Marking 20 years
of bold journalism,
reader supported.
Rights + Justice

A Surveillance State Born in Ground Zero's Rubble

The least-recognized casualties of 9-11 are the democratic institutions of the US and its allies.

Crawford Kilian 11 Sep

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

This is a portentous day.

Forty years ago on Sept. 11, 1973, General Augusto Pinochet led a U.S.-backed coup that overthrew the democratically-elected government of Salvador Allende.

Twenty-eight years later, the al-Qaida attacks on New York and Washington induced the democratically-elected government of the United States to overthrow itself.

Each attack took about the same number of lives, around 3,000 -- all at once in New York and Washington, over weeks and months in Chile. The Chilean junta also arrested, imprisoned and tortured some 28,000 people in the next few years, including the young Michelle Bachelet, who is currently running to be re-elected as president of Chile.

Despite the restoration of electoral democracy, Chile remains a sharply divided country, with a vast income gap and an ideological gap as well -- between the "fachos" (fascists) who supported the dictatorship, and those on the centre and left.

Estimating the casualties of Sept. 11, 2001 is impossible. It includes the survivors of the World Trade Center, many of who may face illness and shorter lives because of toxins released in the collapse of the towers.

But it also includes all those killed in Afghanistan and Iraq, and those who came home wounded in body or soul. It includes those kidnapped and consigned to Guantanamo and other, more secret prisons around the world.

It includes those killed by drone attacks in Pakistan, and those killed or paralyzed by polio in regions where vaccination workers have been shot or bombed by Taliban supporters -- at least in part because during the hunt for bin Laden, a doctor ran a fake vaccination campaign to try to get DNA samples from the members of bin Laden's family.

The least-recognized casualties are the institutions of the United States and its allies, which imploded almost as quickly as the towers. Stress tends to reveal our true character. The attacks revealed our character as well as the Americans', and in general we failed that test.

The Americans failed it by the prompt, unconstitutional, and largely unresisted seizure of power by George W. Bush and U.S. intelligence agencies. We and the British failed it by going along with the new American surveillance state -- though to his lasting credit, prime minister Jean Chretien at least kept us out of Iraq.

The American Founding Fathers foresaw the likelihood of such a coup. That was why they created the checks and balances that made the country almost ungovernable. Power was divided among executive, legislative and judicial branches.

In theory, no one branch could overreach itself; in practice, both the courts and the legislators complied with Bush's executive coup. The shock of 9-11 and the new bogey of "terrorism" were enough stampede the public, which in turn stampeded the legislators. And the courts, from the Supreme Court on down, went along. The surveillance state, conceived even before the Chilean coup, was born in the rubble of Ground Zero.

If hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue, the outward forms of democracy are the cynical homage of the surveillance state. Americans after 9-11 allowed themselves to be bullied out of their shoes and shampoo in airport security, but many were clearly unhappy with what was being done in their name -- from Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo to Baghdad to Kabul. They began to demand the return of democratic checks and balances and limits on government surveillance.

Rebranding the surveillance state

But if anything, the surveillance state has extended and deepened its grip. Barack Obama simply rebranded it. Right-wing populists might hate having an attractive black man in power, but their opinion is of no more concern to the surveillance state than the opinion of the liberals who voted for Obama. Guantanamo continues, the drones rule Pakistan's skies, and now war beckons in Syria.

The past decade has seen plenty of crises, each clanging like Pavlov's bell to induce the desired response from the population. Any halfwit with a fancied grudge against the status quo could plant a knapsack bomb in a Spanish commuter train, a London bus, or the finish line of the Boston Marathon, and gain instant, state-sponsored notoriety.

No one bothered to recollect that state-sponsored terrorism operated in colonial Kenya against the Mau Mau, or the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Nor did they recollect that even the U.S. endured a century of white terrorism inflicted against black people that ended (if it has ended) only with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968.

Terrorism is policy, not philosophy

"Terrorism," the infliction of a small amount of violence when you can't afford to inflict more, is a policy but not a philosophy. But it has proved even more convenient than the Red Menace as a means for extracting both money and obedience from the taxpayers who cover the costs of the surveillance state. After all, the Soviet Union fell, but the supply of violent halfwits is reliably endless.

