People looked at the wreckage in New York, Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia on September 12, 2001, and said, “9/11 changed everything.” What the phrase meant at the time, however, is not what it turned out to mean later. At the time, people meant that we could not feel safe from the world anymore. We were at war, and our enemies could strike anywhere. They could annihilate thousands of people in downtown Manhattan. Homeland security became a national preoccupation.
Then, as many people around the world and in the United States began to realize what actually happened on 9/11, they began to see the calamity – and the putative initiation of hostilities – in a different way. They began to ask questions that the American government should have been able to answer, and could not. Gradually it became clear that government preferred not to answer straightforward questions because it had a lot to hide. At last, government officials refused to answer persistent and pointed questions from victims’ families, because it could no longer hide what had become obvious: government counted itself among our enemies. 9/11 changed everything, because at last citizens perceived the truth about their own government.
One article of faith for many Americans before 9/11 was that, for all its faults, our government was different from other governments. It did not routinely commit crimes against its own people. It tried to set an example of good behavior for other states. As a result, other states looked to it for leadership, and it responded generously. Among the things that changed on 9/11, this exceptional behavior and exceptional position were the first to go. The U. S. government became, in its own eyes and for others as well, just another criminal, power grubbing machine that served its own interests, not anyone else’s. This change did not take place in one day, of course. The events that unfolded after 9/11, however, simply made these changes apparent to anyone who cared to observe them.
To see the direction of these changes, as well as their ominous outcomes should they go unchecked, consider the civil war in Syria. Not long after we unleashed the furies of armed conflict in Iraq, Jordan’s King Abdullah worried that the war could spread to other countries in the region. His fears about contagion proved correct. We have seen prolonged civil conflict in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. Syria’s war is the most serious right now. It has already merged with the one in Iraq.
When we tote up the war crimes of the gang of cronies in Damascus, we see what a government will do to preserve its power. Is Syria an extreme case? Yes, it is, but our government has not bombarded cities, sniped citizens in the streets, or openly tortured children because it has not needed to. Given what it has already done, we cannot predict how much further it might go. As we assess the self protective actions of governments everywhere, we observe differences of degree, not kind. The more rulers feel threatened, the more force they call into play. The more force they call into play, the more they undermine their ability to rule.
No one has charged the United States government with torture and murder of children, as Bashir Assad’s government has done. Yet who predicted in the years after 9/11 that we would torture people on a large scale, and publicly defend these crimes. Moral decay occurs gradually, as does escalation in the use of violence. Assad’s forces use their murderous techniques as means of intimidation: if we are willing to torture and kill this innocent young man, imagine what we will do to your family. Imagine what we will do to you.
Our government uses methods of intimidation, but it has not escalated its use of force against people to the degree we see in countries like Syria and Russia. As it feels itself under threat, however, it applies force sufficient to protect its power. No one can say, right now, what limits our government might observe to constrain its use of force. Rulers and secret police, for their part, like to create uncertainty on that score. Unpredictability and secrecy are hallmarks of people who operate outside the law.
Altogether, government’s use of force to protect its power and privileges presents something of a mystery. When the only foundation for your power is punishment and threats, you have already lost. So-called officials rule as a gang of criminals protected by laws they promulgate or rescind to serve their own interests. So we ask, for people who hold power in Syria, “Why would Assad and his associates be willing to do these things in the first place?” A government that has to use methods like that has lost its legitimacy. It does not lead anymore, and can accomplish no good for the country. The citizens know it and the government knows it. So what is the point of bombarding cities and killing so many civilians every day?
We know the answer by now. Legitimacy, leadership, or serving citizens’ welfare does not concern the government at all. Preservation of power – and of the parasitic relationship where so-called public servants benefit from their access to the country’s treasury – is all that is at issue in this case. No one in Syria pretends otherwise.
The interesting thing is that in principle, we have headed in a similar direction in the United States. We still have officials who praise public service, but even when they mean it, the praise sounds hollow. One travesty after another reminds us of the true relationship between government, and the people who suffer under its humiliations. As Peggy Noonan remarked about a wasteful government conference and shindig in Las Vegas, the notable thing was not that government officials wasted taxpayer money. That is not news. The notable thing is that they wasted taxpayer money, and openly mocked taxpayers while they did it.
So we understand that government officials not only feel entitled to throw a big party for themselves, but show contempt for the people who pay for it. As people remarked after seeing Hunger Games, someone needs to shoot the apple out of this pig’s mouth. We need a leader who can make these jerks feel uneasy. We need a leader who demonstrates courage to say, “We will bring you down. You appropriated our republic for yourselves. We want it back.” That would make their chests tighten up a bit. People who instill fear and humiliation in others, ought to feel a taste of it themselves.
