Dangerous Curves Ahead

The last few days I’ve been reminded of the period immediately after 9/11. That too was a media spectacle that fired up fevered emotions and over-heated rhetoric. With the word “spectacle” I am not questioning the reality or the gravity of either event; I am emphasizing that each featured a mediated aspect that itself instigated its own effects.

9/11 was a televised spectacle. There were the actual events of that day, where buildings collapsed in Manhattan, the Pentagon was attacked, and wreckage was strewn across the Pennsylvania countryside; and then there was the televised treatment of it, which had a life of its own. My impression from the spectacle of that day was a particular set of relentlessly repeated images: plane hits building, person jumps from building, an Arab face; plane hits building, person jumps from building, an Arab face; plane hits building, person jumps from building, an Arab face. And on and on.

9/11 revealed a nasty side in the US population, expressed in immediate calls for revenge and violence, including from many people with liberal politics and a formerly calm demeanor. I recall talking down a Green Party friend from her enraged demand for retaliatory military strikes.

Patriotism has never been pretty to me and my sense of isolation in the culture increased palpably as the yellow ribbons proliferated. Fortunately, there was an active peace movement in Portland that immediately kicked into gear, so I had a community to fall in with whose main concern was protesting and preventing US belligerence. The camaraderie was truly satisfying. I am proud that I was among those who immediately took to the streets calling for a peaceful response.

Camaraderie was needed, because times got dark. Congress immediately passed the USA PATRIOT Act, a draconian piece of legislation attacking civil liberties, which founded the modern surveillance state. President George W. Bush sought and secured Congressional permission to make war with the Authorization to Use Military Force, and the so-called War on Terror was born. Virtually overnight, portions of the Constitution were shredded and the power of the presidency swelled obscenely.

The events—and I would suggest more so the spectacle—of that particular Tuesday in September of 2001 shocked the populace into assenting to drastic change on the domestic front and brutal actions overseas, and inured them into meekly accepting more in the years that followed. We lost things then that we never got back, and new losses have piled up since. At least hundreds of thousands, and probably millions of people, are dead as a result. “Endless war” was normalized and it has made us an uglier society.

The “storming of the Capitol” was an internet spectacle. I use quotation marks here not because people didn’t physically approach and enter the building in such a way that could be described as “storming”—and not because I seek to minimize the significance of the event—but because the phrase itself has a dramatic ring befitting the title of a movie, and that deserves being pointed out. As with 9/11, there were the actual incidents on the ground and then there was the media coverage, which in this case was predominantly online and driven by social media. The shock value of the images was undeniable, and naturally they provoked strong emotional responses. This of course was among the intentions of the mob and the cops who collaborated with them.

As with 9/11, ugly words are on the lips of too many liberals. The shooting death of a right wing protester inside the building has been widely declared as deserved and even celebrated. Personally, I do not believe that the state has the right to take a life under any circumstance; I oppose the the death penalty and police killings alike. I’m not getting out onto the dance floor for that one.

In terms of incarceration, I am an abolitionist. The prison-industrial complex is not rehabilitative, which would be the only possible justification for its existence. As it stands, it is only an instrument for torture, a fact that is recognized around the world. Here in the US, we have more people behind bars than any other country, both in raw numbers and as a proportion of the population. This fact is an oppressive weight on all of us, whether we are consciously aware of it or not. So you will not hear my voice joining the others calling to “lock them up.”

Nor will I use the words “treason” or “insurrection.” These terms denote crimes against the state, and I do not recognize the legitimacy of that state, nor its efforts to hold itself above us with a special class of infraction. I reserve the inalienable right to oppose the state and to work peacefully towards its grassroots-organized dissolution without being criminalized.

On a related note, Jeffery St. Clair said:

I fully support the right of the People to overthrow their own government. I draw the line at the government currently in power overthrowing the next government before it takes office, thus denying the People the chance to overthrow it when it, inevitably, betrays them.

Neither am I inspired by patriotism. I am not a patriot. I acknowledge that the laws of this nation declare me to be a “citizen” because I was born here, but that’s an accident of fate and I don’t need to take it personally. My legal status is a merely extrinsic quality and I don’t care about the flag.

As for describing property damage in the Capitol as “desecration”—no, it is not a sacred place. Given the separation of church and state, it is definitively secular, and it’s better that way. If I use that word at all, it would be to describe a clear-cut, a mine, or some other act of ecocide.

What I agree with is that we are in a moment of high danger. Not, in my opinion, of greater disturbances in DC between now and Inauguration; no, the incident at the Capitol only happened because the police cooperated with the mob, and they won’t be left unchaperoned like that again for the remainder of the Trump regime. In that sense, they overplayed their hand; they were counting on their bad behavior either being ignored by the media or of being written off as incompetence, which are the usual responses. But their conduct this day was too egregious and was captured by too many cameras for the usual dismissals to work. We must also credit the George Floyd protests for elevating public awareness of police violence and misconduct. Images from the summer of tear gas and of cops attacking BLM protesters are still fresh, and the contrast with the easy-going treatment of the Capitol crowd could not be overlooked. No, I don’t think we will see a repeat of the events of Jan. 6th on that scale anytime soon. Later sometime, perhaps, but not in the near term.

The more likely and greater danger is the repressive legislation we will soon have jammed down our throats by a jittery Congress egged on by a traumatized public (which will prominently include liberals). Don’t forget that the PATRIOT Act was based on a bill originally proposed by—guess who?—Joe Biden. Are we safer because of the post 9/11 laws? No. Will whatever law that’s imposed on us now meaningfully address the threat of fascists taking over? Of course not. Right-wing politics are totally at home in the US, and always have been. Whatever happens in Congress at this point will only take a bad situation and make it worse.

More than ever, what we need is an organized movement for freedom, justice and peace. Throwing people in prison or passing panicked legislation are not steps on that road. For-profit tech companies will not be our allies. One of our biggest obstacles is our own obedience to the establishment that oppresses us. We must muster the courage to strike out on our own, and create the alternatives that will replace it. This will include learning to distinguish spectacle from reality and basing our responses on what is actual, not what is projected; on what we need, not on what power would impose.

This post was originally published on Radio Free.