America, The Defensive: Wars, Terrorism And Thirty Years Of Perpetual 'States Of Emergencies'

from the US-still-tops-in-'sound-and-fury,'-trailing-the-pack-in-'significanc dept

If there’s anything our government can do well, it’s take a word loaded with tension and abuse it to the point of abstraction. First, we had “war.” The word described the hellish events of the First and Second World War, along with armed, bloody conflicts dating back to the rebellious creation of the nation itself. Now, it’s simply a term applied to any conflict with the weight of a self-serving bureaucracy propelling it. A “war” on drugs. A “war” on illiteracy. And so on.

The horrors endured by both sides of the Vietnam “conflict” were never afforded the gravity of the word “war.” The same goes with every military intervention since then. We’ve been in Iraq and Afghanistan for years, but there’s no “war” there — at least nothing officially declared. There’s only violence and death and occasional sharp bursts of more violence and death. There’s a “war” on drugs in Afghanistan, but that’s even more of an abject failure than our other long-running military efforts — $7 billion spent and poppy production at an all-time high.

There’s a “war” on terror in progress as well, but this brings us to another word robbed of any gravitas by constant abuse: “terror.” Terrorism is what fuels our nation’s security/surveillance state. But “terror” and “terrorism” — words that once carried some weight — are now abstractions. They’re buzzwords pressed into service by the US government as a sales pitch for an illusion of security. And it all can be yours for less than a Fourth Amendment violation a day.

Which brings us to another set of loaded words that once were evocative but now have been stripped of their ability to move masses.

For the last 30+ years, the United States has been in a “state of emergency.” This is perpetual and involves more than thirty concurrent states of emergency.

An emergency declared by President Jimmy Carter on the 10th day of the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979 remains in effect almost 35 years later.

A post-9/11 state of national emergency declared by President George W. Bush — and renewed six times by President Obama — forms the legal basis for much of the war on terror.

Tuesday, President Obama informed Congress he was extending another Bush-era emergency for another year, saying “widespread violence and atrocities” in the Democratic Republic of Congo “pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the foreign policy of the United States.”

Declaring a temporary state of emergency has it uses. It temporarily expands government powers in order to facilitate speedy responses. It de-gunks the system of its red tape residue and allows help to arrive when it’s needed, rather than weeks after it would have any impact.

But this isn’t the case here. Temporary expansions of power have morphed into the new status quo. Since 1976, the government has declared 53 “emergencies.” Almost every single one still remains in effect.

Part of the problem is the office of the president. For thirty-plus years, the office has become accustomed to the extra powers granted with each flip of the “emergency” switch. States of emergency are extended. And extended again. Only one state of emergency has been allowed to lapse during the last decade. There is a curb to this power, but like the many other oversight positions its entrusted with, Congress seemingly has no interest in fulfilling its duty.

The 1976 law requires each house of Congress to meet within six months of an emergency to vote it up or down. That’s never happened.

And so, “state of emergency” becomes shorthand for government abuse. It conjures up images of towns destroyed by national disasters or extreme threats from foreign nations, but in practice it’s rarely anything more than a leading indicator of governmental power grabs. What can this nation’s government do during a “state of emergency?” This very small sampling of “extra powers” is chilling.

Reshape the military, putting members of the armed forces under foreign command, conscripting veterans, overturning sentences issued by courts-martial and taking over weather satellites for military use.

Suspend environmental laws, including a law forbidding the dumping of toxic and infectious medical waste at sea.

Bypass federal contracting laws, allowing the government to buy and sell property without competitive bidding.

Allow unlimited secret patents for Army, Navy and Air Force scientists.

“Emergency” is the new normal. For thirty years this nation has “struggled” under multiple states of emergency. What should be a very limited, very short-term solution to unexpected or dangerous situations is now indistinguishable from everyday life. More fear is sold by government agencies and purchased — via tax dollars — by a public unable to prevent the checks from clearing. Like the boy who cried wolf, the government has stripped “emergency” of its galvanizing power. Hearing a “state of emergency” being declared by the president most likely won’t move hearts reflexively to throats but will prompt a certain number of hands to make protective moves towards wallets and purse strings. And it will definitely move the average American closer to cynicism than patriotism.

