Thursday, August 19, 2010

9/11 Nine Years On
Charles Peguy, the French Catholic writer, said that things begin in mysticism and end in politics. Had he been an American, he might have written that things end in business.
It’s nine years since 9/11. No equivalent outrage has recurred. Amazingly, its principal progenitors are still on the loose. The CIA's "harsh interrogators" have turned those they have caught into such zombies that they dare not present them in court. Meanwhile, the CIA and Pentagon dispute whether Al Qaeda has been droned down to scores or mere dozens of effectives. In any case, an American has less chance of being killed by terrorists than of being run over by a Kaiser-Frazer or winning the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes.
While conundrums and conspiracies still becloud 9/11, what is clear is that the event has added a whole new profit sector to our economy. An extraordinary series in the Washington Post tells us that since 9/11:
  • Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.
  • An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances.
  • In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together they occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 U.S. Capitol buildings—about 17 million square feet of space.
  • Many security and intelligence agencies do the same work, creating redundancy and waste. For example, 51 federal organizations and military commands, operating in 15 U.S. cities, track the flow of money to and from terrorist networks.
Those mind-blowing facts reminds us that our country fights its wars in an interesting way. Rather than adjusting our strategies to the nature and capabilities of our enemies, we align them with the business trends of the moment. Back when we were the world’s leading manufacturing power, we emphasized turning out endless quantities of tanks, planes, warships and such. By the height of the Cold War in the 1960s we had built enough nukes to zap mother earth into cosmic dust many times over. Those who suggested that too much was enough (remember the Nuclear Freeze Movement?) were branded enemy agents.
The computer revolution came along at roughly the same time that our capitalists figured they could make more money by sending manufacturing jobs overseas and speculating in paper assets instead. So our military started making fewer but more costly weapons stuffed with foreign-fashioned electronics. And just like private business, the Pentagon also began farming out jobs. The classic KP potato peelers disappeared, replaced by the civilian wage slaves of huge private contractors like Halliburton who charged the tax payer Maxim’s prices for serving up MRE chow.
9/11 brought an emphasis on intelligence. Not the human kind in which information is combined with judgment, but rather the military kind in which vast amounts of data are mined and refined into futuristic attacks on medieval tribes. So part of the the military was rejiggered to resemble Wall Street trading desks, with ranks of lap top commandos poring over the latest “secret intelligence” to provide targets for the old hat part of the military that still sallies forth to kill people and break things.
As we saw by the Wiki leaks, our wars by software appear no more able to produce coherent victories than our hardware ones like Vietnam. Imperial wars always run into the same problem: already being home and having nowhere else to go, the enemy usually outlast their more easily bored would-be conquerors. A greater worry is where Washington is going to direct this secret, massive and mushrooming "intelligence" behemoth after its finishes its polysci proctology of the Pushtuns. What more can Uncle Sam possibly want to know about us that we haven't already flashed on FaceBook and such?
(For a shorter version of the Washington Post series check this recent New Yorker piece)