State Terror in the Twentieth Century, IV: Beyond the Century of Terror

This is the fourth and last in a series. Earlier installments are The Century of Terror, Internal Security, and Foreign Policy. A companion video can be found here.

Over the course of this series, we have looked at the practice of state terror in the twentieth century from several different vantage points. I have tried to make the point, that from the outset, mass state terror is a defining characteristic of twentieth century political evolution. In internal security matters, states such as Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Russia, and Pinochet’s Chile embodied internal terror structurally, publicly, and deliberately, on a massive scale, while the Western democracies adopted a less-intense, and covert form, a paradigm necessary if they were to maintain their public’s faith in their own national identities and Enlightenment foundations. This is a fundamental point, especially for the United States: the adoption of the methods of covert warfare requires the democratic government to lie to its citizens, and subverts the basic ideals upon which democracy-whether parliamentary, republican, or whatever-depends.

There is certainly an irreducibly complex set of causes for this: the death of reason amidst the mindless carnage of the First World War, the technological perfection of the means of mass terror in the Second, the importation of  colonial counterinsurgency tactics and strategy into the domestic spheres of the Western democracies, the collapse of the Empires, the embrace of a ruthless “no rules” ethic, and most importantly, the fear. Fear of communism, of Stalin, of Hitler, of the nukes, but mostly a strange, formless, all pervasive, low-grade fever of worry about a future shrouded in doubt and uncertainty. This fear was both the reason for and the result of terror: a feedback loop, in which a general terror of the unknown became a the rationale for specific terror to counter that which cannot be defined; the integration of state terror as internal security policy in the US that began with the Palmer raids and the organized campaigns against labor and social movements was professionalized by the foundation of the FBI, the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the OSS; the passage of the National Security Act in 1947 provided the framework of secrecy that would enable this combination of secrecy and lawlessness to grow slowly over time, like all evolutionary processes do, until something new suddenly shifts the paradigm. The punctuated-equilibrium model of the evolution of state terror.
In the US, this punctuation-this shift- was COINTELPROthe nationwide “Counter-intelligence Program” by the FBI to infiltrate, disrupt, and destroy progressive organizations and movements across a wide spectrum, including civil, women’s, and gay rights organizations, anti-nuclear weapons groups, anti-war and a whole spectrum of other New Left organizations. The tools-the infiltrator, the informer, the agent provocateur, break-ins, false charges, set-ups, fake documents, “snitch jackets,” legal harassment, intimidation,and killings that resulted bear no resemblance to law enforcement, but a lot of similarity to the way an intelligence agency attacks a hostile enemy agency. This is fundamental: the enemy to be destroyed were citizens of the US, mostly just trying to exercise their rights. Believing that the government would play by its own rules was only their first mistake.

What Cointelpro really represents is the institutionalization of terror in the US; by the time of  its revelation and shut down in 1971, it didn’t really matter anymore. The means and methods of counterintelligence, including, first and foremost, deceit, became standard in police departments across the country, and the FBI maintained a national coordinating capability in any event, as seen in the subsequent destruction of the American Indian Movement (AIM), the infiltration of the anti-nuclear power movement, and the covert infiltration of anti-US Latin American policy groups like CISPES well into the Eighties.

Draconian anti-drug laws and the establishment of a parallel secret police agency, the Drug Enforcement Agency in 1973, added a whole new dimension to the US covert-terror infrastructure, and further brought the tools of counterinsurgency, the agent network and the strike team, into the domestic sphere. The incredible proliferation of paramilitary forces called SWAT teams, by several orders of magnitude, has created tens of thousands of available  troops for these covert forces. The NKVD in 1937 could hit a million homes in a night. How much more capable is the US now than the Soviet Union was then?

