Sunday, December 28, 2003

Marketing terror

If anyone wanted evidence that the "war on terror" is primarily a political marketing campaign -- in which war itself is mostly a device for garnering support -- they need look no farther than the startling non-response to domestic terrorism by the Bush administration.

This failure is particularly embodied by the Texas cyanide bomb plot -- largely because the refusal by John Ashcroft's Justice Department to give the story significant media play is problematic at best. Considering that Ashcroft leaps to the podium at nearly every turn in announcing the arrests of potential Al Qaeda-oriented terror suspects -- not to mention the readiness of the Department of Homeland Security to raise the "threat" level to Code Orange -- the silence in the Texas case is disturbing.

At the very least, the DoJ owes the public -- for ethical reasons alone -- an open assessment of the threat posed by the potential presence of cyanide bombs in the hands of domestic terrorists on American soil. If William Krar indeed manufactured and distributed more of these bombs, then shouldn't the public be both thoroughly alerted, informed and watchful? There are sound investigatory reasons not to reveal too much in the way of details, but utter public ignorance and indifference can be harmful as well, since it can in many regards make the terrorists' ability to act that much simpler. Isn't countering that, after all, the purpose of all these Code Orange alerts?

As I've argued consistently, domestic terrorists (especially the "lone wolf" type) pose at least as great a real threat to public safety as their international brethren -- if, for no other reason, than that they fully intend to "piggyback" on attacks like those of Sept. 11. (This is not to mention the facts that they can operate with great impunity, since they are likelier to go undetected, and they are equally motivated and inclined to act violently.) The anthrax terrorist, it should go without saying, was a clear-cut case of this. More to the point, white supremacists' core agenda has revolved directly around terrorism for more than a generation now, precisely because they believe the public must be convinced that democracy is a failure and will not keep them safe. The more chaos, the more terror, the more they believe they can shake up the system enough to seize power. That was, after all, the purpose of the Oklahoma City bombing.

It must be noted that the failure is not particularly one of law enforcement -- though even there, problems exist. But the FBI notably has not backed down, philosophically speaking, in its pursuit of domestic terrorists since Sept. 11, as the Tyler case demonstrated. Once Krar's materiel cache was uncovered, the agency committed the full phalanx of investigators and other resources to the case. And the reality is that, as the Washington Post reported earlier this year, agents themselves thoroughly understand that domestic terrorism needs to be a top priority in any "war on terrorism," and generally have acted accordingly.

What's becoming clearer is that this priority is not shared by top officials in the administration. Since Sept. 11, the FBI and other security agencies have massively shifted their terrorism focus to those components related to Al Qaeda and similar international terror groups. The Tyler case (like others) only was broken because of an accidental stroke of good fortune (namely, a traffic stop). Any philosophical priority given to domestic terrorism has been overwhelmed by the reality of funding and manpower devoted elsewhere.

Indeed, Frederick Clarkson reported in Salon last month that the DoJ took unusual steps to keep the trial of domestic terrorist Clayton Waagner -- who'd tried to "piggyback" himself on the anthrax terrorist by mailing death-threat letters stuffed with white powder to abortion clinics -- a low-profile case. Likewise, there have been multiple other cases of domestic terrorism in the past year that have failed to receive significant attention.

The fact that a pathology in the press is a primary factor here should not be understated. I've struggled hard and long against the problem of the mainstream media's blinders when it comes to the significance of the extremist right and its activities [and the fact that I now work independently suggests my solution to date]. As Chip Berlet points out in the Clarkson piece:
"Once somebody claims a religious motivation for an act of terrorism," he said, "most people, including reporters and editors, become unglued." If Waagner had been a self-identified Muslim terrorist instead of a Christian terrorist, Berlet observed, "he'd have been lynched by now." Indeed, while news reports invariably note that he is a self-described terrorist, and dutifully quote him as saying so, they also studiously avoid use of the word "Christian."

"The notion of Christian terrorists is a place people don't want to go," Glazier agreed. "And the notion of there being more than one Christian terrorist is a place where people also don't want to go."

