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Happy anniversary: ten years of the US Security State

By Binoy Kampmark - posted Sunday, 11 September 2011


Gore Vidal was sharp enough to remind us that President Harry Truman gave the United States the National Security State in response to Cold War fears against the Red Satan.

It came with Republican gift wrapping and Michigan Senator Arthur Vandenberg's blessing: 'scare the hell out of the American people', he urged Truman, and their hearts and minds would follow.

He had to – Americans were puzzled why a communist presence in either Turkey or Greece would have mattered to anybody else except Turks and Greeks. The dour haberdasher from Missouri complied. The National Security Act of 1947 came into being.

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Historical realists such as the late historian Norman Graebner and Vidal were on similar ground, the United States was getting into a muddle over nothing, misreading the signals of an exaggerated power and getting itchy on the trigger. An entire apparatus, filled with weapons, surveillance, and paranoia, was readied for Armageddon.

After the end of the Cold War, the neoconservative prophets huddled in search of a new enemy. How do you find foes in an environment where the motor of history has remarkably stopped?

That somewhat idiotic observation by Francis Fukuyama, nestling in the summer issue of The National Interest in 1989, was short lived. Al Qaida and other members of the fundamentalist creed were not having a bar of it. What the Bush administration proceeded to do was confuse a spectacular attack with the idea of a spectacular enemy.

Exceptional enemies required, in turn, exceptional treatment: the use of torture and rendition; the exclusion of the Geneva Conventions, the establishment of special death-wielding military commissions.

One of the vicious offspring of this approach was the Patriot Act. As the ACLU pointed out (Dec 10, 2010), the Patriot Act was manna from heaven to law enforcement agencies who had felt cramped by a Congress overly keen to enforce civil liberties. Before the wishes of a rampant executive, debate ceased. Hearings were few.

The result, as the ACLU notes, is that the government now peers into the records on an individual's activity held by third parties (section 215); conducts clandestine searches of private property without notice to the owner (section 213); initiates intelligence searches under the narrow exception to the Fourth Amendment (section 218) and undertakes 'trap and trace' searches where 'addressing' information is collected (section 214).

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After 10 years, the infrastructure set up to fight 'terror' is stubbornly in place, a clay footed monster in pursuit of a phantom.

The Obama administration has not closed Guantánamo, and legal exceptionality remains an invidious category that is invoked in the name of security. Bin Laden may well have been slain, but his death was almost as useful to US security as an anti-globalisation protester's bomb in a Starbucks branch.

The halt and the blind in Washington remain committed to fighting a war they cannot define, for aims they do not know. NATO is seeking a role it was never meant for, and its compliant Secretary General Andrews Fogh Rasmussen is all too keen to take some of the responsibilities of global policing off Uncle Sam's broad and weary shoulders.

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About the Author

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and blogs at Oz Moses.

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