With America on the Eve of Destruction, OWS Rides to the Rescue
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When it set up its campsite at Zuccotti Park, Occupy Wall Street was facing in only one direction: toward the financial heart of the planet two blocks away. The police, who promptly surrounded the encampment and organized their own occupation of the neighborhood, were in a sense facing in the other direction: toward Ground Zero, where new glass-sheathed towers were rising to replace those destroyed on September 11, 2001. The police, up-armored in full riot gear, with the sort of surveillance paraphernalia, helicopters, and high-tech cameras that were a far more minimal aspect of domestic policing before 9/11, were clearly thinking counter-terrorism.
They were the representatives not just of New York’s billionaire mayor and the bankers and brokers who had previously made the area their own, but of the ever more militarized national security state that had blossomed like some errant set of weeds in the ruins of the World Trade Center towers. They were domestic grunts for a new order in Washington as well as New York that has, by now, lost the ability to imagine solving problems in a civil and civilian fashion.
They represent those who have ruled this country since 9/11 in the name of our safety and security, while they made themselves, and no one else, safe and secure. It is an order that has based itself on kidnapping, torture, secret prisons, illegal surveillance, assassination, permanent war, militarized solutions to every problem under the sun, its own set of failed occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the closest of relations with a series of crony capitalist corporations intent on making money off anyone’s suffering as long as the going is good.
Behind the police, directly or indirectly, stands that bureaucratic monster of post-9/11 domestic "safety," the Department of Homeland Security. And behind both of them, without a doubt, that giant tangle of agencies -- 17 in all -- with an $80 billion-plus budget that go under the rubric of “intelligence” and dwarf the intelligence bureaucracy of the Cold War era, when the U.S. actually had an enemy worth speaking of.
All of this is the spawn of the 9/11 moment, which is why, on November 15th when the NYPD entered the encampment at Zuccotti Park, a weaponless and peaceable spot filled with sleeping activists and the homeless, they used pepper spray, ripped and tore down everything, and tossed all 4,000 books from the OWS “library” into a dumpster, damaging or mangling most of them. Books couldn’t escape the state’s violence, nor could the library’s tent, bookshelves, chairs, computers, periodicals, and archives. Even librarians were arrested.
Much was literally trashed and, though “books are pretty sturdy objects,” as one Zuccotti Park librarian wrote me, “when you throw them into a dumpster a lot of them get destroyed. We have recovered about one third of our books and of that number many are far too damaged to re-circulate.” Novelist Salman Rushdie tweeted a perfectly reasonable response to the police action: “Please explain the difference between burning books and throwing thousands in the trash and destroying them.”
Stop for a moment and imagine what the headlines here would have been like if Iranian or Chinese police had broken into a peaceful oppositional encampment and literally trashed its library without a second thought. The barbarians! Imagine what a field day the pundits would have had. Imagine what Fox News would have said.
Nothing, of course, had to be this way. That it was makes it part of the official legacy of 9/11 and Osama bin Laden. In the wake of that day, this is what Washington did to itself, and so to us. In the process, it did one other thing: it put the Constitution in the dumpster. Which makes it stirring to see -- as Rebecca Solnit, an expert on landscapes of disaster and redemption, does in her latest post, “Ms. Civil Society v. Mr. Unaccountable” -- the return of civil society, of us. We’re back on the scene a decade later, like the cavalry, and it might just be in the nick of time.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s as well as The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book, The United States of Fear (Haymarket Books), will be published in November.Sign up to receive the latest updates fromTomDispatch.com here.