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A Fitting Flourish on a 20 Year Killing Spree

On August 29, 2021, the U.S. military killed a group of people in Kabul, Afghanistan, using a Hellfire missile launched from an MQ-9 Reaper drone. The Pentagon claimed that “the procedures were correctly followed, and it was a righteous strike.” In a surprising development, rather than merely parroting the Pentagon account of what transpired, the New York Times decided to investigate what happened and has produced a compelling film to illustrate that the people incinerated were not ISIS-K terrorists, or anyone associated with groups posing a threat to U.S forces and allies. Instead, the victims were an aid worker, Zemari Ahmadi, and his entire family, including seven children. While the Pentagon believed that the target was behaving suspiciously, in fact, he was going about an ordinary day of running errands. Ahmadi, an electrical engineer by training, worked for a California-based NGO, Nutrition and Education International. On his last day of life, he was bringing water to his home, and transporting colleagues around town.

Reporters for the New York Times pieced together very clear security camera footage of Ahmadi moving about with colleagues, holding laptops and empty plastic water containers, which they placed in a white Toyota Corola. The Pentagon interpreted the water bottles and laptops as evidence of an imminent terrorist attack. In press conferences after the strike, officials maintained that a large secondary explosion showed that the car contained bombs, intended for use to further disrupt the evacuations underway at Kabul airport. Independent weapons experts enlisted to assess the damage at the scene, however, found no evidence of a secondary blast. They found no damage to peripheral structures, and no indication that the destruction of the car and the deaths of ten human beings were caused by anything but the missile launched from a U.S. drone.

Unfortunately, the only thing truly surprising about this development is that a mainstream media outlet has done some real reporting to get to the bottom of the story. What distinguishes this from hundreds of other drone strikes in Afghanistan throughout the twenty-year War on Terror is only that the Pentagon was not allowed to squelch any possible suggestion to the effect that they incompetently killed innocent people while claiming to be protecting them. The New York Times enthusiastically promoted the government line all through the War on Terror, portraying in a positive light even abominations such as the Obama administration’s Terror Tuesday meetings, during which nominees for elimination were considered on the basis of flashcard presentations. I am frankly surprised that the story of what happened in Kabul less than two weeks ago made it through the editorial office at the New York Times and have to wonder whether the editor who gave the piece a green light will continue to be gainfully employed. It would be nice to believe that the New York Times editorial board has done some soul-searching and wishes to repent for its warmongering ways, but let us be perfectly clear: through publishing pieces in which they verily gushed over Obama’s new role as a technokiller, the New York Times helped to make palatable and ultimately normalize assassination of suspects by lethal drones on the basis of purely circumstantial evidence.

The summary execution of suspects was established as a standard operating procedure during the War on Terror not only in Afghanistan and Iraq, but all over the Middle East and in Africa as well. We know from documents stolen and shared by whistleblower Daniel Hale, that, far from ensuring that no civilians would be killed before drone strikes were carried out, analysts deemed targets guilty until proven innocent. Scandalously, many of the persons killed were of entirely unknown identity. When standards of justice were inverted in this way, injustice was systematically perpetrated under a specious guise of national defense. Standards of truth were also corrupted as military bureaucrats wove stories to attempt to convince the populace that they did nothing wrong, even when they killed scores of human beings at gatherings such as funerals and weddings, and even when they bombed hospitals. Recall also that when Pat Tillman, the former NFL player who volunteered to fight in the War on the Terror, was killed in a friendly fire incident, the Pentagon concocted a fable to paint him as a hero instead. And that was only one of many cases in which truth was abandoned in the name of public relations to prop up a misguided and ill-fated military mission. Lies were what kept the war on Afghanistan going long after it should have ended. Trillions of dollars and countless lives later, the administration finally acknowledged that it had been a Fool’s Errand all along.

Lies were used not only to keep troops on the ground in Afghanistan long after the mission to locate Osama bin Laden had ended, but also to expand the War on Terror to many surrounding countries and to Africa as well. Most of these were undeclared wars, said by their perpetrators to be necessary in national defense and claimed to be authorized by a sweeping AUMF (Authorization for Use of Military Force), which congress cowardly bestowed upon President George W. Bush in order to avoid responsibility for whatever might ensue, allowing him, in effect, to bomb wherever he wanted to. No U.S. citizen was ever protected by any drone strike targeting suspects in unoccupied lands, and now that Afghanistan is no longer under U.S. occupation, what happened on August 29, 2021, can be used as a lens through which to see the magnitude of injustice perpetrated over twenty years in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Libya, and beyond. In such countries, locals who attempted to dispute official pronouncements on the military-aged men killed and claimed to be terrorists were denounced, discredited, and sometimes targeted, again for being so-called propaganda outlets for Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. But because the U.S. military no longer controls the narrative of what is going on in Afghanistan, having returned the country to the Taliban, we have been afforded a rare glimpse into the terrible reality of what has been done in our name for two decades.

Perhaps this latest tragedy could have been avoided, had the revelations of Daniel Hale and Julian Assange been taken seriously. Preposterously, Hale is serving a prison sentence, and Assange is the ongoing victim of a relentless persecution campaign to extradite him to the United States to face charges under the Espionage Act for publishing factual material, including the shocking Collateral Murder video. If the U.S. government were to acknowledge the concerns of whistleblowers and admit that executing people on the basis of circumstantial evidence contradicts everything the United States supposedly stands for, including human rights, then they would have to pause and assess what the actual consequences of their drone program have been. Instead, they criminalize the whistleblowers and plod on as before.

Rather than learn from their mistakes, the Pentagon persists in doubling down on failed strategies. Lest we forget, the U.S. government was provoked by the events of September 11, 2001, into launching a vast and ruinous campaign of terrorism, torture, and mass homicide throughout the Middle East. The provocation strategy worked once again in August 2021, when a bomb set off at the Kabul airport, killing thirteen Marines, immediately led to President Biden’s declaration that he would seek revenge. Three days later, the drone strike on August 29, 2021, incinerated an entire family of ten people who were hoping to obtain refugee visas to the United States. This was, once again, a misguided reaction to a terrorist attack specifically intended to goad the U.S. government to overreact, which of course it did. The difference between this drone strike and the hundreds of others which preceded it is only this: because the military had already left Afghanistan, there was no one around to suppress the counter narrative of locals at the scene of the crime.

Biden’s Vaccine Mandate, and State Power Over Your Life

The Biden administration on Thursday announced sweeping new mandates. The new mandates require that all employers with more than one hundred workers require workers to be vaccinated or to test for the virus weekly. The mandates also require covid vaccinations for the 17 million workers at health facilities that receive federal Medicare or Medicaid. Moreover, vaccines are mandated for all employees of the federal government’s executive branch, and for all contractors who do business with the federal government. There is no option to test out in these cases.

The new mandates extend an earlier mandate from this summer which required vaccinations for nursing home staff to other healthcare settings, including hospitals, home health agencies, and dialysis centers.

Employees who don’t conform face termination. Employers who don’t play ball face the wrath of federal regulators.

Clearly, this represents yet another dangerous frontier in using a perceived or real crisis to justify an immense expansion in state power and state control over the population.

The Vaccinated Still Spread the Disease

The reasons given for the mandate continue to shift. Some supporters of vaccine mandates continue to claim that the continued spread of COVID-19 ought to be blamed on the unvaccinated.

Yet the facts do not support this position. We know that the vaccinated spread the disease freely, even if the vaccinated do not suffer the effects of the disease to the same extent as the unvaccinated. The infected vaccinated even carry a viral load similar to the unvaccinated. In fact, health officials so freely admit that the vaccinated spread the disease, that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends mask mandates for the vaccinated.

Some other advocates of mandates, recognizing the incoherence of the “stop the spread” position, instead have reverted to the same rationale behind the old “flatten the curve” slogan of 2020. In this case, it is asserted that the unvaccinated are more likely to need hospitalization and thus are using up “too many” beds in intensive care units. That is, it’s no longer about stopping the spread of the disease, but about limiting use of medical resources.

The Return of “Flatten the Curve”

As with the old “flatten the curve” claims, this raises the question of why only covid patients are the target of federal mandates and public shaming. If failure to get vaccinated constitutes an “unhealthy choice” that must be punished with threats of losing one’s job, why are other unhealthy choices ignored?

Hospital beds are frequently filled with patients who overdose on drugs, chain smoke, or allow themselves to become morbidly obese. In fact, type 2 diabetes—which is entirely preventable—increased by 95 percent from 2001 to 2017, especially among the young.

If one mentions the unhealthy choices that sent these patients to intensive care, one is likely to be accused of “fat shaming” or blaming the victim. On the other hand, singling out vaccine-hesitant Americans for financial ruin should they refuse the vaccine is greeted with cheers and applause.

Abandoning Limits on Government Power

These arguments in favor of mandates, of course, are all premised on the idea that the federal government should be unrestrained in its ability to impose “solutions” to various perceived or real crises.

The question of legal authority for such acts seems almost academic at this point. It has become abundantly clear that the federal government—and especially the executive branch—regards legal and constitutional limits on federal power as mere inconveniences to be ignored. Debates over constitutionality are now, for the most part, a relic of an earlier age.

Just as the Trump administration invented a new federal power to regulate evictions at rental properties—with little political opposition—the Biden administration’s vaccine dictates for all private employers of a certain size are remarkable in their scope and unprecedented nature. The notion that a single person—a president—can regulate, with a stroke of a pen, the terms of employment for countless private sector employers is striking, even in this era of nearly untrammeled federal power.

Using Federal Spending to Get Compliance

Moreover, thanks to the growth of government spending and subsidies—such as Medicare and Medicaid—which now extend into so many American institutions nationwide, the federal government doesn’t even need to directly force compliance. The federal government can simply say, “If you want our money, do what we say.” After decades of conditioning America’s institutions to become addicted to federal money, this method becomes easier every year.

The exercise of so much direct federal power over 330 million Americans ought to be alarming. Yet for many Americans—likely around half of them—it will not be alarming at all. Notions of due process, natural rights, and decentralized state power are nearly without meaning to this portion of the population.

The Triumph of the Technocracy

Rather, the vaccine mandates represent merely the latest example of how the ruling class and much of the public supports a utilitarian technocratic state unrestrained by old classical liberal limitations on state power. In the minds of countless Americans, second thoughts about granting governments vast new powers is an old-fashioned and contemptible habit. What matters now is granting kind-hearted government agents the prerogatives to “do something.”

The groundwork for all this has been laid for decades in universities, public elementary schools, and in the media. The advent of “covid policy,” with its lockdowns and vaccine mandates, is simply the latest manifestation in the tradition of the PATRIOT Act and the War on Drugs. This thinking been embraced by both Left and Right, as both sides have sought federal action for their pet projects.

Yet the danger of the current “war on COVID” is that it is nearly inescapable for the population as a whole. The intrusiveness of these policies—combined with the repugnance of a policy designed to force medication on millions of Americans—place them at a level above other government “wars” in the name of safety or “public health.”

Those who can resist mandates must do so. Even today, some avenues remain through the federal courts. And in recent years, state governments have shown an increasing willingness to openly oppose federal acts.

