September 20, 2007

A Nation on the Edge of the Final Descent (I): Glimpses of the Horrors to Come

I. The Current Crisis in Historical Context

Because my title refers to "the final descent" of the United States, I must begin by emphasizing an issue I have discussed in many essays. The destruction of the basic political structure of this country has been a continuing project for well over a century. That destruction has been the purpose of both the Republican and Democratic parties, and it reveals itself in two major ways: through a foreign policy of aggressive, non-defensive interventionism overseas, and by means of an increasingly powerful and intrusive government domestically. It is crucial to see the interconnectedness of these two aspects of the authoritarian, corporatist war state. When states make war, they accrue ever greater powers. Those powers are initially justified by appeals to external threats, which threats are almost always exaggerated and often entirely fictitious. Once the state has acquired those powers, it is a simple matter to alter their focus, and to direct them against alleged internal threats. The purpose in both spheres is always the same: to reduce and eventually eliminate challenges to the exercise of state power, whether such challenges are presented by foreign nations or by domestic dissenters. The ultimate goal is absolute power wielded by an omnipotent state.

As I am discussing in "Dominion Over the World," the United States has been a war state since the Spanish-American War. Beginning with that episode in the non-defensive use of brute military power on the world stage, which was soon followed by the U.S. entrance into World War I (a conflict which had posed no serious direct threat to the U.S., but into which this country's leaders consciously and with careful deliberation chose to insert it), the United States has been perpetually preoccupied with war: preparing for war, fighting endless wars either openly or covertly, and then rebuilding after war. War is our major national product; war consumes an increasingly greater proportion of our national wealth and energies. By such means, the state renders its power unassailable. Perpetual war means the state can create endless opportunities to consolidate and expand its already vast powers.

The current administration is notable for its crudity, its boastful, unapologetic cruelty, and its outright stupidity -- but none of its crimes would have been possible without the policies pursued by Democrats and Republicans alike for many preceding decades. As I summarized this issue in "The Empire at Evening":
With the enactment of the Military Commissions Act, we feel only the vanishing warmth of the final traces of the sun's distant rays, and the shadows lengthen and grow darker. We will not see noon again, or even late afternoon, in our lifetimes.

And all this is not because of George W. Bush, although he has hastened events. How could it be remotely conceivable that such an utterly ridiculous figure would bring down the most powerful nation in the world, even with the aid of his corrupt cabal? He, and they, could not; he, too, is a symptom of the rot that has been eroding the country's foundations for at least a century. Do you think so little of the United States that you truly believe the country you imagine still exists could be destroyed by this?

But Bush is the perfect embodiment of what has brought us here: he captures the arrogance, the determined anti-intellectualism and embarrassing incoherence, the insatiable greed for power and the predilection for violence, and the absolute conviction that fortune and God smile upon him and us as upon no other peoples in the entire span of history, in a single, pathetic, laughable imitation of a genuine human being.

George W. Bush is our fate, and our reward. We have earned him.
I wrote that passage almost one year ago. It remains accurate in every respect. The continuing delusions with which many people seek to console themselves and allay their fears cause me to emphasize one sentence in particular, the meaning of which appears to have escaped many people: "Do you think so little of the United States that you truly believe the country you imagine still exists could be destroyed by this?" If the United States in fact had still existed as the viable political entity that many Americans fantasize about, Bush's crimes would never have been possible in the first instance. If the Democrats represented a genuine alternative in terms of fundamental political principles, they would have taken action to reverse those crimes since taking control of Congress. Most critically -- and particularly if the Democrats cared at all about forestalling an attack on Iran, and preventing widening war and the further entrenchment of the authoritarian state -- they would have begun impeachment proceedings.

But the Democrats have not done this, and they will not. As Chris Floyd wrote recently:
[T]he Bush Administration is now in a far stronger position than it was a year ago.

How can this be? The answer is simple: the United States is no longer a democratic country, or even a degraded semblance of one.
I occasionally see comments to the effect that I am something akin to a prophet of doom, and that I am always announcing that we are about to enter hell on earth. In fact, I have always been careful not to say this, precisely because I cannot know the exact schedule and form of our collapse, just as no one can know such details with any certainty. (I also note that Chris Floyd does not say this either, although he speaks for himself on this point, and many others, with great eloquence.) That the collapse of the United States is coming cannot be seriously disputed. Our economy is a house of cards, as it has been for some time. While it might implode overnight depending on events, it might also fray and shred slowly, over a period of decades. There is no way to know.

In the same way, the extent to which the now terrifying police powers of our government will be applied, and the targets against which they will be directed, cannot be known in advance with any specificity. That, too, will depend on countless factors -- whether the Middle East war widens (or more accurately, when it widens, since that will almost certainly happen under a future Democratic administration if Bush unaccountably fails to accomplish the terrible deed), whether there are further terrorist attacks in the U.S. itself and their severity, etc. Too many variables are in play, and they render particular scenarios exercises in fiction. But the general trend is clear; moreover, history tells us the trend is now irreversible, short of the kind of miracle that does not figure in my metaphysics. There will be further and much more destructive war, and the authoritarian state will make its powers known to the general populace in ways that will constantly increase. Only the timing and the details remain to be determined. Still, for the majority of Americans and as I recently observed, life may continue largely unaltered for some years to come.

Having offered these introductory observations, I note that certain kinds of incidents can reveal in stark and powerful ways the general state of a culture. The public reaction demonstrates what the majority of people are prepared to accept -- and what the government can get away with. Such incidents are barometers of future political developments: if we are attentive to their messages, they can tell us whether people will passively accept whatever actions the state may take, or if they will offer some resistance if the state acts in ways that are particularly cruel and oppressive. Public commentary and debate also reveal to what extent people are eager and willing to obey, and whether certain individuals will say, "No." As I have put it before, such reactions will tell us whether people are with the resistance -- or with the murderers.

