6.10.2013

The United States has become a lunatic state

The great Norman Finkelstein often refers to Israel as a "lunatic state." He employs this obviously provocative term because Israel's militarism and lawlessness have simply had no parallel in the contemporary world. As Finkelstein has pointed out, no other country talks about starting wars as openly and as casually as Israel does. Open a newspaper in Israel or follow the political debate, and on a regular basis, discussions are based on who Israel should attack next. Should we attack Iran? Syria? Lebanon? The Palestinians? Hezbollah? Hamas? Iraq? No other country is so utterly contemptuous of international opinion or international law. Israel has indeed been, for quite some time, a uniquely rogue state, an outlaw state, a state that simply does what it wants, when it wants, seemingly without even seriously considering the notion that it should be constrained by internationally accepted norms.

Obviously, the United States is the most powerful state in the world, and Israel cannot hope to match the U.S. in terms of the sheer scale of its militarism and international bullying. Nevertheless, one can understand why Finkelstein describes Israel, specifically, as having abandoned the community of "normal" states. Israel's obsession with violence and its disdain for international law substantially harms its own self-interest in a way that the United States's has not; Paul Krugman, hardly a radical, recently wrote that Israel's policies are placing it on a course for "national suicide." This is why Israel is a lunatic state. Its government consciously and consistently behaves in a way that simply precludes any realistic possibility of the society enjoying a peaceful and stable future.

It is increasingly clear, however, that the United States must now be included with its dear and previously lonely ally in the esteemed category of "lunatic states." This conclusion is unavoidable, given recent developments in the U.S. and the obvious similarities between the two notorious gangster states of the 21st century. Let us take a brief glance at the current state of political affairs in the nation once considered by many to be the Last, Best Hope on Earth.

On Wednesday, NBC News reported that, according to classified documents, the U.S. government regularly kills people whose identity it does not know, specifically in the context of its drone war in Pakistan. It has essentially been common knowledge that the CIA, when conducting its "signature" drone strikes, is pretty much just blowing up a bunch of people and hoping that one or more of the departed were active "militants," whatever that means. Nevertheless, American citizens, and citizens of the world, now know with complete certainty that the U.S. government explicitly asserts the right to travel literally anywhere in the world, kill literally anyone, and not suffer any consequences for it whatever. Is there any definition of "sociopathy" that would not encompass claiming the unique right to kill random people at will?

Last week, Nawaz Sharif, the newly elected Prime Minister of Pakistan, demanded that the United States cease its drone attacks against his people, arguing that they reveal a complete lack of "respect" for the "sovereignty" of Pakistan. On Friday, two days after Sharif's comments made headlines, the United States made its position on the matter crystal clear, when it launched a drone attack in northwest Pakistan that ended the lives of seven people and injured several others (all "militants" no doubt). This is psychotic, imperial behavior. The United States government is actually rejecting the very notion that the modern world is comprised of entities called "nations" that have territorial sovereignty. It seems that everything has been sacrificed at the altar of killing Terrorists - even the concept of the sovereign nation-state. This kind of radicalism from the global superpower will set back the great causes of international peace and equality of nations - which must be pursued in tandem or not at all - to an incalculable degree.

All of this will doubtless be treated with a yawn, at most, from the American public, which, according to polling, "overwhelmingly supports" flying robots over Other Countries' skies to deliver death and destruction to people we know virtually nothing about. It's not happening here, it's not happening to us, so who cares? This is the attitude of a government and of a people that have abandoned any pretense of belonging to a global community based on universal values. Similarly disturbing public support for state violence and criminal activity can be found in Israel, of course, where the population has long expressed enthusiasm for attacking Iran (so long as it's not a "unilateral attack" - having other countries, i.e. the U.S., along for the ride makes all the difference in the world, apparently) and is roughly split on whether or not the expansion of the flagrantly illegal settlements in the West Bank should continue. Whether or not to steal other people's land in direct violation of international law is, apparently, a profound moral quandary.

It goes without saying that, over the years, both Americans and Israelis have been bombarded with unrelenting campaigns of propaganda, designed to terrify them and generate support for all kinds of violence and authoritarianism, and this has been quite successful. Nevertheless, support for these policies, be it enthusiastic or tacit, can no longer be excused on those grounds. A sophisticated education should not be required to know that things like ignoring the law, killing innocent people, and stealing land are wrong.

Also over the course of the past week, the sprawling and terrifying U.S. Surveillance State has been exposed like never before, thanks to the heroism of whistleblowers who leaked classified information to Glenn Greenwald and The Guardian. First, and perhaps most shockingly, we discovered that the National Security Agency (NSA), on a daily basis, uses a secret court order to obtain "meta-data" on the phone records of millions of domestic customers of Verizon. This program was, of course, quickly justified by authoritarians like Dianne Feinstein and Lindsey Graham on the truly original grounds that it is needed to Keep Us Safe. Anyone who even raises an eyebrow is obviously only interested in making us Unsafe and making life easier for Terrorists.