Much like the NKVD, it is important to note the erosion of anything like compartmentalization between the various local,State, and national intelligence agencies in the US; this means that there is no real separation, that they are all, really, in effect, one force. Local law enforcement SWAT and antidrug forces cross train with counter-terror and federal authorities with great regularity. Another good example of this is the reciprocal relationship between the NYPD and the CIA, in which the CIA maintains an office inside the NYPD despite  legal prohibitions against CIA operations inside the US-they have to say that, because, like everything else, it is a cover story. The further metastasis of this condition that occurred with the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security, the Total Information Awareness program (the brainchild of Iran-Contra conspirator John Poindexter), the DoD’s CIFA program, the NSA’s multiple warrantless wiretapping programs, and the privatization of intelligence agencies into private enterprises with a vested interest in war and terror.

I have largely avoided mention of Russia this week, for a very simple reason: state terror in Russia is an enduring feature of the culture, and has been for several centuries. The relatively normal secret police operations against the Left by the Okhrana both foreshadowed later US efforts against its own leftists, and also trained the Bolshevks in secret police methods. Lenin’s Cheka added revolutionary Communist fervor to the Tsar’s tradecraft and created the first real, modern secret police agency, whose structure and operations would be copied by like-minded authoritarians around the world. The point is, that for Russia, state terror has been a constant, ubiquitous feature, whether it be the Cheka or the NKVD or the KGB or the SVR or the FSB (in an echo of US structure, after the fall of the USSR, the Russian government, rather than abolish the KGB, divided it into the SVR, the successor agency to the First Chief Directorate (Foreign Intelligence) of the KGB, and the FSB, the internal security service). In the years since, the Russian government has ran a relentless campaign of terror against Chechen separatists, domestic whistleblowers, dissidents, and uncooperative leaders, assassinating people at a rate not seen since the 1950s. The tragedy is, of course, that this is nothing unusual in Russia.

It is, however, something unusual in the United States, at least in the United States of the Constitution, of laws, of citizen self-government–or at least it should be. However, covert operations-state terror-is now a permanent feature of US government. It has been, as we’ve seen in previous weeks, for a long time; only now, decades too late, is it becoming so apparent that even the apathetic public finally notices. The reforms that followed the Church Committee were largely an illusion, as seen by US action in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and against critics of policies in both. The surveillance laws of the 1990s, CALEA, the Antiterrorism Act of 1996, and the subsequent creation of the CARNIVORE and ECHELON monitoring programs created the foundation for the drastic upscale of the surveillance after 9/11. The USA PATRIOT Act, the subsequent reauthorizations and extensions, and PRISM just extend it further, protestations of restraint notwithstanding: as has been revealed just lately, their public statements cannot be believed.

And now? The continued coordinating ability of the FBI was again visible during the destruction of Occupy Wall Street. A remarkably peaceful, populist movement that was mostly just demanding that Federal financial regulators do their jobs was destroyed by a national program of infiltration, subversion, and police violence. In other words, the covert action authority worked exactly as it was supposed to. What is happening  under the current Administration is not so much the creation of a covert terror apparatus as cracking of the shell of deniability around it, and the same industrial process that occurred in US industry 30 years ago: the replacement of humans with robots,as the armed, remote-piloted drone has become the most capable assassination weapon ever, and the symbol of technological state terror raised to a whole new level… Here it is, in all its foul glory: The National Covert Security State, where there is no problem that cannot be solved by the appropriate covert action, where there is no problem, foreign or domestic, that cannot be addressed through an appropriate dose of state terror. A few liters in some cases, gallons in others.

This is the world, the covert political world of the 21st Century. We are beyond the Century of Terror now; what made mass state terror so noteworthy in the 20th century was its alien nature, the way it obviously violated every principle of government or law, and was yet enthusiastically adopted across the ideological spectrum, for its sheer, brutal utility. It was a conflict between the constraints of an Enlightenment-inspired democracy and the efficacy of force; and in the end, the normalization of terror in the 21st century represents the triumph of force over reason, of fear over hope, of reaction over progress, and of exploitation over cooperation. The conflict was settled, when the last chance to roll back the NCSS passed in the 1990s. This is the 21st Century; state terror is the new normal, worldwide. Future cultural historians will have to look for some other distinguishing feature to differentiate it from its fellows.


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