But until Americans begin to deny the moral permissiveness of “federal mandates” altogether, little progress will be made. As Ludwig von Mises repeatedly pointed out, only the power of ideas is sufficient to provide real limits on state power.

This article was originally featured at the Ludwig von Mises Institute and is republished with permission.

TGIF: Bad Sign?

When I see four of those yard signs on my morning walk, I chuckle. If I’m in a mischievous mood I might someday suggest a couple of memes that the owners might add.

I could embrace all of those memes, but not without some qualification and in several cases, a good deal of qualification. But that’s for another day.

Today I want to focus on numbers 5 and 6: “Science Is Real” and “Water Is Life.” I wouldn’t comment on these were it not for their ominous implications for government policy. Some people are ready to spend trillions of other people’s money because of what they suppose those sayings mean.

They are true of course, but they are misleading because they are incomplete. (Would many people actually deny that science per se is real or that water is essential to life?)

My suggestion to the sign owners would be, first, to take a Sharpie and squeeze in these words after “Science Is Real”: “But Scientists Are Human Beings Too.” Not every passerby will get it, but some may interpret it correctly to mean that scientists, despite the white lab coats, are subject to the same imperfections as other people: among them, bias, vanity, greed, insecurity, what Herbert Spencer called “the pressing desire for careers,” and a wish to protect the psychological investment that can result when one spends a good deal of time mastering a subject.

The climate row provides a good example here. If one comes to think of oneself as having mastered climatology, one hardly wants to hear other scientists with impeccable credentials say that “the climate” is too complex a subject to be mastered by anyone. In fact, complex doesn’t even begin to describe it. As the scientists who are climate optimists point out to the alarmists, “the climate” is not a thing but a mind-blowing collection of many moving and interrelated parts, the behavior of which is inherently unpredictable and maybe beyond complete comprehension.

That such a complex phenomenon might boil down–sorry about that–to just the CO2 and (noisy) average-global-temperature records dating back, say, a century is something that even we lay people can balk at. As the climate scientist Patrick Frank of Stanford University–who has demonstrated the error-riddled nature of the IPCC’s computer models, which cannot even predict the past–wrote in Skeptic magazine, “Earth’s climate is warming and no one knows exactly why. But there is no falsifiable scientific basis whatever to assert this warming is caused by human-produced greenhouse gases because current physical theory is too grossly inadequate to establish any cause at all.”

Want to hear it from a physicist who was in Barack Obama’s energy department?  Here’s Steven Koonin, author of the new book Unsettled? What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters: “[T]he science is insufficient to make useful projections about how the climate will change over the coming decades, much less what effect our actions will have on it.”

Okay, then how about a leftist physicist? Canadian Denis Rancourt: “There are more unknown and unforeseeable CO2 evolution feedback mechanisms [than] there are climate research institutes on the planet.”

This leads to my second proposed addition to the sign. After “Water Is Life” I would suggest adding, “And So Is Carbon Dioxide!” Just as all living things depend on water, so all living things depend on CO2. Plants devour it with gusto, so even we carnivores love CO2 because it feeds the plants that nourish our animal food sources.

To drive the point home: “At the current level of ~400 ppm [parts per million] we still live in a CO2-starved world. Atmospheric levels 15 times greater existed during the Cambrian Period (about 550 million years ago) without known adverse effects.” (Emphasis added. Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change “Executive Summary,” Climate Change Reconsidered II: Physical Science, 2013. For details see this chart going back 600 million years for details.)

Moreover, “CO2 is a vital nutrient used by plants in photosynthesis. Increasing CO2 in the atmosphere ‘greens’ the planet and helps feed the growing human population.” (See this world map illustrating the global greening that the increasing CO2 seems to be producing, much of it in the Amazon rainforest.) Everyone knows that operators of greenhouses pump in CO2 (not “carbon”) to get bigger plants because it isn’t a pollutant–it is plant food.

So which office does CO2 go to to get its reputation back?

9/11 Propaganda Poisoned America’s Mind (Including Libertarians)

Life in America changed twenty years ago after the 9/11 attacks. Many Americans became enraged at anyone who did not swear allegiance to President George W. Bush’s antiterrorism crusade. Anyone who denied “they hate us for our freedoms” automatically became an enemy of freedom.

Plenty of stalwart defenders of liberty quickly found themselves banished from polite company. At the time of the 9/11 attacks, I had been bashing government policies for twenty years. Conservatives relished my battering of the Clinton administration in books such as Feeling Your Pain (St. Martin’s, 2000). But past writing provided no indemnity for subsequent sins.

Regardless, nothing happened on 9/11 to make the government more trustworthy. Two years after the 9/11 attacks, St. Martin’s Press published my Terrorism and Tyranny: Trampling Freedom, Justice, and Peace to Rid the World of Evil, attacking the war on terror across the board. I scoffed, “The Patriot Act treats every citizen like a suspected terrorist and every federal agent like a proven angel.” When the Justice Department launched a PATRIOT Act propaganda website, lifeandliberty.gov, it included an attack on my writing. As one book publicist told me, I was in “the untouchable part of the intellectual caste system.” Luckily, some outlets did not go to the dark side, including the Mises Institute, the Future of Freedom Foundation, and websites like Antiwar.com and Counterpunch.

I soon recognized that the feds had more fans than I realized, especially among self-proclaimed friends of freedom. In February 2004, I spoke to a hundred folks at the best-known libertarian forum in New York City. Some of the attendees had followed my work for years, while others may have shown up simply to howl at a heretic.

Three minutes into the speech, a paunchy middle-aged guy leaped to his feet and denounced me: “You sound like an isolationist—and that means you are anti-Israel!”

What the hell?

I began to suspect that only people with unmedicated ADHD were permitted in the audience and I’d be lucky to speak three sentences in a row. Attendees were not considered to be hecklers unless they threw physical objects at the speaker. The scene quickly became akin to a political convention, with random people jumping up to make speeches, most of them bad. It is tricky to argue with self-evident truths that were established solely by echo chambers. Plenty of attendees had never recovered from their own high SAT scores.

As the evening progressed, I was accused of everything except advocating infanticide. Perhaps the biggest surprise that night was that many people objected to making fun of the government. A tall, elderly gentleman declared that comical pratfalls by the Transportation Security Administration and the FBI were irrelevant to the “big picture.”

“What’s the ‘big picture?’” I asked.

“The fact that there haven’t been any terror attacks since 9/11 proves the feds are doing a good job,” he declared, spurring loud assents from the audience. He insisted that hundreds of Muslim sleeper cells in the US were waiting for the signal to sow mass death and chaos. I was chagrined to see folks more fearful of alleged invisible Muslim perils than of rampaging federal agencies. I have always considered mocking the government as a trademark of a free citizen. And, as H.L. Mencken wrote, “One horse laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms.” At the end of two hours’ sparring, the host gave me a check that was larger than I expected, so all’s well that ends well (or at least profitably).

That brawl was a bellwether on how the freedom movement had changed. A few months later, the Abu Ghraib photos and memos from the Justice Department authorizing torture leaked out. A top Justice Department official had assured the White House that the president was entitled to violate criminal laws (such as the Anti-torture Act) during wartime. That preemptive “get out of jail free” card unleashed interrogation methods such as waterboarding (simulated drowning), pummeling, and long-term sleep deprivation.

There was no way to deny the depravity of Bush’s war on terror after that, right? No such luck. When I spoke at the largest nationwide gathering of freedom activists in Las Vegas and at the national Libertarian Party conference in 2004, I was booed for my criticisms of Bush’s warring and torturing. I was also later booed for opposing torture at the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. Plenty of libertarians were no longer in favor of freedom—unless it included the freedom to torture terrorists. And how do we know who is a terrorist? That’s easy—because someone somewhere claims to suspect them of something.

A few months before the 2004 election, St. Martin’s Press published my book titled The Bush Betrayalwhich flogged Bush’s secret arrests, “Total Information Awareness” surveillance schemes, and cult of presidential supremacy. The blog site the publisher created for the book included an email link so readers could send me their thoughts unimpeded by spellcheckers. Here’s a sampling of the fan mail which was reposted on LewRockwell.com in a piece headlined “Bush Supporters Vindicate the President”:

  • “You are a communist bastard! … So don’t forget that there are those out here who put there lives on the line for assholes like you to have the freedom of speech—to say what you will—and so can I!”
  • “Are you dilusional or just trying to make a buck?”
  • “I think we should be torturing these SOB’s … Your concern over the so called ‘torture’ of the prisoners is ludicrous when one looks at how barbaric they are to begin with. What you are caling ‘torture,’ most people would call callege hazing.”
  • “You are a very little man. Those of you who don’t appriciate the freedom our sons and daughters paid for make a mockery of their sacrifice. May God have mercy on your soul, you ignorate little person.”
  • “You are one sick mother fucker. Why not just support the troops instead of criminilizing them. does history not teach you anything? Like John Kerry is a fucking liar/traitor.”

Middle Seat Edification

But maybe not everybody thought like that? Maybe folks would simmer down after Bush was reelected? Alas, as Shakespeare observed, “Hope is a curtail dog in some affairs.”

A few months later, I was flying from Washington to Dallas, two days after Bush’s second inaugural speech. The flight was overstocked with Texans returning after attending celebrations for their former governor.  One frumpy lady loudly gushed to an acquaintance in the next row: “Laura looked so wonderful with that designer dress at the ball.” I had no regrets about not being invited to that shindig.

I was stuck in a middle seat between a chubby little fourteen-year-old boy and a tripwire-tense enlisted Air Force man who spent the entire flight watching reruns of bad situation comedies on his laptop.  The kid devoted himself to paging through a school textbook and highlighting almost every paragraph with a yellow marker.

As the plane taxied to its takeoff position, the kid asked me, “Did you go to the inauguration Thursday?”

I smiled and said no, and asked if he had gone.

His eyes lit up, his face suddenly seemed cognizant, and he declared, “Yes!” He told me he was from Bush’s hometown, Midland, Texas.

“What did you think of the speech?” I asked.

“I loved every word of it!”

“So you think it is a good idea for the US to be spreading freedom?”

“Oh yes. We have to do that.”

“Are you concerned about going to war to spread freedom?” I asked nonchalantly.

The Air Force dude erupted: “DON’T LISTEN TO HIM! This guy hates America! This guy hates our president! Don’t listen to a single thing he says!” Maybe he didn’t like my beard.

This guy—mid-thirtyish with a semijarhead haircut—swore that the Bush administration never made any false statements on the road to war with Iraq.

I shrugged. “Cheney said Saddam had a reconstituted nuclear weapon.”

“HE NEVER SAID THAT! HE SAID NUCLEAR WEAPONS PROGRAM!! THAT’S WHAT HE SAID!!!”

“Actually, it was on March 17, 2003—on Meet the Press—and …”

“THAT’S A LIE! THAT’S A LIE! SHOW ME THE EVIDENCE!!!”

“Well, if I had my book with me, I could show you.”

“THAT’S A LIE!” He was absolutely convinced that I was determined to smear the nation, the military, and Bush—of whom he proudly said: “He’s my LEADER!”

