Jesse Walker

United States of Paranoia: How the FBI Spied and Lied So Conspiracy Theorists Would Sound Crazy

The following is an excerpt from Jesse Walker's new book, The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory (Harper Collins Publishers, Inc, 2013): 

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Hick Flicks and Stoner Cinema

If you're a cultural historian, a movie geek, or just looking for an excuse to spend three hours watching TV, here's a video double feature you should try. First watch the premier pot-smuggling flick of the 1970s, Cheech and Chong's Up in Smoke. Then pop in the decade's most famous film about Coors smuggling, Smokey and the Bandit.

When you're done, try to figure out just how the good ol' boys and the hippies, two American tribes who were supposed to be sworn enemies, wound up flocking to such similar movies. The stories aren't twins--the heroes of Up in Smoke are too stoned to realize they're ferrying illegal cargo or that a smokey is on their trail--but if you catch them in the right light, they look like brothers.

These days it's widely recognized that it was the 1970s, not the '60s, that marked the real cultural revolution in the United States. The earlier decade might have seen America's traditionally tiny bohemia become a mass phenomenon, but it was in the '70s that the wave crashed, breaking down the boundaries between the rebels and the mainstream. One sign of this was a burst of creativity in Hollywood, where figures who spent the '60s soaking up the counterculture and making low-budget exploitation features--Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Jack Nicholson--used their new freedoms and their unorthodox training to transform the face of American film.

Meanwhile, other hands kept turning out those exploitation movies. In the new book Hick Flicks: The Rise and Fall of Redneck Cinema (McFarland), Scott Von Doviak gives us an entertaining and illuminating look at their world.

"While blaxploitation pictures ruled the urban grindhouses, providing heroes and myths for those trapped in the inner cities," he writes, "hick flicks dominated the drive-in circuit, bringing their own set of archetypal figures to flyover country." Von Doviak, who covers film for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, has cast a wide net; he ends up discussing everything from early B movies to 21st-century fare, from backwoods creature features to arthouse documentaries. But the heart of his book is the 1970s, and the soul is movies about outlaws driving cars or trucks, ideally with a load of illicit spirits.

I can't endorse every opinion Von Doviak espouses. Notably, he fails to appreciate the peculiar charms of Sam Peckinpah's Convoy, surely the only film that is simultaneously a Christian allegory, a vaguely anarchist political fable, and a feature-length adaptation of a novelty song about CB radios. (It isn't a good movie, but it's much better than any picture starring Kris Kristofferson and Ali MacGraw has a right to be.) But Van Doviak is a witty and astute student of these films, entertainments that could simultaneously reflect the values of both the American counterculture and its alleged opposite.

I don't want to overstate this point. Hollywood has always celebrated individualist rebels, and the Southern backcountry has a longstanding anti-authoritarian tradition that, as the historian David Hackett Fisher put it in Albion's Seed, was "more radically libertarian, more strenuously hostile to ordering institutions than were the other cultures of British America."

Smokey and the Bandit was not a story that could be imagined only after 1969. It was a classic bandit narrative in the tradition of Robin Hood and Jesse James, with an invulnerable hero who defies unjust laws (in this case, speed limits and alcohol regulations), battles an oppressive sheriff (in this case, Jackie Gleason), and can move almost invisibly among the common folk who admire his heroic deeds (in this case, other drivers).

But this Robin Hood was rebelling at a time when the word rebellion invariably suggested the word freak. This Little John was played by Jerry Reed, a guy who used to jam with Elvis. This Sheriff of Nottingham was a fat racist cop, a cultural archetype that took hold during the civil rights movement--and was most evocative among those who sided with the protesters. The genre that begat them reached its peak after the country relaxed its attitudes toward on-screen sex, violence, and sympathy for lawbreakers, a change largely driven by the cultural revolution.

And there was something else. Once the ideals and fashions of Haight-Ashbury had leaked into the rest of the country, there was no predicting the ways they'd be adapted to local circumstances. By this point, those rednecks weren't just jeering the same sheriff as the hippies. Some of them were growing their hair, smoking weed, and listening to trippy music.