Reporters and editors often "fear to offend," added Berlet. "But if it's fair to say if we can see the religious motivations in the Taliban, we ought to be able to see them in Waagner or Eric Rudolph." He notes that although Waagner and his associates in the Army of God "represent a tiny fraction of the wider Christian right, people don't know how to make sense of it." And reporters, he says, "walk away from it."

Though Waagner's crimes fiercely exploited the fears created by 9/11, Berlet says the press has tended to diminish the crimes. For example, he says, most of the stories use the term "anthrax hoax" to describe Waagner's crimes. But "just because a terrorist threat turns out to be a hoax does not mean that it has no effect."

Chip is exactly right, incidentally, about the "fear to offend." In fact, I couldn't begin to count the editors and reporters I've known who fear even running stories about white supremacists because they might offend various people and stir up "bad feelings" in the communities. "Let sleeping dogs lie" is a line I've heard all too often. The sad reality is that the disinclination to report on domestic terrorism has a long history that deepened in the 1990s.

Moreover, the post-2000 press corps has become slavishly corporate, and the post-9/11 ethos mandates a close adherence to the White House line. If the administration doesn't push the story, it's not worth reporting.

That in turn, however, points to the most significant aspect of the problem: The role of top government officials in downplaying the threat of domestic terrorism.

As Danny Levitas observes:
Had several Arab Americans with definitive links to known terrorist organizations been found in the President's home state with a sodium cyanide bomb, how long do you think it would have taken Attorney General John Ashcroft to call a national news conference and announce it? I'm not saying that I think anything was done to bury or lower the profile of this story intentionally. But I think it is quite reasonable to assume that had Arab American terrorists been involved (as opposed to white supremacists and militia activists) we would not have heard the end of this, and that would have been way back in April when the WMD and other massive explosives were first discovered.

Also, it is worth considering the nature of the materiel uncovered. Land mine components, suitcase bombs, binary explosives, more than 60 fully functional pipe bombs, and more. This is the biggest stockpile of the most dangerous stuff that I can EVER recall being found in connection with the white-supremacist and neo-Nazi movement. [Ed. note: more on that point here.]

A number of observers writing about the Tyler case -- notably The Black Commentator and The Intelligence Squad -- have essentially concluded that "John Ashcroft isn't going to make a big deal out of nailing these guys" for one primary reason: "they are essentially a more extreme version of Ashcroft himself." That is: "The Bush men conceal the existence [of] terrorists, as if embarrassed by their own kind."

I can't argue entirely against this conclusion, except to note that the evidence in its favor is not wholly conclusive, and there is evidence contrary to it. If this were the case, would Ashcroft have prominently invoked the federal hate-crimes law in pursuing the notorious case of Darrell David Rice? Wouldn't he have pulled the plug on the FBI's reasonably sound pursuit of domestic terrorism, as described in that Post story?

More to the point, however, is that it is in essence an ad hominem argument that elides the core policy questions about this failure, and in a way lets Aschcroft and Co. off the hook: It explains away the failure to adequately confront domestic terrorism by arguing that Ashcroft and Bush are bad men of poor character. It may be emotionally satisfying to reach that conclusion, but it is not an argument.

It's more important, perhaps, to keep in mind the political dimensions that come into play here. There are, in fact, some fairly obvious political reasons why the Bush administration might not want to confront domestic terrorism as a significant component of the "war on terror".

A few weeks ago, Amy Goodman's Democracy Now! radio program tackled the Tyler case. She had on an impressive collection of guests, including Robert Riggs, the chief on-air reporter for the Dallas TV station, CBS-11, that originally broke the significant dimensions of the Tyler case; Brit Featherston [his name is misspelled on the transcript], Assistant U.S. Attorney in Texas; and Robert Jensen, a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Jensen had the most telling comment on the case:
I think the reason for that, if I were to speculate -- not being in the brain of John Ashcroft -- is that cases like this -- of domestic terrorism, especially when they involve white supremacist and conservative Christian groups, don't have any political value for an administration, especially this particular administration. Therefore, why -- if one were going to be crass and cynical, why Would they highlight this?

On the other hand, foreign terrorism and things connected to Arab, South Asian and Muslim groups, well those have value because they can be used to whip up support for military interventions, which this administration is very keen on.

