On Monday, April 15, two bombs exploded at the finish line at the Boston Marathon, killing three and wounding 264 more, some with gruesome injuries. What followed seemed like September 11 in miniature, as a panicked public was reassured by authorities and the press went into overdrive. A tense week lead up to the killing of one suspect after a night of gunfire which left another cop dead. There were explosions, the lockdown of a city and a siege of one of its suburbs, as police scrambled to find and capture the remaining suspect, 19-year-old Chechen-American Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was taken into custody April 19.
On the day of the attack, air traffic at Boston’s Logan International Airport was briefly restricted while marathon runners and tourists tried to leave. One traveller was quoted as saying of airport security: “They can give me a cavity search right now and I’d be perfectly happy.”
This wouldn’t be a change; since 9/11, the government has been thoroughly installed up everyone’s asses. So much so, in fact, that when police pulled bloodied Dzhokhar Tsarnaev from the deck of a boat on which he was hiding in a Watertown, Mass. back yard, commenters on Twitter were enjoining others to “hug a cop.” Chants of “USA! USA!” rang out at a Boston Bruins hockey game the next night and the whole country assumed the mantle of “Boston Strong” via t-shirts and images on social media. All in all it was perfect Pavlovian patriotism.
Since 9/11, the government has built a massive regime of surveillance and repression, both through powers granted to them by law and illegally. The official end of the Iraq War has come and the imminent drawing down of forces in Afghanistan is on the way, bringing to an end two Bush-era wars on “terror,” yet the government still affords itself power to strike anywhere around the world and kill whomever it sees fit with drones or special forces strikes. Though there are no more official black sites where those suspected of terrorism are kidnapped and tortured, the U.S. government still operates the ostensible indefinite detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Domestically, local police forces have become reserve troops for the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTF), and are acquiring drones. The FBI, through domestic terrorism sting operations it has pioneered since 9/11, is ensnaring far more terrorists it creates than intercepting plots like the one that shook up Boston. They have targeted mostly Muslims, treating an internal population with extreme suspicion and malice, and, for good measure, have used these same repressive tactics against anarchists and environmental radicals.
Throughout the Boston ordeal, signs emerged that the U.S. is a populace traumatized by the events of terrorist attacks more than ten years ago or at least popularly conditioned by them. While Americans have acclimated to this new reality of supposed imminent danger, removing their shoes at airports, and remaining largely uncritical of what measures the government has deemed necessary to keep people safe, the majority of those people never feel the full brunt of government repression, and when an event like the Boston Marathon bombing happens, dark indications of American attitudes resurface that expose racism, xenophobia and a willingness to assent to the comforting touch of an iron fist. What emerges with clarity in these times is a country with all the tools for a functional police state, with a hair’s-breadth separating bored resignation to social control from full-blown popular mania when this imagined peace is shattered.
Are Chechens White?
Before the identities of the Boston bombers were known, the media struggled with the question as to whether the perpetrators were “foreign,” which stood to mean immigrant or non-white jihadists, or “domestic,” which stood in for potentially right-wing white terrorists. What the Tsarnaevs represent is neither, giving the media a pause it can barely handle, grappling with the suspected bombers’ ethnic and religious identities. Some outlets, however, have seemed content with portraying the suspects in the traditional manner, the popularly-understood figure of the sinister Middle Eastern terrorist.
A few news outlets stood out for their racist reporting in the days after the Boston Marathon bombing. The New York Post being one, with their story on the day of the attack strongly suggesting that a Saudi man injured in the blast was a suspect in the case. In reality, the man had been running from the blast and was tackled by frightened bystanders who obviously equated a dark-skinned Persian man with a terrorist. Confirming this profile the next day, CNN’s John King announced that a suspect had been arrested when one, in fact, had not, and described this imaginary person as a “dark-skinned male.” The New York Post also doubled down that Tuesday, most likely following the lead of hundreds of deluded internet sleuths on Reddit, fingering two backpack-carrying Boston-area students of Middle Eastern descent as suspects, publishing their photos in their awful, vomitous rag with the headline “Bag Men.” The two people in the photo later turned out to be two area runners who were merely watching the race like thousands of others of varying ethnicities, dark-skinned or otherwise, who were nearly killed or maimed and will remain forever traumatized.
