderful to hear, Mr. President. Remember, nothing but liberal scum is going to vote against a seated president in wartime. I’ll keep the war going here. You just keep sitting.”

“Righto, Dick. Say, how they all feedin’ ya down there?”

“I’ve got to say, Mr. President, the food could be better. It’s freeze-dried rations. A lot of my survivalist friends swear by them and eat nothing but. They’re okay for a couple of days.”

“Dick, y’all want me to have some nice big juicy steaks flown on up from the ranch?”

“No, thank you very much, Mr. President, I’ll stick to what the boys in uniform are having. Good mess-hall photos, sets a fine example. Anyway, they went and sealed the blast-proof doors, and it’s a major operation getting them open again. Nothing gets in or out of here with those damn doors sealed.

“Well, you know, Mr. President, (chuckle, chuckle) it does have its advantages. They can’t exactly serve any subpoenas for Enron, now can they?”

The President enjoys a hearty laugh.

“Tarnation, that’s right, Dick. I almos’ forgot about that shit, sittin’ here by the window an’ all.

“Don’t worry none, ’cause I jus’ keep tellin’ ’em we got ya outta harm’s way with all them damn terrorists flyin’ ‘roun’ the country. An’ I tol’ ’em how all the head guys in them big oil companies never fly on the same plane or even take the same elevator.”

“Now, George, I mean Mr. President, you’re not saying anything off the script, are you? Especially nothing about a certain company?”

“Oh, shucks, no, Dick, I know better’n that.”

“Good, Mr. President, just call Ari to check on any little thing you’re thinking of adding. He can always pass it by Don. Mark my words, Mr. President, sticking to the script’s going to get us through this.”

“Okay, Dick. So what else y’all up to down there, you ol’ rascal?”

“The officers have an underground driving range and putting green, Mr. President, so the golf score won’t suffer too badly.

“We get satellite feed right from the B-52s, so we’re watching the boys give all those damn turban-heads what they deserve. You can freeze the action, do re-plays, or move in for close-ups.”

“Anything else, you ol’ rascal? I know ya can’t stick to serious stuff long.”

“Well, Mr. President, we do have a couple of those special channels, if you know what I mean?”

“Shucks, Dick, I know egzac’ly what y’all mean. An’ ya ain’t got Lynne down there, sniffin’ out your trail.

“Mr. President, just between you and me, that is the part that’s just like a real vacation.”

“I tell ya, Dick, she’s havin’ the time a her life out here, scowlin’ an’ spoutin’ them goddam librarian pamphlets a hers at anyone that says things is less than hunky-dory!”

” ‘Libertarian,’ Mr. President, they’re ‘libertarian pamphlets.’ ”

“Well, still, don’t ya go worrin’ none ’bout what she’s up to. She’s doin’ a hell of a job goin’ after them no-good fifth wheels!”

” ‘Fifth columnists’, Mr. President, I think you mean ‘fifth columnists.’ ”

“Shucks, Dick, I think I gotta go. I jus’ seen the docs pullin’ up out front. I reckon they’re a comin’ to change the bandage.”

“Excellent, Mr. President, that bandage locks-in the sympathy vote. America has already forgotten all about your pretzel caper. Joe Six-pack never thought it was anything unusual anyway. But just the sight of a wounded President in time of war gives us an 80% floor-rating.

“Do you think you could ask them to just put the new one on a little higher up? I noticed it’s not showing up on some of the news shots.”

“Okay, Dick, what ya figure, ’bout half an inch?.”

“That’d be just about right, Mr. President. And try not to spill any more gravy on it. That’s a real turn-off for some of the women.”

“Gotchya, Dick. Be talkin’ to ya soon.”

“Thank you, Mr. President.”