John Whitehead's Commentary
Violence Begets Violence: The Orlando Shootings and the War on Terror
“Americans have been told that their government is keeping them safe by preventing and prosecuting terrorism inside the US... But take a closer look and you realize that many of these people would never have committed a crime if not for law enforcement encouraging, pressuring, and sometimes paying them to commit terrorist acts.”—Human Rights Watch
We can rail against ISIS, hate crimes, terror threats, Islamic radicalization, gun control and national security. We can blame Muslims, lax gun laws, a homophobic culture and a toxic politic environmental. We can even use the Orlando shooting as fodder for this year’s presidential campaigns.
But until we start addressing the U.S. government’s part in creating, cultivating and abetting domestic and global terrorism—and hold agencies such as the FBI and Defense Department accountable for importing and exporting violence, breeding extremism and generating blowback, which then gets turned loose on an unsuspecting American populace—we’ll be no closer to putting an end to the violence that claimed 50 lives at an Orlando nightclub on June 12, 2016, than we were 15 years ago when nearly 3,000 individuals were killed on Sept. 11, 2001.
Here’s what I know:
The United States, the world’s largest exporter of arms, has been selling violence to the world for too long now. Controlling more than 50 percent of the global weaponry market, the U.S. has sold or donated weapons to at least 96 countries in the past five years, including the Middle East.
The U.S. also provide countries such as Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan and Iraq with grants and loans through the Foreign Military Financing program to purchase military weapons.
At the same time that the U.S. is equipping nearly half the world with deadly weapons, profiting to the tune of $36.2 billion, its leaders have also been lecturing American citizens on the dangers of gun violence and working to enact measures that would make it more difficult for Americans to acquire certain weapons.
Blowback, a CIA term referring to the unintended consequences of the U.S. government’s international activities, is a reality. Chalmers Johnson, a former CIA consultant, repeatedly warned that America’s use of its military to gain power over the global economy would result in devastating blowback. We failed to heed his warning.
The 9/11 attacks were blowback: the CIA provided Osama bin Laden with military training and equipment to fight the Soviet Union, only to have him turn his ire on the U.S. The Boston Marathon Bombing was blowback: the Tsarnaev brothers reportedly credited the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as the motives for their attacks.
The attempted Times Square bomber was blowback for America’s drone killings of civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Fort Hood shooter, a major in the U.S. Army, was blowback for the horrors our enlisted men and women are being exposed to as part of this never-ending war on terror: the 39-year-old psychiatrist had been struggling to come to terms with when, if ever, is the death of innocents morally justified.
The Orlando nightclub shooting is merely the latest tragic example of blowback on a nation that feeds its citizens a steady diet of violence through its imperial wars abroad and its battlefield mindset at home, embodied by heavily armed, militarized police and SWAT team raids.
You want to put an end to the mass shootings, the terrorist bombings and the domestic extremism?
Then start by telling the government to stop creating blowback at home by stirring up wars abroad, stop killing innocent civilians as part of its drone wars, and stop policing the world through foreign occupations.
Demand that the U.S. government stop turning America into a battlefield. Hillary Clinton may be right that “weapons of war have no place on our streets,” but I don’t see her attempting to demilitarize the U.S. government—the largest gun owner in the nation—she just wants to take guns away from American citizens.
And while you’re at it, tell the FBI to stop labeling anyone who might disagree with the government’s policies as “anti-government,” “extremist” and a “terrorist,” because while they’re busy turning average Americans into criminals, the real criminals are getting away with murder.
Omar Mateen, the alleged gunman responsible for the Orlando shooting, is the end product of a diseased mindset that has overtaken the U.S. government. It’s a calculating mindset that views American citizens as economic units on a profit-and-loss ledger. And it’s a manipulative mindset that foments wars abroad (and in our own communities) in order to advance its own ambitions.
