The Morality of Altitude & The Culture of Fear

A Culture of Information Privilege

“The term ‘the morality of altitude’ was coined to apply to bomber pilots who released their payloads on victims they couldn’t see, without ever feeling any sense of remorse or empathy for the people whose lives, families, homes and property they destroyed.”
(“Satellite pictures tell of human rights violation,” GIS News Website, 16 June 2008)

I use the phrase in a different sense: to discuss a certain mindset that evolves and becomes entrenched in military, governmental and bureaucratic cultures where people holding secret knowledge are told, believe and perpetuate the belief that:

  1. The problems facing a country are so complex that only ‘experts’ can understand them.
  2. The knowledge needed to make good decisions in the face of this data is above that of the common person.
  3. That people in positions where secret information is handled DO have that expertise and knowledge
  4. That common people don’t have the backbone to make tough decisions.
  5. They must be kept pacified with lies and oversimplification so the experts (government, military, corporate) can do their jobs.
  6. If everyone knew this information, democracy would cease to function.

Once a person spends any time on ‘the inside’ of this circle of informational privilege, there is a very high probability that they will come to hold the same opinion. Very few people manage to escape the gravity well of this kind of enculturation because everything they experience, once inside, serves to reinforce it.

There are basically only two reasons for a state to keep secrets: to gain a legitimate intelligence advantage over their enemies and to conceal wrongdoing and abuses of power. It is the duty of an American citizen, under the rules of its Constitution, to make absolutely sure that the secrets held by their government serve the former and not the latter purpose.

A Culture of Diminished Responsibility

It would be very easy to lay the blame completely at the door of those rarefied levels of power, but it would be unfair to do so. For the most part, every day of the year, most US citizens act in a manner that supports the assumptions made above them. When they hear that their government has committed morally questionable, ethically untenable or downright criminal things, they don’t rise up in any great numbers and demand resignations, prosecute perpetrators or impeach and call elections.

In 2002, the American government told absolute lies to the American public on several important issues: that Iraq was in possession of WMDs and that Saddam Hussein must be stopped before he used them, which he surely would. They were also informed that Iraq was in league with Al Qaida and actively supporting fundamentalist Islamic terrorists who were seeking to harm the US, both at home and abroad.

There is overwhelming evidence that a vast majority of people on ‘the inside’ knew they were untruths. Nevertheless, these untruths enabled the US to wage an aggressive war on Iraq – occupying the country and toppling Saddam Hussein. It is conservatively estimated that between 100,000 – 150,000 Iraqis have died as a result of the US invasion[1] (this is not the number estimated by the British medical journal, The Lancet, which puts the count at over half a million). As of May 2010, US numbers stand at 4,404 dead and 31,827 wounded in action[2].

Less than a year after the start of hostilities in Iraq, the vast majority of the Americans were clearly informed that both these pretexts for war were false and that, in certain cases, the government hid the truth, quashed publicly voiced doubts of very well informed people and muzzled those who might expose it. Yet the American people still re-elected the President who told them these lies to a second term in office.

Don’t feel bad, this is not the first time this has happened. Americans just like you re-elected Richard Nixon after the leak and publication of the Pentagon Papers revealed that four successive administrations, including Nixon’s, had told outright lies both to Congress and the American people, concealing their foreign policy aims with regard to rationale and depth of involvement in the Vietnam War. And don’t feel singled out – no world power in history has not perpetrated these sorts of excesses.

But there are two very important differences between the US as a world power and historical Empires. First, technology has made the waging of war a vastly more bloody affair than in earlier centuries. Secondly, the US is pretty well the only country on earth in possession of a Constitution that was penned specifically to enable its citizens to stop its own government from behaving in this manner.

A Culture of Fear

2,975 people died in the attacks of 9/11. Coalition military deaths alone, in response to these attacks – combining deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan – total 7,010. It is important to look at these numbers and decide whose cause the foreign and domestic responses to 9/11 have been serving.

Ten years later, the death toll on the Coalition side has tripled (I’m not going to even take out my calculator to estimate the total number of all deaths). Financially, it has cost the US people more than $1,122,562,280,004. One trillion dollars. Most of the Western world has distanced themselves from American foreign policy and the Islamic world’s animosity towards the US (what triggered the 9/11 attacks in the first place) has grown exponentially. What was once the rabid hatred of a few hundred Islamic fundamentalists has exploded into a world-wide, mainstream Muslim disgust with the US. I’m not talking about what the King of Saudi Arabia thinks. I’m talking about what normal, everyday Muslims all over the planet think. From Turkey to Jordan to Malaysia and Indonesia, the US is almost universally condemned for its foreign policy. They don’t hate you because you’re not Muslim. They don’t hate you for killing terrorists.  They hate you because you are killing innocent Muslim civilians and they hold you responsible for the Muslim on Muslim violence that has flared up in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Because the wars have been, at least partially, the cause for the rise in factionalism amongst Muslim groups.

Americans are no safer in the world than they were the day after 9/11 happened. They are in far, far more danger.

At home, the Patriot Act and anti-terrorism laws have stripped US citizens of their rights to privacy, to due process, to conduct business in a free market. Political opportunism and vested commercial interests have combined, in concert with a judiciary that is much more willing to interfere with the processes of investigative reporting, have resulted in a steady erosion of the powers of the press to act as watchdog and curtail any abuses of power that a government might commit.

Given the latitudes that a state of war grants to the power of the Executive Branch of the US Government, a staunchly independent judiciary and adversarial press are the only elements in your system to check Executive excesses.

And the people of the United States have allowed all this for the sake of their own safety. They are, at this very moment, devolving the power granted to them by the Constitution to agenda driven politicians, corporate lobbyists and, ironically, the very enemies that they declared war against in the aftermath of 9/11.

At this point in my blog post, you’re probably thinking I’m a nutjob pacifist, right?

Wrong. I absolutely support the right of the US to seek retribution for the attacks of 9/11. And I think that Taliban-run Afghanistan was a well-chosen target. They should have bombed them into misery, destroyed every shred of their infrastructure and turned the country into a wasteland. Then they should have gone home and left the Afghans to their own devices. Almost the entire world would have understood and, if not applauded, then commiserated that rationale. But the US wanted more. It wanted to punish the perpetrators and their supporters and then bring them the blessings of democracy.

The post-WWII world is littered with America’s failed attempt to impose democracy from above. And who was fantasizing that it was even remotely possible to do this when 50 years of history has made it obvious that American style democracy cannot be ‘imposed’? Those brilliant experts with their security clearances who think that people like you couldn’t possibly understand or handle the secrets in their files. It took me until the age of about 45 for the frightening reality of this to sink in: your grandma would probably be more sensible and do a better job.