“Ladies and gentlemen, can there be anyone tonight who is so blind as to say that the war is not on? Can there be anyone who fails to realize that the Communist world has said the time is now?...Unless we face this fact, we shall pay the price that must be paid by those who wait too long.” These were the words of Senator Joe McCarthy on Feb. 9, 1950.
It was the first volley in McCarthy's infamous anti-communist crusade. In the same speech, he claimed the U.S. secretary of state knew over 200 communist infiltrators working in the State Department. For the rest of his political life, McCarthy riled against what he saw as the great enemy of his age.
It was the height of the Cold War, and fear was spreading across the United States. A decade earlier, Franklin Roosevelt signed the Smith Act into law – banning any support of organizations advocating the violent overthrow of the government. Then in 1952 the Walter-McCarran Act was passed, which made it easier for foreigners to be arrested and deported for being suspected of subversion.
The memory of 9/11 has been irrevocably poisoned; it has become an occasion for shame.
These and other laws paved the way for the arrest of hundreds of communists and suspected subversives, along with an unprecedented crackdown on civil liberties. It wasn't just McCarthy's “card carrying communists” that were targeted: trade unionists, left-wing actors, a plethora of social justice campaigners and ordinary people were swooped up in the Red Scare. Amid a climate of fear, McCarthyite politicking had no shortage of supporters. A Gallup poll conducted two years after McCarthy's famous 1950 speech found he had the support of 50 percent of the population. To McCarthy and his ilk, the United States was under siege from abroad and within.
“The reason why we find ourselves in a position of impotency is not because our only powerful potential enemy has sent men to invade our shores – but rather because of the traitorous actions of those who have been treated so well by this nation,” he said. Fifty one years later, a new breed of conservatives capitalized on a new fear.
2001: A Surveillance State Odyssey
“We will come together to give law enforcement the additional tools it needs to track down terror here at home. We will come together to strengthen our intelligence capabilities to know the plans of terrorists before they act, and find them before they strike,” President George Bush said on Sept. 20, 2001.
Looking back on Sept. 11, 2001 a decade later, The New York Times' Paul Krugman noted that over the years, commemorations of the dark day had become “subdued.”
“The memory of 9/11 has been irrevocably poisoned; it has become an occasion for shame. And in its heart, the nation knows it,” he wrote in a brief blog post for the paper. A lot of people “behaved badly,” he commented.
Men Behaving Badly
Between Bush's speech in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, and Krugman's controversial 2011 statement, a lot of people did indeed behave badly – on a McCathryite scale.
At home, the PATRIOT Act cruised through Congress just over a month after the Twin Towers came down.
“PATRIOT gives sweeping search and surveillance to domestic law enforcement and foreign intelligence agencies and eliminates checks and balances that previously gave courts the opportunity to ensure that those powers were not abused,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation has warned. However, PATRIOT was just the start. In retrospect, that blank check to the budding surveillance state “appears mundane and mild” – as Kent Roach put it in his book, “The 9/11 Effect.” The worst attacks on civil liberties went well beyond PATRIOT.
Today, the National Security Agency (NSA) is monitoring the electronic communications of over one billion people worldwide, tracks millions of mobile phone users and is hoarding records of phone calls made by U.S. citizens, according to revelations made public by Edward Snowden. Hundreds of thousands of people now sit on the NSA's watch list of known as suspected terrorists – though many don't know it. As Arjun Sethi put it in a recent article for the UK's Guardian newspaper, the list is “based on loose standards and secret evidence, which ensnares innocent people.”
“From 9/11 on, the American people have been subject to conservative intimidation”
“Indeed, the standards are so low that the U.S. government’s guidelines specifically allow for a single, uncorroborated source of information – including a Facebook or Twitter post – to serve as the basis for placing you on its master watchlist,” Sethi wrote.
Around 40 percent of the names on the watchlist are listed as having no recognizable affiliation with a terrorist group, according to The Intercept's Jeremy Scahill and Ryan Devereaux. “That categor y— 280,000 people —dwarfs the number of watchlisted people suspected of ties to al Qaeda, Hamas, and Hezbollah combined,” Scahill and Devereaux wrote earlier this year. Citing leaked documents, Scahill and Devereaux stated the list has grown to an “unprecedented” extent under President Barack Obama. “Since taking office, Obama has boosted the number of people on the no fly list more than ten-fold, to an all-time high of 47,000—surpassing the number of people barred from flying under George W. Bush,” they wrote.
