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The Killing Machine
March 9, 2002
By Richard Mynick

Rummage through your memory banks. Reach down to that dusty bin where you store old mental footage of all the "B" grade sci-fi films you've ever seen. Somewhere in that area you should find a plot-line that runs something like this: there's a remorseless killer on the loose. He's brilliant, he's deadly, and the secret of his evil genius is that he has no conscience, no sense that what he's doing is wrong. Perhaps he's a robot like The Terminator, built to resemble a human being, but lacking a "conscience chip." Perhaps he's human, but psychologically programmed like the Laurence Harvey character in The Manchurian Candidate. In any case, he kills, he kills well - and he wastes no time with philosophical questions about the justice of his actions.

The United States is winding up a deadly operation in Afghanistan. It is loudly proclaiming its intent to commence similar operations in a number of other countries, lasting possibly for many years. The details of what actually happened in Afghanistan were tightly controlled by the Pentagon. This is another way of saying that most of the story - particularly visual images of the destruction wrought, and clarity regarding civilian casualties - was kept hidden from the American people. There were virtually no dissenting voices heard in the mainstream media, here, regarding the justness of the war. No information or discussion was presented that might have prompted TV news viewers to doubt, or even question, that this war was just and necessary. Some future historian may reach into his dusty archives, one day, to study the Afghan war of 2001. He might judge that as a society, we killed well, we killed efficiently, and we killed remorselessly.

Nine days after the September terrorist attacks, the president raised the question on national TV: Why do they hate us? He answered, they hate us, because of our freedom, and our democracy. In the days that followed, some commentators tried to suggest that a more complete answer might have considered the very aspects of American foreign policy that bin Laden himself has pointed to (US support for the Saudi monarchy and for Israel, and the harsh US sanctions that have caused hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths in Iraq since the Gulf War). It is striking how promptly such voices were silenced. The American right-wing devised a talking point to denounce as "unpatriotic" any critical mention of these aspects of US policy. Thus, any suggestion that US policy played the slightest role in bringing about the terrorist actions was met with sarcastic jeering: "Yeah, sure - blame America first." This tactic was very effective. A future historian studying this period will see that in the America of 2001, dissent was silenced. It became hazardous to one's social standing to even hint that US policy or actions had ever been other than wise and just.

The American people comprise 5 percent of the world's population, but consume a third of its resources and 27 percent of its oil. The very phrase "The American way of life" is held in this country to be a self-evident virtue. Many would say it's worth dying for. Yet what the phrase today implies is the right of 5 percent of the world's people to continue consuming a disproportionate share of the world's limited bounty. Political leaders who dare suggest that we explore ways to consume less - say, via developing more efficient vehicles - are met with scorn and derision. They are portrayed as near-traitors, who would tamper with our sacred "way of life." A future historian studying this feature of American public thought in 2002 may spend a lot of time sadly shaking his head.

It is now verboten to even speak of consuming less as a society, because such thoughts implicitly challenge "The American way of life." It is now verboten to even speak of logical reasons why others might have attacked us, because one may then be accused of "attempting to justify" the terrorists' actions. This is the quality of public discourse in the political climate of our times.

There are obvious links between America's thirst for oil and the open-ended war on which it's now embarked. Yet mainstream coverage of the war carefully steps around acknowledgment of these links. Instead, discussion is framed in moral terms - "freedom," "justice," and "good-vs-evil." Hovering overhead is the fearful specter of a rampaging American war machine. Permeating the media is a discourse that dares not speak the name of the forces driving the machine. This disconnect between the lofty moral tone of the discourse, and the underlying oil interest that is there for all to see, would draw approving nods from the writers of sci-fi classics. They know the cold secret of devising hellish Killing Machines: keep the lethal hardware insulated from the delicate mechanism where thought and conscience reside.

Is our war truly being waged for ideals of "freedom" and "justice?" If so, let us promise in advance that American oil companies will not accept a penny of profit from any future pipelines across Afghanistan, or from any new regime to be installed in Iraq. Let us promise not to make permanent the new US military bases ringing the rich oil and gas fields of the Caspian Basin. (We wouldn't want anyone to get the wrong idea about our motives.)

