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The Descent of America

Complaints about American decline have been commonplace since at least the Vietnam War era.

In the late 1980s, declinism experienced an upsurge with the publication of The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, by Paul Kennedy, which warned of the dangers of imperial overstretch. Even America’s putative victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War represented only a minor lull in the chatter about the erosion of U.S. status relative to other countries, particularly a rising China.

Closer to home, meanwhile, the grumbling over America’s crumbling usually spikes around the release of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ quadrennial infrastructure report card.

In 2017, the ASCE awarded America a D+ for the state of its roads, bridges, schools, parks, and public transportation. The grade was no surprise to many Americans. “This is an advanced economy?” people ask themselves as they wait for a broken-down bus, hit a pothole on the highway, turn away from the undrinkable water coming out of their taps, or drop their child at a school that’s just a few steps away from being condemned.

In U.S. schools, D is unsatisfactory but still officially passing. In terms of infrastructure, the United States teeters perilously on the edge of failure.

In the last few months, however, America has gone over the edge. The country has quickly, recklessly, impulsively entered the failure zone.

First, there’s the failure of leadership. The country has been ruled for the last three years by a corrupt, incompetent, would-be dictator who, when faced with a spate of crises, has proven spectacularly unfit for the job.

Second, there’s the failure to protect American lives. More than 100,000 people have died from the coronavirus, a level of death generally seen only in wartime.

Third, there’s the failure of the American dream. The economy has collapsed due to the coronavirus, and the unemployment rate has surged to nearly 20 percent.

Finally, there’s the chronic failure of American racism. In the last week, people have taken to the streets to protest the death of yet another African American at the hands of the police. On May 25, a police officer in Minneapolis handcuffed George Floyd on suspicion of forgery, pinned him to the ground, put a knee on his neck, and killed him. Floyd was one of over 7,500 people killed by the police since 2013.

Protestors are fed up with police profiling, targeting, and killing. But they are also outraged at the disproportionate impact of the pandemic and the economic collapse on people of color. The anger is entirely understandable. “I can’t breathe” applies to victims of police violence and the coronavirus both.

The protests themselves are a sign of hope, notwithstanding the over 60,000 National Guard that have poured onto the streets in 24 states.

Also hopeful are the expressions of solidarity during these protests. Cops in a number of cities have gotten down on one knee with protestors. Several mayors, like Atlanta’s Keisha Lance Bottoms, have spoken truth to the power of the president. Here in Washington, the owner of a restaurant burned by looters said, “Any kind of issue like this seems pretty minor. We have been through three months of being closed; we have seen 100,000 people die. I think the protests are great, and I think they are warranted.”

And yet, if you add up the economic, political, social, and medical deficits, it’s hard to imagine calling America an advanced industrialized nation at the moment. It is extraordinary to see such a rapid loss of status in real time, as opposed to a time-lapse animation of the rise and fall of some ancient civilization. “I’ve seen this kind of violence,” a former CIA analyst responsible for tracking developments in China and Southeast Asia told The Washington Post. “This is what autocrats do. This is what happens in countries before a collapse.”

The middle and upper classes may well be caught by surprise. But the current protests are a potent reminder that for a sizable portion of the American population, the country has never been advanced because they live in what Michael Harrington, nearly 60 years ago, called “the other America.”

Trump’s Racist Response

Donald Trump has always positioned himself as a law-and-order politician, even as his words and actions create disorder and violate laws.

He never possessed much if any empathy for victims of police violence. In response to George Floyd’s death, after a cursory expression of condolence, Trump quickly pivoted to deriding protesters, Democratic governors, “THUGS,” and the like. He promised that anyone who breached the White House fence would be met by “the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons.” He announced that he would declare the antifa movement a terrorist organization. He sounded like a minor-league dictator with his tweet that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

Later, on a call with governors, he suggested that “if you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time — they’re going to run over you, you’re going to look like a bunch of jerks.” He added, “You have to arrest people, and you have to try people, and they have to go jail for long periods of time.” Afterwards, in the Rose Garden, Trump said, “If a city or state refuses to take the actions necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.”

Despite Trump’s calls for law and order, the far right is actually cheering on the occasional violence of the protests because it feeds into their attempts to push the country into a race riot. Militia members, white extremists, and “boogaloo bois” want to take advantage of the coronavirus crisis to “accelerate” the demise of liberal, multicultural America. They’ve even showed up at the protests against police violence and promoted their own violent actions online.

Militant disruptions of otherwise peaceful demonstrations ultimately advance this far-right agenda. Such violence also advances Trump’s agenda.