When everything is an “emergency” that never ends, nothing is. President Obama says there’s no need to declare a state of emergency over the worldwide spread of Ebola. He’s likely right, but the words are meaningless. Declare it. Don’t declare it. It makes no difference to anyone outside of those directly benefiting from (likely permanent) expansion of government powers.

What is the government going to do once it’s used up all the evocative words? Where does it go next? Apocalypse? The government is inherently untrustworthy, and its inability to express itself without using buzzwords, hyperbole and the broadest of strokes isn’t helping.

Voter apathy? Record lows in approval ratings? These are only symptoms. The disease is the government itself and its willingness to present everything as the Worst Ever in order to erode rights, expand power and appropriate public funding.

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Comments on “America, The Defensive: Wars, Terrorism And Thirty Years Of Perpetual 'States Of Emergencies'”

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Vidiot (profile) says:

Now I get it

“For the last 30+ years, the United States has been in a “state of emergency.”

That explains it — that’s why, for at least the last ten years, CNN, Fox News and the rest have reported a 24/7, non-stop stream of “BREAKING NEWS”… the only kind of news, apparently. It ain’t news if it ain’t breakin’.

Because emergency.

Cerberus (profile) says:

Re: Now I get it

I’m sure the media have a hand in it. But why, if so many things are wrong with the American government, do the American people not vote them into oblivion? The article calls it “voter apathy”, but then what is the cause of this? That is the question, I think.

Part of a possible answer may be the fact that there isn’t much to vote between. Only two parties stand any chance of winning seats, and people hate voting for a sure loser: they vote “strategically”. And this in turn is largely causes by the winner-take-all system of elections, where only the biggest party in a district or state gets all the latter’s representative power.

This could be partly solved by making elections for President, House, and Senate all proportional: all citizens in the entire country vote for whichever party or person they prefer, and in the end the parties each get a number of seats proportionate to the number of votes they received.

As a result, it would be far easier for a new party to enter Congress, so more parties would be represented there. If you are, say, in favour of economic liberalism, but also concerned about the environment, you have no party who represents your points of view at the moment; but, with proportional representation, such a party might emerge. And the current government shut-downs and fiscal cliffs, which seem inevitable when you have only two parties, will disappear.

As an additional benefit, super PACs and election spending are less effective if you abolish winner-take-all. In the current system, suppose there are two candidates for a post, the Democrat at 48% and the republican at 52%. If nothing changes, all representative power will go to the Republicans. But if you spend just enough money to sway the results by 3 percentage points, suddenly the Democrat gets 51% and the Republican 49%: 100% of representative power has been shifted through your fairly moderate spending. In theory, you would only need to spend enough to affect 50×3 percentage points (one per state) of the voters across the country to achieve a 100% power change. That is a cost of 150 percentage points total.

If, however, there were proportional representation, your 3×50 percentage points would only get you a 3% power change in the country as a whole (simply 3 percentage points per state equals 3 percentage points for the total number of seats a party will get). In short, the winner-take-all system provides campaign spending with a huge amount of economic leverage, which is undesirable.

Pragmatic says:

Re: Re: Now I get it

Time was, I’d have agreed with you but if you look at what’s happening in Europe, you’re only right in principle. In practice, they caucus to form consensus on the issues and the most dominant parties carry the day. That’s why German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been in office since 2005.

What the anti-govt. types keep forgetting is, in a democracy (if you can vote, it’s a democracy), you have the opportunity to vote. If you are the only one to vote for your party of choice, yours is the only vote they will receive, whatever system you use.

It’s not enough to simply change your voting habits, you have to engage in activism too, and by ‘activism’ I mean actively taking part in political events, promoting the party of your choice as much as possible, and talking about it as much as you can without being a jerk about it.

Natural conversation to spread word-of-mouth is actually more effective than ad-nauseam ad campaigns because people tend to trust people they know. The trick is to be able to engage. I talk about the Pirate Party and Pirate principles all the time, and because I understand the internet, people ask me for advice about it. I use those opportunities to talk about how sharing benefits our businesses more than IPR protectionism, how censorship prevents us from making up our own minds by limiting the information available to us, and how surveillance causes more problems than it solves. When people see you as an authority they’re more willing to take you seriously.

