After the September 11 attacks, the U.S. government employed various counterterrorism measures in an atmosphere of panic. Some made sense and stood the test of time, such as vetting airline passengers or banning knives on planes. Others were abandoned and memory-holed as ineffective and wasteful, like the Iraq Campaign.
The Right focused on the failure of security efforts to distinguish loyal and law-abiding Americans from high-risk groups. The spectacle of children and grandmas being subjected to humiliating pat-downs at airports stands out as particularly galling. The Left and the libertarians were wary of the expansive authority of intelligence agencies and the domestic use of the military. In one instance, a tank was parked outside of Miami International Airport, as if al Qaeda would unleash an armored attack.
Critics labeled such dramatic and mostly symbolic efforts for what they were: security theater.
A Show of Force
The January 6 Capitol Hill protests have provoked a similar panic and an overreaction. First came rhetorical overkill. It went from a “riot,” to an attempted “coup,” and finally to an “insurrection.” By the time of Biden’s inauguration, enormous numbers of National Guard troops occupied Washington, D.C. in an unironically named Green Zone.
Large numbers of armed troops were visibly bivouacked within the U.S. Capitol, even though the protesters from January 6 were quickly dispersed, mostly nonviolent, and had long since gone home. The FBI warned of coordinated nationwide violent protests in the days leading up to the inauguration, almost none of which materialized.
The approximately 25,000 National Guard present were armed, before being disarmed and subject to vetting for their political beliefs. By the time the inauguration ceremony rolled around, there wasn’t much for them to do.
The inauguration went off without any notable security breaches. Of course, this is not a terribly impressive achievement, as there were essentially no regular American citizens there. It’s easier to maintain security within a closed perimeter than it is to maintain security while preserving the contours of a free society.
For all of the solemn praise of democracy by Biden and the rest of the assembled VIPs, the imagery was more reminiscent of the Soviet Union, including the absence of ordinary citizens and the prominent display of military power. The Soviet Union, of course, also purported to be a democracy, and it also had elections. But their elections had many of the features now familiar at home: vetting of candidates by the state bureaucracy, the use of intelligence agencies to investigate and defame dissenters, restrictions on free speech aimed at “saboteurs” and other troublemakers, a compliant media subordinate to the party, and largely preordained results to elections.
There were several unmistakable messages from the Biden inauguration and its heavy-handed security efforts. Namely, “We, the assembled, are the powerful people. This military is an instrument in our hands. And anyone who dares to stand against this power will be crushed.” In other words, while the lyrics said “democracy,” the music blared: POWER!
Biden’s speech also repeated many of these themes. While it was superficially moderate and extended an olive branch to those who didn’t vote for him, the broad stroke condemnation of alleged “political extremism,” “domestic terrorism,” and the like, left millions of Americans out of the fold. He said nothing to distinguish passionate and aggrieved Trump supporters—who donated, rallied, held signs, and voted—from the very small number who broke the law . . . and the even smaller number who acted violently.
Joe Biden’s proposed unity was entirely conditional and one-sided. Either get behind him, and accept his and the establishment’s legitimacy, or be harassed, exposed, and possibly imprisoned.
The Manichaean formula after September 11—once reserved for foreign, Islamic extremists—was now deployed against ordinary Americans: you’re either with us or against us.
Control of the Military as Proof of Real Power
For all the talk of coups and insurrections, they’re essentially unknown to the United States. We had one civil war, but it was fought between competing government entities, i.e., a War Between the States. But coups do happen elsewhere, and the basis for their legitimacy is worth considering.
In other nations, as in our own, the military is popular. For the Soviet Union and its ruling communist party, the state’s military prowess was one of the chief sources of internal and external prestige. In many countries, it is perceived as the least corrupted institution of government, immunized from the horse trading, bribery, and vanity that characterize elected officials. The military’s ethic of sacrifice and physical courage, as well as ruthless efficiency, are plausibly the right antidote to an unresponsive, ineffective, and often self-serving civilian leadership class. This is why coups succeed and are often popular in places like Turkey, Pakistan, and Egypt.
In America, the military is supposed to be subordinate to civilian control. The president is its commander-in-chief. But, because the military is popular here, the president’s prestige is enhanced by his control over the military.
Thus, when Trump was president, his use of the military was severely limited, even though he was technically its commander-in-chief. At one point he wanted to have a military parade. Numerous commentators, both on the Left and the Right, decried the symbolism and expense of this measure.
Trump also wanted to use the military to protect the border and push back against the widespread BLM riots last summer. Both proposals also occasioned a lot of hand-wringing about the dangers of using the military domestically, and Trump’s supposed ambitions as a tyrant. Even officials within the military publicly expressed their misgivings. Ordinary Americans and their municipalities were on their own against the violence of illegal immigrants, drug cartels, and destructive left-wing rioters.
Trump never fully controlled the executive branch or the military.
Now that Democrats are back at the helm, the military and the broader national security state simultaneously have been cowed and unleashed. No longer will they publicly push back against their commander-in-chief; they are now, once again, an instrument in his hands.
At the same time, pious concerns for expense and civil liberties disappeared after the January 6 protests. While a mere parade was too much for Trump, a month-long deployment of 25,000 troops—10 times the number now deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan—would be reflexively deployed to parry an imaginary domestic insurrection. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), apparently, even asked for belt-fed machine guns, presumably to mow down any protesters that breached the “Green Zone.”
For better or worse, the power of the American state is now fully unified. But this power is only nominally in the hands of Joe Biden. He owes a lot of favors for being president, and, as we saw on the campaign trail, he is barely in control of his faculties. Thus, we now really have a government by party committee.
As in other party-led states, we can expect the party’s leaders to look out for themselves, to be blinded by ideology, and to draw a sharp distinction between the inner circle and mere subjects. They, not Main Street, USA, get protected by the National Guard.
Far from being an exceptional response to an emergency, the sterile and militarized Washington, D.C. of Joe Biden’s inauguration was an effort at mass intimidation and a portent of things to come.