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.