TERRORISTS ATE MY HOMEWORK
The Beast’s A to Z of Post-9/11 Political Opportunism
By Matt Taibbi
Even we felt sorry for Mayor Anthony Masiello a few weeks back. Our fearless leader’s deranged July 5 outburst, in which he labeled graffiti artists who spray-painted “Fuck the Mayor” on walls around Delaware park terrorists, was a textbook example of everything not to do when seeking to ride the backs of terrorists, real or imagined, to political advantage.
This game has been going on for hundreds of years, and the dos and don’ts have been fairly well established. When seeking to garner support for new draconian legislation, or for additional funding, do avoid whenever possible pointing to specific acts when describing your terrorist threat. With political opportunism, a terrorist in the bush is always worth two in the hand; unless you have a pile of bodies and a sufficiently large exploded structure to point at, people will always be more impressed by the fear of what terrorists might do than what they’ve already done.
Graffiti artists in Delaware Park? Not scary at all. A lead from “reliable intelligence sources” that Hamas is planning to kidnap Drew Bledsoe? Not only do you have our vote, just tell us where to send money! As everyone from Stalin to Hitler to Augusto Pinochet has learned over the years, even children aren’t afraid of the Bogey Man once you open the closet door; in politics, you keep the door closed.
Here’s another “do”: when you play the terrorist card, do ask for a huge mandate, not a little one. As most people with the stomach to think about these things have figured out by now, big-time politics differs very little from corporate deal-making. And any good businessman knows: when courting investors for a project, you always ask for a lot of money, even if you don’t come close to needing it. Never ask for funds to open up a hot-dog stand; ask for funds to open up a national chain of hot-dog stores, one that requires additional funding for hot-dog merchandising projects, multiple-media hot-dog entertainment (“Radio and TV are just a start! We’re going to sign Drew Barrymore!”), a hot-dog web browser service, hot-dog escorts…
The reason? People who have a lot of money are never very interested in small deals. Big-timers like big-time investments; everything else bores them. When you throw out a bill founded on a terrorist threat, the quarry should never be just graffiti artists. It should be everyone. Politics may be a move-the-chains business, but, as has been proved amply over the last nine months, the terrorist threat is an end zone play. Masiello went for three yards; he should have gone for six points.
We are coming up on the one-year anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks, and the events of the last year or so have left historians with an extraordinary record of political opportunism to consider. As we sit here quietly going about our business in a small town like Buffalo, we ought to be aware that all around us, all over the outside world, governments and politicians are attempting to pull off, at a breakneck pace, an unprecedented series of end runs that are certain to fundamentally change the world as we know it. There’s not a whole lot we can do about it, but we ought to at least be aware that it’s happening… and understand that, far from being a singular event based on a unique tragedy, the terrorism blame game is an age-old technique that, like a virus, always runs its course in the same way.
Incidentally, we here at the BEAST speak with some personal experience on the matter. Just three years ago, in the summer of 1999, we were living in Moscow and anticipating the seemingly inevitable demise of President Boris Yeltsin. Both Yeltsin’s family and his administration had been seriously tainted by a number of gruesome financial scandals, and poll numbers had a Yeltsin rival, Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov, looking like a lock to assume power in the 2000 presidential elections.
Then a funny thing happened. A series of raids by Islamic Chechen rebels in the south of the country re-ignited a military conflict that had been dormant since
A hole 1996. After a brief period of backdoor maneuvering, an unknown ex-KGB operative named Vladimir Putin was installed as Prime Minister amid promises of an extreme crackdown in Chechnya. Having heard all of this before, the Russian public paid only minimal attention, and Luzhkov continued his march to power… But then, just like that, a pair of apartment buildings in Moscow and a city called Ryazan were leveled by high-powered explosions, leaving hundreds dead. Public outrage soared to unprecedented levels, and the tough-talking Putin–who vowed, gangster-style, to “whack the bandits in their outhouses”–was given a limitless mandate to crush the terrorists. Full-blown war ensued, dissent at home was crushed, and voila–Putin was elected in a landslide just a few months later.
