Where the foundation hardened into a set form was with the high-level sanctioning and legalization of torture, rendition, indefinite detention, assassination, domestic surveillance and first-strike cyberwarfare. The national security systems of most 20th and 21st Century nation-states have indulged in most or all of these activities to varying degrees, no less the United States. There is a huge difference, however, between doing them against the law, out of the sight of top-level authority, and reigning in or redirecting such efforts when directed to do so either by civilian leaders or in response to moral and political pressure. There is a big difference between an individual doing something they believe necessary but illegal, immoral and dangerous and having the President of the United States and his top officials actively affirm the systematic right to do any of these things at will and without any possibility of oversight or review.

That’s where we are now, whomever is elected tomorrow night. We are where some empires eventually arrive: enslaved to the perpetual threat of an ever-wider war with our frontiers and ourselves. As Frederick Cooper and Jane Burbank’s superb new history of empires in world history observes, not all empires crumble from their own contradictions: they are as varied in their stability and character as nations are (in part because there have been more of them in world history). But the U.S. is now tracing the contours of a familiar kind of structural crisis that tends to be resolved in one of two ways: the empire kills its own power by mindlessly racing far beyond what its resources allow, its savvier clients and rivals deliberately bleeding it dry by exploiting the helpless giant’s inability to exercise judicious restraint and pragmatic self-control. Or it turns ferociously inward into itself when its own core citizenry finally recognize that their wealth is being squandered at the frontier and their freedoms are being whittled away in the name of safety. I don’t see any political leadership capable of threading either of those needles before events provide a far more drastic and unpleasant resolution.

Timothy Burke, What Won’t Change (I) | Easily Distracted


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