Some would go further and say, “We will bring you down. We will put you away, as you put Jack and Bobby away.” The problem is, the people who put Jack and Bobby away required only a few loaded guns and assassins to do so. You cannot replace your government with a few loaded guns. You cannot replace your government with a republic even if you have a lot of loaded guns. You have to find a way to remove government’s internal supports. Think of a building, like World Trade Center 7, or a tent that collapses when you remove the supports that hold it up. A government’s structural supports are financial and moral. Remove those, and the whole structure comes down.
“But we can’t replace the government with anarchy,” you say. Some would counter that anarchy, or something close to it, is the best possible outcome. Others would say our traditions call for more legal authority than anarchy would permit. That’s why planning for a democratic republic, or multiple republics, must occur while the existing government, its wits clouded by its own power, prepares its own end. We know from history that when governments collapse, they collapse suddenly. They fall after an extended period of changes that throw it off balance, until it passes its tipping point. When we citizens observe government’s self-destructive behavior, we have to recognize it. We have to be prepared to act when corrupt institutions at last inflict a blow, intended for their adversaries, that turns out to be fatal for them.
The first, critical step onto this path of self-destruction occurred when hired assassins shot John Kennedy and John Connally in Dallas, Texas. The gunmen hit Connally by mistake. They executed President Kennedy in the nation’s most infamous public square, Dealey Plaza. In most circumstances – think of Cesar Borgia in Machiavelli’s Prince, or Mexico’s drug lords right now – the perpetrators of a murder like that would want people to know who did it. You can’t intimidate and control people when you finger a patsy to take the blame for your crimes.
The people who hit Kennedy wanted it both ways: a public execution, but with secrecy about who did it. Secret assassination teams were trained to get Fidel Castro, and murder was in the air: our enemy in Havana may be out of reach, but our friend in Dallas is not. After Robert Kennedy received news of his brother’s death, one of the first calls he made was to one of contacts in the get-Castro underground. He asked right off the bat, “It was one of your guys, wasn’t it?”
If we don’t recognize the murder as an execution, we won’t grasp its significance. If we don’t grasp its significance, we won’t be ready when the shadow state that planned this act reaches an endgame where its previous moves cause its own defeat. No government persists indefinitely after it squanders its legitimacy, just as no building can stand after its foundation deteriorates. Processes of degradation and collapse may take some time; eventually a crisis or explosion occurs that reduces the weakened structure to a pile of bricks and shattered wood. Our government will not escape the destination it set for itself.
We citizens cannot resign, or become spectators in this process. If we merely watch, we could sit in bleachers, or in a prison camp that stretches from sea to sea, for two centuries or more. The Roman republic ended long before the structure fell. The secular power of the Catholic church in the Middle Ages underwent a similarly long decline. We still have enough freedom to prevent passive subjugation to prevent subjugation to corrupt tyrants and their toadies, who expect us to kiss their rings. We have to be ready for the crisis. We have to expect the explosion of civic entergy that accompanies reform and revolution. We have to resist, plan, and rebuild, as the bloated ticks eventually fall off the unfortunate animal.
First, we have to resist government’s overreach wherever we can. Our government maintains its power at our expense. It makes our lives miserable by degrees, so gradually that we don’t realize how little freedom we have, or how much prosperity we have lost. We must find practical ways to resist processes of governmental aggrandizement, to regain our freedom, our elemental ability to act. We have become hamstrung. Freedom, which we all seek, includes the ability to do work we love, and to dispose of our property as we wish. That is happiness in the social and economic arenas. When government persistently interferes with citizens’ pursuit of happiness, it violates its own charter.
Second, we have to plan to cooperate effectively. Carlos Casteneda wrote, “We either make ourselves miserable, or we make ourselves strong. The amount of work is the same.” Collaboration to set plans of resistance, to execute strategies and guide civil action, is hard work. However difficult or risky, that work is better than the hopeless drudgery and indignity we suffer when we simply submit. We can act together to make our lives better, and to make our interactions better as well.
Third, we have to prepare and build new institutions to replace decadent ones when they fall away. We know the dispiriting consequences of surprise, born of limited foresight: long periods of disorganized conflict, where powerful people willing to use the most force prevail, only to fall when a stronger person arrives. New rulers, flush with new power, can be even more ruthless and energetic than the ones they replaced. Power groups may put up stooges that are weak and incompetent, but no less criminal than their masters. Only citizens prepared to act in advance can prevent outcomes like that. Only citizens prepared to act in advance can block the ascendance of warlords, demagogues, and strongmen who pretend to be leaders, but are nothing more than thugs with power.
Eventually the pot boils. Stay hungry. Be ready.