“You people are going to be proven all wrong next week!” he declaimed very fervently, for someone practically sitting on my elbow.

“Who is ‘you people?’” I asked.

“People like you that hate America and oppose the Iraq War!” Pounding his fist on the armrest, he declared that I was “one of those people who thinks that Arabs don’t want to be free—you don’t care about liberating the Iraqi people. Next week, when the Iraqis go out and vote and become a democracy, you and your kind will be proven totally wrong!”

At that time, the Bush administration was claiming that upcoming parliamentary elections would prove that Iraqis approved of the US invasion. On Election Day, US military convoys rolled through Iraqi neighborhoods shortly after sunrise with loudspeakers blasting orders in Arabic for people to go vote. The Bush administration also secretly and illegally delivered millions of dollars in cash to boost the political campaigns of its favored candidates.

As the flight crossed over the state of Mississippi, the boy proudly told me that he was president of his school class in Midland.

After I congratulated him, he declared that he planned to go into politics.

I asked: “Who is your congressman?”

He gave me a blank look. “I don’t know,” he said, followed by a momentary grimace. This kid was definitely not in the league of Lyndon Johnson, another ambitious Texan famous for coming to Washington as a youth and exploiting every human contact he ever made to maximize his future clout.

During the flight, I was hand editing printed chapters of a forthcoming book. As we neared landing, the boy asked a question or two about my political views. I said I admired the Constitution and favored leashing all politicians and federal agencies.

He squinted and said warily: “You sound like you hate the government.”

I laughed. “No. I don’t hate the government. I just think its power should be limited.”

My answer did nothing to placate his suspicions.

“What do you think the government should be doing? What is its main purpose?” I asked.

The kid paused, struggled briefly, and then replied, “Keep people under control?”

Since that was the new American vision of freedom Bush sought to impose at home and abroad, that boy was backing the right politician. Unfortunately, tens of millions of Americans also revered their ruler’s iron fist.

Whacked and Stacked?

I attended most of the major antiwar protests from 2002 onward. With each passing year, the police became more heavily armored and more aggressive.

In September 2005, hundreds of thousands of marchers protested the Bush administration’s Iraq war. The well-organized event included bevies of activist lawyers stationed along the main route with video cameras to document any police brutality against demonstrators. I walked my bike with the marchers as they passed the Treasury building on the east side of the White House, where I snapped my all-time favorite photo of an overfed, stupefied cop.

After hoofing for a mile with the crowd, I rode off to reconnoiter. There were metal sawhorses scattered all over the nearby streets, making it difficult to recognize what roads were open and which were restricted.

I zipped down the street between Lafayette Park and the White House and then swung down Seventeenth Street on the west side of the White House, heading toward the National Mall. That road was deserted except for two cops standing in the middle, twenty-five yards ahead of me. As I got closer to them, a fat cop suddenly raised his four-foot wooden pole over his head and began lumbering directly into my path.

I was puzzled until I heard the other cop mumble about how I wasn’t allowed on that street. His partner was getting ready to bust his stick over my head.

I sped up, veered left, and laughed at the G-man over my shoulder. The street closing was not marked, but cops were still entitled to assail any violators—as long as there was no one around to film the beating. Actually, if that cop had smashed me with that pole, I might have been arrested on ginned-up charges for assaulting a policeman. In the same way that cops routinely justify shooting motorists by claiming the driver was trying to run them down, so the pole dude might have claimed I was trying to run him over. Or maybe I would have been booked on “conspiracy to damage a federal pole” that he wanted to break over my bike helmet.

This struck me as a microcosm of what American society is becoming—more and more government agents waiting to whack anyone who doesn’t obey the latest secret rules.

After leaving those chumps behind, I swung down a side street away from the main action. But then I heard loudspeakers in the distance, perhaps coming from the Ellipse, in front of the White House. Was another demonstration busting out? Like a moth attracted to a flame, I bustled down a mostly empty street back in the direction of the White House. As I arrived within sight of the President’s Palace, a gnarly police commander with a burning cigar butt clenched between his teeth screamed at me: “How did you get here!?!”

“I rode down the street,” I replied.

“You’re not allowed to come down on this street!”

“I didn’t see any signs or anything prohibiting it,” I said.

“I had two policemen at the entrance of the street,” he raged. “How did you sneak by them?”

I said I hadn’t seen anyone.

The cop boss was tottering on the edge of arresting me. Another policeman, dressed in civvies, suggested to this cigar chomper that he just let me go through the opening of the metal sawhorses.

Not a chance. The boss cop insisted that I reverse course and ride back down that street. I did so and, at the end of that block, I saw four DC police officers lounging in the shade, perhaps yammering about the Washington Redskins’ latest loss. Regardless of his subordinates’ lethargy, that police commander took great satisfaction in compelling one bicyclist to reverse course. Maybe he even touted it as a “potential terrorist incident averted” in his official report on the day’s action.

New President, Same Vitriol

After Obama was elected, I thought folks might simmer down. Wrong, dude. While Obama unleashed plenty of policies that reasonable Americans could justifiably condemn, some of his loudest adversaries were hellbent on reviving Bush’s worst practices. After attending a Tea Party rally in Rockville, Maryland, in 2010, I wrote, “Many ‘tea party’ activists staunchly oppose big government, except when it is warring, wiretapping, or waterboarding.” Speakers bitterly complained that Obama gave orders to cease using “enhanced interrogation” torture methods on detainees. I was not charmed by folks clamoring for war with Iran and denouncing the president for finding his “inner Muslim.”  That piece, published by the Christian Science Monitor, concluded: “America needs real champions of freedom—not poorly informed Republican accomplices.”

My ringside report was not universally appreciated. Tea Party zealots took to Yahoo.com with verbal pitchforks and torches:

Buzz: “Libs are traitors and should be treated as such. Traitors have very few rights. I can only think of 2, and they are more of a courtesy then rights. (blindfold,smoke).”

RAGNAR: “Just another dihonest bit of editorializing nothing new to see here just move on everyone”

RJ: “The first Liberal since the beginning of time, a Lier, a Thief and a Murder, satan.”

JH: “What make him a Nazi and not just a Liberal? Why a Nazi, as Nazi must defend and promote a position with lies and not stand on facts.”

Scott: “Its funny how WE stand up for our RIGHTS and BELIEFS and get attacked and told to shut up.. But we are subjected to your apathetic ideas by force of Gov’t. HOW VERY COMMUNIST OF YOU … ”

The Obama White House soon became as power crazed as the Bush administration. In May 2011, the Christian Science Monitor published another piece of mine, “Assassination Nation: Are There Any Limits on President Obama’s License to Kill?” I derided the Obama administration’s claim that the president possessed a “right to kill Americans without a trial, without notice, and without any chance for targets to legally object…. Killings based solely on presidential commands radically transform the relation of the government to the citizenry.”

Testy online responses confirmed the sea change in how absolute power was viewed. My article mentioned an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit pressuring the Obama administration “to disclose the legal standard it uses to place US citizens on government kill lists.” “Will R.” was indignant: “We need to send Bovard and the ACLU to Iran. You shoot traders and the ACLU are a bunch of traders.” (I was pretty sure the ACLU was not engaged in international commerce). “Jeff” took the high ground: “Hopefully there will soon be enough to add James Bovard to the [targeted killing] list.” Another commenter—self-labeled as “Idiot Savant”—saw a grand opportunity: “Now if we can only convince [Obama] to use this [assassination] authority on the media, who have done more harm than any single terror target could ever dream of … ”

What the heck—they haven’t taken me out yet.

This article was originally featured at the Ludwig von Mises Institute and is republished with permission.

The Benevolent Fascism of Australia, Part I

Australia is in the news.

The images of police officers imposing themselves on the citizenry has drawn the attention of international critics. It has also raised admiration for those who have big government inclinations. Some have declared that Australia has fallen as a free society, that it should now be considered a police state. Australia, however, already had a history as a police state. The balance between individual freedom and an overbearing government has been one of constant, uneven sways over time and it usually takes a crisis to bring down the full weight of authoritarianism. And most Australians have always been fine with this.

The COVID-19 pandemic has tested both individuals and governments, and shown their true nature. The pandemic response has revealed a dangerous dependence that all of us have been forced to place on government monopolies, from health and infrastructure to security and in many cases, income. The lockdown culture of not only Australian state governments but governments the world over have shown an irrational and reactionary impulse to rule and control, not just to stop a virus but crush dissent itself. They claim it is for all of our health; it is scientific and it’s to save as many lives as possible. No room for debate, only obey and do as one is told. It is the science of law, order, and health.

In practice it has been random, arbitrary, inconsistent, unscientific and some lives really do seem to matter over others. The police have been a crucial element in the fight against the citizenry during the pandemic. It’s been the police that have enforced laws that have destroyed the economy and put lives indirectly in jeopardy. Last year entire apartment towers in Melbourne were instantly quarantined and the individuals inside only access to the outside world was via the police. Those trapped were treated as criminals and were sacrificed in an attempt to “flatten the curve.” Melbourne itself would soon suffer an almost indefinite lockdown cycle. The curve was never flattened.

Following the trend in liberal democracies, partisan politics alleviate blame from specific government departments. The police and experts are viewed as amoral objects who are wielded by incompetent and power hungry politicians. Regardless of the political leadership these technocrats, officials and police officers remain the same. Australia has a history of governance via experts and panels. The politicians usually help legitimize such measures when it comes to excessive policing. It is not a political leadership problem, it is a problem from the ground up. Morality, right and wrong, are exercised by the individual. “Just doing a job” or “Just following orders” is a coward’s shield by which to hide beneath.

It is not just an Australian phenomenon to see the police inserting themselves more and more into the citizen’s day to day. It is however an Australian tradition to lean heavily onto policing for numerous crises. The police are an important tool for the state and federal governments in Australia and act as the aggressive arm to both impose and implement policy while also to protect the government itself. Australia projects itself as a free society that values human rights, but at times in its own history it has a patchwork of authoritarianism which is more common than many wish to admit.

“Australian police forces were similarly founded on violence: racist violence, imperial violence and settler colonial violence. Some of the earliest forms of state policing were established with the specific purpose of extending the colonial frontier.”- Amanda Porter, Senior fellow at Melbourne Law School.

Many historians on colonial Australia consider that the early policing models were not based upon British community methods and organization but instead were a paramilitary model that was used during the same period to impose imperial oppression in Ireland. A lot of these traditions have remained in Australian policing and in how the various governments have continued to wield it. Public health and safety mandates are often the fixture of policing in Australia along with the ever aggressive War on Terror.

Beyond the state level Australia has numerous federal agencies that are granted great powers which obey the Department of Home Affairs and will in the coming years grow more powerful in reach, focus, and powers. The boundaries of colonial expansion may have been fulfilled but those into the individuals private life and against their rights are a frontier that Australian police agencies are continuing to encroach upon. To understand the Australian “police state” we must also understand certain aspects of Australian history and social norms that have made the modern situation possible and why it really is neither unusual or unexpected.

