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The Nefarious Ways 9-11 Turned America into a Lockdown State

Even after his death, Osama bin Laden thrives in the U.S.'s transformation into a lockdown state.

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The post-9/11 National Security Complex has been convulsed by such fears.  After all, it has funded itself by promising Americans one thing: total safety from one of the lesser dangers of our American world -- “ terrorism.”  The fear of terrorism (essentially that bin Laden tax again) has been a financial winner for the Complex, but it carries its own built-in terrors.  Even with the $75 billion or more a year that we pump into the “ U.S. Intelligence Community,” the possibility that it might not discover some bizarre plot, and that, as a result, several airliners might then go down, or a crowd in Washington be decimated, or you name it, undoubtedly leaves many in the Complex in an ongoing state of terror.  After all, their jobs and livelihoods are at stake.

Think of their fantasies and fears, which have become ever more real in these years without in any way becoming realities, as the building blocks of the American lockdown state.  In this way, intent on “ taking the gloves off” -- removing, that is, all those constraints they believed had been put on the executive branch in the Watergate era -- and perhaps preemptively living out their own nightmares, figures like Dick Cheney and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld changed our world.

The Powers of the Lockdown State

As cultists of a “ unitary executive,” they -- and the administration of national security managers who followed in the Obama years -- lifted the executive branch right out of the universe of American legality.  They liberated it to do more or less what it wished, as long as “war,” “terrorism,” or “security” could be invoked.  Meanwhile, with their Global War on Terror well launched and promoted as a multigenerational struggle, they made wartime their property for the long run.

In the process, they oversaw the building of a National Security Complex with powers that boggle the imagination and freed themselves from the last shreds of accountability for their actions.  They established or strengthened the power of the executive to: torture at will (and create the “legal” justification for it); imprison at will, indefinitely and without trial; assassinate at will (including American citizens); kidnap at will anywhere in the world and “render” the captive into the hands of allied torturers; turn any mundane government document (at least 92 million of them in 2011 alone) into a classified object and so help spread a penumbra of secrecy over the workings of the American government; surveil Americans in ways never before attempted (and only “legalized” by Congress after the fact, the way you might backdate a check); make war perpetually on their own say-so; and transform whistleblowing -- that is, revealing anything about the inner workings of the lockdown state to other Americans -- into the only prosecutable crime that anyone in the Complex can commit.

It’s true that some version of a number of these powers existed before 9/11.  “Renditions” of terror suspects, for instance, first ramped up in the Clinton years; the FBI conducted illegal surveillance of antiwar organizations and other groups in the 1960s; the classification of government documents had long been on the rise; the congressional power to make war had long been on the wane; and prosecution of those who acted illegally while in government service was probably never a commonplace. (Both the Watergate and Iran-Contra scandals, however, did involve actual convictions or guilty pleas for illegal acts, followed in some of the Iran-Contra cases by presidential pardons.)  Still, in each case, after 9/11, the national security state gained new or greatly magnified powers, including an unprecedented capacity to lockdown the country (and American liberties as well).