That’s how you get others voting for your party of choice, thereby increasing their chances of getting elected. Third parties can and do get into office, a Socialist recently did in Seattle.

You know, the boogeyman? Or woman, in this case. We’re only stuck with a two party system till enough of us vote third party. Then you’ll see things change. But we need the numbers or you are indeed wasting your vote.

The point is, I’ve never seen fatalism solve a problem. If we believe we can, we will.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Insanity or deception?

Tuesday, President Obama informed Congress he was extending another Bush-era emergency for another year, saying “widespread violence and atrocities” in the Democratic Republic of Congo “pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the foreign policy of the United States.”

So posing a threat to the foreign policy of the US is cause for declaring a state of emergency inside the US? That’s insane. A threat to foreign policy is not a domestic crisis under any circumstance. It could theoretically lead to a domestic domestic, but normal people might think that the state of emergency would be called when the domestic crisis actually happens.

So, is Obama crazy or deceptive on this point? I’m going with the latter.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Insanity or deception?

Actually, you almost have to wonder if he was pranking them, seeing if they would even notice.

Extending a state of emergency for troubles in the Congo? That justifies a US state of emergency? Either congress just doesn’t care, or they’re not even reading the things before approving them.

In addition, since when does posing a threat to US foreign policy justify an emergency in the US? The fact that they apparently saw nothing wrong with that would seem to support the idea that he was just tossing out whatever came to mind, knowing they wouldn’t even bother to check before approving the request.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: America, The Defensive: Wars, Terrorism And Thirty Years Of Perpetual 'States Of Emergencies'

…there has never been a foreign invasion…

Japan landed troops on one of the Aluetian Islands in WWII. They were quickly kicked off. Even though Alaska was a US territory at the time, doesn’t this count as an invasion? Or are you counting successful invasions (which is zero AFAIK)?

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: America, The Defensive: Wars, Terrorism And Thirty Years Of Perpetual 'States Of Emergencies'

The would have justified a state of emergency in the Aluetian Islands, but not across the whole nation. For the sake of argument, I’m ignoring the fact that WW2 was a real war and so the nation was already in a justifiable state of emergency because of that anyway.

Anonymous Coward says:

We better get used to no never ending wars, says former CIA director Leon Panetta.

“I think we’re looking at kind of a 30-year war,” he says, one that will have to extend beyond Islamic State to include emerging threats in Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen, Libya and elsewhere.

I personally think American’s economy will start defaulting on it’s debts before we reach the end of the new 30 year war. America’s armed forces are stretched pretty thin. Fighting proxy wars against Russia, China, ISIS in the Middle East, and Homas in Africa.

It costs a lot of money fighting non-stop wars in every corner of the globe.

Rapnel (profile) says:

I’m a little disturbed by everyone’s attitude here. Don’t you people realize that war helps you!? Where would you be without a war on drugs? That’s right, you’d be high. Where would you be without a war on terror!? That’s right, you’d be home and high. Where would you be without a police force designed to protect you from yourselves!? You’d be in the emergency room, dead.. and high. Finally, where would you be without threats to our foreign policy? You’d probably be home, well away from the threat where you would probably get high, terrorized and dead. Think about that for a minute, for the children. War is peace. Peace out.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Where is the list?

I sure want to know what the ’emergencies’ are

One of them is that Iran took some hostages back around the Carter administration. They were eventually freed, but we still have the “emergency”.

The blame lies squarely on Congress and the President. And by that I mean every Congress and every President from about the 1970s to the present. I find it incredible that no Congress has ever taken the required vote to approve or deny any of the emergency states. You’d think they’d find ONE that was politically popular and milk it for votes, if nothing else.

Jack Of Shadows (profile) says:

Re: Re: Where is the list?

No, the blame lies with us. When we don’t hold our elected officials accountable by throwing them out of office, we get behavior like this. Changing our system to something parliamentary ain’t going fix it neither as all the current practitioners have the same problem or worse.

