Normalizing Nightmares

 Recently, National Public Radio carried a story about how State Farm Insurance was introducing a clause in its auto policies excluding coverage for nuclear or radiological events. Although the commentator noted the absurdity – after all, would replacing your car be the first thing on your mind after a dirty bomb – the effect was to normalize the possibility of such an attack, to weave it into the fabric of the commonplace marketplace. From car insurance to duct tape to steel safe rooms on display at the Washington Home and Garden show, the government, media and their corporate sponsors are rendering the unthinkable thinkable, the surreal real, the unacceptable acceptable, and the avoidable inevitable.  In a consumer culture, preparing the populace for war not only demands revving up patriotic zeal but convincing people that safety is a commodity that can be bought and sold.

 Preparing the populace for war also requires a narrowing, if not outright suspension, of basic ethics.  Thus, in the Sunday New York Times (3/9/03), whether or not to torture Al Qaeda operatives such as Khalid Shaikh Mohammed is presented as a practical dilemma rather than a moral one:  Does physical torture yield more information than psychological pressure and ‘normal’ interrogation techniques such as sleep and food deprivation, temperature extremes, enforced nakedness, and denial of painkillers to wounded prisoners?  The Times even hints that Mohammed’s two young sons might be tortured to elicit information from their father.  Gone is any sense of the inhumanity of torture.  Instead, if we want to keep our own hands clean, we can send prisoners to other countries where torture is allowed.  In the name of fighting terrorism, the government creates an export economy of torture.

 While the approach of war makes such desensitizing strategies more obvious, it is important to remember that the normalization of the national security state is an ongoing process. Well before 9/11, the massive incarceration of poor men and women of color, intensified repression of immigrants and growing collusion between different branches of law enforcement and the military constituted a de facto ‘homeland security’ policy – a prison-military-industrial complex that has unfortunately become as American as apple pie and sanctioned by both political parties. Phrases like “three strikes and you’re out” portray cruel and unusual punishment as just a commonly accepted rule of a baseball game. That last week the Supreme Court failed to overturn California’s three strikes law reveals how injustice has become our favorite national pastime.

 In his famous song, “Stand Up for Your Rights,” Bob Marley sang that “you can fool some people sometimes, but you can’t fool all the people all of the time.”  The growing strength of the anti-war movement testifies to this fact as more and more people wake up from the normalizing nightmares about war beamed into our homes every day.  However, we must not only challenge war overseas, but the ongoing war at home which will continue whether or not there is an attack on Iraq.  Both kinds of war are deeply connected and vital for the survival of the real nightmare, the national security state.

Betsy Hartmann is the director of the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College and the author of the novel The Truth About Fire, a political thriller about the Far Right.

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