On Wednesday, the House of Representatives voted to arm and train the so-called moderate Syrian rebels, in order to counter the alarming spread of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The Senate is likely to approve this week as well.
The existence of some folks who want to be rid of Bashar Al-Assad, and who also aren’t keen on ISIS is not in doubt. The ability of the United States to correctly identify those fighters, and predict the long-term effects of funding them is another matter. So are any blithe assurances that this action is essential, and a super great idea.
But, let’s say the United States really must fight, destroy, and bomb the hell out of ISIS. Let’s say they’re a special case, and a special evil. Let’s say that somehow we can magically and scientifically engineer a limited war on ISIS. (No ground troops, says President Obama! Just some 1600 American soldiers.)
Students of history, even extremely recent history, know that is already patently absurd. But let’s save it for the next column (and the next, and the next, until God knows when). But even if this ISIS fight were the big one, and a legitimate exception to the rule of becoming more anti-interventionist in the future, well, it’s still part of the big, mean war machine. War does not stay in its own little box.
Consider military spending, projected to be cut by a modest $500 billion over ten years. Well, maybe not now that we have so much more business in Iraq and Syria. We couldn’t possibly endanger Americans and American interests with a cut to the military now. As there will always be an excuse to intervene this time, and we just can’t pull troops out at this dangerous time, so will there always be a reason to keep military funding at a robust level.
More cynical still is any suggestion that the new threat of ISIS means we can’t reform the National Security Agency (NSA). Last week, Sens. Marco Rubio and Saxby Chambliss told The Hill that the USA Freedom Act might infringe upon the country’s ability to spy on, and therefore fight against ISIS. Said Rubio, "I’m always sensitive to protecting people’s privacy expectations and privacy rights, but I’m also concerned about eroding our capability to gather actionable intelligence that allows us to prevent attacks and take on our enemies."
That advocates for a busy, domestic spy state are using ISIS as an excuse is not a surprise. It is merely the most topical way of trying to terrify people into believing that they need to be watched in order to stay safe. The more depressing thing about Chambliss and Rubio’s comments is that the House’s version of the USA Freedom Act was repeatedly criticized by privacy groups for not going far enough. It professed to end dragnet surveillance of American telephone calls, but it allowed NSA officials too much leeway to data search for broad terms. Organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) say that with that bill, Americans’ data was still in danger of being eyed by the government en masse. On the other hand, the as-yet-unpassed Senate version of the bill has more rigorous privacy protections, and would – maybe – stop the mass data collection under the PATRIOT Act’s section 215, while also stopping up some of the House Bill’s loopholes.
The NSA is only a small part of the problem – even part of the federal agencies run amok problem. And yet, you still have hobgoblins in Congress declaring that even these mild (arguable) improvements would help the terrorists.
Those damn terrorists. They’re bred by American intervention. And they have won, in their way. They made us terrified to fly, terrified to be free, and terrified to change the rotten system we have in place. Our most embarrassing elected officials, such as Sen. Lindsey Graham and Rep. Peter King seemingly exist only to soliloquize about the necessity of war and surveillance. And they keep their jobs. Graham and King have been in the US Congress for nearly two decades now. Not reelecting such people seems to be too much for the country to handle.
In America, most people can safely ignore wars that the military fights "on their behalf." This is good, in that scores of thousands of men are no longer being enslaved to fight enemies abroad. But it is also bad because it means wars are of no consequence to most of America. Enemies in the Middle East – as well as innocent civilians caught in the middle of a fight – are distant and strange and easy to forget.
The NSA spying should be personal. So should the simple fact that we work, and our tax dollars go towards killing people and creating people interested in killing us. A few years ago, the indignity travelers now face at airports had a moment of being personal, but even that outrage did not have sustaining power. We simply don’t have the attention span for an indefinite war that affects so few of us.
Except that war really does bleed into everything else. This is how conspiracy theorists are made; the convenient sameness of what powerful people do when they are in power. And this is how nothing ever changes; the existence bias that says we need that to be safe. If we protected our rights and ignored the faraway menace of ISIS, all would be lost. To fix the NSA is to offer ourselves up to these theocratic hordes and to give in to their barbarism. And we’re Americans, damn it. We tell ourselves we’re free, and so long as we don’t behead people, we will keep on believing it.
Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and a columnist for VICE.com. She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at www.thestagblog.com.