Such behavior swept the South and West in the '70s, but its headquarters was Austin, the city at the heart of Jan Reid's The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock (University of Texas Press). Originally published in 1974, Reid's compulsively readable book was revised and reissued last year in substantially expanded form. It tells how a group of Texas-based musicians, most famously Willie Nelson, created a new style of music, usually called outlaw country, and a new cultural archetype, dubbed the cosmic cowboy. Larry Yurdin, who spent a chunk of the '70s running radio stations in Austin and Houston, once described the cosmic-cowboy scene to me as "the Texas version, in 1972, of what happened in San Francisco in '67. In a good ol' boy, Wild West context, it was the Summer of Love. With guns."

Once such a tremendous cultural collision has happened, it starts to look natural, even inevitable, in retrospect. By 1979 Hank Williams Jr. could sing, "If I get stoned and sing all night long/It's a family tradition"--and sure enough, the tradition was there, and not just in the Williams family. It just had to be discovered first.

It's during that period of discovery, when cultural identities are being reinvented and reshuffled, that things look more ambiguous. There's a scene in White Lightning, one of the better hixploitation flicks, where two moonshine runners walk past a hippie van that has the slogan "Legalize marijuana!" scrawled on its side.

"Legalize that shit, it's gonna ruin moonshine liquor forever," spits one of the rednecks. I like to imagine the van was carrying Cheech and Chong.  

David Simon Says

On Sept. 19 an often-overlooked gem returned to HBO. "The Wire," entering its third season, is sometimes described as a Baltimore-based crime show, but that's a little misleading. It's a show about cops and criminals, but it doesn't follow any genre formulas. It does not wrap up a case every hour, has no clear-cut heroes and few clear-cut villains, and is willing to explore the ways that life in the middle of a police hierarchy and life in the middle of a criminal syndicate might produce the same frustrations.

At the center of "The Wire" is creator-producer-writer David Simon, 44, a veteran of the Baltimore Sun who rose to national prominence with his 1991 book "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets." The product of 12 months immersed in the Baltimore homicide unit, it was quickly acclaimed as a classic of contemporary journalism and soon inspired a TV series, NBC's "Homicide: Life on the Street" (1993-1999). Simon's next book, "The Corner" (1997), was written with retired detective Edward Burns; it was the product of another year-long immersion, this time in a West Baltimore neighborhood ravaged by the drug trade and the drug war. It too made a mark on the small screen, as an HBO miniseries in 2000.

Simon had a hand in each program – he co-wrote "The Corner" and wrote several episodes of "Homicide" – but he didn't build a television series from scratch until he and Burns launched "The Wire" in 2002. Though with "The Wire," even the phrase "television series" is somewhat misleading. Each season is more like a 13-hour film, or a 13-chapter novel, that grows steadily more engrossing as it unfolds.

Last year the program explored corruption on the waterfront, with the tale of a union official who dealt with criminals not to feather his own nest but to reverse the declining fortunes of the port, with terrible results; the story was closer in spirit to a classical tragedy than a police procedural. The program's other major story line centers around the West Baltimore drug trade, with battles between gangs for territory and within them for status and power. It sometimes feels like one of Shakespeare's history plays, if there is a history play that looks without flinching at the bankruptcy of the drug war, the intersection between crime and politics, and the day-to-day deprivations of inner-city poverty.

We spoke with Simon in July 2004, as production for the third season drew to a close.

Would you describe The Wire as a cynical show?

David Simon: It's cynical about institutions, and about their capacity for serving the needs of the individual. But in its treatment of the actual characters, be they longshoremen or mid-level drug dealers or police detectives, I don't think it's cynical at all. I think there's a great deal of humanist affection.

The Wire draws heavily on Ed Burns' experiences as a policeman. But though you cast yourself as a reporter in one episode, there hasn't been an inside-the-job look at a journalist's life. Is that something you're thinking about doing in the future?

We might glance at it a little bit. One of the sad things about contemporary journalism is that it actually matters very little. The world now is almost inured to the power of journalism. The best journalism would manage to outrage people. And people are less and less inclined to outrage.

I think if you look at what journalism has achieved in terms of parsing the events that got us into this war in Iraq, or the truth about what happened in the election – I've become increasingly cynical about the ability of daily journalism to effect any kind of meaningful change. I was pretty dubious about it when I was a journalist, but now I think it's remarkably ineffectual.

Do you think you can raise that kind of outrage with a TV show?