One such incident is the tasering of Andrew Meyer earlier this week -- and the general reaction has been horrifying to a degree which is close to indescribable.

II. Torture in Broad Daylight

I assume everyone has seen the incident in question. If you have not, you should watch this video of it, which contains a brief and appropriately bitter commentary at the end, courtesy of Celine Dion.

If people are going to offer opinions about this incident, and in the last few days everyone has had an opinion about it, they ought to know what a taser does and the great dangers that accompany the use of this weapon -- that is, they ought to know if they are even minimally responsible and conscientious with regard to views they offer so eagerly. Almost no such responsibility and conscientiousness have been evident in the national discussion of this subject. The most minimal standards of basic decency have also been notably absent from the debate.

Here are some excerpts from an article from 2005, which provides some necessary background:
Feb. 17, 2005 – The death of a 54-year-old and the hospitalization of a 14-year-old after police stunned them with a controversial weapon last week in Chicago are the latest in a growing number of debatable uses of the potentially deadly Tasers, which is sparking community outrage across the country. The teenager went into cardiac arrest last Monday after police shocked him with the 50,000-volt weapon, and although he survived, another man died after police shocked him on Thursday.


Since June 2001, more than 70 people have died in police custody in the US and Canada after being struck with Tasers, with the number of reported cases rising each year, according to a November 2004 report by Amnesty International, a worldwide human rights organization. In five of these cases, an autopsy found that the Taser shock was a main cause of death. In several others, coroners’ reports identified the Taser as a likely contributing factor.

Additionally, the weapon’s critics maintain that many deaths in which the Taser has not been implicated could, in fact, be related to electrical shock from the device. Amnesty International commissioned a forensic pathologist to review some fatal cases in which Tasers were used. In some cases he found that, in addition to the "official" causes of death, which are often listed as heart failure, drug use, or head injuries, Tasers may have contributed.

The guns typically work by firing a pair of pronged darts that latch onto clothing or skin and send a 50,000 volt shock into the body in five-second bursts, which overrides the subject’s central nervous system, causing uncontrollable contraction of the muscle tissue and instant collapse. The darts are attached to wires, which can reach up to 21 feet. People who have been "tased" report extreme, debilitating pain.
All of this should be sufficiently horrifying to anyone who still retains a shred of humanity and decency, but it is still not the worst aspect of the use of tasers.

This is the worst:
The Amnesty study found that Florida is the state in which officials have been most enthusiastic about Tasers. There have been 17 deaths in Florida in Taser- related incidents since 2000. The deaths, the use of the weapon on children and the refusal by most police departments to reconsider their policies is fueling public opposition. On January 12, a Lakeland, Florida police officer shocked 17-year-old Soladoye Oyelowo because he was in the way of the officer who was running to break up a fight between two girls. "Why couldn't he push them out the way?" asked Theodora Oyelowo, the students’ mother, speaking to the Lakeland Ledger.

It is those questionable uses of the weapon that undermine the company’s claim that Tasers decreased use of force. Some law enforcement agencies say that with the introduction of Tasers, the use of guns by officers has gone down, and while Amnesty agrees that an electric shock is often more preferable than a bullet, the group’s analysis finds that because they are perceived as "non-lethal," police often use Tasers when there is no need for any use of force at all.

A statistical analysis of 2,050 Taser field applications across the USA, produced for Taser International in November 2002, showed that in 79.6 percent of cases the suspects were unarmed.

A study by the Denver Post in May 2004 found that the Denver Police Department commonly used Tasers to gain compliance, not to avoid other forms of violence. The Post additionally found that officers sometimes even shocked handcuffed suspects with the painful device.

The Portland, Oregon newspaper Willamette Week, has reported on Oregon police using Tasers on people for nonviolent offenses, such as littering, jaywalking, and failure to obey an officer.
In brief: tasers can kill people, or cause very serious injury; tasers are "commonly gain compliance" -- from people who are usually unarmed and who pose no serious threat whatsoever; and tasers are frequently used on suspects who have already been subdued and immobilized.

See the connection, and the similarity: the United States launches criminal wars of aggression against nations which constitute no serious threat to it, and which are known to constitute no serious threat -- for the sole purpose of gaining compliance, that is, of installing governments in other countries that will act in accordance with our demands. This has long been the purpose of our interventionist foreign policy: to ensure that other countries act in accordance with our orders, even when genuine issues of national defense are altogether absent. America is God. God's Will be done. Even after the catastrophe of Iraq, leaders of both political parties threaten war against Iran, another nation that does not threaten us, because Iran dares to thwart our will.

Is it any wonder then that, within our own borders, law enforcement will use potentially lethal weapons in the absence of any serious threat -- simply to gain compliance? When the state decides that your behavior matters, you will obey. Yes, you may engage in debate -- within the parameters established by the state. Yes, you may ask questions -- if the state approves them. If you dare to step outside the boundaries set by the state, you will be brought into line, by force as required -- and by possibly lethal force. The United States government murders a million innocent people who never threatened it; of what significance is the life of a single student, especially since he's a "troublemaker" anyway?

In the next part, we will consider the questions asked by Meyer, what kind of "threat" he represented -- and some of the reactions to this incident, which were uniformly awful across the political spectrum. And then, with invaluable assistance from Hannah Arendt and Alice Miller, we will examine the cultural and psychological factors that are involved in the horrors of this week -- and that tragically will be involved in the horrors still to come.