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'Instead of dealing with real, complex social issues with compassion and intelligence, our major institutions seem to be fortifying themselves – with ever-increasing futility – against their imagined demons.' (Photo: Tony Webster/flickr/cc)

Militarizing Ourselves Toward a New Dark Age

Robert C. Koehler

“What struck me” journalist Christian Parenti said in a recent Truthout interview, referring to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, “was the fact that these local towns and states around the region were sending the only resources they had to New Orleans: weapons and militarized gear.

“After 30 years of the War on Drugs and a neoliberal restructuring of the state at the local level, which is not a reduction of the public sector but a transformation of the public sector, the only thing local governments had were weapons.”

Parenti’s observation summed up a deep sense of puzzled frustration I’ve been feeling for a long time, which has been growing in intensity since the Reagan era and even more so since 9/11 and the unleashed Bush agenda. Fear, exploited and unchecked, triggers a deep, “rational” insanity. We’re driving ourselves into a new Dark Age.

The driving force is institutional: government, the mainstream media, the military-industrial economy. These entities are converging in a lockstep, armed obsession over various enemies of the status quo in which they hold enormous power; and this obsession is devolving public consciousness into a permanent fight-or-flight mentality. Instead of dealing with real, complex social issues with compassion and intelligence, our major institutions seem to be fortifying themselves – with ever-increasing futility – against their imagined demons.

Parenti went on, in his interview with Vincent Emanuele: “So, less money for public housing, more money for private prisons. It’s a literal transfer of resources to different institutions, from a flawed social democratic institution like public housing, to an inherently evil, but still very expensive and publicly funded institution, like prison.”

As American society militarizes, it dumbs itself down.

The only surprising aspect to a recent story in the U.S. edition of The Guardian, for instance – about how the Houston office of the FBI broke its own rules in beginning an investigation of opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline – was how unsurprising it was.

In essence, the FBI office violated the department’s internal rules – “designed,” according to The Guardian, “to prevent the agency from becoming unduly involved in sensitive political issues” – by beginning a surveillance operation against anti-pipeline activists without receiving high-level approval to do so. Furthermore, “the investigation was opened in early 2013, several months after a high-level strategy meeting between the agency and TransCanada, the company building the pipeline,” The Guardian reported.

“… At one point, the FBI’s Houston office said it would share with TransCanada ‘any pertinent intelligence regarding any threats’ to the company in advance of a forthcoming protest.”

Perhaps the only surprising thing about this revelation is that the agency has internal rules designed to keep its nose out of sensitive political issues. Obviously, they’re easily circumvented. What’s not surprising is the corporate-FBI alliance to stand tough against “environmental extremists” or the agency’s lumping of environmental protests with other “domestic terrorism issues” – its pathological fear, in other words, of peaceful protest and civil disobedience and its inability to see the least bit of patriotic value in their cause.

This is the case despite the long, honored tradition of protest and civil disobedience in the United States and the widespread public awareness of the need to protect our environment. Doesn’t matter. In the realm of law enforcement, a simple moralism too often prevails: Get the enemy.

Imagine, just for a moment, an American law enforcement institution that operated out of an emotional state other than armed self-righteousness; that regarded the security it was established to protect as a complex matter that required cooperation and fairness and was ill-served by intimidation. Imagine a law enforcement institution capable of learning from past wrongs and not automatically donning riot gear in the face of every challenge to social conditions – and not automatically manning the firehoses.

What I see our powerful, status-quo institutions doing is arming themselves against the future. Consider the enemies: poor people, immigrants, protesters of all sorts . . . whistleblowers.

“A federal court in Alexandria, Virginia sentenced former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling to three and a half years in prison on Monday in a case that has received widespread condemnation for revealing the ‘rank hypocrisy’ of the U.S. government’s war on whistleblowers,” Common Dreams reported.

Sterling was convicted, on circumstantial evidence, of leaking classified info to New York Times journalist James Risen about a bizarre CIA operation called Operation Merlin. If true, Sterling committed the crime of embarrassing the U.S. government by outing an ill-conceived CIA plan to pass flawed information about nuclear-weapon design to Iran, which may actually have furthered Iran’s weapons program. The government has no right to hide its operations – and certainly not its mistakes – from the public. By pretending that it’s defending “our” security by doing so, even as it ignores and fails to invest in true measures of security, such as a rebuilt social safety net, it squanders its legitimacy.

And the more legitimacy it squanders, the more it militarizes.


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Robert C. Koehler

Robert C. Koehler

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. Koehler has been the recipient of multiple awards for writing and journalism from organizations including the National Newspaper Association, Suburban Newspapers of America, and the Chicago Headline Club.  He’s a regular contributor to such high-profile websites as Common Dreams and the Huffington Post. Eschewing political labels, Koehler considers himself a “peace journalist. He has been an editor at Tribune Media Services and a reporter, columnist and copy desk chief at Lerner Newspapers, a chain of neighborhood and suburban newspapers in the Chicago area. Koehler launched his column in 1999. Born in Detroit and raised in suburban Dearborn, Koehler has lived in Chicago since 1976. He earned a master’s degree in creative writing from Columbia College and has taught writing at both the college and high school levels. Koehler is a widower and single parent. He explores both conditions at great depth in his writing. His book, "Courage Grows Strong at the Wound" (2016). Contact him or visit his website at commonwonders.com.

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