I don't. The Wire will have an effect on the way a certain number of thoughtful people look at the drug war. It will not have the slightest effect on the way the nation as a whole does business. Nor is that my intent in doing the show. My intent is to tell a good story that matters to myself and the other writers – to tell the best story we can about what it feels like to live in the American city.

What's the show's underlying message about the drug war?

That it's a fraud. It's all over except for the tragedy and the shouting and the wasted lives. That'll continue. But the outcome has never been in doubt.

I've seen one writer citing The Corner to make the case that the drug war needs to be fought harder

What idiot was that?

His name was Eli Lehrer. [Lehrer said the book "vividly describes just how bad life became in a typical inner-city neighborhood" after Baltimore's then-Mayor Kurt Schmoke came out for a less punitive approach to the drug war. In fact, Schmoke's police department locked up more people for drug crimes than any previous administration.] He was writing in the American Enterprise Institute's magazine.

Ed Burns and I spoke at one of those groups. There came this point where a guy said, "Well, what is the solution? Give me the paragraph; give me the lede. What's the solution, if not drug prohibition?"

I very painstakingly said: "Look. For 35 years, you've systematically deindustrialized these cities. You've rendered them inhospitable to the working class, economically. You have marginalized a certain percentage of your population, most of them minority, and placed them in a situation where the only viable economic engine in their hypersegregated neighborhoods is the drug trade. Then you've alienated them further by fighting this draconian war in their neighborhoods, and not being able to distinguish between friend or foe and between that which is truly dangerous or that which is just illegal. And you want to sit across the table from me and say 'What's the solution?' and get it in a paragraph? The solution is to undo the last 35 years, brick by brick. How long is that going to take? I don't know, but until you start it's only going to get worse."

And the guy looked at me and went, "But what's the solution?" He said it again. Ed Burns restrained me.

You've suggested that the third season is going to look at political reform.

Reform of all kinds. Political reform, reform within the department, reform within the drug trade. Reform is the theme.

You'll see a political component. But the theme of reform is not just political. There will be several characters who will present themselves as potential reformers. Some of them actually will be reformist, and some of them will not. Part of the season, from the viewer's perspective, is figuring out who's who.

What kind of reaction does the show get from the police?

I thought we'd get a bad reaction, because it clearly is very down on the drug war. In the middle of the first season, after it was clear what the tone of the show was, I went to the FOP [Fraternal Order of Police] lodge off of 41st Street [in Baltimore]. I basically was going to say, "OK, I'm ready to take everybody's shit. What do you have to say?" And they just kept reciting scenes back to me that had made them laugh, that felt real to them.

Ed was a cop for 20 years. I covered that world for 13. We didn't get the shit wrong. A lot of the guys knew the stuff we were referring to, the cases that we were stealing from.

Have you gotten any reaction from the local criminal community?

They like it. Around the courthouse, there's a hilarious wiretap of people on a Monday talking about the Sunday night episode. I was dying to get ahold of it, but it never became public – most wiretap stuff doesn't, unless it's brought into evidence.

How does your experience doing The Wire compare to your experience doing Homicide?

HBO's a lot smarter than NBC. They can afford to be. They don't care if you're watching every show on HBO. If you're a subscriber and you're only getting it for two shows out of 10, they've still got your $17.95. And therein lies all the difference.

That's a model that can't exist in network TV because of the need to present the maximum number of viewers to advertisers. That leads to decisions about story, character, and theme on network TV that are just destructive. They were destructive on Homicide. Compromises had to be made.

What writer wants to make compromises with story? Story is the only reason you're in it.

What Happens Next?

When the military prepares for action, the public debate is usually a simple either/or: Will there be peace, or will there be war? Not so now.

Fresh from the bloody assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, there are at least six choices before us, each with its own subgenres and mutant variations. None is perfect, and one is actually insane. But each is worth examining, if only to understand what people actually mean when they call for war, peace, or some other path they can't quite articulate.

Here, then, are our choices, beginning with the least violent and ending with the most:

1. The Gandhi Option

Some favor no military response to the attacks at all. In its flaky form, this position involves wishing really hard, perhaps while holding someone's hand, that hatred and violence will disappear from the world. Not every pacifist is so naive, though, and there is a more sophisticated case for military inaction.

