Saturday, February 6, 2016


The initial 2016 edition of Lapham's Quarterly is called Spies.  It begins with a scathing essay by the founder of the quarterly, Lewis Lapham.  In it he details the loss of freedom that Americans have relinquished in the name of national security.  From the Patriot Act and its authorization of unlimited domestic surveillance of the citizens of our country, to the exponential growth of government agencies tasked with preventing future 911 attacks, to the everyday messages broadcast in our media asking us to be alert for subversives among us, and enabling that alert by providing the characteristics of those who would want to do harm via religious and racial prejudices, we have willingly traded freedom for safety.  But what does such a trade mean?

One of the first quote in Spies puts it bluntly, and is attributed to Rebecca West.

"I cannot think that espionage can be recommended as a technique for building an impressive civilization.  It is a lout's game." 

Her quote was in reaction to the number of British citizens who were put on trial after WW2 for spying, and in particular Anthony Blunt.  Her focus is as much on the fact that rich people are allowed to break the law without the same consequences as the poor, as it is that when traitors are discovered they are so often granted immunity to break their trust with the other side and reveal the others' secrets.  She seems to be saying that the cost of loyalty is easily purchased.  And, she also wonders aloud in The New Meaning of Treason, why those responsible for allowing such breaches of secrecy seem to be the very people conducting the trials of the traitors suggesting that this closed circle of secrecy is never full revealed to the citizens of the country those involved are supposed to protect.

For me, the ever extending reach of paranoia that routinely infects those at the highest levels of government (and business), might suggest profound insecurity.  Are we so distrustful of our beliefs, so faithless, that we believe that only in killing those with differing ideas can we protect ourselves?

Adding insult to injury, are the human and monetary costs of the path we seem to be following.  What have we spent in our war against terrorism since 2001?  Google "cost of war on terror" and $1.6 trillion dollars pops up a few times.  Military deaths - over 6700 lives lost with another 50000 injured, not to mention the psychological damage that so many of our veterans face after multiple deployments.  When news of the poor state of the Veterans Administration hit the papers, outraged abounded.  But proper medical care costs money, and in these 'lets slash the budget" times, we can't spend billions on defense, while providing the necessary care to those who do our dirty work, let alone fix our crumbling infrastructure, address our failing urban schools, or face the future cost of climate change. 

All the flag waving and patriotic fervor don't pay the bills, yet at the same time we all profess our love for America, we do our utmost to pay the least amount of taxes possible, especially those with the most.  Perhaps Uncle Sam should be renamed Mom and Dad Sam because it appears that, like children, we want all we can get from our government with the least amount of cost.  And, like children, we want to believe we are safe because we have the greatest killing capabilities on earth, as if ideas and ideologies can be killed.

Even worse, one might say we are bankrupting our country morally as well by turning a blind eye to the use of torture, or worse, condoning it in the name of saving future lives.  We condemn those we oppose when they commit atrocious acts in the name of their safety, yet commit those same atrocities to protect our own hides.

Is it not clear that we become, not just lout's in our use of subterfuge, espionage, assassination, and torture to thwart our enemies, but just like our enemies?

But Joe, certainly you are not suggesting that we allow foreign tyrants to kill their own citizens with impunity, and acts of terror to go unpunished?  Would it be so radical approach to try it once?  To show by example that freedom means being able to pursue one's own happiness while allowing others to pursue theirs?  To encourage democracy by actually voting in our own elections?  To stop the cycle of violence by not responding to violence with more violence? 

In Spies, there are many stories of people withstanding torture, some who were eventually freed and whose stories did as much to bring down their torturers as bullets and bombs, some who died but whose conviction inspired others to further the cause. 

We love to recount the success of World War 2 in defeating the evil of Hitler, and resort to that analogy when talk of dialogue with an enemy is proffered.  Yet we so quickly forget the actions of Gandhi who fought an enemy of a different nature and won the day.  Or those that used non-violent protest to bring down the walls of discrimination, whether they be in America or South Africa. 

Perhaps then, the greatest security cannot be found behind the tallest walls, or the biggest guns, or the most widespread surveillance systems, but in a certainty of beliefs, and a faith in humanity and humane acts.       

1 comment:

  1. Joe, this is a wonderful column in two respects: the importance of the content and the quality of the writing.
    I really enjoyed it.