This was followed by another scoop that the NSA is also collecting data from Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and other tech giants. Then, we found out that President Obama personally ordered his senior national security and intelligence officials to "draw up a list of potential overseas targets" for offensive cyber-attacks around the world, which could "offer unique and unconventional capabilities to advance US national objectives around the world with little or no warning to the adversary or target and with potential effects ranging from subtle to severely damaging." "Severely damaging" would be ideal, I guess, but, if the victim is only moderately Evil, perhaps "subtle" will do.

The current president, whose intellect and sophistication clearly surpass those of any other president in the modern age, must now be considered at least as responsible as any other single person for the United States's utter refusal to be bound by anything in its relentless and insatiable drive for domestic control and international domination. Obama is almost beyond parody at this point. It's the same routine over and over again. His administration gets caught doing something completely at odds with the philosophy espoused by Candidate Obama, and he responds by coming out for a speech or a press conference sounding oh-so-reasonable, explaining that he "welcomes debate" (presumably between Version 1.0 and 2.0 of himself) and that he maintains a "healthy skepticism" of authoritarian Bush policy X. He throws in a few reliable platitudes and buzzwords, plays the role of anguished war president, and just hopes it all goes away and the hopelessly manic national media quickly move on to the next murder trial or sex scandal. After this recent round of leaks exposed his administration's spying, Obama actually said with a straight face that the "debate" is "healthy for our democracy," despite the fact that it's only occurring because someone leaked this information - in stark defiance, of course, of the administration. So he demonstrably did not want this "debate" to happen, but now he's allegedly happy it's happening, but he's also quite angry at the leaker ("I don't welcome leaks"), but it never would have happened at all were it not for the leaker. Oh, and on Sunday, it was revealed that the actions of the leaker - the person(s) who initiated this "debate" that Obama finds so "healthy" - will, in fact, be investigated by this same debate-loving administration.

It would take a book to cover all of militaristic and authoritarian lunacy that has been carried out by the U.S. government in just the last few months. One other specific development is worth mentioning, though, because it has not received much attention in the popular press. This is the case of Cameron D'Ambrosio, a high school student from Methuen, Massachusetts, who is currently sitting in a cage for his rap lyrics. D'Ambrosio posted some of his lyrics on Facebook that included the same kinds of vague pseudo-threats and violent references that are regularly found in songs by the most successful rappers in the world. One of his classmates ratted him out and authorities concluded that this child might be a Terrorist. D-Ambrosio was swiftly arrested, charged with making Terrorist Threats, and held on $1 million bail. He is facing up to twenty years in prison for the crime of speaking English, and a judge, just last week, decided that he will remain in his cage for at least another month as he awaits trial. This may be the most direct and vicious attack on free speech rights in decades. Does anyone care? The United States has a proud tradition of having the strongest free speech protections in the entire world. This is being evaporated, before our very eyes, because of our inexplicable obsession with Terrorism.

It is time for all American citizens to understand and acknowledge that their government is, at this point, simply doing whatever it wants, and justifying everything by screaming the word "Terrorism" until the public is terrified into submission. Feinstein, the gruesome authoritarian from the allegedly progressive State of California, appeared on television Sunday morning, was asked about the NSA surveillance program and the NSA director's blatant lies about said program, and immediately started rambling incoherently about people jumping out of the World Trade Center nearly twelve years ago. Feinstein, Obama, Graham, and other key leaders of the lunatic state have become a collective caricature. And the context for all of this, of course, is a "threat" - Terrorism - that kills fewer Americans every year than furniture.

No one has, to my knowledge, made a cogent and convincing case that all of this creeping imperialism and authoritarianism will ultimately prove to be healthy and beneficial for our collective future. Here is where the parallels between the United States and Israel become so apparent. To be sure, the United States is hardly on a track toward "national suicide." But, at the very least, these actions - excessive secrecy, rampant lawlessness, attacking free speech - will erode domestic and international trust, intensify the post-9/11 culture of fear, and drastically weaken whatever is left of international institutions and the drive for global peace. Israel has worked hard to maintain its status as the world's one true lunatic state. A lot of people had to die so that Israel could keep that distinction. But the United States has joined its dear ally, as it so often does at the United Nations, where the two countries proudly and regularly vote against literally the rest of the world in defense of various criminal activities. Because that's what lunatic states do.

Update
An Essex County Grand Jury has declined to indict D'Ambrosio on the ludicrous charge of communicating a Terrorist Threat. The D.A. says that all charges will be dropped. This episode remains one of the most terrifying assaults on free speech in a long time. But the worst was avoided and this kid's life will not be destroyed. Cheers.