One could even argue that the greatest beneficiaries of terrorism are not those who inflict it, but those who are supposed to protect us from it -- the national police forces, the intelligence agencies, and (among others) the technology corporations that now enable those agencies to monitor our every tweet and email.

The last great crisis in the gestation of the surveillance state was in the 1960s and 70s, when the debacles of Vietnam and Watergate led to a brief effort to put the lid back on. One of the key figures of that era was a young officer named John Kerry, whose testimony as a veteran helped discredit the Vietnam War. He rode his fame to a seat in the Senate and a run for the presidency.

Now he must reflect on the irony of his role as Secretary of State, trying to argue that the U.S. can punish Assad's use of chemical weapons by an "unbelievably small" raid on Syria. As a trainee he must have been indoctrinated in Article 120 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which defines rape as "any penetration, however slight."

He might also reflect on whether the Japanese, on Dec. 8, 1941, could have persuaded Americans that they had launched an unbelievably small raid on Pearl Harbor and had no more plans against the U.S.

Disposable countries

For the surveillance state, Syria is just another disposable item like Iraq, with costs of disposal to be paid for by the taxpayers, soldiers, and inhabitants. As long as the state increases and enhances its power and control, the cost is worthwhile.

Churchill thought it always better to "jaw-jaw than to war-war," but to the surveillance state he is yesterday's man. Critics have questioned Obama's leadership not because he is dragging his country into yet another war, but because he hasn't already done so. This definition of leadership seems to have become entrenched in American thought since 9-11: At any perceived threat, insult, or mere annoyance, the leader must unleash his bombers and cruise missiles and drones. Diplomacy is for wimps.

Obviously, not all Americans agree, and on the eve of this 9-11 anniversary a majority were opposed to attacking Syria at all. Russia, of all countries, is offering Obama an escape through its proposal to internationalize Syria's chemical weapons.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Stephen Harper seems to have realized that he needs no more homebound traffic on the Highway of Heroes. So he's agreed to support Obama without actually putting any skin in the game. (Lester Pearson must be turning in his Wakefield grave at the missed opportunity for Canada to broker at least a stand-down.)

To the surveillance state, presidents and prime ministers are as expendable as Syrian civilians. Public protests like the Occupy movement are irrelevant (and of course tear gas isn't really a "chemical weapon"). The punishment of Bradley/Chelsea Manning, and the threat to Edward Snowden, are simply to keep the other flunkies on their toes, and to deter them from causing further annoyance.

The surveillance state, after all, having spied on us for years, has taken our measure. Few of us care about what has happened to democracy since 9-11. We are easily scared, but even more easily distracted. When our country is threatened, we courageously do as we're told and go shopping.

Chile has been a long time recovering from its 9-11, and may never recover completely. The U.S. and its hapless allies like Canada will take a very long time as well.  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice

  • Share:

Get The Tyee's Daily Catch, our free daily newsletter.

Tyee Commenting Guidelines

Comments that violate guidelines risk being deleted, and violations may result in a temporary or permanent user ban. Maintain the spirit of good conversation to stay in the discussion.
*Please note The Tyee is not a forum for spreading misinformation about COVID-19, denying its existence or minimizing its risk to public health.


  • Be thoughtful about how your words may affect the communities you are addressing. Language matters
  • Challenge arguments, not commenters
  • Flag trolls and guideline violations
  • Treat all with respect and curiosity, learn from differences of opinion
  • Verify facts, debunk rumours, point out logical fallacies
  • Add context and background
  • Note typos and reporting blind spots
  • Stay on topic

Do not:

  • Use sexist, classist, racist, homophobic or transphobic language
  • Ridicule, misgender, bully, threaten, name call, troll or wish harm on others
  • Personally attack authors or contributors
  • Spread misinformation or perpetuate conspiracies
  • Libel, defame or publish falsehoods
  • Attempt to guess other commenters’ real-life identities
  • Post links without providing context

Most Popular

Most Commented

Most Emailed


The Barometer

Should Fossil Fuel Ads Be Restricted?

Take this week's poll