Australians are now in a society where they need to tune in to government officials to find out what they can and cannot do. It is a nation that is run on press conferences, where most Australians watch the television with an obedience to find out the infection and death numbers while hanging on to every word of experts and government ministers. In a recent incident those from regional NSW found themselves under lockdown mandates with only a tweet as the official announcement. The tweet posted at 3pm and stated that by 5pm all of regional NSW would be in a 7-day lockdown. The police perpetrated an ever active enforcement on those who do not have Twitter or didn’t hear about such a spontaneous announcement.

While Australia is in the media abroad, most Australians are oblivious to the condemnation and the risk that lies ahead for them. It is a future uncertain but with the promise of safety nets and blankets provided by a scientific government of planners and scientists. It is a government that is based upon altruistic welfare and reactionary impulses, while also being steered by careful trends of academic hubris. It is a nation of public servants and an ever dependent public. The police exist to protect not so much the individual (and certainly not freedom) but the nation state itself. And in an expression of true democracy, perhaps the mob of the majority welcome and embrace this because many are apart of it in some way.

“Australia’s federal constitution does not protect fundamental human rights nor does it regulate the use of force by the police. Australia‘s federal rules on police use of force generally comply with international standards although an amended law in New South Wales allows use of firearms against suspected terrorists where no imminent threat is perceived.”- Policing Law, The Law on Police Use of Force Worldwide

Medical State

For the advocates of government, especially an all powerful one that is responsible for every aspect of human life, a powerful and active police force is crucial. It is the ugly truth that confuses utopian governance with the dystopian truths of practical history. In the past, besides aspects of moral puritanism, the individual’s health and body was their own domain. But in the modern era of public health we are seeing the unification of the health and police state.

Australia has a populace that believes in the existence of a public health system. It is an ideological abstract which is rarely challenged. It is considered a right to all Australians to have access to “free health” regardless of any failings, scarcity, and prohibition of choice that such a system presents. Because of this the individual’s body becomes a shared entity, one that the state is expected to care for and in many aspects control. Despite the majority wanting such a powerful health system, the past belief in individual body autonomy still lingers in the minds of even the advocates of public health.

So Australia is going through a cross roads between human rights and the call for greater power to the healthcare system over the public and individuals themselves. The COVID-19 pandemic has elevated the conflict between these two perspectives. Those who advocate public health as a right also want the individual to have the right of health autonomy. The reality is that a powerful public health system controls what medication and treatment an individual has access to. It also creates extended waiting periods and it has the ability to determine treatment based on wider concerns than the individual’s own health. Those concerns often being cost, time, resources, and the fatigue-availability of health practitioners.

It is an almost impossible fight for individual liberty when public health is entrenched in Australian society as a “collective good.” The wider implications of costs, shortages, and a lack of alternative treatments are disregarded in favour of a one-payer system that homogenizes and centralizes medicine. It is assumed that a free market of health would leave the poor under the bus and become expensive but it is the health state that creates dependence and makes it harder for many to actually get treatment, not to mention lengthy waiting periods and a lack of accountability when things go wrong.

The police and at times the military have been used to quarantine entire cities and states, separate families, and treat individuals as criminals because they “may” be sick. This is the new reality that health mandates and a powerful health state brings with it. Whatever pretence of human rights is lost and ignored because it is declared a crisis. Just as the War on Terror allows the police to trample on the freedoms that terror organizations threaten, a powerful police state can snatch those liberties away in the name of security. In matters of public health the individual is isolated and condemned as being selfish and placing others at risk, should they seek independence and autonomy. So as is in the War on Terror, those who question government overreach or act differently are marginalized as being a threat to the wider community.

It is not a too distant future in Australia where individuals may be forced to take medication against their will, receive procedures that they do not want, or are denied access to friends and families based upon health status. The public health system has become so important that the private citizen has little choice and say over their own body. The imperial approach and dominion over the individual is always done with a benevolent parental tone, assuming that all individuals are childlike or a risk to everyone else. That is the hallmark of the public health system in the first place, a one way street with little regard to individual needs, wants, and complexities.

The emergency powers of government allows it to disregard international laws and domestic laws that it has promised to uphold. These are the special, exceptional powers of all government, not just Australia’s. War allows a nation to declare martial law, impose curfews and grant itself extraordinary powers. The health crisis and mandates are treated as if the rule of law never really existed. It is an illusion that dupes those who romance government and believe that it stands for human rights. But it always serves itself and grows. The health state is just another aspect of the leviathan’s reach and control.

Just as a person consuming or selling “illicit materials” is considered a public threat regardless of their actual actions, so too can the benign existence of those individuals who do not want the same medical procedures or medications, whether because of ethical reasons or because it may be a direct danger to their health. Elements within the wider community have recently reported on such individuals and tar them as being selfish and “super spreaders” of the virus, which is apparently the greatest threat to human existence. “Dobbing is the new patriotism,” as one commentator put it.

Because a large part of the populace supports the government regardless of political affiliation and consider the experts the absolute authority regardless of human rights and individual liberty, the health state has a large community of active ‘dobbers’ who will inform the police on businesses, families, and people that are defying the mandates and rules that are constantly being amended during the ongoing Covid-19 crisis. Those doing the “dobbing” are often doing it because they genuinely believe that those in breech of such laws are dangerous and reckless or as is often cited, being selfish. And in other instances a more cynical aspect of jealousy and spite likely steer the dobber’s actions.

One police officer during the last South Australian state lockdown claimed that their phone lines were non-stop with members of the public reporting number plates of vehicles driving during the period or giving information on those who were suspected of being in breech of the lockdown. In 2020 wives were informing on their husbands who dared to sneak in a late night dog walk and beach goers were filmed swimming on their own in the sun. It is not just a legal problem but a cultural one.

Why is all of this talk about public health so important? Because it is one key aspect of modern Australian culture, the ingrained importance of the government to most people and what empowers the police force in their present conduct. The sword and spear of the Australian government are their police forces and the military. Both are becoming more of a Swiss Army Knife apparatus with so many uses to be wielded, removing the key conceptual function of such entities. The public belief in what the police and military do or should do is often in contrast with the reality of what they are being asked to do and continue to do.

The anti-lockdown protests in Australia have become a divisive issue. The protesters are accused of being “conspiracy theorists” and “anti-vaxxers” in an attempt to label them as simpletons. While some some certainly are, not all. Such simplified claims ignore very real grievances and frustrations. Those sympathetic and wary of police powers can see a heavy handed response and a media backlash that has not given a balanced perspective. In an age where diversity and being inclusive is promoted when it comes matters of political opinions, dissent about one’s own health is not allowed.

The war on the virus has created a paranoia and obsession with defeating an entity through laws and violence against individuals. It is the belief that more government can somehow make people healthy and safe. Just like the War on Terror it looks to erode the freedom that it boasts to safeguard and instead empowers the police state to the point that a nation becomes a prison full of either compliant and eager subjects who believe in such measures or those who are forced to suffer it despite their instincts and desires for liberty (or to be left alone).

What empowers the police state is its benevolent claim of safety and security. Public health is extremely important to the Australian government and the wider public. To question the public health system is taboo and often political suicide. It is a civic religion. The wider implications and dangers of such a system are ignored and denied and inevitably more funding and overhauls are demanded. This in turn gives all control to the government in regards to individual and community health. Because no real free market exists, regulations are so extensive and so many laws are in place that not only are alternatives impossible but people become dependent on the government for all their needs. In a pandemic this empowers the government during and after to such a point that it is impossible to turn off the spigot of dependence.

Lock in Hospitals of World War Two

The police and policing powers for health and moral emergency were ever present before our Federation, when women were subject to humiliation and medical imprisonment because they may spread “venereal disease.” Not to mention the segregation of whites and non-whites in hospitals and other aspects of society (often for reasons of health, according to the experts of the time). During the World War II the Australian government and especially the state government of Queensland treated VD and sexually transmitted disease with an authoritarian approach.

During parts of World War II Australia was in many regions under martial law. Oftentimes this was by the U.S. military as well as the Australian government. From segregation to abuse against anyone who was suspected of being an enemy agent, the police state was in full effect. It was with a perverse intrusion when VD was raised as being both a health crisis and a moral panic that individuals were abducted, examined, and quarantined in humiliating ways and with no regard for their rights.

Women who were suspected of being infected with a VD were examined thoroughly and then imprisoned in what was known as “Lock in” hospitals. They remained here until they were either cured or held for extended periods afterwards. The concern was that such women may infect the men and thus harm the war effort. The public health of the nation was crucial to victory.

As a contrast, men, especially servicemen who had contracted the diseases, were treated as outpatients. It was for the women that a confusing double standard was imposed. On one hand a woman was meant to be chaste and moral and not participate in sexual acts. On the other hand a vast number of women were expected to function as ‘whores’ or women to comfort the Australian and Allied servicemen. Those women who had contracted a VD were locked away until they were cured, and then put back out so that they may continue to service the Allied soldiers. And at other times women who were considered spreaders of VD were shamed and humiliated and in some government propaganda considered a greater threat to the war effort than the Japanese military itself. The police were often used to ‘hospitalize’ women suspected of being spreaders and placed them in medical custody where they were locked away.

When the sense of national danger was most acute in those initial months of 1942, the Australian people revealed a virtually unanimous and unequivocal willingness to accept this unprecedented regimentation, restriction and restraint.”- Kay Saunders, War on the Homefront, State intervention in Queensland 1938-48

A health emergency was both a national crisis and a moral one. Whether it is against sexually transmitted illness or against recreational drugs, it is a matter where both police and the legal powers of government are used in an excessive way. It is the only way that Australian governments on a state and federal level tend to know how to conduct themselves. It is commonly thought that individuals forced into ambulances and then locked into medical facilities is something that would happen only in despotic nations like the People’s Republic of China, and yet the Australian government has done it in the past and likely will do it all the more in the near future.

War on Drugs

Australia has been an extremely enthusiastic nation in the war on drugs. It has used the prohibition of certain substances to justify a lot of excessive policing and put many people in jail because of these laws against substancesSuch a war has also helped to create the ‘bikie’ culture, giving many forms of organized crime a cash cow to profit on the black market. Like everywhere that has attempted prohibitions, it has been a failure and lead to wider, unexpected consequences.

Australia has one of the worse crystal methamphetamine addiction rates among the developed world, a result of a heavy handed approach and harsh prohibitions. While in the past marijuana was the fixation of law enforcement, the black market has developed harsher strains of the plant while finding alternatives to many other party drugs, leading to the current “ice” or “meth” “epidemics.”

Before COVID-19 the Australian drug problem was the public health emergency. A tough on crime attitude and a pariah status for anyone that has participated in drugs has created a “them” and “us” culture. Even though most individuals have experimented with one form or another of the many prohibited substances at sometime in their lives (those among government included), all drugs are deemed as being highly additive, harmful, and a threat to the public health system.

The Australian police are enthusiastic drug warriors at every level. The Federal Police on more than one occasion have gone abroad to purchase heroin and brought it back into the nation where they could then use it to entrap dealers. Breaking their own laws and with little regard of the morality of such actions, the only outcome that matters to police and prosecutors is getting the bad guys. The Australian media and public lavishly swallow up the reporting on successful operations where drugs are denied entry onto Australian streets.