When photos of the subjects were finally released, and the identities confirmed after their one-night war with Boston-area police, the press struggled: as ethnic Chechens, they hail from the Caucasus region of what is now southern Russia. This, historically, is where the term “caucasian” originated. By the simplistic definition of equating race with one’s skin pigment, the Tsarnaevs are white. They are also Muslim, something which not many Americans are apparently able to rectify with whiteness, so now the media is engaged in some bizarre molting phase, trotting out stories of Chechen terrorism, of which the Tsarnaev brothers, largely raised in the U.S., had no hand in. While older brother Tamerlan took a trip to the Dagestan region of Russia to reportedly make contact with extremists, a task in which he ultimately failed, it seems that the brand of extremist Islam he favored, as “evidenced” by social media postings, were those of those of English-speaking Lebanaese-Australian Salafist cleric Feiz Mohammed and the events he directed most of his ire towards were the U.S. military occupation of Afghanistan. Younger brother Dzhokhar, in testimony given to authorities after his capture, said that he and his brother were angered by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It seems as though the geopolitical events in Chechnya, which has been brutalized by military occupation by Russia, have nothing to do with the attacks. What would be more uncomfortable for U.S. media then, would be to explain how the effects of two wars led to the radicalization of two American-raised Muslim men and brought some terrible chickens home to roost.
Some have referred to the Boston Marathon bombings as the first act of terror perpetrated on American soil since 9/11, true if only white people are victims of terror. Tell that to the Sikh worshippers at the Oak Creek, Wisconsin gundwara shot up by Hammerskin white supremacist Wade Michael Page last year. Last August 5, Page burst into a packed temple enjoying a community meal and opened fire, killing six and wounding four others. Perhaps mistaking them for Muslims, or just being as stupid and indiscriminate as your average neo-Nazi, Page apparently talked to friends about an impending “racial holy war” before the attack, at the end of which he took his own life.
Another white man flew into plane into a building and this somehow didn’t enter into popular discourse as terror. Joseph Stack flew a small personal aircraft into the IRS office in Austin, Texas in 2010, leaving behind a manifesto railing against the government and corporations, making his act undeniably politically-motivated, yet Stack, who killed one person beside himself in the attack and injured numerous others, falls outside of a definition of terrorism that is essentially racialized to mean that Muslims and Middle Easterners are the primary perpetrators of terror.
This has borne grave consequences. The concerted effort to demonize Muslims has lead to Muslims being targeted by racist crimes. Hate crimes against Muslims spiked to 481 in 2001 after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, according to federal statistics. Since then they had fallen, but since 2010, when popular anger was stoked by conservative politicians opposed to a Muslim community center being sited at the reconstructed World Trade Center, they have hovered around a second uptick in attacks, averaging 160. Even federal officials say that these statistics, compiled from state figures, are deceptively low, with the Justice Department saying 56% of hate crimes go unreported. Numerous incidents of anti-Muslim violence were reported after the Boston Marathon bombing, targeting dark-skinned Muslims and those wearing ethnic dress. It seems as though whiteness cannot be equated with terroristic violence in popular understanding, although it isn’t as though white men have not expressed the desire and ability to murder en masse for political ends.
The suspicion of Muslims is not only the function of racist individuals, but also that of racist institutions. Muslim persecution has been codified into the practices of law enforcement. The same NYPD who targets “male blacks” with stop-and-frisk contacts is also engaged in the widescale, acknowledged surveillance of Muslims. According to the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund’s (AALDEF), report “Mapping Muslims,” released in March, mosques, social centers, bookstores and other community spaces have been regularly surveilled and infiltrated by the NYPD, the largest and best-funded police force in the world. Though NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly has steadfastly supported the police force’s program, the NYPD’s Chief Intelligence officer, Lt. Paul Gilati has said under sworn testimony that the program, begun after 9/11, has never produced a criminal lead. AALDEF’s report goes on to describe the intimidation and harassment American Muslims feel, which, owing to the sheer inefficiency of the program’s stated purpose, investigating terrorism, must be the program’s actual goal.
