Levels of Paranoia and the “Scanner Revolt”
[Electric-car fanciers: Leaf or Volt? I’m now undecided. Here’s why.]
Fear does funny things to people. Since World War II, we can explain much of world history with a single word: paranoia. Why historians have yet to address this obvious theme with the necessary vigor and seriousness is one of the great mysteries of our human drama. Maybe it’s just too embarrassing for our species.
Our Own Cold-War Paranoia
Our Paranoia Today
Conclusion: the “Scanner Revolt” and Its Meaning
Let’s start with Exhibit A: the old Soviet Union. It was a seventy-year exercise in collective paranoia. It started with the Revolution of October 1917, which was far too bloody to achieve its modest ends, namely, an end to Czarist tyranny and Russian serfdom. The victorious Bolsheviks expelled, slaughtered or imprisoned whole classes of merchants and industrialists. They enslaved the very serfs they had just freed. They feared the defeated ruling class so much that they slaughtered the entire ruling family—the Romanoffs—and buried their bones in secret, unmarked graves, apparently fearing they might return from a proper grave.
Stalin, who led the Soviet Union for most of its brief history, was the incarnation of paranoia. His entire monstrous career was an exercise in murdering or displacing rivals, real and imagined, before (in his fevered mind) they could get to him.
Evidence of Stalin’s paranoia is so voluminous that it would take a multi-volume set just to list it all. He internally deported huge and peaceful settlements of non-Russian ethnic groups, many to the Russian Far East, for fear they would challenge his rule. Long before Nazi Germany invaded, he starved and purged the Ukraine, for fear it might turn westward, thereby weakening it immeasurably against invasion. He annihilated Poland’s officer corps, preferring to leave his neighbor defenseless, rather than build a defensible border and buffer state. During the height of the World War II, he forced the great aircraft designer Tupolev and his engineers to do their work in prison, under constant scrutiny of political commissars who knew nothing of engineering or airplanes. He even suppressed the history of Genghis Khan in Mongolia, fearing that any hint of that ancient ruler’s success might spark rebellion.
Of course all these strategic and tactical errors made it much harder for Mother Russia and its subject peoples to win what they call the Great Patriotic War. But win they did, at the cost of the greatest suffering and sacrifice of any nation in that war, with the possible exception of China. As I’ve outlined in another post, they lost more dead in the defense of a single city—Leningrad, now renamed St. Petersburg—than we did in the entire war, including our “Pacific Front.” And when the war was over, the Soviets had lost one-seventh of their entire population, the equivalent of nearly 44 million Americans today.
Under these circumstances, it was not hard for the Soviets to maintain their collective paranoia after their pyrrhic victory over fascism. Stalin still ruled for almost another decade, and it took more than that time to dig out and rebuild. The Soviets saw and feared a dominant America, jarred from isolation in a mere four years and diffidently flexing its newly acquired muscles, including nuclear weapons. They also saw that dominant America rebuilding Germany and Japan with almost supernatural speed, in effect surrounding them. And they were sore afraid.
So what did they do? They put conquered Eastern Europe in an iron grip. They massed huge conventional armies on the border with the West. They stole our atomic secrets, in one of the cleverest and most effective feats of espionage in human history. And they built a huge nuclear arsenal of their own. They challenged us to build a doomsday capability that, in Sedef Gates’ modern words, could destroy the whole world many times over and “make the rubble bounce.”
But most of all, the Soviets played a big game of bluff. Fearing us, they made us fear them. Aping the Nazis who had nearly destroyed them, they made threats of world conquest under the guise of aggressive global Communism. They banged on the table at the UN. At the Cold War’s height, in the greatest metaphor of Soviet bluster, the former peasant General Secretary Nikita S. Krushchev took off his shoe, banged it on the podium, and declared “We will bury you!”
The whole posture of the Soviet Union during the Cold War was that of a small man who fears a larger one and acts hyper-aggressive to compensate for his perceived weakness and fear. You might say the same of Iran today.
Our Own Cold-War Paranoia
We did our bit for Cold War paranoia, too. We had our Red Scare—a pale reflection of Stalin’s lifelong paranoia. Our politicians, mostly on the right, suspected Communists in our legislature, our intelligentsia, and even our State Department. Senator Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin (no relation to the later Gene!) became a vicious paranoid demagogue like Stalin. He gained far more power than any such monster had a right to acquire in a democracy. He purged many writers and artists, and not a few politicians, received a private tongue-lashing from President Eisenhower, and finally sank under the weight of his own fraud and evil. Eventually, he died of cancer, unsung and despised.