This argument points out that terrorists do not come from nowhere. They respond to particular policies of the country under attack. If, as the evidence suggests, the assault was masterminded by Osama bin Laden or his allies, then it may well be easier to adjust our foreign policy than to hunt down every terrorist in the Middle East, especially since that hunt might inspire yet more Middle Easterners to turn to terrorism. Wouldn't it make more sense just to stop these clumsy interventions into other people's battles? Why make ourselves a target for every tin-pot maniac in the Third World?

A variation on this argument notes that many of our present foes -- including Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein -- were originally built up by the United States to fight the enemies of an earlier day. One can only wonder what our allies in a new war might do to us several years later.

There are two problems with the Gandhi option. The first relates not so much to the position itself as to some of the people who have been advancing it. Obsessed with finding what "we" might have done to "deserve" this -- as though anyone deserves to die this way -- the hairshirt faction has conjured a list of sins far removed from anything that could have inspired the attacks. When the filmmaker Michael Moore speculated about the terrorists' motives, for example, his rambling ruminations touched on missile defense, America's withdrawal from the Durban conference on racism, and even our rejection of the Kyoto accords on global warming. Evidently, Moore believes that we are being attacked by European diplomats.

In the real world, we are being attacked by a group that -- judging from the fatwah issued by Osama bin Laden in 1998 -- objects to America's military presence in Saudi Arabia, to its sanctions against Iraq, and to its support for Israel. The point of reexamining U.S. foreign policy in the wake of the attacks is not to find everything about it that you might want to change, from Star Wars to Kyoto. It is to find the parts that might be putting us in danger, even if you've supported them until now. In the next few months, a lot of Israel's American supporters will be wrestling with a difficult choice: Israel's security, or their own? Many will choose the latter.

The other problem with Gandhianism goes deeper. Watching the World Trade Center towers collapse last week, desperately aware that thousands of people were inside them, most Americans did not merely crave greater security. They wanted justice. If nothing is done to capture the people responsible for that atrocity, it will be hard to claim that justice has been done.

2. The Kojak Option

And so we come to option two. A terrible crime has been committed. The immediate perps are now dead, but the conspirators behind them are alive and free. They may be plotting further, even worse assaults. We still aren't sure who they are or where they are, but we have some significant leads. So it's time for some expert policework, to track down and capture the people who did this.

The advantage to this approach is that it meets the demand for a response while keeping that response targeted at the criminals. As such, it upholds justice in two ways: by meting it out to the murderers who killed 5,000 people in one day, and by refusing to replicate their crime by killing anyone unfortunate enough to live in the same country as the terrorists.

There are two disadvantages. One of them I'll describe later, as it undermines the next two alternatives as well. The other is that, in tracking terrorists through the mountains of central Asia, it won't be easy to stick to all the legal niceties that policemen are supposed to observe. And if it comes down to letting the likely culprits escape or abandoning due process, most Americans will choose the latter. At the very least, they will say, let us consider response three:

3. The Bronson Option

If we cannot be policemen, let us be vigilantes. We could still limit ourselves to hunting the perpetrators, taking care to leave innocent civilians out of the fight. But we won't have to prove their guilt to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. In other words, we could combine the goals of a policeman with rules more akin to those of war. (Some libertarian variations on this idea call for literal vigilantism, with privateers rather than soldiers leading the fight.)

If a foreign government turns out to be involved in plotting the attack, then it isn't merely the rules of war that might be invoked. A violent attack on the U.S. by another state would land us in response four:

4. The Bugs Bunny Option

This one's named for the great American who, when attacked, routinely remarks, "Of course you realize this means war."

This would be a limited war, aimed not at "rooting out terrorism" but at treating those terrorists who are affiliated with foreign governments the same as those who are independent agents. As with Bronsonism and Kojakism, it limits its fire to the conspirators and their henchmen, leaving civilians spared. If you're looking to bomb cities or occupy Afghanistan, you'll have to go well beyond Bugs.

These last three responses share a problem. If the Gandhi option addresses the question of security while leaving justice undone, the others aim for justice but leave us insecure. Arrest or kill Osama bin Laden, and his lieutenants will take over his war. Capture them, and other branches of his very loose network will step into the breach. Bring down a government, and heaven knows what might take its place.

And that brings us to the biggest decision. Do we defend ourselves against this attack, whatever that entails, and then withdraw from the Middle East, fusing a rigorous and vigorous self-defense with non-intervention in other nations' affairs? Or do we dig in for a long fight against the social landscape of the Mideast? Do we, in the words of The New York Times' Thomas Friedman, fight "a long, long war" against "all the super-empowered angry men and women out there"?