Every banned and controlled substance is treated with the same level of danger and threat. The ever expanding list of banned substances creates less choice for individuals and gives the police and government greater control and means to intrude into their personal lives. A resentment of those who profit from the drug trade helps to spurn on the prohibition war. It is one of envy towards those who are able to make a tax free income. Lost in the middle, as always, are the real victims and room for reasonable debate and consideration.

The “Bali Nine” are Australian citizens who were arrested in Indonesia for transporting drugs. Two of them have been executed by firing squad, one is dying of cancer in prison and another was deported while five are likely to rot for the rest of their lives inside an Indonesian jail. The Australian Federal Police were responsible for tipping off the Indonesian authorities which lead to the extrajudicial killings and heavy punishment of the Australian citizens. The widespread indifference to the plight of these individuals at the time revealed a savage forecast of things to come, where those who go against the laws of the land are viewed with little to no regard and empathy at all.

“This is the harsh reality for Australians who go overseas and become involved in serious crimes.”- Australian Police Commissioner Andrew Colvin to the media in 2005 over the fate of the ‘Bali Nine’

The Australian government exhibits an at times caring and paternal attitude to those who have drug addictions, providing them with extensive treatment plans, outreach, and free needles for users. For those who “deal” and are involved in party or performance enhancing drugs the attitude is stern and extreme. Personal liberties are crushed. If one has a sudden spike in their electricity usage or a sudden income change, these can be grounds for a police raid or search. The onus is on the individual to justify and prove their innocence regardless of actual evidence.

As an example in NSW, part of the “Music Festival Harm Reduction,” police officers detain and search anyone suspected of being in possession of drugs while at a music event, including those under the age of eighteen. In February 2020, forty-four teenagers from ages 13 to 17 were searched, twelve were stripped searched, and of those six were found to have drugs on them. To have armed adults of the NSW police kidnap teenagers, hold them against their will, strip them and then molest them in the name of public health is a typical example of the measures that are often accepted by the public.

Because six were found to be violating the law, this somehow justifies the humiliation and trauma suffered by others. The Law Enforcement Conduct Commission said that strip searches conducted by police officers on children were ‘potential unlawful’. But they get away with it despite their own laws. In 2019 at the same music festival thirty teenagers were strip searched, but the amount who were in possession of an illegal substance is unknown. In some cases armed adults forcibly took the virginity of a teenager because they needed to internally search them for a banned substance. This is rationalized because it is somehow going to keep that individual and the wider community safe.

“What we know is that in the majority of strip searches absolutely nothing is found, and what we do know for sure is that strip searches are traumatic, invasive and…therefore should only occur as an absolute last resort.”- Samantha Lee, Redfern Legal Centre

Police always want to seem like they are the last resort, so it’s up to their discretion to decide what measures to take. They are used by the government in all means and especially for health matters and in doing so they have an authoritarianism that is of good conscience because it is for the “greater good.” This will ensure that whatever civil rights are violated are done with a measure of greater consideration. The abstract of “good” transcends the humiliation, shame, and worse of the individual in those intimate moments when they are violated. Many in the pubic support the cops and what they do, regardless.

“Prohibition has not worked. Our lawmakers know it, and admit it privately. Should they fail to countenance change publicly, they will merely be putting their own misguided self-interest above the public interest. That is a cruel betrayal.“- The Age editorial, November 29, 2016

With QR codes and contact tracing, the discussion of further surveillance of Australians to minimize the spread of COVID-19 will be accepted an condoned. And in the case of the war on drugs, placing members of the public on lists and denying them travel and the ability to mail or receive items from abroad will continue. In time we will have quaint memories of a more liberal time as the future brings far more dire and extreme measures of law and order. It will be done as an act of benevolence, for health and safety, and the mob of Australians in the greater community will welcome it with closed borders and locked down cities. It is for the greater good, and that is apparently the Aussie way. And now in the twenty-first century, to quote Dr. Steve Brule, everything can now be done “For Your Health.”

 

Recommended reading:

How the FBI’s War on Drugs Contributed to the 9/11 Attacks

The story of 9/11 is filled with painful “what-ifs.” Among the most prominent:

  • What if the CIA hadn’t blocked two FBI agents from alerting Bureau headquarters that a future 9/11 hijacker had obtained a multi-entry U.S. visa?
  • What if the FBI hadn’t nixed agents’ request for a warrant to search the computer of “20th hijacker” Zacharias Moussaoui after his arrest in August 2001?
  • What if the FBI hadn’t ignored a Phoenix agent’s July 2001 recommendation to contact aviation colleges across the country, on suspicion that Osama bin Laden was preparing extremists to “conduct terror activity against civilian aviation targets”?

Those what-ifs give us all pause, but they weigh heaviest on those who were closest to them, such as retired FBI counterterrorism agent Ken Williams, author of the so-called “Phoenix memo.”

Though his unheeded warning about extremists at flight schools looms large in the saga of 9/11, Williams is haunted by two more what-ifs that are lesser-known but equally gut-wrenching:

  • What if his request for a surveillance team to monitor bin Laden disciples at an Arizona aviation school hadn’t been declined in favor of the FBI’s pursuit of drug smugglers?
  • What if he hadn’t been ordered to suspend his investigation of those extremists for several months to help with an arson case?

For Williams, the answer is all too clear: His investigation would have led to the scrutiny of two future 9/11 hijackers—and that scrutiny may have started unraveling the entire plot.

Extremists at Embry-Riddle

In April 2000, Williams received an important tip from a confidential informant who’d once been a member of a Middle Eastern terrorist organization.

The informant had built a stellar reputation for providing valuable information. “I used to refer to him as my E.F. Hutton,” says Williams. “When he spoke, you listened.”

The informant told Williams that two foreign students were attempting to recruit Phoenix-area Muslims to an organization called Al-Muhajiroun, or “The Emigrants.”

Founded in Saudi Arabia and then banned by the kingdom in 1986, Al-Muhajiroun was unabashedly extremist. Before 9/11, the group referred to itself as “the eyes, the ears and the mouth of Osama bin Laden,” says Williams.

In 1998, the group’s leader issued a fatwa, or religious decree, declaring jihad against the U.S. and British governments and their interests—including airports. After 9/11, Al-Muhajiroun became notorious for organizing a “magnificent 19” conference in London in honor of 9/11’s 19 hijackers.

The informant gave Williams one of the flyers the pair had been using in their recruiting drive. The phone number on the flyer belonged to Lebanese student Zakaria Soubra. Via surveillance of Soubra, Williams and his team identified his counterpart as a Saudi named Ghassan al-Sharbi.

Both were students at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona. Williams describes it as a prestigious school providing an “Ivy League” education in aviation and related sciences.

Soubra was studying aviation security, while al-Sharbi studied engineering. The two were also making frequent, two-and-a-half-hour drives to Phoenix to recruit new members of Al-Muhajiroun from area mosques.

Williams and another agent traveled to Prescott to interview them at the small room they shared at a cheap motor lodge. Williams quickly noticed it was decorated with photos of Osama bin Laden, Ibn al-Khattab of the Arab Mujahideen in Chechnya, and wounded mujahideen fighters.

In his years of experience, Williams had grown accustomed to Middle Eastern students being “meek, mild and intimidated as shit when you show up at their door”—the product of growing up in countries with iron-fisted security forces. Soubra, however, was a jarring exception.

“He told me he considered the FBI, the United States military and the United States government legitimate military targets of Islam, and he described bin Laden as a great Muslim brother,” says Williams. “He was raising his voice, and you could see the veins on the side of his temples start to pop out of his head.”

“Trust me, I did everything in my power to get him to assault me or my partner…try to push us or do something so we could arrest him for assault on a federal officer,” says Williams.

On the way out, he told them, “We know what you’re all about and we’re not going away. If you cross that line, you will go to jail. We’ll find you wherever you’re at.”

“I don’t generally don’t make those kind of threats, because they’re idle, but I wanted to kind of up-it a notch with them,” says Williams.

Links to a Possible 9/11 “Dry Run”

Williams discovered that Soubra and al-Sharbi were driving a car registered to Muhammad al-Qudhaieen, a Saudi student living three hours away at the University of Arizona.

Months earlier, in November 1999, al-Qudhaieen and Hamdan al-Shalawi, a Saudi attending Arizona State, were involved in an incident that prompted an America West flight to Washington, D.C. to make an emergency landing in Columbus, Ohio.

Crew members said the two had asked a variety of suspicious technical questions, and that al-Qudhaieen twice attempted to open the cockpit door. He told investigators in Columbus he’d mistaken it for the bathroom door.

Noting that these were students at a top-notch university with experience traveling internationally, Williams says he finds the excuse ridiculous.

“They were conducting an intelligence-collecting operation on board the aircraft, to see how the flight crew was going to react and see how far away they could get with doing things,” he says.

The America West incident has been cited in ongoing civil litigation in which 9/11 families, survivors and insurers allege various Saudi officials helped facilitate the al Qaeda plot. Al-Qudhaieen and al-Shalawi were traveling at Saudi expense to an event at the Saudi embassy.

The pair were released after questioning. Immediately after the incident, Williams says, they held a press conference in Washington and claimed to have been victims of Islamophobia.

Williams says the public relations move was likely part of al Qaeda’s strategy: Well-publicized, embarrassing accusations of bigotry against America West would make other airline and airport employees reluctant to react to future suspicious behavior.

Al-Qudhaieen and al-Shalawi’s profession of innocence was undermined in November 2000, when the FBI received reports that al-Shalawi trained in Afghanistan to conduct attacks like the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers housing facility in Saudi Arabia, which killed 19 American service members and injured hundreds.

After being questioned by Williams, Al-Sharbi fled the United States. In the wake of 9/11, he was arrested in Pakistan with Abu Zubaydah, who was then one of the world’s most-hunted al Qaeda associates.

Add it all up and Williams was clearly onto something big in the year 2000.

However, since his investigation subjects hadn’t committed any overt criminal acts, building a case would require a lot of work, with an emphasis on visual surveillance—tracking comings and goings, identifying associates by photographing them and checking their license plates, noting places subjects and their associates routinely visit.

It’s a highly labor-intensive undertaking. In the FBI, doing it well means calling in the agents of the Special Operations Group (SOG).

“Surveillance is the only thing these agents do,” says Williams. “They’re given extensive training on the tradecraft of whatever enemy they’re looking at…(including) how al Qaeda functions. They study whatever we have in our intelligence quivers so they know what to look for when they’re out there,” says Williams.

“Every agent can do some surveillance,” he continues, “but these guys have old beater automobiles, they have aircraft capabilities, electronic capabilities, photographic capabilities—video and still—and they’re trained how to use all this stuff.” Their observations are summarized in a daily report provided to the lead agent on the case.

However, none of that would be available to Williams: Despite the disturbing set of facts and associations he’d uncovered, his request for SOG support was denied.

Chalk it up to a warped set of institutional priorities: In the pre-9/11 FBI, counterterrorism often took a back seat to drug investigations.