Think, if you will, about the different kinds of terror at work here. The war against international terror plays out on a global stage, and as it's been waged so far by this administration, in remote and exotic locales. When Bush invokes the "war on terror," it revolves around images of Arab fanatics and desert combat. It's far removed from our daily realities -- except, of course, for the coffins coming home on military transports, images of which are forbidden to the press.

This is a peculiar, amorphous terror to which we as individuals feel only remotely or vaguely connected. The attacks of Sept. 11 are raised to remind us it can strike here, but the source of the terror is something that seems distant and disattached to us. The less concrete it is, the more vague the potential response. Thus Saddam Hussein can be conflated with Osama bin Laden as a threat to America and an entire war campaign constructed around his role in "the war on terror," though it is becoming increasingly clear he had little if any role in the Sept. 11 attacks.

This is a highly marketable kind of terrorism, in the sense that its potential threat can be invoked at any time to justify an entire panoply of political moves, as well as to impugn the patriotism of your opponents. This sort of "war on terror" doesn't require any real sacrifices on the part of the public -- unless, of course, you happen to draw the unlucky Gold Star -- but being on the Right Side is easy, since the Enemy is The Other. He isn't The Guy Next Door.

Domestic terrorism, however, has none of these advantages. It plays out in our back yards, in our heartland, and many of its actors either dwell in or hail from rural America; they could be the rancher or the Gulf War vet next door. We all have known or encountered intense ideological believers, kooks if you will, who seem just half-steps removed from William Krar or Tim McVeigh. They are familiar. Mostly we like to ignore them as simple aberrations, unlikely to cause much harm.

Cases like Krar's are stark reminders that this is a dangerous presumption. Domestic terrorists may not have mounted a body count to match Al Qaeda's, but since 1995, the drumbeat of right-wing extremist violence has been regular and substantial -- much more so than anything committed by overseas terrorists. Oklahoma City alone should stand as a stark reminder of both the damage only a few of these terrorists can cause.

Situations like the current Code Orange, in fact, create a fresh environment for these kinds of terrorists to act -- because it provides them a cover in which the perpetrators will be presumed to be nonwhite Muslims. As we saw in the anthrax case, such a blind alley can lead to a stunted investigation in a hurry.

Making the public aware of the threat from domestic terrorists, especially as part of a real war on terrorism, would require getting the public to confront the reality that the "axis of evil" comprises not merely brown-skinned people with turbans and fanatical gleams but also that surly white guy next door with the pipe-bomb arsenal in his basement.

As Robert Wright has astutely observed:
For the foreseeable future, smaller and smaller groups of intensely motivated people will have the ability to kill larger and larger numbers of people.

The number of intensely aggrieved groups will almost certainly grow in the coming decades of rapid technological, and hence social, change.

The problem with confronting this reality is that it throws into stark relief the ineffectiveness of the Bush Doctrine -- particularly as it has played out in the invasion of Iraq. It makes all too clear that the current conflict is not only a grotesquely ineffective response to the challenge posed by terrorism, it is likely to worsen the problem exponentially.

Moreover, no one is going to be mistaking most domestic terrorists (except, of course, the ELF/ALF contingent) with liberals. If anyone's patriotism is likely to be impugned by association with the right-wing extremists who have consistently been involved in the considerable bulk of domestic American terrorism in the past decade, it would be Republicans.

A public campaign against domestic terrorism is problematic for political reasons: It runs directly counter to the kind of "war on terror" that has been marketed to Americans, and which is in fact the centerpiece of Bush's 2004 re-election campaign.

As Robert Jensen observed in the Goodman interview:
So I think the politics are very clear here. Prosecutors' offices are always political. I mean, I have covered even small town prosecutors' offices and there's always a political element to them. But some are more political than others.

I think what we have to acknowledge here is that probably since the Nixon administration, we have never seen a Justice Department so completely and thoroughly politicized as this one.

This may seem to be a mostly political problem -- and certainly, it is one that the Democratic candidates would be smart to make hay with. Since Republicans have been eager to paint them as weak on national security, Democrats have solid reasons to question the administration's priorities here.

Most of all, this is a real issue of public safety that should transcend politics. After all, this particular Bush-administration/media failure may also have a real-world impact -- especially if one of those cyanide bombs goes off.

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