Abroad, even after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drift into the past for the United States (though not for the people of these two war torn countries), the Obama administration continues to conduct secretive targeted killings. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the “United States continues to carry out illegal targeted killings in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere.”
“The targeted killing program operates with virtually no oversight outside the executive branch, and essential details about the program remain secret, including what criteria the government uses to put people on CIA and military kill lists, or how much evidence is required before it does so,” the ACLU has warned. At least 2600 people have been killed in targeted assassinations by drones, according to Human Rights Watch.
Enter the NeoCons
All this was achieved under a blanket of fear, woven by McCarthy's modern successors – the Neo-Conservative movement.
“From 9/11 on, the American people have been subject to conservative intimidation,” George Lakoff wrote as far back as 2011. Lakoff argued NeoCons waged a war of psychological “framing” to intimidate the U.S. public into allowing a radical shift in domestic and foreign policy. According to Lakoff, opinions on politics and social issues are primarily formed “in terms of morally-based frames, metaphors, and narratives, and only secondarily, if at all, in terms of policy, facts, and logic.”
However, the Golden Age of NeoCon framing could be waning. According to Pew Research, on the eve of PATRIOT's inception, around 55 percent of U.S. citizens believed it was necessary for civil liberties to be curbed to fight terrorism. Just 35 percent felt the opposite, while the rest were unsure. Ten years later, the results had “nearly” reversed, according to Pew. “In a poll conducted in 2011, shortly before the 10th anniversary of 9/11, 40% said that “in order to curb terrorism in this country it will be necessary for the average person to give up some civil liberties,” while 54% said it would not,” the pollster stated.
On Sept. 10, 2014, Pew released new data showing only four percent of the U.S. population believe terrorism is the most serious threat to the country – down from a whopping 46 percent in 2001.
NeoCons Look Beyond Surveillance
However, as the fear of terror fades, the NeoCon agenda is pushing forward – and not just in the maintenance of the surveillance state. Back in 2001, Bush explicitly mentioned the economy as part of his resistance to Al Qaeda.
“We will come together to take active steps that strengthen America's economy, and put our people back to work,” Bush said. Yet as Sept. 11, 2001 is commemorated again this year, the unemployment rate remains at 6.1 percent.
Worse still, wages are close to stagnant – with rises barely keeping up with inflation. Jobs created since the recession are paying around 23 percent less than jobs shed by the economy during the crash. All this has contributed to rising inequality – the second pillar of the NeoCon agenda. According to Pew, as of late 2013 wealth inequality has reached the highest level since 1928.
“They have protected banks from financial regulation ... corporations from serious environmental regulation … they have successfully attacked the very idea of the public – public education, employees, unions, parks, housing, and safety nets,” Lakoff warned.
Like the surveillance state, the need to save the banks was justified using intimidation of the public. Not only are these banks too big to fail, but even Attorney General Eric Holder has admitted the big end of town may be too big to jail.
“I am concerned that the size of some of these institutions becomes so large that it does become difficult for us to prosecute them when we are hit with indications that if you do prosecute, if you do bring a criminal charge, it will have a negative impact on the national economy, perhaps even the world economy,” Holder conceded last year.
While senior bankers were effectively handed immunity from criminal prosecution for driving the U.S. economy off a cliff in 2008, the broader public has indeed been subjected to a prolonged assault.
Nowhere is this more true than in public school classrooms across the country. Since the global recession hit, public school funding is on the decline in a number of states, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP).
“At least 15 states are providing less funding per student to local school districts in the new school year than they provided a year ago. This is despite the fact that most states are experiencing modest increases in tax revenues,” the CBPP warned earlier this year.
Today, the United States is a country brushing off two major wars, subjected to an Orwellian surveillance state and mired in record levels of wealth inequality. Public resources like education are being gutted for private gain, while basic civil liberties are being eroded. Profits over people, and war over peace are the twin, unspoken mantras of the NeoCon movement. Thirteen years after Sept. 11, 2001, the successes of the NeoCon movement are impressive. Yet without the shock of the towers falling, these successes couldn't have been accomplished with such ease. McCarthy's climate of fear lives on.