“I’ve got this threat I’ve identified through my training and expertise. I’m telling my command staff ‘these guys are the real deal, this is no bullshit,’ yet (my bosses are) still held accountable to meeting what headquarters has set as priorities for the southwest border states—and that’s drug interdiction and that’s taking down cartel members,” says Williams.

Williams says he doesn’t blame his Phoenix supervisors, because they were following priorities dictated in Washington. He does, however, resent that the FBI had to pursue drug cases at all.

“What angers me about it and what I get upset about is—that’s what the whole Drug Enforcement Administration was created to counter. We were the only agency at that time that protected the United States from terrorists. You’ve got the DEA, every police agency and their mother looking at drugs. Why can’t the FBI get out of the drug trafficking arena and concentrate on protecting the national security of the United States of America in the areas where we have the sole purview to do it? If we don’t do it, nobody’s doing it at that time,” Williams says.

America’s powerful post-9/11 marijuana legalization trend makes the de-prioritization of his counterterrorism case all the more aggravating in retrospect.

“Some of the stuff we were competing with were marijuana smuggling cases. Now, for chrissakes, every other corner out here has a marijuana dispensary. They’re as frequent as Starbucks,” says Williams.

Denied SOG support, Williams and his teammates soldiered on without it, conducting their own off-and-on surveillance as best they could.

“I was doing it haphazardly. I was doing it by myself and maybe with a couple squad mates,” says Williams. “But there’s a huge degree of difference between having an SOG team on a target and a group of non-SOG-trained agents who do it part-time at best.”

Even in well-resourced situations, pursuing such a case can take a lot of time. “Some people think 12 months in an investigation is a long time—not when you’re working these kinds of cases like Soubra and Al Sharbi,” says Williams.

Collecting intelligence, trying to recruit informants, and amassing the information needed to obtain more investigative authority is a slow grind. The lack of SOG support made it all the more difficult.

The prioritization of drug cases was a major drag on Williams’ investigation, but things were about to come to a screeching halt.

An Arsonist Unwittingly Abets al Qaeda

In December 2000, someone started setting fire to million-dollar houses under construction along the border of the Phoenix Mountains Preserve. One of them was even burned twiceEleven structures were torched in all.

The media speculated that the arson was the work of an eco-terrorist organization—perhaps the Earth Liberation Front or something akin to it. In messages at the crime scenes and elsewhere, the perpetrator started identifying as the “Coalition to Save the Preserves,” and seemed to revel in taunting police.

The arson spree was racking up millions of dollars in damage and commanding high media attention. Between public pressure amid mounting concerns the fires could take a deadly turn, Phoenix police asked the FBI for help.

Williams received a profoundly unwelcome order: He and every member of the Phoenix counterterrorism squad would have to shelve their current investigations and pursue the arson case full-time.

“I went to my supervisor at the time, Bill Kurtz, and I said, ‘Bill, you can’t take me off this case. This is the real deal…these guys are with this al Qaeda group that we’re starting to learn about, that blew up the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania’.”

The decision stood. And the timing couldn’t have been worse.

The very month Williams was forced to turn his eyes away from Arizona’s network of al Qaeda sympathizers, Hani Hanjour and Nawaf al-Hazmi moved from Southern California to Phoenix.

Nine months later, they would hijack American Airlines Flight 77. Hanjour himself would steer the Boeing 757 into the Pentagon.

Williams is confident that, had he not been diverted to the arson case, Hanjour and al-Hazmi would have come under his scrutiny: “There’s no question in my mind. I’m convinced we would have crossed paths with them. Guarantee you.”

“All these guys were in the same circle. We got the two guys on America West Airlines doing their dry run and collecting intel. We’ve got Ghassan al-Sharbi who was arrested with Abu Zubayda, so he was kind of a big shot. And then we’ve got these two guys getting ready to kill themselves on September 11th coming into our area. All these guys are living within miles of each other. They would’ve been bouncing off each other, I guarantee,” he says.

Williams did help solve the arson spree, which turned out to be the work of a lone, thrill-seeking arsonist named Mark Warren Sands, who was indicted on June 14, 2001.

By that time, Hanjour and al-Hazmi had left Arizona, arriving in Falls Church, Virginia in April.

Williams gives his former supervisor Kurtz full credit for expressing regret to the 9/11 Commission about having taken Williams off the terror case.

He holds lingering anger, however, for the arsonist who put Kurtz in a tough position.

“I wish I could prosecute him for something tied to 9/11, because he really took our eyes off the guys in Prescott,” says Williams.

With the arson case closed, Williams ramped his counterterrorism investigation back up, posting his now-famous “Phoenix memo” on July 10.

With his investigation first slowed by a lack of surveillance assets and then halted for months by the arson investigation, his recommendation for a nationwide FBI campaign to contact civil aviation universities and colleges in search of extremist students was submitted just two months before 9/11—and then ignored until it was too late.

A Reunion with al-Sharbi

Having been arrested in Pakistan with Abu Zubaydah, Ghassan al-Sharbi—the quieter of Williams’ two Prescott investigation targets—is now detainee #682 at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. A 2016 government profile said “he has been mostly non-compliant and hostile with the guards…his behavior and statements indicate that he retains extremist views.”

You’ll recall that Williams closed his Prescott interview of al-Sharbi with a warning: “If you cross that line, you will go to jail. We’ll find you wherever you’re at.” Little did Williams know it would happen halfway around the world.

After al-Sharbi was captured, Williams traveled to Gitmo to question him. When Williams entered the room, he says al-Sharbi’s face signaled his recognition—with an expression that said, “Oh, shit.”

Williams greeted him by saying, “I told you we’d find you.”

Recalling the scene with a chuckle, Williams says, “It was a Hollywood moment. You couldn’t script it any better.”

A New Focus: Making a Case Against Saudi Arabia

While that moment gave Williams something to smile about, 9/11 remains a constant and grim presence in his life.

There’s no escaping the nagging question of how the world may be different had he received the surveillance support he’d requested, or if he hadn’t been reassigned to the arson case.

“I what-if that every day of my life and I will til the day I die,” he says. “How close were we?”

“My ex-wife used to say I was obsessed with it, but I’d say, ‘Well, how can you not be obsessed with it? There’s thousands of people dead and you’re somehow associated with this,” recalls Williams.

In 2017, Williams hit the FBI’s mandatory retirement age of 57. He soon found a perfect outlet for his 9/11 obsession: He’s working with attorneys representing the families and survivors of the 9/11 attacks in their civil suit against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which is still in the pre-trial phase.

His work is done under a protective order that prevents him from sharing what he’s learned from depositions and from reviewing still-classified documents from Operation Encore, the FBI’s investigation of Saudi government links to 9/11.

However, he’s unequivocal about what it adds up to: “The evidence is there.”

His work on the case goes against the wishes of the FBI. As Williams told me in a 2018 story that broke the news, a lawyer from the FBI’s Office of the General Counsel told him not to join the plaintiffs’ legal team, saying it could impact “other pending litigation” and undermine the pursuit of warm relations with Saudi Arabia.

This time, though, Ken Williams gets to set his own priorities.

This article was originally featured at Stark Realities and is republished with permission.

Blue on Blue Violence: How Private Citizens Are Culpable When Cops Kill Each Other

On an early morning in May 2020, Bonneville County Sheriff’s Deputy Wyatt Maser lost his life while responding to a call in Idaho Falls, Idaho. He and another officer arrived to assist a motorist, Jenna Holm, after she was in a single-car crash on a rural stretch of road. They arrived to find Holm in distress. While attempting to bring her into custody, another officer driving at high speeds arrived and hit Deputy Maser with his patrol vehicle. Maser died at the scene. Holm was charged with manslaughter in connection with his death.

Tracking Police-on-Police Violence

Jenna Holm is not the only person to face charges as a result of one officer killing another. Here are other stories of police-on-police violence in the United States.

  • Officer William Wilkins was an Oakland narcotics officer shot and killed by two uniformed fellow police officers in February 2001.
  • In May 2009, New York City Police Detective Omar Edwards was chasing Miguel Goitia, a person suspected of breaking into his car. Another New York City police officer, Andrew Dunton, saw Edwards running with a gun, misread the situation and shot Edwards.
  • Geoffrey Breitkopf of the Nassau County Police was killed March 2011 by another police officer after being mistaken for a suspect during an incident in Long Island, New York. Breitkopf and many officers were gathered to assist with a person reportedly brandishing a knife in a Nassau County neighborhood.
  • Two border patrol agents split up to track a suspected drug smuggler(s) in October 2012 near Bisbee, Arizona. They never found any suspects, but they ended up in a shootout against each other—each unaware the other was a fellow officer. Nicholas Ivie was killed in the exchange.
  • Detective Jacai Colson was killed March 2016 in Landover, Maryland by fellow officer Taylor Krauss who mistook him for an active shooter.
  • While investigating a robbery in progress in Queens, New York in February 2019, Detective Brian Simonsen was shot by fellow officers. The officers had flanked the entrance to a T-Mobile store that was being robbed and were inadvertently positioned to shoot at each other. Within 11 seconds, 42 shots were fired by 7 different officers. The two robbery suspects, Christopher Ransom and Jagger Freeman, both survived and were charged with second-degree murder for the death of Simonsen.
  • In September 2019, a New York City police officer Brian Mulkeen lost his life to friendly fire. In what was described as a “chaotic situation,” Officer Mulkeen and six other New York City police officers chased Antonio Williams for reasons not disclosed to the public. In approximately 10 seconds, 15 shots were fired by police, killing Antonio Williams and Officer Mulkeen.
  • Deputy Constable Caleb Rule was shot by Deputy Chadwick McRae while investigating a possible home burglary in Missouri City, Texas in May 2020. Both officers were independently investigating a report of a suspicious person, with Officer Rule arriving first. Deputy McRae arrived second, and observing an open door, shot into the house, killing Rule.
  • Alexander, Arkansas police officer Scott Hutton was killed by fellow police officer Calvin “Nick” Salyers after going to Salyers’ house in June, 2020, while both were off duty.
  • Officer Jonathan Shoop was shot by fellow officer Mustafa Kumcur, who was located in the same car as Shoop during a traffic stop in Bothell, Washington in July, 2020. Henry Eugene Washington is alleged to have initiated a shootout after being pulled over for a traffic infraction. Washington was charged with aggravated first degree murder for the death of Officer Shoop.

In more than half of these cases in which police were killed by police, a suspect was either charged and/or convicted (Maser, Colson, Simonsen, Shoop) or blamed (Mulkeen).

In so many of these cases, the defining features are chaos at the scene and poor communication between the police officers: disadvantageous arrangement of law enforcement in a scene without clarity on everyone’s part, poor communication regarding the location of law enforcement officers, lack of communication regarding who is a law enforcement officer and who is in charge, and so on. Most of these police deaths could have been prevented by the police themselves through improved communication and tactics and appropriate use of force.