5. The Caesar Option

If you prefer this alternative -- if you favor a long war against a ubiquitous enemy -- then be aware of the likely consequences:

- The war will not merely be long. It will be perpetual. We will not be fighting an army, after all, but a tactic -- terrorism -- that can be adopted by small cells anywhere in the world. More: We will be fighting a mindset, one which will probably be inflamed still further by the battle against it. We will never know when the war is over, or when we're finally safe. Innocent civilians will die -- not just abroad, but here (as if we needed to be reminded) in America.

- The U.S. will become a garrison state. When you're fighting a perpetual war against an enemy that operates without borders, citizens will become suspects. Privacy, due process, freedom of association, and freedom of movement will be curtailed. Given politicians' predilections, the same fate will likely befall free speech and the right to bear arms.

- Whatever authoritarian measures afflict us domestically will be meted out several times over to states abroad, since that will be where most of the actual terrorists live. Dictatorship, of course, is nothing new in the Middle East. But now the governments will be answering to the United States, which can scarcely trust the Taliban to do its terrorist-hunting for it. America will have to act forthrightly as an empire.

In short, the Caesar option will probably fail to bring us security or justice. The only way around this would be not just to dominate the potential terrorists of the Middle East, but to wipe them out. Incredibly, there are those who are proposing just this.

6. The Strangelove Option

Not long after the attacks, Sam Donaldson asked the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, whether we can "rule out" the use of nuclear weapons. He received this response:

"We have an amazing accomplishment that's been achieved on the part of human beings. We've had this unbelievably powerful weapon, nuclear weapons, since, what, 55 years now plus, and it's not been fired in anger since 1945. That's an amazing accomplishment. I think it reflects a sensitivity on the part of successive presidents that they ought to find as many other ways to deal with problems as is possible."

"I'll have to think about your answer," said Donaldson. "I don't think the answer was no."

"The answer was that that we ought to be very proud of the record of humanity that we have not used those weapons for 55 years," replied Rumsfeld. "And we have to find as many ways possible to deal with this serious problem of terrorism."

Where Rumsfeld weasels, others step boldly. "At a bare minimum, tactical nuclear capabilities should be used against the bin Laden camps in the desert of Afghanistan," Thomas Woodrow, formerly of the Defense Intelligence Agency, declared in The Washington Times. In the pundit class the talk is even nastier, with Col. David Hackworth among others suggesting that portions of the Middle East should "glow" with radiation.

Maybe they're just bluffing. Maybe they're just trying to convince the world that Americans are batshit crazy when we're mad, and that the terrorists damn well better be scared. The trouble is, they're scaring me too.

* * *

So which path do we take?

I've long opposed American intervention abroad. Self-defense, however, is an entirely different matter. Obviously, the Kojak model is ideal, but I can live with Bronson or Bugs. The important point is to aim our fire at the murderers, not at civilians or at anyone who merely happens to be a usual suspect -- and to limit ourselves to a well-defined mission, rather than a vague, all-encompassing "war on terrorism." The Caesar option would lead to further tragedy; the Strangelove path, to utter disaster.

At the same time, we will have to take a hard look at what the pacifists are saying, even if we reject absolute nonviolence. Do we really want to defend a fundamentalist dictatorship in Saudi Arabia? Do we really need to maintain sanctions that have had no effect on Saddam's dictatorship, but have brought death to thousands of Iraqi children? And in that most contentious of Mideastern conflicts, must we tilt so strongly toward Israel, even when it treats Palestinians like second-class citizens or winks at those who steal their water and land? (Spare me your angry e-mails, Israeli partisans: I don't think much of Arafat's brutal Palestinian National Authority either.) This isn't just an issue to grapple with after bin Laden has been captured or killed. It's something to look at now, as we figure out how to fight the terrorists without alienating the Middle Eastern public.

Never before has America's involvement in the Mideast's tribal politics seemed more foolhardy. Now that we're stuck in this tarbaby, we're going to have to fight our way out. But we should think twice before punching any more tarbabies down the road.

Jesse Walker ( is an associate editor of Reason Magazine and the author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (NYU Press).


Happy Holidays!