But our own paranoia did not die with Joe McCarthy. We embarked enthusiastically on the greatest arms race in human history, whose expense and dangers haunt us to this day. Fearing the Soviets and their largely empty threat of global Communism, we subverted foreign governments in Chile and Iran. We supported vicious dictators, including those we set up there. And, fearing a nonexistent “missile gap,” we entered and won the race to the Moon. That feat was only an outgrowth of our dash for supremacy in intercontinental ballistic missiles, but it was one of the very few good things to emerge from the Cold War.
There was great irony in our paranoia. Alone among the powers of the Earth, we had never been injured by two centuries of imperial wars. Two great oceans had protected us. They did so even at the height of the world’s most disastrous war, in which feared invasions from Germany or Japan never happened. But that didn't stop our ugly Internment of loyal Japanese-Americans, which accomplished nothing but proving paranoia’s evils.
Russia and the Soviets had reasons enough for paranoia. In the two previous centuries, their territory had been attacked repeatedly from every direction except the frozen north. The Nazi invasion was just the most recent of many.
We, in contrast, had been the safest major power in history. Except for minor incursions by Pancho Villa, easily repelled, we had not been attacked on our own territory since our War of 1812. Even the greatest war we fought entirely outside our territory, except for Pearl Harbor and brief skirmishes in Alaska.
After that war, we emerged an unquestioned global leader, with our territory and industry intact, our former enemies and new allies rebuilding under our tutelage, and the strongest economy in human history. Our war industry had cranked out 8,000 warplanes per month in 1944, some of which had helped our then allies, the Soviets, turn the tide against fascism in the east.
But paranoia needs no reason. Fear feeds upon itself. And so the greatest nation in history—the strongest and most protected by geography and fortune—plunged itself eagerly into history’s greatest exercise in mutual paranoia, the Cold War.
There was irony on the Soviet-Russian side, too. A great Russian writer, whose name I forget, wrote a perfect metaphor for the cold war over half a century beforehand. A man walking from one village to another gets caught in a snowstorm. As the blizzard closes in, he sees a horse cart through the gloom and begs a ride. Rider and passenger move in isolation through their white, snowy world, which narrows as the blizzard heightens. Slowly, each comes to suspect that the other has designs on him. The rider imagines that his passenger has a gun and intends to take his cart and horse. The passenger imagines that the rider wants to rob him of his good coat and hat and the money he has hidden on him. They end up struggling together, lost in the snow, and wrestling each other down an embankment. Eventually they confess their mutual fears, reconcile, and arrive battered and chastened at their destination.
That nineteenth-century short story, which I read for the first time in the early nineties, was such a perfect metaphor for the Cold War that I wondered whether the author had been clairvoyant. I like to think that Gorbachev, Yeltsin and maybe even Putin had read it and learned from it. Yeltsin must have. For as he dissolved the Soviet Union, he declared a sincere desire to end the fear with which his nation and its otherwise innocent, suffering people had gripped the world for so long.
Our Paranoia Today
It would be nice if this tale of paranoia was a droll story of yesteryear. But it isn’t. Somehow, the richest, most fortunate, most favored society in human history remains paranoid today.
The terrorist attacks of 9/11 were a great blow to a nation still looking forward to a “peace dividend” after the Cold War’s end. They were an intense shock because many of us still thought (erroneously, in the nuclear age) that our oceans would protect us. But no rational person looking at our response to those attacks could describe it as anything other than an overreaction.
I don’t mean to belittle 9/11. The death toll was nearly 2,996, more than the 2,350 that died at Pear Harbor. The attacks were sneak attacks, like Pearl Harbor, but the vast majority of victims was innocent civilians. The whole thing was a chilling, inhuman, and cowardly bit of treachery.
But we have to keep the attacks in perspective. They were not, like Pearl Harbor, our entrance into a devastating world war that ultimately killed 50 million people, including about half a million of our own. They did not come from a force representing the two most powerful and well-armed military dictatorships our species had ever known, namely, the “Axis” of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Even more than Pearl Harbor, the 9/11 attacks reflected an inattention to a clear threat of attack, especially in light of bin Laden’s 1998 so-called “fatwa,” a virtual declaration of war against us. And though every life is precious, and attacks are more troubling than accidents, we ought not to forget that we lose more people to traffic fatalities, on the average, every five weeks.