Evidence eventually surfaced that Putin had bombed the buildings himself (and the journalists from a paper called Novaya Gazeta who broke that story were beaten and, in the case of one, shot) but by then it was a done deal. Once you’ve got a terrorist to point a finger at, a skillful politician knows the world is his.
No sane person would ever compare George Bush to Putin. For one thing, he’s much taller. For another, it would hard to argue that the Trade Center bombings weren’t a real terrorist act, while virtually every intelligent person in Russia had immediate doubts about the Moscow/Ryazan apartment bombings. Nonetheless, both presidents do clearly use the same playbook. The only difference is the language. A KGB-gangster-turned politician whacks people in outhouses; an ex-Texas governor smokes them out of foxholes.
Whatever. We don’t begrudge politicians their tactics. Everyone’s got to make a living. Our only issue is technique. If you’re going to do a thing, you ought to do it right. If Mayor Masiello is thinking of trying this again, he might consider sticking to the time-honored tradition. Here’s our take on what that is, the BEAST guide to taking excellent political advantage of terrorism:
STEP ONE: FIND A TERRORIST.
This is harder than it sounds. Only in the rarest of cases does an undeniable terrorist event on the scale of 9/11 actually drop in your lap for you to make use of. In many cases, unreasonable people are likely to insist that what you are inclined to call terrorism is actually separatism, domestic opposition, or just plain old run-of-the-mill crime.
The great masters of the terrorism blame game, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, found extremely effective and creative ways around this problem. Hitler went the direct route; he simply went ahead and burned down the Reichstag building and blamed it on a whining communist. Not everyone believed him–remember, 87 Social Democrats voted against the extraordinary anti-terrorist powers he asked for in the wake of the Reichstag fire–but the trick worked well enough, and 12 years later, in 1945, Germans were still massacring people all over the world in belated response to the nebulous anti-German terrorist threat.
Stalin, as is typical of a Russian dictator, took the more labor-intensive route. Although he did actually kick off the festivities of the 1930s by arranging a phony terrorist act–the assassination of a high-ranking party member named Alexander Kirov–the real strength of his anti-terrorist campaign came through the painstaking process of arresting and intimidating thousands of people and forcing them to admit publicly to having planned terrorist acts. The amazing, never-before-seen spectacle of formerly respectable politicians lining up one after the other to confess to having planned to do everything from put broken glass in canned food products to blow up bridges and dams gave him the mandate he needed to massacre the needed 10 million or so malcontents. Ironically, the anti-terror campaign left his country more or less helpless when a foreign power actually invaded the Soviet Union in 1941.
It is convenient when searching for a terrorist threat to have an actual enemy on hand who is in the habit of blowing up things and people on your territory. In this sense, countries like Israel, Sri Lanka, Russia, and India were at a distinct advantage when 9/11 came their way. All four of these countries were home to ethnic separatist movements that could be convincingly linked to international terrorism once the opportunity arose. It is always important in this case to issue expressions of sympathy with the more overtly innocent victim–in this case the United States–and to pound home as often as possible that the new victims of terrorism should finally understand your plight. Russian government spokesman Sergei Yastrzhemsky offered a skillful example when he announced, within a day after the 9/11 attack, that the “Western media has finally changed its information policy toward Chechnya.”
If there are no violent belligerents handy on your territory, the mere presence of undesirables will often do the trick. Only a few days after 9/11, Australian Defense Minister Peter Rieth implicitly linked immigrant asylum-seekers to terrorism, and demanded that, in light of the World Trade Center bombing, Australia ought to be allowed finally to keep all of those darned immigrants out. He got what he wanted. A few months later, the Australian government put forward a comprehensive anti-terrorism bill in response to the 9/11 bombings that allowed the government to secretly detain even children in order to combat the terrorist threat, among other things.
