Thursday, June 23, 2011

Where Were You When the Walls Went UP?

I used to consider myself extremely fortunate to have graduated from college the very year that the Berlin Wall fell--a very exciting time to be a young American just embarking on your working career. The Cold War was over and the future seemed so bright that we had to wear shades, but no longer to shield us from the glare of a possible nuclear holocaust. Where were you when The Wall came down? That was a question many of us asked each other back then in our enthusiasm for the future.

Two years later the Soviet Union collapsed for good and by the following autumn I had relocated from Chicago to Washington, DC. It was an exciting to be living in the nation’s capital. Bill Clinton was elected President less than two months after I got here, and even if you weren’t terribly political you could tell there was a sea change in the air as a stuffy generation of older politicos gave way a young and vibrant new generation. We were going to change the world back then, using the so-called “Peace Dividend” to help America finally live up to its values and principles.

So what the hell happened?

The shortcomings of Bill Clinton as a “leader” are well documented and need not be recounted here. The first Baby Boomer president turned out to be just as superficial and narcissistic as the stereotype that bedevils his generation in general. He was followed, of course, by an even worse Boomer in Junior Bush; the two of them representing the ying and yang of college age 1960s youth—counterculture on the one hand and establishment on the other.

Between them they managed to oversee the completion of the project to wreck American representative democracy that gained steam with the election of Ronald Reagan back in 1980. The central component of this effort was our nation’s transition from republic to empire, and nowhere has this transformation been more physically evident than in the Imperial Capital.

Amazing as it seems now, when I first moved to DC an American citizen wanting to visit one of their representatives or even the office of a government official could walk right into a federal building without having to pass through security barriers or enduring an airport-security style screening. Security in the nation’s capital as we know it today didn’t really start to ratchet up until after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, when Clinton took the first big step by ordering that Pennsylvania Avenue be closed in front of the White House:

Of course the security measures then REALLY took off after 9/11. Partly because of fear of the next terrorist attack, but mostly because Beltway bandit contractors and their paid army of lobbyists recognized just how much money there was to be made from the latest political buzzword. No elected official or senior government bureaucrat was ever going to take a chance at being accused of being “soft” on security measures. Certainly not if he or she wanted to keep their job.

And so the security barriers went up--from the Capitol to the Washington Monument--and with them was born Fortress DC, an unwelcoming place in which the people’s so called “representatives” and bureaucratic officials hide from the public behind walls that become a little more forbidding with each passing year. Today you can’t even ride on the Washington Metro subway system without the specter of your bag potentially being searched, and just to make sure the masses go along with it prerecorded messages from the likes of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano blare over the Metro’s public address system extolling riders to be vigilant and if they “see something, say something.”

True story: one day a few years ago the building that I work in was locked down for a couple of hours after some overly hysterical employee reported finding white powder on the floor of the women's restroom. The hazmat team from the local fire department responded and determined that the potential "deadly" threat was (surprise! surprise!) talcum powder.

Lost in all of the hysteria is that there has not been a successful terrorist attack on the American homeland in nearly ten years. This is not to say vigilance isn't important, but it must be weighed against the waste of many billions of dollars and the loss of our basic freedoms.

All of this has somehow become “normal” and accepted by a docile public. The national security state radiates outward from the Capital Beltway through the nation’s airports and sports venues and even more recently to its small town Walmarts. Paranoia strikes deep, and it has indeed struck our own body politic so deeply that we fail to even recognize it as paranoia anymore.

No supposedly democratic society can survive with the malignant cancer of an out-of-control national security state metastasizing within its bowels. It's a supreme irony that the fall more than 20 years ago of the most iconic symbol of state security repression the world has ever seen should have been almost immediately followed by the rise of a repressive national security state within the very open society that had led the fight to tear that wall down.

Benjamin Franklin had it right when he said that those who would trade a little liberty for a little safety deserve neither. He also said that the founding fathers had given us a republic, if we could keep it. Unfortunately, it has become very evident that we cannot. Osama bin Laden did not take our freedoms away; we managed to do that to ourselves.

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