Our response to the attacks can only be described as spastic and irrational. We “invaded” Afghanistan without the necessary planning or troops to kill or capture the culprits. Nine years later, we are still there. We later invaded a third country (Iraq) on false pretenses, and over seven years later we are still there. We built a huge, secret apparatus to spy on the world and our own people. We imprisoned our own citizens without due process of law. We sent aliens, including at least one Canadian, to be tortured by foreign powers, and we built secret “black sites” and “black prisons” where we could torture presumed enemies abroad. We built a huge prison in our occupied part of Cuba to serve as a “Constitution-free” zone, where we could hold prisoners from the “war on terrorism” without regard to the human rights for which we and our forebears had fought for eight centuries, since Magna Carta. Two presidents, from both “right” and the “left,” have refused or failed to close that prison and return to our normal rules of human rights.
And last but not least, we have converted the once-pleasant and easy experience of air travel into an exercise in oppression and control reminiscent of a police state. Citizens of our closest allies are horrified at what we have done, so much so that many now avoid international travel through our territory when they can.
Other nations that suffered similar attacks have not done likewise. Spain, Indonesia (at Bali), and our own closest ally, Britain, all suffered attacks like ours. None has started an unnecessary war or, as far as appears from abroad, surrendered its normal civil liberties in a vain quest for absolute security. Russia suffered the worst attacks of any foreign country: a siege of the Nord-Ost Theater in the heart of its capital and the murder of innocent children at a school in Beslan. But Russia has not started unnecessary wars or, as far as we can tell, altered its security procedures and nascent civil liberties in a way that impinges on ordinary citizens in everyday life.
Each of these nations has of course stepped up necessary security, counterintelligence, and international cooperation. Russia has even offered its air space to assist our misadventure in Afghanistan. But none has gone so far over the top in foreign adventures, domestic surveillance and extraordinary domestic police control as we. In short, no one else appears to have attained quite our level of paranoia.
We Americans are all to blame, including me. I wrote a 2004 post that, as I now see in retrospect, exaggerated the risk of a nuclear terrorist attack. As it turns out, Russian nukes are much better secured that I feared. Terrorists lack the necessary scientific, technological, and industrial infrastructure to develop nukes of their own. And even minor powers like North Korea and Iran, which have or may be developing nukes, are hardly likely to risk giving them to terrorists when a single one of our nuclear submarines—against which they have absolutely no defense—could obliterate all their cities in retaliation, and in less than fifteen minutes.
Our nuclear deterrent gives even rogue nations a strong incentive to keep nukes out of terrorists’ hands, lest they be among the first victims of a nuclear exchange. So does Israel’s. Even a rogue nation rightly fears nuclear retaliation if a terrorist weapon is traced to it, or even if it is only the most likely suspected source. The use of nukes as offensive weapons is just too risky to be a serious instrument of policy, except as a bluff. In failing to recognize these points, I may have unknowingly participated in our paranoia.
Conclusion: the “Scanner Revolt” and Its Meaning
But our own worst offenders have been those who stoked paranoia for profit, whether in politics or business. Demagogues hyped the risk of terrorism beyond all reality to win elections. Two presidencies have used it to increase their power and subvert our Constitution.
Our media have been the worst of the worst offenders. In headlong pursuit of profit, they made the video images of the Twin Towers collapsing a national icon of shame and rage. There is probably not a single citizen or resident of our nation who hasn’t seen those images at least a dozen times and doesn’t have them renewed in his or her fearful imagination at least every two or three months.
This is madness. People have won office, contracts, employment in their jurisdiction, power, and fame by building an industry of fear and hate. In the recent absence of any really innovative new industries, you might mistake our national motto for “Paranoia ‘R’ Us.”
Fortunately, our people are beginning to see the light. There is a backlash. Protest is in the air.
I and many others have wondered exactly where the elderly Tea Mobbers got their fear and hatred of their own government. After all, they get their Social Security checks from the very same government they excoriate. But they also travel to see their grandchildren. And given the vast distances in our country, they travel mostly by air.
So now I think I understand. It’s the TSA, stupid.