A problem can arise for the gain-seeking politician who, far from being faced with a terrorist threat, is actually a terrorist himself. For this kind of person, for example the ruthless dictators Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus and Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, there may appear at first to be little advantage to seeking out a fictional terrorist threat. After all, if there are no obstacles to enacting repressive laws to begin with, why bother making the effort to cook up a plausible excuse for them? The answer is that even in this case, there is a tangible benefit to finding yourself some terrorists, and that is the extremely rewarding sensation of temporary international legitimacy. Therefore Lukashenko acted shrewdly when, in December of last year, he enacted the “Law of the Republic of Belarus on Fighting Terrorism.” This law, which was so nakedly an act of political opportunism that even the dead Nazi soldiers buried in the Belarus forests had to laugh at it, permitted Lukashenko’s government to legally enter any home at will and confiscate any property deemed necessary to the cause of counter-terrorism. Not surprisingly, the law turned out to be one of the few moves he has ever made that did not instantly inspire violent international disgust.
Uzbekistan, meanwhile, having long ago disposed of any domestic opposition in possession of so much as a bamboo pole of offensive capability, simply went ahead and declared an unarmed Islamic group called Hizb-ut-Tahrir a terrorist threat. No one believed them, and in fact one of his own courts actually took the extreme step of convicting four policemen for murder after they beat a suspected Hizb-ut-Tahrir member named Ravshan Haidov to death, but the rest of the world was sufficiently convinced by Karimov’s vigilance that it began to talk about Uzbekistan as a valuable ally in the fight against international terrorism. The United States found the act convincing enough that it felt confident in setting up an airbase on Karimov’s territory, and even made noises about keeping it there permanently, setting off what is sure to be a lucrative bidding war for Uzbek hospitality between Russia and the United States. Whatever your situation, it is always possible to find a terrorist. The trick is what to do with him once you get him.
STEP 2: MAKE A WISH-LIST
Trying to determine what best to do with the political mandate offered by your newfound terrorist threat is similar to trying to make a decent meal at home. Before you go to the supermarket, your first step should always be see what’s already in the cupboard. There may be plans you already have underway that can be bolstered or expedited by bellowing at length in public about the need for anti-terrorist vigilance.
Without a doubt, the absolute master of this aspect of the terrorist blame game is the United States. While we may lack the political will of a Russia or a Nazi Germany to blow up huge numbers of our own citizens in order to blame it on somebody else (although we have never been above doing that in other countries), there is no doubt that we know how to take practical advantage of a terrorist threat better than anyone. Americans are the ultimate pragmatists; give us an empty field and a pile of rocks, and within six weeks we’ll turn them into a factory that makes a 700% annual profit selling ice skates, key chains, and slag. In the case of 9/11, our government instantly resubmitted into play about 30 different initiatives that it had already been trying to achieve, without success, for some time.
That air base in Uzbekistan? We were trying to set one up there as early as June, 2001. Oil drilling rights in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge? Bumbling-but-persistent Senator Frank Murkowski had been drooling over them for years, but after 9/11, he suddenly decided that it was American dependence on foreign oil that was funding terrorism, and instantly got what he wanted. An Caucasus oil pipeline that runs through Afghanistan? That pesky Taliban was an obstacle before, but thanks to the sudden need to occupy that country–itself thanks to the precipitous decision to declare Afghanistan the haven for international terrorism–those plans can now begin to take real shape.
Electronic surveillance? The ACLU bitched about Carnivore before, but just let them try now. An expansion of controversial free-trade agreements? A double-whammy of opportunistic benefit suddenly appeared in the wake of 9/11. Not only could anti-globalization protesters be publicly compared to terrorists, but administration spokesmen now could–and did–insist that poverty brought on by the absence of free trade had caused the bombings. A plan for an expansion of NAFTA that would cover all the Americas called Fast Track, long desired by the Bush administration, suddenly became an urgent priority.
On September 30, a U.S. trade representative named Robert Zoellick wrote an article in the Washington Post called “Countering Terror With Trade” that suggested that Fast Track was the best way to bring about the international security we needed. While denounced by whiny leftist political observers as shameless opportunism, Zoellick’s stance had the White House’s ok, and the stage was set for Fast Track to become political reality.