The crux of the problem can be found in the fact that most people, and a solid majority of all actual voters, think their current officials are at least tolerable if not good. It’s all the bums in office that are the problem.

Commenter234 says:

Re: Re: Re: Where is the list?

True, any representative in any system can be corrupted. The point is to widen the accountability base of the representatives so they are less controlled by a central source.

A winner-take-all two-party structure places enormous pressure on representatives to conform to the wishes of party leaders, and those in turn providing direction to party leaders.

Proportional representation provides more latitude to make independent judgements, and respond better to the expressed will of the voters. It is no guarantee, but does improve the odds.

Fatmocha says:

what is the expectation of citizens?

I read this and I admit, I was totally in the dark as to the number of “states of emergency”. I however see the real world implications, I have several friends and acquaintances that serve in the national guard in various units throughout the northwest. This year several of them have left the national guard because of “rumors” that they were going to have a mandatory deployment to Africa.

These men and women have I know have deployed 2-3 times involuntarily to Iraq or Afghanistan. The expectation that they are to leave their families and their jobs or businesses again is an unreal expectation. What do we do when they all decide to quit? Do they think they would be able to re-institute the draft? Are we as a country going start hiring mercenary armies and creating new “Varangian Guards” or the more modern Pinkerton detective agency?

This is road that has been walked in history and it never ends well.

Derek Kerton (profile) says:

The Obvious Joke?

Hey, anybody make the obvious joke yet? No? Here it is:

Good for DHS for taking this threat to third base. Getting inside the underwear caper shows the kind of persistence we normally only expect from frat boys.

Godspeed, good DHS agents. If you keep inspecting underwear, sooner or later, you’re going to find that dirty bomb.

Commenter234 says:

A Consequence of External Empire vs. Internal Democratic Republic

This is clearly and thoughtfully presented in Chalmer Johnson’s book “Dismantling the Empire”.

He goes over many of the events we all remember in the past 40 years or so, and puts it in context.

His point is that any attempt to maintain a world-wide empire eventually requires such brutality and repression of information that any democratic political structure will be repressed in the home country as well.

The Roman Empire held its ground until it completely collapsed, while the British Empire made a less extreme choice.

I enjoyed the audio book version, which is very well done.

Alien Rebel (profile) says:


Voter apathy? Record lows in approval ratings? These are only symptoms. The disease is the government itself and its willingness to present everything as the Worst Ever in order to erode rights, expand power and appropriate public funding.

IMO voter apathy is the very root of the disease. Fume all you want about our elected nit wits, but all problems with government stem from a citizenry that allows power to accumulate. Whether the exact cause is indifference, apathy, general stupidity, or susceptibility to the propaganda of selfish interests, if lying liars are lying to us, it becomes a matter of what we’re willing to put up with. Maybe we still have some helpful homeostatic mechanisms like vestiges of a free press and some small portions of existing law that aren’t yet totally obsolete and dysfunctional, but I’m a bit pessimistic, and feel the disease has progressed to the point where the systems needed to stop the rot are shutting down.

If you scoff at the idea of voter apathy being the root of all our ills, let me respond by saying that the ballot box is all we’ve got. Maybe you’ve heard this before. It’s all that stands in the way of all the possible horrors that history shows humans can inflict on one another. This fashionable cynicism that voting doesn’t matter is a deadly cancer Americans have been talked into not taking seriously.

All you can do is educate yourself to the best of your ability and then vote, or you can also educate and persuade others to vote with you. But that’s it; it’s either that, or the ugliness of direct resistance and rebellion. There is of course a third option, to just live small and accept whatever crumbs fall from the tables of the powerful. Lots of that throughout human history.

Anonymous Coward says:

keeping the population in a continuous state of fear and emergency

Anyone versed in effective propaganda techniques knows that keeping the population in “crisis mode” is one of the most effective ways of making people work harder and be more submissive to authority. And when the “old” emergency ceases to exist, a new one must be found.

When the Soviet Union dissolved 25 years ago, I wondered how the United States could possibly survive afterward. That’s because the existence of the USSR was like a whip that kept everyone in the US in line and quelled all dissent.