The federal government is of course in on this action as well, domestically surveilling Muslims as part of a $3.3 billion annual FBI “counterterrorism” effort. This takes the shape of employing informants, usually serial criminals, to infiltrate and contact Muslims, attempting to induce them into terror plots. The FBI’s use of informants, which, according to journalist Trevor Aaronson, in his book The Terror Factory, numbers 15,000 currently, even produces the absurd. One former informant, Craig Monteilh, was a fitness instructor in Irvine, California. After meeting some off-duty police officers at work, he was introduced to FBI agents who convinced him to become an informant. Using an audio recorder attached to his key-ring, Monteilh tried to steer discussion toward jihad at a local mosque, reporting his findings to the agents once a week. His actions became so suspicious to worshippers that they reported him to the FBI.
After being outed, Monteilh was frank about his role with the bureau: “The way the FBI conducts their operations, it is all about entrapment … I know the game, I know the dynamics of it. It’s such a joke, a real joke. There is no real hunt. It’s fixed,” he said in an interview.
And yet, the FBI’s use of informants for their controversial terrorism sting operations goes on, essentially cooking the books, inflating the number of terror convictions and creating threats where there are none. In the case of the Boston Marathon bombers, these tactics may have even led the bureau to miss their chance to stop the bombing.
Mohamed Mohamud and the Cleveland Five
While the Boston attacks were horrific, actual terrorists are hard to come by in the U.S. More often than not, the terrorists imprisoned all over the U.S. are products of FBI stings. The practice, developed by the FBI during the drug wars of the 1980s, is supposed to ensnare operating terrorists active in the U.S., but more often than not, they have involved the government prodding along disaffected men who have no capability to perpetrate such attacks into outlandish plots in which the government supplies them with fake weapons.
The case of Mohamed Mohamud, the Somali-American student from Corvallis who was convicted of conspiring to blow up Pioneer Square with a fake bomb, was international news, trumpeted by the press in their usual breathless screed. Mohamud, however, while sympathetic to radical Islam and believing he was going to murder thousands assembled at the annual Christmas tree-lighting downtown, was not a credible terrorist. He came to the government’s attention when he was accused of date rape at a party and willingly gave the police access to his phone and laptop, information from which was then shared with the FBI. He was broke and in no way competent enough to obtain a weapon with which to carry out his attack. He was duped into a plot when approached by an informant who he believed was an international terrorist, who facilitated the means for the entire plot, which was fake since its inception.
This kind of sting has been replicated across the U.S. since 9/11. The tactic has also been used to ensnare anarchists, most notably the Cleveland Five. They were poor, young, and impressionable self-identified anarchists allied with Occupy Cleveland, who on April 30, 2012 were arrested for trying to detonate a fake bomb provided to them by an informant who gave them jobs, plied them with beer and weed, and steered them away from ridiculous and outlandish plots into the scheme for which they were ultimately convicted, a plot to blow up a highway bridge.
These are the vast majority of terror arrests and convictions in the U.S. Of the 500 terror convictions cited by the Justice Department in 2009, in order to justify an abandoned plan of trying accused 9/11 plotter Khalid Sheik Mohammed in the U.S., the vast minority were people like “shoe bomber” Richard Reid or Najibullah Zazi, who planned to bomb the New York City subway system. About 175 were people like Mohamed Mohamud, the Cleveland Five, and green anarchist Eric McDavid, those set up into becoming cardboard cut-out terrorists, who either took pleas or went to trial arguing entrapment and were sentenced to decades in prison, maintaining the government’s near-perfect record of post-9/11 terrorism convictions.
In fact, as documented by Aaronson in an April 23 piece for Mother Jones, the Boston FBI, at the same time it decided to stop pursuing leads on Tamerlan Tsarnaev in 2011, was engaged in a sting involving a Boston-area student who wanted to blow up the dome of the U.S. Capitol with a remote-controlled airplane laden with government-supplied fake plastic explosives, an impossible and almost comically unfeasible plan. The bureau’s operation, guiding the plot, providing inert weapons, and arranging the arrest, took nine months. During this time, actual terrorists may have been planning an attack.
