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As Terror War's Deceits Crumble
Inflating Wages of Fear

Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “The First Circle,” published in 1968, was based on Solzhenitsyn’s experiences in a little-known sub-genre of the Soviet gulag: Its “privileged” camps where brainy prisoners—scientists, engineers—were coddled in exchange for work profitable to the Soviet Union’s manic industrialization.

Solzhenitsyn captures the paranoia of the Stalinist era when he describes the Soviet government’s strange relationship with scientific information: Soviet embassy staffers in, say, Washington , D.C. , would pick up copies of mass-market magazines like Popular Mechanics at their neighborhood newsstand and mail the magazines to Moscow . Once there, the material would immediately become classified information, locked up in safes and treated like state secrets. Scientists caught reading the material for their own edification could be shipped off to the more Siberian-like franchises of the gulag. The secrecy was absurd. But it was consistent with the absurdity of the Soviet state, where reality was whatever fiction the state needed it to be.

I think of that “ First Circle “ story every time our government classifies, de-classifies or imprisons life-or-death bodies of evidence, individuals included, connected to the Great American Novel known as the “war on terror.” The military picks up some 90-something great-grandpa who happens to be in the neighborhood of Taliban dust in some Afghan plain, and he suddenly becomes, in Vice President Dick Cheney’s words, among “the worst of a very bad lot” at Guantanamo Bay.

I’m not making this up. A 90-year-old, Muhammad Siddiq, was among those hapless “mistakes” released in Guantanamo ‘s late 2002 vintage, which also included a centenarian half-wit who could barely hold up his end of a conversation, let alone a weapon. The 2004 vintage included a 26-year-old farmer who typified the 146 Guantanamo detainees who’d bee freed by June last year, when a New York Times investigation concluded “that government and military officials have repeatedly exaggerated both the danger the detainees posed and the intelligence they have provided.” Still, more than 500 of them languish there as thousands do in Iraq and Afghanistan and secret prisons elsewhere, most of them no more worthy of lock and key than those copies of Popular Mechanics Stalin coveted so hysterically.

It isn’t just the threat of those prisoners that the government exaggerates. It’s the threat of terrorism itself. Our own architects of paranoia will always have 9/11 to use as their fountain of rage. But even 9/11 is receding to its proper place as a freak atrocity, a one-time coup whose success exceeded even bin Laden’s expectations. The threat isn’t gone: The bloated incompetence and linguistic illiteracy and competing rivalries of America ‘s intelligence services are almost as welcoming to terrorists today as they were in 2001. But it’s a sign of terrorism’s inherent limitations that even taking advantage of those security weaknesses is easier sworn to Allah than done. Still, our architects of paranoia are in overdrive. They’ve had to be. They have nothing left to justify them but that war on terror, which, politically, has been their friend and savior at every critical turn. This time, the paranoia is flaking. The parody is emerging. The wages of fear have been deflated by Katrina. Scandals of crookery and cronyism and deception from Tom DeLay to Harriet Miers to Scooter Libby are catching up with the oligarchy. The White House had it better when it had a pile of rubble to stand on at Ground Zero. Iraq had it better under Nimrod.

So the president kicked off a month of sideshows in early October with a rerun about freedom “once again assaulted by enemies determined to roll back generations of democratic progress.” He wasn’t referring to his administration’s hand in this—which would have had him flirting unusually close to the truth—but to the tired fantasy about al-Qaida’s billionaire bandits being “as brutal an enemy as we’ve ever faced.” The same day New York City went on high alert over a rumor of imminent subway bombings. The threat was fake. The Department of Homeland Security laughed it off. But it very briefly served its purpose—to give the incumbent Republican a boost in the local mayoral election, just as calling on all Qaida threats helped Republicans boost their national prospects in 2002 and 2004.

By the time the government later in the month declassified an alleged al-Qaida letter promising a caliphate from Baghdad to wherever, no one was paying attention. You can only recycle the same old threats so many times before the wolves begin to look like the mangy props they’ve always been. Next thing they’ll tell us is that Osama has a secret subscription to Popular Mechanics, proof positive that he’s one step closer to launching his Mullahs Gone Wild caliphate all over America.

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