Police-on-police violent encounters are commonplace across sheriff’s and police departments in the United States but there are no known efforts to track them locally or nationally. In 2010, David Paterson, the then-Governor of New York, convened a task force to examine police-on-police accidental shootings. The task force’s final report describes over 300 incidents of non-fatal police-on-police violent incidents across the United States, observing that while officer-on-officer violent incidents are common, how officers and agencies handle these incidents are a patchwork of policies.

“Because the United States—uniquely in the world—has literally thousands of separate police departments with no government agency able to set standards for them all, the variety of policies and protocols is virtually endless, with enormous variation in how thoroughly departments train for such encounters, if they train at all.”- New York Task Force on Police-On-Police Shootings

The task force found that most shootings were accidental slayings of non-uniformed officers that were mistaken for individuals committing crimes. Their findings indicate that black officers were more likely to be shot and killed under these circumstances, as was the case for Jacai Colson, William Wilkins, and Omar Edwards.

Two years after Omar Edward’s death, New York City Police instituted more training for interactions between on-duty and off-duty officers. The effectiveness of these trainings in preventing police-on-police violence is not known.

Wyatt Maser and the Case of Jenna Holm

When Jenna Holm was involved in a one-car crash at approximately 5 a.m. May 18, 2020 on a rural road near Idaho Falls, Idaho, a passing motorist saw her car on its side, pulled over and called 911. When the Sheriff’s deputies arrived, Holm was in the middle of the road, holding a machete to her chin. Bonneville Sheriff’s Deputy Benjamin Bottcher arrived first, and was soon followed by Deputy Wyatt Maser. They spoke with Holm, saying they were there to help and asking her to put down the machete. Bottcher had interacted with Holm several days prior at the Idaho Falls Crisis Center. Holm was screaming, clearly in distress and possibly experiencing a mental health crisis. After several requests, she did put down the machete. Twenty minutes after their arrival, Deputy Bottcher tased her. When this did not initially subdue her, Bottcher continued to tase her for several more seconds.

Eventually, Holm dropped to the ground due to the ongoing tasing. Deputy Maser stepped into the roadway to bring Holm into custody. Without warning, lights from Sergeant Randy Flegel’s patrol car illuminated the roadway and he hit Maser with his car. Deputy Maser died at the scene. According to the evidence presented in court, Flegel was driving over 90 miles per hour into bright lights as he approached the scene, and he slowed to 53 miles per hour when he struck Maser. Holm was taken into custody, and a few days later, the Bonneville County prosecutor charged her with manslaughter for the death of Wyatt Maser.

Standing In Law

Jenna Holm is charged with “involuntary manslaughter,” which under Idaho Code §18-4006 is “the unlawful killing of a human being…in the perpetration of or attempt to perpetrate any unlawful act.”

At her probable cause hearing, the prosecutor stated: “By continuing to be a danger to others and not complying with law enforcement orders, she produced the death of Deputy Wyatt Maser.” Her defense attorney indicated the intent was not to threaten or endangers others or disobey orders. She was in emotional distress at the time, and she did not feel safe since she was on a dark, rural road with limited cell phone service. In addition, it was dark and very noisy from high winds, making it difficult for everyone present to ascertain what was going on.

The Bonneville County prosecutor chose not to charge Sergeant Randy Flegel, the person driving the vehicle that hit and killed Deputy Maser. It is common for law enforcement and prosecuting attorneys to work closely together, raising questions about the suitability of a prosecutor’s office deciding whether or not to charge an officer within their jurisdiction. Indeed, the Bonneville County Sheriff’s Office referred to the Bonneville County Prosecutor’s Office as “our partner” in a Facebook post from April 15, 2021.

The defense has stated that Sergeant Flegel acted negligently by approaching a police encounter taking place in a road at such high speeds, especially since it was dark. Most recently, the defense filed a motion to dismiss Holm’s manslaughter charge, arguing that she was not committing an unlawful act when Maser was killed. Holm was on the ground and incapacitated when Flegel struck Maser.

Recently, the Bonneville County Sheriff’s Office completed an internal investigation into the incident. In that report, they identify several factors that may have led to Wyatt Maser’s death: no emergency red and blue emergency lights were activated by law enforcement (only scene lights were used), Deputy Bottcher provided incorrect directions and locations when he relayed the situation to the dispatch, and a witness present had bright vehicular lights pointing into oncoming traffic. The report recommends additional training for new recruits focused on roadside safety and supervisory oversight on compliance.

The prosecution originally provided only a summary of those findings to Holm’s defense team. They did not release the full internal investigation despite obligations to follow the Brady Rule, which holds that prosecutors must turn over potentially “exculpatory evidence” (that supports the defendant and/or absolves them of the crime) to the defense. In a court hearing, the trial judge ruled that the prosecutor must turn over the entire report from the internal investigation to the defense team.

Jenna Holm is facing a maximum of 10 years in prison and $15,000 in fines for manslaughter, and a maximum of 5 years in prison and $5,000 in fines for aggravated assault.

An Emerging Pattern

What happened to Jenna Holm is shocking. That interaction between her and the Bonneville County Sheriff’s office could easily have ended without the senseless tragedy if not for the mistakes of the sheriff’s deputies. As I researched this piece, it was surprising to discover a pattern of pinning blame on civilians for the mistakes of law enforcement. At some point after 2009, a blueprint emerged wherein the civilian(s) originally caught up in the police encounter were blamed for police harm regardless of the circumstances or if the original police encounter was ever justified. In New York City, Miguel Goitia was not held criminally liable for the death of Omar Edwards in 2009. But after that, the New York City prosecutorial policies shifted. Antonio Williams was blamed for the death of Brian Mulkeen, although both died in the same incident that the NYPD initiated despite no criminal wrongdoing by Wiliams. Christopher Ransom and Jagger Freeman are being charged with murder for the death of Brian Simonsen. A similar pattern is repeated in the cases of Jacai Colson, Jonathon Shoop, and Wyatt Maser. Police officers have been held accountable for the death of another officer when there is not another person involved in the encounter, like in the cases of Scott Hutton and Caleb Rule, but this is uncommon.

While these incidents are rare, the pattern is chilling. Could any one of us end up caught up a police murder charge due to negligence and carelessness by other police officers? Holm’s manslaughter charge started as a one-car traffic accident. She likely needed a tow truck and a mental health professional. Instead, she was tased and is now facing charges for actions that occurred while she was incapacitated. This case also raises questions about the overall integrity of the Bonneville County Sheriff’s Office. Sheriff’s deputies erred in their actions that day resulting in a tragic outcome, yet the Sheriff’s Office has not publicly acknowledged this to the community it serves.

These cases not only upend the lives of civilians, they fail to bring true justice and accountability for the surviving friends and family of slain officers. The families of William Wilkins, Jacai Colson, and Geoffrey Breitkopf were clearly not satisfied with the response from law enforcement and/or the criminal justice system and hence sought redress in civil courts. Notably, the case of Geoffrey Breikopf is different. The civilian Anthony DiGeronimo was not blamed for Geoffrey Breitkopf’s death, but the Nassau prosecutor also did not charge retired officer John Cafarella, despite the evidence that his actions created chaos and led directly to Breitkopf’s death.

It is important that law enforcement publicly take responsibility for their mistakes, particularly when those mistakes lead to tragedies, so that existing harm can be addressed and in the future, prevented. Clearly, errors were made by the Bonneville County Sheriff’s officers during the events of May 18, 2020. While the recommendations from the internal investigation—training on roadside safety for new recruits—are a good step, the continued attempt to prosecute Jenna Holm undermines those reforms; the message is that roadside safety protocols sort of matter, unless there is a ‘perp’ to blame. Additionally, this recommended training may not prevent another incident like Maser’s death if it is not required for current officers.

As written in the Idaho State Code § 31-2202, county sheriff’s offices have a deep responsibility to the communities they serve. Their ability to fulfill this relies on public trust, and respect and transparency are two core ingredients to maintain that trust. I hope that the Bonneville County prosecutor will take this seriously and reconsider what is to be gained by prosecuting Jenna Holm for Wyatt Maser’s death.

What I Told Ron Paul Institute Attendees

Some of you may know the name Alex Berenson, the former New York Times journalist who comes from a left-liberal background. He has been absolutely fearless and tireless on Twitter over the past eighteen months, documenting the overreach and folly of covid policy—and the mixed reality behind official assurances on everything from social distancing to masks to vaccine efficacy. He became a one-man army against the prevailing covid narratives.

Mr. Berenson is famous for creating a viral (no pun intended) phrase which swept across Twitter last year: virus gonna virus.

Which means: whether one is in Sweden or Australia, whether in New York or Florida, whether you have mask mandates or lockdowns or close schools or require vaccine passports—or do none of these things—virus gonna virus. Covid hospitalizations and deaths will be concentrated among the obese and elderly. In almost any community, two-thirds or more of deaths are over age seventy, but even among the elderly more than 90 percent of those infected survive covid. And among all covid deaths, only about 7 percent are “covid only” without other serious contributing factors.

What we won’t ever know, unfortunately—because we don’t have a control group, at least in the West—is what would have happened in a society which simply did nothing in response to the virus. What if a country simply had encouraged citizens to build up their natural immunity through a healthy diet, exercise, vitamins, and natural sunlight? What if it had taken precautions for elderly and immune-compromised populations, while allowing younger and healthier people to live normally? Would such a country have reached a degree of natural immunity faster, with overall better outcomes for the physical and mental health of its citizens? And with far less economic damage?

All of this is the unseen. And no, it wasn’t “worth it” to shut down the world.

Back to Mr. Berenson. Last week Twitter decided it had enough, and permanently suspended his account. This is no small thing for independent journalists—and God knows we need them—who reach a lot of people via Twitter and rely on it to make a living.

Search for his Twitter profile and you’ll find something spooky. His name is still there, but with a quietly menacing “Account Suspended” warning. All other traces of his existence are erased: his header photo is gone, his profile photo is blank, and the descriptive bio is missing. Just blank. It’s eerie, and reminds me of that famous old photo of Stalin by the Moscow Canal. He’s standing next to Nikolai Yezhov (I had to look him up), who fell out of favor with Stalin and was executed—then erased from the photo by Soviet censors.

Alex Berenson has been similarly unpersoned, removed, erased. But even if he ends up a casualty of this war1Don’t let this happen! Read Mr. Berenson here.—and whether you agree with him or not—people like him have managed to challenge the official narrative in ways unimaginable even twenty years ago. The financial journalist John Tamny made an interesting point last week: complain about social media all you want, but Facebook and Twitter have been great sources of information during this covid mess. And after thinking about it I had to agree. Most of the alternative information about covid I’ve consumed via social media. But of course Mr. Berenson no longer has this luxury.

The Covid Economy and Tradeoffs

Speaking of narratives, we have especially lacked clear and sober thinking about the injuries to the US economy created by covid policies. We profoundly fail to understand the economics behind covid, because we so desperately want to kid ourselves that the economy will be “normal” soon.

Governments are good at two things, namely bossing us around and spending money. They do both in spades whenever a supposed crisis arises, and both Congress and the Fed went into hyperdrive beginning in March 2020. The Fed pumped more than $9 trillion to its primary dealers, estimates are that more than 20 percent of all US dollars ever issued were issued in 2020 alone. On the fiscal side, more than forty federal agencies have spent $3.2 trillion in covid stimulus spending. So that is $12 trillion of inflationary pressure introduced to our economy.