Of course, government surveillance and repression hasn’t been restricted to Muslims. Anarchists and environmentalists have been targeted, too.
Daniel McGowan is a convicted terrorist living in Brooklyn, New York. McGowan was convicted and imprisoned for his participation in Earth Liberation Front (ELF) actions in Oregon. McGowan spent most of his time incarcerated in Communications Management Units (CMUs), prisons within prisons which drastically restrict inmates’ access to phone calls, letters and visits by family. McGowan was released to a halfway house in New York last year, after five years of imprisonment, mostly in CMUs. In March 2010, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) filed a lawsuit on McGowan’s behalf, challenging his detention in the CMU’s; McGowan had never been informed as to why he was jailed in one. In a legal memorandum obtained by McGowan’s lawyers, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) indicated that McGowan’s writing and continued advocacy for political causes he had been involved in had triggered his movement from a low-security facility to the CMUs. McGowan, on conditional release, wrote a piece for The Huffington Post discussing his suit on April 1. Three days later, he was arrested by federal authorities and taken back to prison for breaking a BOP rule: he wrote an article with a by-line. The regulation, as pointed out by CCR lawyers, was no longer enforced by the BOP as of 2010. The next day, McGowan was released.
Such is the life of a terrorist.
McGowan and many environmental radicals convicted for taking part in ELF and Animal Liberation Front actions have been convicted using “terrorism enhancement” sentencing guidelines, which judges use to drastically increase sentences for cases the federal government deems terrorism. Both the ELF and ALF, decentralized non-organizations, subscribe to a tactical ethic that stresses that no life should be harmed in their actions, preferring instead sabotage and property destruction, usually accomplished through arson. That hasn’t stopped federal prosecutors from using the considerable powers granted them when terrorism enhancement sentencing was created, after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, to imprison them for decades. In cases not only seen in the western U.S., but also back east, with the cases of the SHAC 7, animal rights campaigners who set up a website to publicize actions taken against notorious animal-abusing laboratory Huntingdon Life Sciences, environmental and animal rights radicals have felt the full pressure of government repression, with some, including ELF prisoner Marie Mason, receiving multi-decade sentences for property destruction. This wave of repression has been referred to as the “green scare,” a wave of sensationalistic targeting of environmentalists who are now considered terrorists. These cases should be regarded as a bellwether for growing government power, and though leftist radicals face nowhere near the same degree of repression as Muslims, a disconcerting parallel remains.
So This is Freedom?
During the Bush administration, the president’s inner circle sought to re-brand their efforts. What was once referred to as “The War on Terror” would now be referred to as “The Long War,” a name which exposed intentions though it never caught on. In 2006, seeing that a fierce insurgency in Iraq meant that the mission was not accomplished and the war was not over, nor would it be for quite some time, the administration re-framed their approach to compare the war to The Cold War, with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld calling it “the kind of struggle that might last decades as allies work to root out terrorists across the globe and battle extremists who want to rule the world.”
It is readily apparent who does rule the world. Some conservative ideologues who do, from Lynne Cheney, wife of neoconservative former vice president Dick Cheney, to leathery senator Lindsey Graham, to New York state senator and vitriolic Islamaphobe Peter King, were all in the media after Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s arrest, urging surveillance, indefinite detention, and drone assassinations. Conservative billionaire and former presidential candidate Donald Trump called for Tsarnaev to be waterboarded. Right-wing senator Rand Paul, who had filibustered for 13 hours in protest of John Brennan’s appointment to head the CIA, afraid of the government’s power to kill Americans, as it has done abroad with drones, changed his tune after the Boston episode, saying that killing Americans like the Tsarnaevs with a drone would be just fine, and disgustingly inserting the case of the brothers into the immigration debate. (The Tsarnaev brothers emigrated to the U.S. as children.) These are people with enormous political power, and while most can reasonably be accused of simply grandstanding, their revolting opinions do, in fact, lead to policy. Their comments can also be seen as seeking to placate popular feelings, toward a revengeful catharsis after a dramatic and traumatizing episode shocked a major American city.