We grew up living in fear that the Soviets could easily launch their nuclear missiles at any moment and wipe us all out. In school, we had drills several times a year that had us huddling in a corner of the classroom with our hands covering our heads. Of course having children get on their knees and bending over would have provided near-zero protection in an actual nuclear attack, but that wasn’t the drill’s real purpose. By assuming a position that was eerily similar to Muslim’s submission posture to Almighty God as they pray, was to help create, and continually reinforce, in our young minds an ongoing life-threatening crisis and to condition us into obediently submitting to authority as the only solution to surviving that crisis.

And for the tax-paying adults, the only way to prevent the near-certainty of nuclear annilation was to keep pouring massive amounts of our tax money into this country’s military-industrial complex. Otherwise we would be defeated by the Soviets, and our freedom (if not our lives) would be lost forever, we were told. This kind of thought-stopping propaganda of WWII vintage never really ended, it just found a new enemy to redirect its resources to. As in WWII, we were constantly reminded that we all had to sacrifice everything if we wanted to survive. In the climate of “You’re either with us or against us” intolerance, those who dared to express dissent were branded as enemies of the state.

Then when the Soviet Union collapsed and disarmed, the military-industrial complex suddenly found itself without its customary whip to keep the dollars flowing. Would the US, God forbid, actually disarm just like the Russians did, and would the military-industrial complex ever allow it to happen?

Of course not. New national emergencies were very quickly “discovered” and new enemies found. Things that might have gone unnoticed during the Cold War suddenly had huge importance. It did not take long. Barely a year later, former ally Saddam Hussein was now annointed as the new Hitler, and Iraq became the Nazi Germany of the Middle East, brandishing the world’s fourth-largest army, and poised to conquer the entire Middle East and literally take over the world’s oil supply (it’s amazing how much the official narrative has changed since then). The military-industrial complex found new life.

A decade later, another former recipient of US aid, Osama Bin Ladin, became another new Hitler, and military-industrial complex, whose very survival was in doubt after the Cold War ended, was now raking in far more money than it ever had before. The US population was successfully feared-up once again, and through the wonders of propaganda, a gang of barefoot, bearded men living in caves was turned into a force as potent as the Soviet military and nuclear arsenal ever was.

And then this year, with the middle-east wars winding down and nine-eleven a distant memory, and new crisis, a new enemy, needs to be found. And sure enough, things go full circle, and it’s back to Russia again. A country with a twentieth of NATO’s combined military budget or GDP now becomes a near-equal adversary that must be stopped at all cost. (The military-industrial complex smiles once more.) Because fear is a more useful tool than reality.

The propaganda machine has become a permanent and integral part of America’s national identy. Whether in 20, 50 or 100 years from now, there will always be some imagined or highly exaggerated national crisis that will consume and control most every aspect of our lives. And the “solution” will be, as always, more government, more taxes, and less freedom.

(Sorry for the long post, but thanks for reading 🙂

Lawrence D’Oliveiro says:

You Terrorism People Don’t Terrorism Understand

You seem to be terrorism overlooking the elephant terrorism in the room terrorism here. Of course we terrorism value our freedoms terrorism, but you must terrorism realize that not everybody terrorism in the world shares that terrorism view, and so terrorism we must terrorism be on our guard terrorism and root out terrorism these elements, before they terrorism threaten our terrorism way of life.

Have a terrorism nice day.

GEMont (profile) says:

You're not invited.

” The disease is the government itself and its willingness to present everything as the Worst Ever in order to erode rights, expand power and appropriate public funding.”

By George! I think he’s got it!

I can only wonder how long it will take the wanna-be-rich members of the general public to realize that the boys running the US into fascism, have no intentions of sharing the wealth they are stealing with any of the public they’re stealing it from.

That includes those minions that are currently working for the man, making the world a better place for Law Enforcement Assholes, Thieving Liar Politicians and Fascist Corporations disguised as the Federal Government and its Agencies.

Next Question:

What the hell can a people do to reign in or cancel the abuses by a runaway fascist government, that is being directed by private concerns that have everything to do with power and profit and nothing to do with the safety, security, or the well-being of the public, or for that matter, the nation?

The longer this question goes unanswered, the deeper the pit the nation and its public will find themselves in.