We are a free people. Our birthright is to drive down the open highway with the wind in our hair, to hop on a plane, wave from the top of the ramp and take off, unburdened, into a clear blue sky.
Every Baby Boomer knows this from personal experience. Those of us in the Tea Mobbers’ age bracket still remember when loved ones came to kiss you goodbye at the gate, when all you needed to get on your plane like a king or queen was a boarding pass and a smile. I remember once banging on a closed aircraft door to claim my seat, and once again stopping a commercial puddle-jumper on the tarmac to hop on.
The TSA has stolen all that. With it, the TSA has taken away the pride and liberty of the very people who invented aircraft. It has taken us all several steps closer to being cowed subjects of a totalitarian state. And since the elite are those who travel by air most often, it has messed with the segment of our population most resistant to cowing.
The TSA makes us wait for unknown and unknowable times, disrupting our schedules and converting us into nervous clock-watchers. It makes us stand in line like cattle. It orders us, sometimes brusquely, to take off our coats, shoes and belts, display our mobile devices, and let strangers rummage through our most intimate belongings. It violates our privacy and personal autonomy, thoroughly and humiliatingly, every time we travel by air. It makes us feel like subjects of a police state. Now it proposes to up the ante by giving us the choice between back-scattering X-ray scanners and pat-downs that include our genital areas.
Our feelings of revulsion and defiance are not entirely rational. They are partly subconscious. But they are just as real as the air terrorism that we know exists and the fear that forces us to knuckle under.
So underneath all our grim realism and fear, we are beginning to rebel. We suspect that many of the indignities we suffer are not really necessary for our safety but are cosmetic measures designed to convince us that something is being done, while more effective measures languish in secrecy because they cost more. We don’t trust our own government partly because we don’t trust the private airlines that we know really call the shots. And so we rail at government because it is a handy scapegoat. The TSA patch is the first and last thing we see as we submit, grumbling, to treatment that reminds us of all the fascist and communist regimes that we once fought so steadfastly.
The problem is not the people. TSA employees may not be the brightest bulbs on the marquee, but most of them do a difficult, tedious and terminally boring job with professionalism, civility, and sometimes even lightness and humor.
The problem is the process. The ritual searching of every airline passenger, with steadily increasing intrusiveness and indignity, is something that free citizens of a free society simply should not have to endure. Physically and psychologically, it is an instrument of tyranny, notwithstanding its protective purpose. Continued for a generation, it will make us forget how to be free. And if that happens, it will be Al Qaeda’s greatest victory.
So as I look at the upcoming Thanksgiving protest against the new back-scattering X-ray scanners, I have mixed feelings. My scientific and engineering training convinces me they are good machines. Their judicious use will make us safer. They can find hidden weapons and contraband quickly and indisputably. They don’t “see” flesh and won’t foster voyeurism, as some people fear. Only the most frequent travelers, such as flight crews, need worry about the low levels of X-ray radiation they produce. Used properly and unobtrusively, these machines might someday make air travel less oppressive.
But I’m also an American and a lover of liberty. As such, I look forward to a large public protest against these otherwise useful machines. I see it as a healthy and long-overdue backlash against the deep paranoia that our political and business leaders have created and manipulated (wittingly or not) to control us, like cattle in a pen. I hope the protest will mark the beginning of a free people’s renaissance.
I’m not traveling over the Thanksgiving holiday. But if I were, I would join the protest and do my best to bring the entire air travel system to a grinding halt, at least for a single day.
I wouldn’t do it out of pique or spite. I would do it to remind our leaders in both business and government that we are, or purport to be, a free people. We will not be treated like cattle forever.
I would do it to goad them into making airline security more effective and less intrusive by putting it in the background, as most other civilized societies have done, whatever the cost. I would do it to remind them of Benjamin Franklin’s sage advice: “Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.” And I would do it to remind the Senate that, if it really wants to improve our security, it should ratify the Start II extension treaty as soon as possible, as an antidote to the residual mutual paranoia from a long-vanished Cold War.
Footnote: I have searched the Internet and my Russian library, which is not digitized, for this short story several times, without success. I believe its author was Tolstoy, but it may have been Lermontov or even Chekhov. I would be grateful to any reader who could identify the story by a comment to this page. In our Age of Paranoia, when some misguided fools want to resurrect the Cold War, it cannot be read and reread often enough.