What the economy wants and needs during crises is of course deflation. When uncertainty rises, and it certainly did for millions of Americans worried about their jobs in 2020, people naturally and inevitably hold larger cash balances. They spend less. Meanwhile they were staying home, driving less, dining out less, traveling less, working less. All of this is naturally deflationary, so of course Congress and the Fed embarked on an effort to fight this tooth and nail with intentional inflation. So now we’re in a wrestling match between two opposing forces, one natural and one artificial.

Dr. Hans-Hermann Hoppe has a famous dictum: markets produce goods, which are the things we want and willingly buy or consume. Government produces bads, which is to say things we don’t want at all. Things like wars and inflation. They do this with our own money, reducing what we have to spend on actual goods and thus reducing production of those goods.

The past sixteen months we’ve had lots of government bads, to the point where we might call them “worsts,” which are even worse than bads. The covid and Afghanistan debacles come to mind.

It may be facile and self-serving to compare the federal state’s inability to manage Afghanistan with its inability to manage a virus, but the comparison is just too perfect to resist. So I won’t resist.

Among the bads government produces is misinformation. One analogy between covid and Afghanistan is the phenomenon known as the fog of war: the uncertainty in situational awareness experienced by participants in military operations.

Paraphrasing Carl von Clausewitz: war is the realm of uncertainty; the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of uncertainty. Fog and friction cloud the commander’s judgment—even where the commander wholly shares our interests, which is hardly a given with covid. When we declared war on a virus, clarity went out the window. And so we’ve lived with sixteen months of fog, of covid misinformation. This happens in tandem with the media, which parrot official pronouncements from sources like the deeply compromised Fauci and stir up alarmism at every turn.

And we’re still living with it. Consider we still don’t have definitive answers to these simple questions:

Do masks really work?
Do kids really need masks? As an aside, our great friend Richard Rider reports that San Diego County—population 3.3 million—shut down its public schools for a year with one student death!
Is there asymptomatic spread?
Does the virus live on surfaces?
How long does immunity last after having covid?
How many vaccines will someone need to be “fully” vaccinated? How many boosters? Annual?
Aren’t delta and other variants simply the predictable evolution of any virus?
How do we define a “case” or infection if someone shows no symptoms and feels fine?
Can covid really be eradicated like polio? If so, why haven’t we eradicated flu by now?

And so on. We never get clear answers, but only fog.

But perhaps the most shocking thing about sixteen months is our childlike inability to consider tradeoffs! I’m not only talking about the tremendous economic consequence of shutting down businesses, and the horrific financial damage it has done and will do to millions of Americans. I’m not only talking about the depression, isolation from friends and loved ones, alcoholism, untreated illness, suicide, weight gain and obesity, stunted child development, and all the rest.

I’m talking about understanding the basic economic tradeoffs of covid policy: supply chain, food, energy, housing, unemployment. This is bread and butter economics.

I can’t stress this enough: millions of Americans have no conception of economics, and simply don’t believe tradeoffs exist. They think, are encouraged by the political class to think, that government can simply print money in the form of stimulus bills and pay people enhanced unemployment benefits to stay home. That the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], of all cockamamie federal agencies, can simply impose a rent moratorium and effectively vitiate millions of local contracts—it will just work itself out somehow. That Congress can simply issue forgivable PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] loans to closed or hobbled businesses so they can magically make payroll. That the Federal Reserve can simply buy up assets from commercial banks, lend them limitless funds, and command lower interest rates to stimulate housing and consumerism.

Millions of Americans, through sheer ignorance of economics, literally think these actions are costless and wholly beneficial—without downside.

And now we wonder why the economy can’t just flip a switch and get back to normal. But that’s not how an incredibly complex global supply chain, with just-in-time delivery, works. And that’s why thousands of Ford F-150s are sitting unsold, and unsellable, in huge parking lots—there is a global semiconductor chips shortage. Many of them come from a single company in Taiwan. By the way, semiconductor chips are used in everything from iPhones to Xbox consoles to Surface laptops to refrigerators.

There was a remarkable op-ed at CNBC recently about the supply chain interruptions. It gets the cause of inflation wrong, blaming it on the pandemic rather than central banks, but it paints a vivid picture of the serious problems facing a radically overstressed global manufacturing sector. Delays in delivery are said to be the longest in decades. And inflation plus delays is bad news, because it’s so hard for buyers and sellers at all stages of production to know what to charge and what to pay for either capital goods or consumption goods. How many construction projects, for example were blindsided by the five-time rise in lumber prices last year? Ports are clogged awaiting trucks—not enough drivers—so containers sit for weeks rather than days. Empty containers have become scarce. Rail schedules are affected by the ports like dominos, and freight prices are spiking. Will West Coast longshoremen strike in 2022 when their contract is up? Will new emissions regulations which slow ships kill more capacity? Will key Chinese factories shut down again due to delta?

None of it is pretty and may last into 2023. So buy your Christmas presents now!

We are starting to see the unseen, but economists, whose job it is to show us the tradeoffs, have been largely AWOL over the past year and a half. Consider this recent post by a famous libertarian free market economist:

US GDP is now higher, in fact a fair bit higher, than when the pandemic began.
US labor force participation is about 1.5% lower than when the pandemic began.
Was there really slack to the tune of a few million people in Jan of 2020?
Has inflation really changed enough to make the GDP numbers misleading?
Has total factor productivity improved that much in that time, under those stresses? (i.e. more output from less input, labor & capital).

Or is this all a sign that the structure of the economy is more stratified than we think—that there are millions of people in more-or-less filler jobs who can be cast out and the economy just keeps on running along? Yes, there are all sorts of reports of labor shortages, and all manner of supply chain hiccups which seem to often be associated with off shoring, but general activity is still high. (Or is it? Are the numbers reporting “vapor GDP?”—or are the inflation adjustments really out of whack so real GDP is not what we think it is?)

This is clever masquerading as smart, and it’s the sort of thing which makes people dislike economists. It’s homo economicus nonsense. This kind of navel-gazing—wondering aloud, as though we could shut down the world for a year, send everybody home, suspend rent payments, and not suffer tradeoffs—makes me think economics as a profession is not doing the world any good. People desperately need productive activity for their basic health and happiness, even if that activity doesn’t much add to the national economy.

A friend who runs a large chain of retail stores across several states sent me this in response.

It’s amazing how [BLANKED]-up this person is. An economy is a way to get stuff. Is there much stuff, or less stuff, than when this all began? More cars or less? More computers and personal digital devices or less? More food or less? More oil or less? Greater business to business supply chain or less?

But because this [BLANK] thinks the economy is a symbolic architecture, not a real thing for getting real stuff, he’s absolutely flummoxed by a simple question. Go outside, moron. Step away from the keyboard and the spreadsheet.

I thought he was spot on. Economics is the study of choice in the face of scarcity, of how we get the goods and services we want in an environment of tradeoffs and uncertainty. Nothing could be more disastrous to that environment than vague, open-ended government lockdown measures. We don’t need to move numbers around until they please us as some kind of substitute gnostic knowledge. We shut down the world over a virus, restarting it will be difficult, and the economic damage will be enormous and long lasting. Economists should be showing us the unseen damage, not cheering the juiced-up data.

My point here is to suggest the economics of our present situation are worse than advertised, and that economics is about that holds us together. What we think of as America is mostly an economic arrangement, not a social or cultural one—and certainly not a political arrangement. America is hardly a country anymore, and I take no pleasure in saying that. What happens when the economics unravel?

The Great Unraveling

But there is a happy upside to all of this. A silver lining, perhaps.

Over eighteen months we’ve learned that all crises are local. For eighteen months it has mattered very much whether you live in Florida or New York, whether you live in Sweden or Australia. And the physical analog world reasserted itself with a vengeance: no matter where you are, no matter how rich you may be, you must exist in corporeal reality. You need housing, food, clean water, energy, and medical care in the most physical sense. You need last-mile delivery, no matter what is happening in the broader world. Your local situation suddenly mattered quite a bit in 2020. It was the year localism reasserted itself.

Whether your local reality was dysfunctional or did not matter quite a bit in the terrible covid year. And people are waking up to the simple reality of this dysfunction. We know the federal government can’t manage covid. It can’t manage Afghanistan. It can’t manage debt, or the dollar or spending, or entitlements. It can’t even run federal elections, for God’s sake much, less provide security, or justice, or social cohesion.

So how can it manage a country of 330 million people? How can it manage fifty states?

Whether we want to call it the Great Awakening or the Great Realignment, something profound is happening. Imagine if the twenty-first century reverses the dominant trend of the nineteenth and twentieth, namely the centralization of political power in national and even supranational governments? What if we are about to embark on an experiment in localism and regionalism, simply due to the sheer inability of modern national governments to manage day-to-day reality?

A kind of centrifugal force is at work. Here in the US, people are self-segregating—both ideologically and geographically—in what we should think of as a kind of soft secession. A recent survey by United Van Lines confirms what we already knew: people are fleeing California, New York, New Jersey, and Illinois for Texas, Idaho, Florida, and Tennessee. This is simple flight from the dysfunction of big cities and unworkable progressive policies, laid bare by the analog lessons of covid.

We should cheer this. If just 10 percent of Americans hold reasonable views on politics, economics, and culture they would constitute 33 million people—we could coalesce as a significant political force! And this nation within a nation would be larger and more economically powerful than many European countries.

Furthermore, we are witnessing a tremendous shift in political power away from cities toward exurbs and rural areas. There really is nothing like it in US history. America started in colonies and villages, before moving westward to farms and ranches. When factories began to replace farms as major employers, Americans moved to the old Rust Belt cities like Chicago and Pittsburgh and Detroit. When tech and finance began to overshadow manufacturing, Americans moved to Manhattan and Seattle and Silicon Valley for the best jobs. But that revolution in finance and tech means capital is more mobile than ever, and covid accelerated our ability to work from home. All of this could have huge beneficial effects for smaller cities and rural areas, which in turn could have profound effects for the congressional map and electoral college. If the angry school board meetings over masks are any indication, politics already has become more localized.

Covid policies ruined cities, at least for awhile, and the Great Unraveling will reduce the political and economic power of those cities.

So a once-in-a-generation opportunity is before us. The federal government is far and away the biggest, most powerful institution in America, but as previous speakers mentioned, faith in institutions is crumbling. And it should crumble. Washington, DC, has been the centerpiece around which we organize society for a hundred years now, and that’s a profoundly evil reality. So we should cheer when Americans lose faith in it due to Trump or covid or Afghanistan or public opinion polls which show a deeply divided and skeptical country. There is a growing sense that DC is over, it’s done, and it’s time to turn our backs on it. We are losing our state religion.

Contra our political elites, covid and the disastrous reaction by governments may end up reducing their power and standing in society.

This article is excerpted from a talk delievered by Jeff Deist at the September 4, 2021 Ron Paul Institute conference, and is republished with permission of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

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