Our country's populace is famously provincial, and demonstrably uninformed of conditions and relationships beyond our borders. For most Americans, knowledge of the outside world comes mainly from television soundbites and newspaper headlines. Almost all our print and broadcast news comes, in turn, from a few giant media companies. This unhealthy situation is due largely to the deregulation of the media industry in recent years, championed by the Republican Party. It is a set-up for vast antidemocratic manipulation.

The giant media companies, like all industries with lobbies in Washington, have learned that there is just no investment quite like a well-chosen group of congressmen. Congress has magic powers. It can reach into the Federal till and scoop out billions of dollars and give them to you - no strings attached, as it did for the airlines in mid-September. It can repeal vexing regulations originally adopted to protect the public from predatory business practices - as it did repeatedly for Enron. Or it can rescind rules that hitherto have been barriers to unlimited media company growth - rules originally put in place to protect our democracy from the danger posed when a handful of companies control all the news.

Is it really possible that these few remaining media giants would abuse their position as virtual news monopolies? Isn't it sheer paranoia, you might wonder, to imagine that these companies would ever shape, shade, or slant the news to benefit their own interests, rather than carrying on in the noble public-service tradition of, say, Edward R. Murrow? One way of answering this question is to ask yourself a few others: how many informative documentaries have you seen lately, that explained the pros and cons of media-industry concentration? Have you seen any lucid accounts of the outright gift of several hundred billion dollars' worth of public property - a chunk of digital broadcast spectrum - that Congress bestowed upon TV station owners via the Telecommunications Act of 1996? How likely is it - since General Electric owns NBC and is also a leading arms contractor - that NBC would air documentaries critical of defense spending? Consideration of such questions drives home the point that what is presented as "the news" is only the news as large corporations want you to see it. It is news shaped, framed, and filtered by the financial and political interests of the companies providing it.

The elements of a futuristic sci-fi movie of nightmarish toxicity are with us already. We have a na´ve and poorly-informed people, dependent on media news for their glimmer of knowledge of the world beyond our shores. The people are angry and frightened. The country is said to be "at war" with an unspecified number of enemies for an indefinite number of years. If ever a nation needed a fair objective understanding of the world, this is it.

But all our news flows from the few media giants - which are corporations first, and "public servants" (a distant) second. They want from government what all corporations want: tax breaks, subsidies and exemption from oversight. They helped put in place the current right-wing government, precisely to obtain such favors. At the same time, they are in a position to set the tone for how the justness and wisdom of the current "war" is presented to the public. They are no more likely to provide the trusting public with views critical of the war, than NBC is to broadcast documentaries exposing wasteful defense spending. Frightening power is now in the hands of this military-industrial-media complex: it can mobilize emotional public support for a war, even while disguising its true motivations.

The societal mechanism is in place to wage aggressive wars aimed at controlling resources all over the globe, while the American people are told that the wars are "self-defense" against weapons of mass destruction, or part of the "war on terrorism." This is a public with little means of knowing any better - and the media they depend on for "information" has no incentive to tell them otherwise. The military arm of our society will act to further the aims of giant oil and defense interests; while the media arm issues soothing messages, all the anchors wear little flags in their lapels, and the public is urged to go shopping.

What sort of image will a future historian have of American society in the year 2002? Will history remember us as the rich society unable to even speak of consuming less than a disproportionate share of the earth's resources? As a society that, when attacked, refused to even speak of possible reasons why others might want to attack it - preferring instead the simple theory that the attackers were "evil?" A society with the planet's most powerful military, that attacked the poorest most defenseless nations - but squeamishly concealed the bombing's human consequences from television? A society that launched air strikes while urging its citizens to keep consuming, consuming without questioning, consuming without limit, consuming even as it killed, and killed remorselessly?

Now, about that scary sci-fi movie - have you seen the one about the machine that destroys everything in its path? Its mad creators built it without the circuitry to know when something it was doing was wrong.

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