Immediately during and after events such as Wednesday’s failed Trumpist insurrection, I hop on the Facebook and warn about overreaction. My warnings often elicit a quick response from people who are angry and frustrated and want something to happen now. Some of the backlashers frame my warnings as me not taking a situation seriously and/or being soft – a misreading of what I am trying to communicate.
When I warn about overreaction, I am not downplaying what happened or suggesting that anyone escape accountability. Nor am I saying, “Keep calm, turn the page.” I am saying pretty much what I am saying, “Do not let your anger and frustration lead to advocating things that will ultimately hurt us all.”
A perfect example of what I am referring to is the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The attacks happen and, of course, people are pissed off. The natural impulse is to do something because something should be done. The fast-track response is WAR. That is quickly followed by AUTHORITY. The sane response to the attacks is This is a crime, followed by arrest and prosecute the perpetrators. In reaction to 9/11, the United States, moved by emotion, took the fast-track.
The fast-track got us into a haphazard, inconsistently-waged war in Afghanistan, which was used to justify war in Iraq. We know the obvious consequences of these wars: Many deaths, two shattered countries, mass corruption, instability, torture, and more terrorism. One of the unspoken consequences of fast-tracking is there was a delay in crippling Al Qaeda and in doing away with Osama bin Ladin. The Afghan and Iraq wars led to destabilization which resulted in ISIS. The War on Terror grew to include drone wars, which continue to this day, many intensified by the Trump regime.
The second lane on the fast-track is AUTHORITY. The AUTHORITY track led us to the Patriot Act, the Dept. of Homeland Security, and a whole host of federal, state, and local laws aimed at crushing dissent in the name of security. The days after 9/11 was an authoritarian super-spreader event.
The AUTHORITY track gave us increased militarization of local police departments, which meant cops being trained in military tactics, police departments treating their jurisdictions like enemy occupied territory, and same police departments being flooded with military gear. While there has always been a fraction of gung-ho super-cops in law enforcement, the post 9/11 authoritarian embrace let to the explosion of the “warrior copy” and, with it, an increase in police brutality. This is not theory. It has been documented in studies and written about in books (see the work of Radley Balko).
The AUTHORITY track also leads to mass surveillance of not just Muslims, which is bad enough, but non-Muslim critics of Israeli policy, anti-globalization activists, and anti-war groups. Localities passed laws restricting the right to protest. Literal walls started going up between elected officials and constituents. Everyday people were treated as potential terrorists.
We saw authoritarian paranoia also play out in the private sector with increased security everywhere, including cameras in most of our populated public spaces. Body scanners became more common. Facial recognition software was fast-tracked thanks to hefty government funding. This government funding helped create a huge, for profit surveillance industry, which bolstered an economy based on data collection, something Shoshana Zuboff studied in her must-read The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.
While we know that we are constantly being mined for data, we have absolutely no idea how much data collected by private companies, especially those in telecom and social media, is shared with authorities. We do know, however, thanks to public interest and privacy lawsuits that police have been very active in trying to acquire this information and some lawmakers have been very helpful in trying to find ways for law enforcement to get this info.
Again, I am not a paranoid person, but I have to admit that the explosion of surveillance after 9/11, the weakening of civil liberties, and the mass militarization of police made me a bit more anxious about rising authoritarianism and not just in reaction to the immediate dangers like spying on protesters or our presence in airports or state houses being meticulously documented. I am fearful of the long term spread of authoritarianism and its persistent institutionalization.
One of the biggest dangers of authoritarianism is that people get used to it. Like the proverbial frog in a boiling pot, authoritarianism gets hotter without us noticing it. And the reason it does so is because we are not really a bunch of frogs in hot water. Most of never feel the hot or suffer scalding because these intrusions into our privacy do not impact our every-day lives.
Sure, we have to stupidly take off our shoes before we get through airport security, but we don’t feel anything when TSA files away hundreds of photographs of our mug from our visit to the airport, and then shares the data with the FBI and others. That intrusion is one we might not ever feel concretely, but it bolsters the strength and increases the capability of the authoritarian state. And, while data obtained by these intrusions can be used track down Wednesday’s Second American Revolution Cosplayers, who stupidly, masklessly mugged for every camera they saw, it is also used to go after Black Lives Matter protesters and anti-fascist activists.
There is nothing paranoid about anything written above. None of the words have a hint of conspiracy theory in them. These are legit concerns about authoritarianism. That said, take everything I’ve warned about and plop it into the minds of people who have no grounding in civil liberties and no understanding of the dynamics of authoritarianism, who do not read books and get all their info from the internet in the form of tweets, posts, memes, and video, who do not think critically, some of whom are a bit touched, and many who flirt with or embrace conspiracies. Here is what you get:
Qanon and a culture of conspiracy theories. A president who feasts on this stuff. Moonchild the Q Viking running around half naked in the Capitol, leaning off the Senate rostrum, bellowing “I’m the king of the world!” A suicidal freak who believes that the Lizard People want a taste of his booty, blowing himself up in the middle of downtown Nashville. Millions of people refusing to wear a mask during a public health emergency, enabling a controllable virus to explode into a major, ongoing, deadly pandemic. Some creep destroying vaccines because the internet told him that Bill Gates and George Soros wants to engage in a three-way with his DNA. Plots against the governor of Michigan because “No one telling meh wha to do!” Tens of millions of people electing a dull-witted, half-crazy, reality TV b-level celebrity and failed businessman president of the United States because the Deep State elite is engaged in a conspiracy to turn the Hamburgler into the Hambuggerer…and then they rush to reelect him after all the above went down.
A rush to do something, anything, to seek immediate “justice,” to feel some kind of emotional relief and a sense of security and normality in reaction to Wednesday’s failed insurrection will have profound, long term, damaging, and most-likely permanent effects. Responding to disaster/crisis is not only a decision about the present based on what happened in the recent past. Our reaction paves the road into the future. We know that authoritarians, cops and right-wing politicians will try to take advantage of crisis situations. We know what happens in the near and long term when they succeed. We are living in that nightmare. Let’s not compound it with another rush into authoritarianism.
As I wrote above, the proper, sane way of dealing with the attacks on 9/11 would have been to treat the attacks as a singular set of criminal acts and to dealing with them as we do any crime. It would have been to use the laws and resources that we already had, which were, despite authoritarian opinion, quite able to do the job. We did not need a new, gigantic security agency with unprecedented power to better protecting ourselves from future terrorist acts. We needed adjustment and reform of the agencies we already possessed. And, as we saw with the Seal Team 1 takedown of Osama bin Ladin, we did not need a military force of millions occupying two countries for decades to bring the Al Qaeda leader “to justice.”
We do not need more authoritarianism and less freedom to fight racist authoritarians who would deny most of us our freedoms. We have the tools, plenty of tools, to fight this threat. What we need is the political will to fight and public pressure to prevent authoritarian overreach.