is author of American Dionysia: Violence, Tragedy, and Democratic Politics, forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.
In July 2010 the Department of Homeland Security launched its “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign, a public awareness initiative designed to make American communities—from small towns to remote counties to big cities—alert to the problems of terrorism and terrorism-related crime. Citizens were to be educated regarding the importance of reporting suspicious conduct (rather than ideas or beliefs) to local law enforcement authorities, the new front line of American national security. The program started in New York City and its public transit network, but soon spread across America to include sporting leagues, venues, and events, colleges and universities, virtually any public site or happening. “If You See Something, Say Something” seems to be a cause for civic pride, a national surveillance and reporting system that brings Rousseau’s republican dream to life: we become natural born spies of one another in the name of the common good, especially freedom.
Insofar as the Department of Homeland Security insists that civil rights and liberties are respected and protected and that the “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign empowers people to participate meaningfully in their own defense, rather than subject these claims to much-deserved skepticism, let’s take the Department at its word and put it to the test. After all, there are terrorists, including war criminals, walking freely among us. We know who they are and where they live. They make intermittent public appearances. At least one of them has confessed his crimes proudly and openly, as if taunting the government for not taking action against him. They are responsible for the deaths of many tens of thousands of people, including thousands of American citizens. They employed the traditional weapons of terrorists the world over: bombs and bullets. They ordered their enemies tortured. What’s more, they feel no shame or remorse and would, if given the opportunity, do it all over again.
Not surprisingly, the list of America’s Most Wanted Terrorists and War Criminals reads like a who’s who of the George W. Bush regime. Beginning with former president Bush himself, it should include Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, George Tenet, Michael Hayden, David Addington, John Yoo, Jay Bybee, Paul Wolfowitz, and Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell. The list is bipartisan. Barack Obama, Robert Gates, Leon Panetta, and Eric Holder, among others, should be named for their unique drone-related contributions since 2009. And since this is not a recent phenomenon in American politics, the list should cite Henry Kissinger for his exemplary conduct of the American War in Vietnam.
Since Dick Cheney made and continues to make himself the public face of imperialism and torture in America, perhaps the first trial rightly belongs to him. This is not to deny that George W. Bush, then president, bears ultimate responsibility for the crusades that produced a gratuitous war of conquest in Iraq and a gulag archipelago of torture across the globe. It is to give Cheney credit for converting the Vice Presidency of the United States, historically an institution of irrelevancy, into an effective political office—for evil.
Following the Senate Intelligence Committee’s release of the executive summary of its torture report, Cheney has consistently defended the indefensible: “Torture is what the Al Qaeda terrorists did to 3,000 Americans on 9/11. There is no comparison between that and what we did with respect to enhanced interrogations.”
Cheney’s combination of American exceptionalism and impotent rage mean that he can’t help saying more than he intends. It’s not just that American citizens weren’t the only ones killed on September 11, 2001 (people from more than 90 other countries were murdered as well). It’s not just that because America was a victim on September 11 it cannot be a victimizer but only a hero, as Libby Anker argues in her brilliant new book, Orgies of Feeling: Melodrama and the Politics of Freedom. It’s that in denying the commission of a crime, he actually confesses to it. He’s right that there’s no comparison between the September 11 attacks and America’s so-called enhanced interrogations: one constitutes mass murder; the other constitutes mass torture. No doubt Cheney, at least in part, offers his “denials” in public because of his legal vulnerability. The Bush Administration (the CIA in particular) was desperate to find some legal rationale for the torture it wanted to inflict on al Qaeda prisoners and it finally found willing participants in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. People like Cheney were worried that one day they might be held to account for their crimes and need some kind of legal cover, however thin, to protect them.
That day remains a distant prospect, but it should be kept in sight. As John McCain has argued, the Bush Administration’s torture crimes pertain to American identity. They must be brought to light in order to make sure they never happen again. Torture is not something that we do. McCain, however, failed to demand the prosecution of the perps from the Bush regime. Simply put, transparency is not enough. In this regard, it’s worth remembering the recent announcement that Alois Brunner, Adolf Eichmann’s lieutenant, likely died in Syria several years ago. Though convicted in absentia in France, he was never brought fully to justice for his crimes against humanity, spending a lifetime evading his death sentence. America routinely insists that other countries and peoples confront their problematic, even criminal histories, and willingly lends its considerable resources in this global endeavor. It’s time for the United States to follow its own advice and turn inward. It’s also clear that democratic citizens, here and abroad, will have to force it to do so.
Now that Cheney has not only confessed his crimes, but vowed that he would commit them again without hesitation (this is called recidivism), it’s time to implement Homeland Security’s “If You See Something, Say Something” program. We know where Dick Cheney and his fellow criminals live (Cheney lives in Jackson, Wyoming, whose citizens should consider themselves on notice). Their schedule of public appearances is published well in advance. After all, much money can be made playing the patriot game in the United States articulating and defending an unrepentant will to power in domestic and international politics. If you live near one of these terrorists or war criminals and see them at the local Starbucks; if they are slated to appear at a local bookstore to promote their sorry apologias; if they are traveling abroad and you see them in an airport or at a popular tourist spot; identify them and make a citizen’s arrest. Ask, even demand, that your friends, that is, your fellow citizens, join and assist you. Hold them until local law enforcement officials arrive. You don’t need to lay hands on them. Prevent them from leaving by forming a chain around them. Or, in the United States anyway, put the Second Amendment to good use; render the right to bear arms something other than a consumer fetish. These criminals have violated national and international statutes; the idea of a citizen’s arrest is for people to play their part in making sure that no one is above the law and that it is respected and enforced, perhaps especially when those charged with this sacred duty fail—and fail repeatedly—to meet their obligations, including the President and his Attorney General. American citizens long ago took back their streets (and skies) from al Qaeda. It’s time to take back not only our streets but also our Constitution from the terrorists and war criminals among us.
This project can be considered a corollary not only to the Patriot Act-free zone movement embraced by hundreds of towns, cities, and states across the country but also to the new civil rights movement of democratic citizens to take control of their streets and cities, and thus their way of life, from the police following the slayings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, among countless others, and subordinate it to the people themselves. This nationwide campaign has been met with massive state opposition, especially in the aftermath of the murder of two New York City police officers on December 20. Bill de Blasio’s craven, manipulative effort to exploit a heinous crime and disrupt, perhaps cripple a legitimate politics of resistance serves as an untimely reminder that rights and liberties, including the right not to be tortured, subjected to assassination by the president, or targeted by police because of the color of your skin, are not given but taken.