The End of Something

by rthieme on June 15, 2002

elephant_seal8_largeI thought it was just me, but after speaking with a colleague, I’m not so sure.

Something has happened.

It isn’t one of the obvious things – the end of the illusion of being safe on the North American landmass, for example – but something more elusive.

Whatever it is, it’s the source of fluttering qualms of anxiety amplified by those frequent vague useless alerts that make us question the identity of the real terrorists.

It’s hard to pin down so let me try to approach it obliquely. I recently attended a homeland defense conference. Lots of smart experienced people were on the platform and in the audience. Periodically I turned to an expert in biological warfare, say, or information security to see how people were responding to the detailed but oddly disconnected presentations.

“How would you sum up the conference?” I asked an aerospace executive.

He thought for a long moment, then said:

“Where’s the beef?”

Maybe that’s part of it. There are lots of details but they don’t connect into a coherent whole.

Here’s one detail:

During the conference I spoke with a friend who is an expert on corruption, terrorism, and money laundering. She had written a book about an international financier and his involvement in all of the above. She has published several other books noted for their prescience and has a contract for a new one, but not a single publisher would touch her account of that well-known figure’s misdeeds. Nor would a single magazine print an article based on the material.

The financier has a lot of clout. One of his “employees” told my friend early on that her book would never get anywhere. “We know how to keep people like you quiet,” he said.

Maybe that’s part of it too. That quiet surrounds us, suffocating, blocking all the exits.

Details pile up. Writers have the luxury of gathering a lot of information, which most people have neither the time nor the inclination to do – what’s happening with oil and gas fields in central Asia, that pipeline in Afghanistan, the impending coup in South America, the cat-and-mouse game we have played for years with Iraq, the flow of money from narcotics and weapons sales through the largest banks in the United States. The official story we are asked to believe, a simplistic tale of “us and them,” is at odds with the complexity of the real multi-leveled game we are playing. What we’re told is the signal is the noise and the noise hides the real signal.

We know how to keep the real signal quiet.

Meanwhile, quietly quietly, the strategy of decades is changed and we announce that we are prepared to strike first anywhere anytime we perceive a threat. The imperative to manage and control everything is finally articulated clearly, a global doctrine analogous to the Monroe Doctrine, just a little bigger. At the same time – quietly, quietly – basic rights are surrendered as I predicted they would be when an event of sufficient magnitude justified the shift. Last time around it took a Viet Nam, a Watergate, and Congressional hearings to get some of them back.

In a recent conversation, Whit Diffie, who invented public key cryptography in the seventies, made this remark about technology and its implications. “Someone said that Hitler may have lost the Second World War, but Fascism won.”

The Third Reich went down, in other words, but the technological engines of its efficiency, enabled by businesses like IBM whose data processing helped the Nazis track and kill millions, have grown into engines of social and political control of unimaginable depth and complexity. States, said Diffie, will use that technology to ensure themselves, always.

Here’s another detail.

The Gulf of Tonkin resolution supporting the Viet Nam War ended the constitutional requirement that Congress declare war. I recently discussed the incident with Gene Poteat who was a go-to radar guy at CIA at the time. He revisited Lyndon Johnson’s lack of interest in the real explanation for the report that American destroyers had been attacked. Johnson asked John McCone, the Director of Central Intelligence, to evaluate the data and McCone asked Poteat who said he would need forty-eight hours to do it right. He needed to review weather and water conditions, ship’s logs, and the like to say definitely whether or not an attack had taken place. McCone told Johnson but the president announced the following morning that the United States had been attacked and began bombing North Viet Nam.

When he had all the data, Poteat said, it was clear there had been no attack. He asked McCone, why didn’t Johnson wait for our evaluation?

Because he didn’t want to know, McCone said. He wanted to go to war.

# # # # #

The bigger question before us is whether or not we have the will and the desire to know the truth, all of it, all the details, all the levels of motivation and complexity, so the data can be integrated into a coherent framework that makes sense. In possession of the truth and in the absence of that inordinate fear and anxiety which create a force field of distortion, most people will make the right decision most of the time. But those vague useless alerts, among other things, sustain that force field of distortion.

And all this is happening absent an acceptable forum for public discourse about these critical issues. The cumbersome machinery of a global society that uses technologies of social and political control axiomatically, the way it breathes in and breathes out, has lurched for so long to the right that there is no longer a center, much less what was once called the left. When a moderate voice speaks out, it is denounced as radical, unpatriotic, even treasonable. The desire of the great mass of people to want to believe in their leaders and the righteousness of their cause, fused with a fear of fear and fear of the power of a war machine unparalleled in human history, is absolute.

The dust from September 11th had not settled when billions of dollars began to move through channels dug deeply by political and business interests without regard to the real necessities of restructuring for a new world. The intensity of genuine patriotism and the promise of leaders to defend the lights of civilization against the long night that threatened to fall mobilized our hearts on behalf of action. Now the momentum of those actions uninflected by meaningful informed debate is creating a chain of consequences and a world which may be at odds with the kind of world we want to inhabit.

# # # # #

“I feel helpless.”

Those words were said by that colleague, an expert in information security recognized as one of the rare minds of our generation. Such weariness is uncharacteristic for a person who is usually robust, self-motivating, energized by multiple passions.

It’s not too much information that causes this malaise. A university library, an Internet with a search engine, does not make us feel helpless. All complex organisms filter billions of bits of data per second. That isn’t it. It’s the conflict generated by competing streams of data that just don’t add up that leads to this despondency, the public insistence that we adopt a model of the world that doesn’t fit what our gut tells us is happening.

This is the machinery that Whit Diffie described, an instrument of our own creation. We are locked up on the starship Nostromo with an alien beast our ship had been programmed to retrieve. The great ship of our global society can’t do anything else, and we, looking into the mirror, see that we are not only the crew, we are the programmers, the designers of the ship, the investors too.

Where oh where is Ripley when we need her?

# # # # #

Last week my wife and I visited six of our seven children in California. We just wanted to touch base. Driving south along the coast from San Francisco to Los Angeles twice we were surprised by wonder. We came upon beaches packed with immense elephant seals and then, near a beach at Point Magu, we saw the dorsal fins of dolphins suddenly carve the gray water along the shore and we followed them down the beach as long as could.

That connection with our children and with seals and dolphins, a friend suggested, is a way of knowing that we belong.

Ah ha. Maybe that’s it. Maybe moments of knowing and deep communion, moments of consolation and reassurance not based on a shared delusion, are few and far between these days.

The world to which we truly belong is not a world of narrow self-interest fueled by religious righteousness, with Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus all dreaming feverishly that God loves them only or best. That is a landscape distorted by waves of anxiety rising like summer heat seen through a telescope inversely in the distance, as crazy-making as all those idiotic alerts, disconnected utterly from elephant seals barking and jousting in the brine, dolphins carving the water in the bliss of their unknowing.

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