With the specter of of never-ending conflict morphing into the dull routinization of drone strikes, surveillance and political repression, it becomes apparent that those who rule the world are granting themselves all the power they can to do so. But in the face of traumatic events and their attendant fear, which terrorists and governments seek to exploit for their own gains, the only thing that will guide Americans away from a definite police state is calm, clear, critical thought, and concerted resistance against these powers. Instead of blithe ignorance in the face of repression worldwide punctuated with indignation when others choose to attack inside the U.S., what is needed are more people to stand up and say that ethnic and political persecution is wrong. Indefinite detention is wrong. Torture is wrong. Indiscriminately killing people half a world away with weaponized robots is wrong. All of these tactics are signed off on by a quiescent populace that either passively allows such atrocities or are spurred into support through a story of patriotic vengeance. What Americans have come to believe, or at any rate accept, is the logic that the only way to remain completely safe is to accept the fate that others may be scrutinized and surveilled and that an evil segment of the populace exists among us, waiting to for the right opportunity to do us harm. This has been any number of groups throughout history: different races, anarchists, Communists, Arabs and Muslims. The common thread is this proposition that in a state of imminent threat, one must accept anything in the name of security, at the expense of, and to ultimately preserve, freedom.
But what is this freedom? If Americans can be said to be free now, this is an awful freedom, one that is only attainable when one acquires more than others, when one is born into a class or caste that enjoys power over others, or when one gains passage into one. The freedom to buy. The freedom to watch TV. The freedom to wall oneself off from each other, imprisoned in a nuclear family, in a house in a gated community. The freedom to conform. The freedom to obey. At the opposite end of this equation are people who will never enjoy these meager little slices of what is understood as freedom and the people regularly terrorized to perpetuate the lifestyles of those most “free.”
A full and dignified freedom can only arise when people stop falling for the conditioned responses of fear and repression, when people take into account their role in reproducing these dynamics, and the role of the government which claims to represent them, and, at that point, when they resist that representation, with its brutal and regular displays of force, they create something new, and their own.
Federal Repression: The FBI and COINTELPRO
1963: U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy authorizes the FBI to wiretap the phones of Martin Luther King Jr.
1969: Forged letters from the San Diego FBI office antagonize the US Organization and the Black Panther Party against each other. Deadly shootouts between the groups are affirmatively noted as “tangible results” in an internal FBI memo.
1971: The Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI breaks into a Pennsylvania FBI office and steals over 1,000 classified documents revealing the massive domestic spying and counterintelligence operation known as COINTELPRO.
1975: Gary Thomas Rowe testifies to a Senate committee that the FBI endorsed his participation in assaults and murders of black activists during his years as an undercover informant within the Ku Klux Klan.
1981: The FBI launches an all-out investigation of the Committee in Solidarity of the People of El Salvador, targeting the group for surveillance, harassment, break-ins and placing 100,000 activists on the Bureau’s terrorist databank for raising awareness about the civil war in El Salvador.
1990: Cofounder of Earth First! Dave Foreman is charged as a conspirator in the sabotage of a powerline, despite the FBI admitting he is not an actual perpetrator, an attempt to “send a message”.
1997: Judi Bari’s deposition in her civil rights trial against the FBI reveals that the pipe-bomb placed in her car closely resembles those made in an FBI bomb school for northern California police officers. Five years later the court rules in favor of Bari, finding that the FBI sought to blame her as a victim and discredit her environmental organizing.
2001: Over 1,200 people are detained and held incommunicado in the two months after the September 11th attacks. Targeted for being Arabs, Muslims, or immigrants, none are linked to the Al-Qaeda attack.
2004: The FBI’s professional confidential informant “Anna” begins infiltrating and entrapping environmental activists, providing them with bomb-making information, money for raw materials, transportation and a remote cabin to plan ecosabotage actions.
2010: Activists file suit against John J. Towery, an intelligence analyst for the military’s Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Tacoma, WA. His infiltration of the Port Militarization Resistance and Students for a Democratic Society activist groups violated several statutes which forbid the military surveillance of civilian groups.
This article appeared in the May 2013 edition of the Portland Radicle.