Whatever Mateen’s issue—whether he was “radicalized on the internet,” as the government suggests, or mentally ill or homophobic or conflicted about his own sexuality—he was also a victim of a government that has been at war with its own citizens for decades.
Mateen was a 29-year-old American citizen, born in New York and raised in Florida.
He was employed by the military industrial complex. Since 2007, he worked for G4S, one of the world’s largest private security firms, which contracts with the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security. G4S operates security centers, prisons and court cells and provides security to college campuses such as the University of Virginia.
As a security guard, Mateen was licensed to carry a firearm.
He was placed on the FBI’s terrorist watch list twice because of inflammatory remarks shared with a coworker and a brief association with an American suicide bomber. After twice being investigated and interviewed by the FBI, Mateen had his case file closed and was removed from the agency’s watch list.
And here’s where things get particularly interesting: what role, if any, did the FBI play in Mateen’s so-called radicalization?
Was the agency so busy amassing power, pursuing non-terrorists and inventing terrorists that it failed to recognize a “lone wolf” terrorist in its midst? Or was this another case of the FBI planting the seeds of terrorism in an impressionable mind?
Neither scenario is beyond the realm of possibility.
It could be that the FBI dropped the ball.
How many times in the wake of a bombing or shooting have we discovered that the alleged terrorist was known to the FBI and yet still managed to slip through their radar?
How is it that most people who get on the FBI’s terrorist watch list—even mistakenly—rarely if ever get off, while 29-year-old Omar Mateen was taken off the watch list, despite having been investigated for making inflammatory statements, interrogated by government agents on two different occasions, and having connections to a suicide bomber (two criteria for being watchlisted)?
As The Guardian notes:
Some of the most serious terrorist attacks carried out in the US since 9/11 have revolved around “lone wolf” actions, not the sort of conspiracy plots the FBI have been striving to combat. The 2010 Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad, only came to light after his car bomb failed to go off properly. The Fort Hood killer Nidal Malik Hasan, who shot dead 13 people on a Texas army base in 2009, was only discovered after he started firing. Both evaded the radar of an FBI expending resources setting up fictional crimes and then prosecuting those involved.
Then again, it could be that this is yet another terrorist of the FBI’s own making.
The FBI has a long, sordid history of inventing crimes, breeding criminals and helping to hatch and then foil terrorist plots in order to advance its own sordid agenda: namely, amassing greater powers under the guise of fighting the war on terrorism.
Investigative journalist Trevor Aaronson argues convincingly that “the FBI is much better at creating terrorists than it is at catching terrorists.” According to Aaronson’s calculations, the FBI is responsible for more terrorism plots in the United States than al Qaeda, al Shabaab and the Islamic State combined.
One method to the agency’s madness involves radicalizing impressionable young men in order to create and then “catch” terrorists. Under the guise of rooting out terrorists before they strike, the FBI targets mentally ill or impressionable individuals (many of whom are young and have no prior connection to terrorism), indoctrinates them with anti-American propaganda, pays criminals $100,000 per case to act as informants and help these would-be terrorists formulate terror plots against American targets, provides them with weapons and training, and then arrests them for being would-be terrorists. This is entrapment, plain and simple, or what former FBI director Robert Mueller referred to as a policy of “forward leaning – preventative – prosecutions.”
Whether or not the crisis of the moment—in this case, the mass shooting at an Orlando nightclub—is a legitimate act of terrorism or manufactured by some government agency or other, it’s hard not to feel as if we’re being manipulated and maneuvered by entities that know exactly which buttons to push to ensure our compliance and complaisance.
Already the politicians are talking about the next steps.
President Obama wants to restrict gun sales to American citizens. Of course, the U.S. government will continue to increase its production of and sales of weapons worldwide. What this means, as we’ve seen in Afghanistan and Iraq and most recently with ISIS, is that U.S. weapons will find their way to enemy hands and be used against our own soldiers.