Another important thing to remember, in making up your wish list, is that your counter-terrorism proposals need not make any sense at all. What is crucial in your demands is your apparent sincerity in your desire to vanquish the enemy and your insistence that your objective is the answer. A great example of this is the Bush administration’s insistence upon pushing its Missile Defense project after 9/11, with the explanation that the events of 9/11 had clearly indicated the need for such a program. Logically, of course, the WTC attack had explicitly proved the worthlessness of missile defense, but the Bush administration was wise not to let this affect its strategy. If anything, failure to enthusiastically tie 9/11 to a need for missile defense might have called the whole program into question.
Countries with a less specific connection to 9/11 were wise to limit themselves to one or two fiercely-desired political objectives. In the case of the Israelis, it was the bold expansion of Jewish settlements and the incitement of an expanded conflict with the Palestinians that, given the worldwide political climate, they were bound to be able to conduct with unusually wide international support.
The Russians played a small number of angles, but all of them with consummate skill. First, they secured the de facto support of the West for the prosecution of their insane, completely hopeless war in Chechnya, atrocities and all. The country also mined a decade of experience in playing up its utter incompetence to police itself to secure $20 billion in international funding to destroy and/or monitor its nuclear material, which of course might “accidentally” fall into the hands of terrorists. $20 billion is a lot of money; some of it is bound to get lost somewhere…
Whatever your wish list includes, make sure as you lobby to fulfill it that you remember two things. One, affect the utmost sincerity in your desire to crush terrorism. Two, do whatever you can to make sure that victory remains as far away as possible, which brings us to…
STEP THREE: START AN OPEN-ENDED FOREIGN WAR THAT PROMISES TO GO ON BASICALLY FOREVER
A war that has a chance of being won quickly is of little practical use to anybody. You can buy a lot more with eternal vigilance than, say, three months of vigilance. Although the Bush administration has performed admirably on this score, no one yet has understood this concept better than Stalin.
Stalin never had the balls to actually launch a foreign invasion–his one attempt, against Finland, ended with the entire Soviet army utterly humiliated at the hands of nine Finns on skis–but in his grand internal war, he was very careful never to run out of enemies. While on the one hand playing up the infinite dastardliness of the Trotskyite-fascist wreckers, imbuing them with a seemingly limitless persistence in their goal of traveling vast distances to torment even drunken factory workers in Siberia, he constantly shifted the grounds of battle from one segment of society to another.
When the wreckers were purged from the party, he moved on to the military. When the military was tamed, he moved on to the arts community. When most of them were dead, he moved on to physicians; in the famous “Doctors’ Plot,” he alleged a vast conspiracy among Soviet doctors to aid the fascist cause. He got around to Jews surprisingly late, in his famous “Cosmopolitan” purges in the fifties. In any case, he was able to do this by painting the enemy as a nebulous and ever-shifting belligerent, indefatigable in his evil, requiring a permanent offensive response.
The United States has taken much the same approach to terrorism. Unlike the Gulf War, when we had one simple military task to perform, the War on Terrorism was instantly declared to be open-ended, one that “might go on for a long time.” Despite the fact that there was presumably only one group of actors responsible for the Trade Center Bombings, the White House made it a point to state immediately that the list of enemies would be expanded on the go, as new threats were determined.
“The Afghan theatre has been the first battle but it won’t be the last,” said Donald Rumsfeld. “The existence and development of weapons of mass destruction in countries that are on the terrorist list [Iraq, Iran and North Korea] means we have to do our task [urgently] before the terrorists get their hands on [them].”
At this writing, plans are afoot to invade Iraq, and the White House has made it clear that the War on Terrorism exists not only abroad but at home, in the hearts of men, making final victory virtually impossible to achieve, even in the event of an occupation of the entire planet.
The benefit of open-ended conflict is most clearly seen in its ability to help bureaucracies permanently justify their existences. If the war on drugs had a target victory date, hundreds of thousands of law-enforcement bureaucrats would be left to actively work for the elimination of their jobs. Had the Cold War been made hot, the military of one side or the other would have been looking for work before long. Colombia would have a tough time getting aid from the United States if it ever managed to rid itself of FARC guerillas. Of all the rules of the terrorist blame game, this one is the most ironclad; your enemy can never be defeated.
