On the Monday after U.S. forces invaded Iraq, the second time, my high-school cadre—assorted radicals and liberals who went to the Amnesty International meetings—wore black armbands to school. We had also planned a walk out, but it never materialized. We were college-bound and not eager for disciplinary blemishes on our transcripts. In an upper-middle class, American suburb where maybe a dozen students out of the 1500 then at the high school would join the military, the stakes of the Iraq War were low. Instead of sending kids off to fight, parents put yellow magnetic ribbons, which read “Support Our Troops,” on the back of their cars.
We understood the war, experienced it, in much the same way we did September 11: through media and a scant handful of personal connections to people who had felt pain firsthand. A few of my classmates went to war; a few people in our town perished on one of the hijacked planes that departed from Boston. There was real and immense grief, for some, but not for most.
For those of us outside the cities where increased security gave a grim cast to daily life, but also outside the communities, both rural and urban, that sent larger numbers to combat, the destruction and pain caused by the September 11 attacks and the wars in their aftermath were abstract. They provided a sense of country-belonging that was alien to post-Boomers raised with an individualist creed, but also an indication of how independent the course of our lives seemed from the struggles and anxieties of others who shared our national name—to say nothing of the struggles and bloodshed of Iraqis and Afghans who didn’t. The suburbs had buffered a couple generations from the crime, poverty, and heterogeneity of the city. They also cut some us off from war.
The story of war’s differential effects on different kinds of citizens is an old one, but there were developments this time that widened the category of Americans who could afford not to care about the government’s foreign affairs. There was no rationing or war-bond purchasing; taxes were cut, and we held up those who sacrificed as exemplary, but not typical. The fighting force itself was smaller—in part because of a belief that technological advances and the prowess of Special Forces meant we didn’t need many troops, in part because we hired contractors to do much of the work (over 260,000 private employees contracted by the U.S. government were in Iraq and Afghanistan last year alone), in part because the new kind of war relied on increased non-military intelligence capabilities, and in part because there was no way of having a large army without a draft. And a draft was out of the question.
Under different, twentieth-century circumstances, it is inconceivable that after nearly a decade of war, the fighting could so easily dissipate from public consciousness. But why think about wars, rally behind them or march in street against them, when they make so few demands on us? Ideas and ideals can spur men and women to act—and there were plenty of those to go around when we first went into Afghanistan and Iraq, including freedom but also revenge—but interests matter, too. The threats and fears that were the reason a majority of the U.S. public supported the wars are now far from most of our minds; the fear of being sent to war, which might lead more people to anger and opposition, is similarly missing. Polls show that we have grown war weary, but when the pollsters leave, it’s unemployment and a dearth of secure work that occupies us most of all.
There are costs of a war on terror whose continuation at this point requires popular consent only through a collective shrug. Amid this summer’s deficit mania, some attention was given to the long-term fiduciary consequences of the trillions spent in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the most lasting and significant legacy of post-9/11 politics lies in the transformation of the national security state.
In Bomb Power, Gary Wills argued that the federal sponsorship of nuclear weapons had a host of less-than-intended institutional repercussions that have persisted through the post-9/11 era. The executive branch and its allied intelligence agencies accrued power, and government “secrecy” in the name (but not for the purpose of) security became ubiquitous. Whether the Bomb was central to these developments is up for argument, but it is useful to remind ourselves that the American state is not remade each time a new president is elected. (Glenn Beck and his fellow conspiracy theorists recognize this when they cast a pox on all post-Progressive Era government.)
For instance: the Central Intelligence Agency. Created in the years after the Second World War as the foreign spy agency successor to the Office of Strategic Service, the CIA has recently undergone a transformation into a “paramilitary” force at the forefront of counterterrorism operations, according to the Washington Post. The global “war” fought against an extremist Islamist network spawned two fairly traditional wars. It has also led to the dissolution of the boundary between the military, which is supposed to be under democratic control (although for the last sixty years it’s often been sent to fight without congressional approval), and intelligence operations, which never have been. Leon Panetta moved from his directorship of the CIA to a cabinet seat as Secretary of Defense, while former general David Petraeus has taken Panetta’s spot at the spy agency. A senior official said to the Post reporters, following a junket to Afghanistan, “You couldn’t tell the difference between CIA officers, Special Forces guys and contractors….They’re all three blended together. All under the command of the CIA.”
This transformation, accomplished without public debate, and other developments in the security state—like the wiretap program whose full scope remains unknown, or the increased reliance on contractors with minimal oversight, or the worst aspects of the recently renewed PATRIOT Act surveillance provisions—do not worry those who believe that they all serve the preservation of liberal democracy, and that the days of COINTELPRO are behind us. In some cases, as with the Obama-era crackdown on whistleblowers like former NSA official Thomas Drake, such a sanguine position regarding the machinations of obscure sectors of the federal government is clearly wrongheaded. But the more general point is that while some of what we don’t know can’t hurt us, some of it can, even if not most of us, or not immediately. And in the last ten years, the arsenal of government techniques for waging war and surveilling the global populace has greatly expanded, with few prospects for reversals.
The ideals of open government, of a public and legislative approach to security and to war, and of the unjust persecution of even a small number as the persecution of us all, can only spur so many. For a brief time, when he took office, Obama appeared to be one with these ideals: he abolished official torture and closed CIA prisons abroad. But he quickly gave up on shutting down Guantánamo and has embraced the permanent suspension of habeas corpus, an official policy of assassination, and the continued use of extraordinary rendition.
The national security state, grown alongside our wars declared and not, is not an election issue. A Beltway consensus has emerged in favor of preserving its new tricks, and there’s no doubt that a new Republican president would have fewer scruples about legality than the current president does. If a critical mass of citizens is to get interested enough in standing up to the worst aspects of the new security apparatus, it will be because its abuses have become unbearable, and the memories of that horrific day ten years ago have diminished. We’re not there yet. The critique lies in wait.
Nick Serpe is the online editor of Dissent.