We live in an age of crisis. If the media is to be believed, threats are closing in from all directions. The terrorists, criminals, gay marriage, the Chinese (racist Red Dawn tweets incoming), socialists, psychopaths—the list goes on.1 What is actually happening here? Who benefits when America collectively jumps in fright? And what happens when our feet touch the ground again?
The diagram is deceptively simple. First fear erupts from a threat to the current social order. It then justifies emergency action to expunge this threat. Privacy or other rights are given up for a supposed neutralization of the threat. Pacified, we believe ourselves safe and adjust to a new, less free society. Then the cycle repeats to generate more profits for the industries that “keep us safe.”
But there are two specific wrinkles to this general outline. First, the status of ideas and the recent attacks on the university. Second, the normalization of crisis to create a society always “up in the air.”
Attack the Students
Students have historically been at the forefront of social movements: the 1968 general strike in France, anti-Vietnam protests in America, and most recently the Quebec anti-austerity protests this year. In each of these examples criticized governments passed legislation granting extraordinary powers allowing police to suppress the free speech of students. And each time, the students’ free speech spread throughout society, galvanizing popular attacks on social injustice.
Seen in this light, the police attacks on student protesters at UC Davis and UC Berkeley during Occupy should come as no surprise. This infamous photo shows Lt. John Pike, a Davis police officer, pepper spraying seated students. At UC Berkeley the university police beat and dragged protesters by their hair, including a professor of English.2 UC police Captain Margo Bennett claimed, “The individuals who linked arms and actively resisted, that in itself is an act of violence… linking arms in a human chain when ordered to step aside is not a nonviolent protest.”
While Bennett’s claim is factually and historically wrong, what is more troubling is the worldview it reveals. To dissent is already to be violent. Crucially, this framework also enables a particular kind of economy based on fear.
They Actually Named It “Create and Capture”
In the last year there have been a rash of news reports about the FBI creating terror plots in order to “solve” them, circularly justifying their counter-terrorism budgets. The reports document how FBI informants, usually criminals working in exchange for a reduced sentence or money (as much as $100,000 an assignment according to RT), target individuals based on their First Amendment protected political speech. If the informant thinks the individual can be flipped to consider an act of terrorism, he pursues the target.3 The individuals in question are generally so confused and disorganized (and sometimes even mentally disabled) that such scenarios would be laughable were it not for the consequences. In one case, it took 11 months of persuading and a $250,000 offer to create a “terrorist” who, it must be noted, refused to kill women and children.4 The individual in question still did not agree until he lost his job and decided the money was worth it.5
While killing for money is clearly indefensible, the opportunity to make that decision would not have been possible without the FBI fronting the money, the guns, the plans, and the resources. Comparing these supposed terrorists’ crimes to our government’s extra-judicial drone strikes is revealing. We routinely target weddings and funerals in Pakistan, killing women and children as well as adult men. We also practice a technique (first invented by Hamas) called “double-tapping,” in which we fire a second attack at first-aid responders attempting to give medical assistance.6
The fear economy is not restricted to the FBI. The NYPD and CIA jointly spied on American Muslim student groups and houses of prayer “over a more than six-year period” and “failed to yield a single terrorism investigation or even a single lead.”7 Perhaps responding to the failure of their “special Demographics Unit” in exposing any terror plots, the NYPD and CIA proceeded to jointly coordinate a program called “Create and Capture.”8 Counterpunch explains a standard M.O.:
Shamiur Rahman (age 19) had been arrested a few times for drug possession. To erase this record, the NYPD told him to spy on students at John Jay College and at area mosques. He was told to “bait” Muslims into saying incriminating things.9
When the supposed bogeyman does not appear, the authorities produce him for us. They keep us safe from horrors of their own creation, and in the process demand we give up our Constitutional rights – and then thank them for the privilege of doing so.