Actually securing an open-ended conflict is not always so easy, however. The best conceivable solution is to pick for an enemy a rebel insurgent group that wears beards, smells bad, lives in thick brush and mountains, and which, even given a best effort, you can never finally defeat. Russia, Columbia, the U.S. during Vietnam, and about two dozen African republics have had the good fortune to have enemies such as these. When the political chips are down, those guys in beards are always there, waiting to give you a boost.
You are also lucky if your enemy happens to be an ethnic group that, like your own, will never, ever reconcile with you, even if a thousand years pass. Israel, India, Pakkistan, the Yugoslav states, the Rwandan tribes, all of these groups have enemies that need never go away.
But if ethnic hatred is not a factor, and if you have absolute power to conquer anybody, anywhere, as we happen to have right now, you have a problem. Then the task is not choosing an enemy, but describing him correctly, which means moving to…
STEP FOUR: DESCRIBE YOUR ENEMY AS A MINDLESS, REASONLESS EVIL
Given superior force and a reasonable opponent, one can always negotiate a peace. When wars are rooted in reasons, people are always looking for ways to end them. Therefore the only way to continue to garner permanent support for your anti-terrorist effort is to make sure that your enemy is understood to be completely and totally insane.
You can see this truism at work everywhere, and not just at the national level. Even here in Buffalo, just look at the response to the Zoo vandalism business. There was no discussion of why the kids had attacked those lorikeets; it was understood immediately that it happened because black people just like to break stuff. Newspapers called the vandals “animals,” “miscreants” and “cretins,” and just left it at that. When you put it that way, why not just occupy all of East
Trotskyites just hate
the working class
terrorists just hate
our way of life Buffalo with cops?
After 9/11, the Bush administration, as well as the national media, was very careful to outline exactly what had gone on. “These people just hate our way of life,” said President Bush. “They hate freedom,” wept Dan Rather. Both lines have been repeated ad nauseum since then, which underscores the effectiveness of the technique.
It’s not like the line hasn’t been used before. Here’s a fairly typical quote from a 1938 edition of Pravda: “There is no person in the world more disgusting to every honest worker than that vile and traitorous enemy, avenging the exposure of Trotskyism for its great and boundless hatred toward socialism and the working class.”
Once people buy into the idea that the enemy is completely crazy, and hates you just because, they will accept the idea that he’s bent on infiltrating every aspect of your existence, just to piss you off. Once you’re there, you’ve hit the jackpot.
STEP FIVE: THE ENEMY IS EVERYWHERE AND RESPONSIBLE FOR EVERY LAST GODDAMN PROBLEM
During the Super Bowl this year, the Office of National Drug Control Policy launched a series of TV ads that claimed that people who buy drugs support terrorism. Only a month or so before, a trade lawyer named Robin Mazer had written an article in the Washington Post arguing that people who bought pirated goods–anything from unlicensed CDs to unlicensed brand-name t-shirts–were supporting terrorism. Both ploys were absolutely correct applications of the terrorist blame game strategy.
The whole point of having a meaningful terrorist threat is its utility in extending its use to anything and everything. A terrorist who is limited in his objectives is not a worthy enemy. If we content ourselves with the idea that our enemy is mainly interested in blowing up one big building, then we’ve soon enough digested the problem, and we’re back to wondering why our lives feel so empty, and our leaders seem like such morons.
The terrorist threat only works if it leaves us in a state of mental paralysis, leading a life without issues or uncertainties, focused completely on the single objective of Progress in the War. Life in such a circumstance is a dream, a sort of vegetative bliss devoid of questions or responsibilities. The final victory of the terrorism blame strategy comes at the level of ordinary people like ourselves. For politicians, opportunism in the face of terrorism means the chance to do something. For ordinary people, opportunism in the face of terrorism means taking advantage of the chance to do nothing, and think about nothing. It’s like winning the lottery; a lifetime license to sit around and let your whole life be determined by one random event.
The only thing that can spoil it for all of us is a bumbler like Tony Masiello, who cheapens the terrorist threat and makes it seem phony. Message to the Mayor: Keep it real. We want this one to last.