Citing the need for an intelligence surge, Hillary Clinton wants to pressure technology companies to help the government conduct expanded online surveillance of potential extremist attackers. Of course, we already know how the government defines a potential extremist: as anyone—right-wing or left-wing—who disagrees with government policies and challenges government authority.
Meanwhile FBI Director James Comey is urging Americans to report anything they see that may be “suspicious.” There’s also been a lot of talk about individuals who are “radicalized through the internet.” This comes on the heels of efforts by the Obama administration to allow the FBI to access a person’s Internet browser history and other electronic data without a warrant.
This is the same agency that is rapidly hoovering up as much biometric data as it can (DNA, iris scans, facial scans, tattoos) in order to create a massive database that identifies each citizen, tracks their movements, connects them to relatives and associates, and assigns them threat assessments based on their potential to become anti-government troublemakers, “extremists” or terrorists of any kind.
Suddenly it’s all starting to make a lot more sense, isn’t it?
As I point out in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, what we’re witnessing is the case being made for the government to shift even more aggressively into the business of pre-crime: monitoring all Americans, identifying which individuals could become potentially “anti-government,” and eliminating the danger before it can pose a threat to the powers-that-be.
In this way, whether fabricated or real, these attacks serve a larger purpose, which is to give the government even greater powers to wage war, spy on its citizens, and expand the size and reach of the government.
The 9/11 attacks delivered up a gift-wrapped Patriot Act to the nation’s law enforcement agencies. As Chalmers Johnson recounted:
The people in Washington who run our government believe that they can now get all the things they wanted before the trade towers came down: more money for the military, ballistic missile defenses, more freedom for the intelligence services and removal of the last modest restrictions (no assassinations, less domestic snooping, fewer lists given to “friendly” foreign police of people we want executed) that the Vietnam era placed on our leaders.
The Orlando attacks may well do away with what little Fourth Amendment protections remain to us in the face of aggressive government surveillance.
Thus, whether you’re talking about a mass shooting at an Orlando nightclub, a bombing at the Boston Marathon, or hijacked planes being flown into the World Trade Center, the government’s spin machine is still operating from the same playbook they used post-9/11. Just invoke the specter of terrorism, trot out the right bogeyman (extremist Muslims, homophobes, racists, etc.), sentimentalize the victims enough, and most Americans will fall in line and patriotically support the government in its fight against the “enemy.”
Likewise, the government’s response to each crisis follows the same tune: a) the terrorists did it, b) the government is hard at work fighting the war on terror, and c) Americans need to “help” the government by relinquishing some of their freedoms.
So where does that leave us?
Chalmers Johnson, who died in 2010, believed that the answer is to bring our rampant militarism under control. As he concluded in an essay for The Nation:
From George Washington’s “farewell address” to Dwight Eisenhower’s invention of the phrase “military-industrial complex,” American leaders have warned about the dangers of a bloated, permanent, expensive military establishment that has lost its relationship to the country because service in it is no longer an obligation of citizenship. Our military operates the biggest arms sales operation on earth; it rapes girls, women and schoolchildren in Okinawa; it cuts ski-lift cables in Italy, killing twenty vacationers, and dismisses what its insubordinate pilots have done as a “training accident”; it allows its nuclear attack submarines to be used for joy rides for wealthy civilian supporters and then covers up the negligence that caused the sinking of a Japanese high school training ship; it propagandizes the nation with Hollywood films glorifying military service (Pearl Harbor); and it manipulates the political process to get more carrier task forces, antimissile missiles, nuclear weapons, stealth bombers and other expensive gadgets for which we have no conceivable use. Two of the most influential federal institutions are not in Washington but on the south side of the Potomac River–the Defense Department and the Central Intelligence Agency. Given their influence today, one must conclude that the government outlined in the Constitution of 1787 no longer bears much relationship to the government that actually rules from Washington. Until that is corrected, we should probably stop talking about “democracy” and “human rights.”