Back when prospective victory in the Cold War still gleamed in Ronald Reagan’s eye, analysts had some fixed ideas about why the conflict endured. The same analysts also held small hope the standoff would ever end, at least not while they had anything to say about it. One explanation for its enduring nature was the arms race, along with the fear and edginess those large arsenals caused. Another reason was the continued occupation of Eastern Europe, which the West saw as the original cause of the conflict. A third idea was that when two great powers face each other like that, neither one will back down, for reasons of status, pride, and self-protection.
Ronald Reagan proposed an explanation of his own, one that showed his understanding of the way people and groups interact when they fight. He said that we could never trust the Soviet Union – as an adversary or as an ally for peace – while its government maintained a closed society. How can you have confidence in what they say, he asked, if they do everything in secret? Reagan indicated that was true not only for the Soviets’ dealings internationally: the Communist party kept everything secret from its own citizens as well.
Not so long after Reagan’s observation, Mikhail Gorbachev promoted glasnost – openness – as the leading edge of his initiatives for change. He apparently agreed with Reagan: no one could trust the Communist Party or the Soviet Union without openness, or transparency as we now call it. No adversaries, or potential friends, within or without the Soviet Union would make peace with its leaders, unless the leaders could create some degree of trust. Gorbachev and Reagan both grasped that trust begets goodwill. Goodwill begets peace because it helps leaders recognize where their interests coincide. Distrust fosters conflict because it is the deepest form of alienation. You can try to cooperate with someone you distrust, but the relationship does not last.
In matters of secrecy and trustworthiness, the United States government in the twenty-first century has become more and more like the Soviet government during the Cold War. Governments – which include intelligence agencies, police forces, military organizations, and regulatory bodies – have always guarded information carefully for various reasons. The United States government, however, has moved strongly away from openness and toward secrecy since 9/11. Evidence for this change is everywhere, most recently in the government’s atrocious war on whistleblowers. Consequences of this change, where secrecy fosters suspicion and conflict, appear everywhere as well. Consider for instance the reactions of allied leaders who discovered the National Security Agency has been spying on them. Anger congeals into distrust in a case like that.
9/11’s clearest consequence has been a move toward thoroughgoing, omni-present operations that require secrecy to protect government’s freedom to conduct those operations. That imperative applies to military operations, torture and imprisonment, intelligence gathering and analysis, diplomacy, domestic surveillance, propaganda, threat assessment, homeland security and basic law enforcement. Practically every function of the national security state presupposes that public authorities are the sole source of information about what the state has done, is doing, or is about to do. We have no independent way to determine whether or not those authorities are honest. Therefore we have no way to know whether or not they have committed crimes.
9/11, itself a creature of the national security state, destroyed our democracy. It did so by making our government a closed organization, largely with our consent. As a result, government has alienated itself from the people it is supposed to serve. It treats those citizens as enemies – people to be feared, monitored, and controlled. In that situation, citizens naturally come to fear their government. Alienation and fear lead to conflict, and that is just what we find in the relationiship between citizens and government in our country. We cannot trust our government when most of its acts occur in secret, when it lies to cover its crimes, and when it acts in multiple ways to conceal its motives. Secret organizations with power cannot coexist in peace with other groups. They must be at war.
The Cold War ended when Gorbachev cracked open the Communist Party’s hidden ways of power. Evil memories escaped, along with the truth. An empire fell and Gorbachev lost his job, but the trust he kindled between himself and Reagan proved just enough to end a forty-five year conflict. Can the same thing happen with the conflict between citizens and government within our own country? We cannot wait two generations and half a century to learn the answer. We know that tyranny, once established, does not readily give way.