And there is cut-off point, after which, there is nothing at all that can be done to alter the inevitable direction that these people are currently moving towards.

Once that end point is reached, all you will have is lies, war and fear, in an ever increasing cycle until there is nothing left to steal and the thieves turn on each other and the house of cards falls. This has all happened many times in the past, and nobody was ever able to stop it.

It would be nice to see that humanity has finally evolved past this cycle this time.

I probably should not hold my breath in anticipation however.

Pragmatic says:

Re: You're not invited.

What the hell can a people do to reign in or cancel the abuses by a runaway fascist government, that is being directed by private concerns that have everything to do with power and profit and nothing to do with the safety, security, or the well-being of the public, or for that matter, the nation?

Begin the long and painful process of thinking for themselves without caring what others will think when they arrive at a conclusion that differs from the consensus… which is why most people prefer to parrot the party line than, you know, think for themselves.

I get called all sorts of names because I refuse to join Team Red or Team Blue. I’m sort of Purple, to be honest. The point is, I think for myself.

Now imagine an America in which other people joined me and decided to jettison the Established, Accepted, and dare I say Tribal ways of thinking and decided to just think for themselves. At that point they would realize you can’t outsource responsibility for running the nation to mere politicians, you have to watch them and be ready and willing to hold them to account.

The existence of safe seats is the problem. The solution is to put the fear of God into incumbents so they actually represent the people. And it’s up to the people to make that happen.

As long as we allow ourselves to be divided, conquered, and dictated to by Our Glorious Leaders we have only ourselves to blame for the consequences. Our freedom from ideological servitude begins with divesting ourselves of the idiotic notions we’re expected to accept and questioning what we’re told. As I’ve pointed out any number of times, there’s no such thing as a free market. That people insist there is, in the face of the evidence, is a symptom of the kind of thing I’m talking about here.

If this nation wants to get out of the pit it’s in, it’s got to dig itself out instead of waiting for a savior figure to arrive and do it for them.

GEMont (profile) says:

Re: Re: You're not invited.

“Now imagine an America in which other people joined me and decided to jettison the Established, Accepted, and dare I say Tribal ways of thinking and decided to just think for themselves. At that point they would realize you can’t outsource responsibility for running the nation to mere politicians, you have to watch them and be ready and willing to hold them to account.”

Ah! The Old USA. I do remember it, and remember loving it and its future-dreaming, discontented, and debating-everything citizens.

Sadly, I have come to the realization that even then, back in the late 50s, the die had already been cast and the Amerika we see today had already been set in motion, as the billionaires from the War began to assert control over the remnants of the USG. That process never slowed or paused and the results are – from what I can tell – the usual final stages of national rot that presage the fall of another empire.

John85851 (profile) says:

Words become devalued

Getting back to the point about how language changes: I think the word “war” has become incredibly devalued.
For years, when someone said “war”, we pictured WWI or WWII or even the Korean War or Vietnam (even it technically wasn’t an official war).

Then we had the “war on poverty”, as if it’s possible for soldiers to aim their weapons and shoot down poverty. Now we have people like Rush Limbaugh complaining about the (non-existent) “war on Christmas”.
So if every disagreement or fight becomes a “war on”, what do we use to describe an armed conflict that kills thousands of people? A “super bad awful fight”?

GEMont (profile) says:

Re: Words become devalued

“…what do we use to describe an armed conflict that kills thousands of people? A “super bad awful fight”

. The Best Business Model Ever Invented.
. Profitable Politics.
. The Social Engineering End Game.
. Fascist Methodology of Social Management.
. The Great Private Economic Enabler.
. How to eliminate unwanted peasants and make a fortune without breaking a sweat.

Since all modern wars are fought by the unwanted peasants of two or more otherwise friendly members of the Global Wealth (or Ownership) Society, for the purpose of generating a shitload of invisible profit – (taxpayers pay the Privately Owned Facilities of the Mil-Ind-Com for all military wartime expendables) – for those members, and eliminating the unwanted excess population (dissidents) of their nations, I think WAR should bear a description more suitable to its purpose.

The wagers of WAR, would of course, beg to differ.

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