Historical Echoes: But They’re Just Muslims Communists
Fear-based politics is not new. In 1964 a young Catholic student named Mario Savio had recently arrived on UC Berkeley’s campus. Before attending Berkeley he faced down the Ku Klux Klan to help blacks register to vote in the South.10 Upon attending Berkeley and finding free speech under assault, he joined the non-violent Free Speech Movement to challenge a campus-wide prohibition on political speech.11
Prior to the movement the FBI had already begun intensive surveillance operations on students and professors. Two initiatives stand out. Under the Responsibilities Program the FBI funneled scant (and oftentimes knowingly false) allegations against “liberal” or “radical” professors to state governors. The governors enlisted university officials to investigate and terminate these professors’ contracts under the cover of thwarting communism. Almost one thousand professors lost their jobs in the 1950s as a result of allegations they were never aware of and unable to defend themselves against.12
The FBI also expanded its operations against students, creating the “Security Index,” a list of Americans to be detained indefinitely in the event of a national emergency. The FBI targeted individuals on the basis of dissenting political speech, and with the Free Speech Movement picking up steam, they soon began listing its members as well.12
Economic Echoes, Too
The fear machine has a real, economic basis behind it as well. Then-UC President Clark Kerr had lifted a ban on communist and socialist speakers. Author Seth Rosenfeld, whose book Subversives forms the foundation of this historical analysis, paraphrases Kerr’s explanation: “the university is not engaged in making ideas safe for students, it’s engaged in making students safe for ideas. He believed that if students were well educated, they could hear ideas from any point of view and then make the right decisions.”12
The FBI detested this approach for its fear-based reasons. Ronald Reagan, then running against incumbent Pat Brown for California’s governorship, had a long history of informing for the FBI against supposedly dangerous Hollywood actors and actresses.13 Upon winning the race Reagan secured Kerr’s dismissal, acting on false allegations compiled in similar fashion to the Responsibilities Program. Notably, “a lot of people also forget that Reagan was the first person to institute tuition at the University of California, which, before him, had been free to all people who were able to get into the California university system.”14
We see similar economic incentives for fear at work today. Alameda County, which supported Reagan’s demonization of the free speech protestors as “filthy,” recently approved a $32 million contract for Corizon Health Inc., a prison services provider, based solely on a two-page letter from Alameda County Sheriff’s Office.15 The county now faces a civil grand jury recommendation to develop actual oversight policies on spending and awarding private contracts.15
Interestingly, the Alameda County Sheriffs are the only police force to have brought explosive tear gas canisters to last year’s October Occupy Oakland protests, where they lacerated the spleen of Iraq war veteran Kayvan Sabeghi.16 As of October this year, the Alameda Sheriff’s office is calling for drone-based permanent surveillance of the skies over Alameda, doubtless with a fat contract awaiting some lucky private contractor.17
The fear economy is larger than one or two governmental decisions in California. In America today one in five jobs is guard labor, where an American is paid to monitor someone else, usually another American.18 The global surveillance industry is valued at approximately $5 billion annually, with much of its growth coming in the last decade.19 Oftentimes, as was the case when Nokia-Siemens’ technology helped Iran repress the 2009-2010 protests against rigged elections, the technology repressive regimes use to identify and execute protestors comes from technology companies based in the U.S., U.K., and the West more generally.20
We can now see the logic of the fear economy come full circle. A dangerous “outsider” (frequently created by those our taxes pay to keep us safe) presents a challenge to our safety. The authorities assure us they will remove the threat, but only if we give up essential rights. Rights taken, the government and private corporations deploy extraordinary powers and reap deep financial gains. The industry expands, and draws repressive regimes together with so-called democracies as it opens up new markets abroad with surveillance techniques perfected at home.
Two moments from this original diagram have collapsed. First, we no longer give up our rights. They are taken from us in advance. Second, we no longer adjust to a less free society. The next round of fear begins before the current one ends.
With technological innovation and trade both increasing in speed, the distance between these moments shrinks until they become indistinguishable. The rights we think we enjoy do not exist as we like to imagine them:
“Why are you guys so anti-dictators? Imagine if America was a dictatorship. You could let 1% of the people have all the nation’s wealth. You could help your rich friends get richer by cutting their taxes. And bailing them out when they gamble and lose. You could ignore the needs of the poor for health care and education. Your media would appear free, but would secretly be controlled by one person and his family. You could wiretap phones. You could torture foreign prisoners. You could have rigged elections. You could lie about why you go to war. You could fill your prisons with one particular racial group, and no one would complain. You could use the media to scare the people into supporting policies that are against their interests.”21
Today it is hard to find an example of politics that is not crisis politics. Even funding our own government’s operation is a crisis issue: “the fiscal cliff.” This constant crisis has at least two important consequences. First, we are unable to distinguish true crises from manufactured ones. Despite continued rebuttal of every talking point climate deniers can find, the House recently appointed Lamar Smith, a climate science denier as well as the primary sponsor of the Internet censoring bill SOPA, to lead the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.22
Second, we are unable to rationally discuss ideas. All politics takes the form of the fear machine: a dangerous outside threatens a vulnerable inside, and any person—even an Iraq war veteran—can flip from one location to the other at a moment’s notice. Speaking produces suspicion, and free speech and reasonable debate are entirely evacuated. How can one learn in this climate?
At this point in time there are significant questions we should be asking. How stable is a system that exists only as a continual string of emergencies? Who profits from suppressing our ability to discuss ideas freely? And perhaps most importantly, do we want to live in a society whose authorities primarily see the free assembly of its citizens as dangerous, violent, and unclean?
In the coming struggles students may play a pivotal role in jamming the cogs of the fear economy. Already existing in common by virtue of the dormitory lifestyle, their traditional emphasis on learning and open inquiry provide a crucial battleground from which we may begin to unwork the fear that closes around our voices, threatening to strangle us just as we begin to speak.
MLK photo used with permission from Tina Dupuy
Bobo is a writer, artist, and aspiring business owner. He currently researches human-machine interaction at Duke University.