Following his own version of accelerationism, the president has done everything within his power to destroy the country from within, using hateful language, implementing polarizing policies, and seeming to revel in the chaos that his administration has fostered. Declaring some version of martial law to contain the chaos he has helped to create — but in reality to promote more chaos and himself as the only person to address it — may be the only hope he has at this point of gaining a second term in office.

As Edward Luce writes in the Financial Times, “Trump makes little disguise of conjuring a pre-civil rights America where white males held uncontested sway.” Ultimately, though, it’s Trump himself who wants uncontested sway, and he thinks he can crowd-surf the unrest toward that goal.

America’s Racism Is a Foreign Policy Problem

There’s always been an element of racism to Donald Trump’s foreign policy.

From day one, for instance, Trump favored predominantly white countries in his immigration policy, instituting a Muslim travel ban and denigrating “shithole countries” when “we should have more people from places like Norway.” He told four U.S. congresswomen — three of them born in the United States — to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” He relishes blaming the coronavirus outbreak on “the Chinese,” knowing full well that his conspiracy theories feed into anti-Asian sentiment.

Of course, either money or nuclear weapons can turn a “shithole” country into a friend, with Trump cozying up to Kim Jong Un of North Korea and Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. That’s always been Trump’s modus operandi: he is truly race-blind when it comes to the powerful.

Donald Trump didn’t suddenly introduce racism into U.S. foreign policy. As I wrote back in January 2018, “Trump was only putting into words an underlying principle of U.S. foreign policy. For decades, the United States has treated countries like ‘shitholes’ even if policymakers haven’t called them such, at least not in public.” Racism is reflected in U.S. budget priorities, in the minuscule size of foreign aid programs, in the pattern of U.S. interventions, in the racial composition of the U.S. Army’s “essential workers” (otherwise known as grunts), and even in the Pentagon’s militarization of domestic policing. Trump certainly didn’t create any of these dynamics, though he has often aggravated them.

Still, the current president’s elevation of racism is not simply rhetorical. There is method to his mania.

Trump is using racism as a tool to destroy whatever lingering commitment the United States has to liberal internationalism. The latter philosophy inspired Americans to help create the United Nations, launch the Peace Corps, administer foreign aid programs, and collaborate with other countries to fight global warming. This liberal internationalism has always had its defects, from paternalism to naivete. But it’s a damn sight better than the illiberal nationalism that Trump offers as an alternative.

Trump’s deployment of racism at home and abroad cuts the legs out from under liberal internationalism. No other country can take America’s human rights rhetoric seriously. No other country can accept America’s claim to impartiality as a broker of peace deals, climate deals, any deals. First put your own house in order, they will say.

Putting our own house in order has long been the motivation of U.S. social movements. Think of the civil rights movement, the LGBT rights movement, the Black Lives Matter movement. They have also inspired human rights movements devoted to home improvement in countries around the world. Even today, the U.S. protests against police violence have inspired nearly 15,000 people to demonstrate in Paris, 10,000 demonstrators in Amsterdam, tens of thousands in Auckland, thousands in London and Berlin and throughout Australia.

U.S. support of human rights abroad can and should be an extension of these social movements. That’s something that Trump’s racism at home and attacks on liberal internationalism abroad threaten as well.

“Let’s hope the demonstrations all over the world will help remind Washington that U.S. soft power is a unique asset, setting America apart from other great powers — from China, Russia, and even from Europe,” observes Wolfgang Ischinger, former German ambassador to the United States. “It would be tragic if the Trump administration turned a huge opportunity for the U.S. into a moral abdication.”

Unfortunately, Trump has his own ideas of how to put the American house in order up to and including burning the house down. The antidote to Trump’s racist nationalism is not less internationalism but more: rejoining the international bodies that Trump pulled out of, reentering the accords that Trump unsigned, patiently rebuilding U.S. engagement in the world on an equal basis.

Such a re-engagement has to go hand in hand with a difficult reckoning with America’s own racism, for the inequality perpetuated domestically mirrors the inequality maintained on a global scale.

Only in this way can America stop its descent and climb back into the community of nations.

Foreign Policy In Focus, June 3, 2020

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The Gunman

Every era has its representative figure. The Neolithic era had the Farmer. The avatar of the Middle Ages was the Monk, bent over an illuminated manuscript. For the period before and after 1492, the Explorer captured the global imagination. During the Industrial Revolution, the Worker embodied the age of manufacturing.

And now we have the Gunman.

The Gunman is everywhere. He is a soldier. He is a policeman. He might be a right-wing extremist or a caliphate-inspired jihadi. He might be a survivalist atop a well-stocked bunker or a settler in occupied territory. He might be a maniac with no motivation other than mayhem. Or he might just be the middle-class dad next door who wants to protect his family. But he’s usually a guy. Reports of a surge in U.S. women owning guns are largely anecdotal: Gunmen still outnumber gunwomen three to one.

Shortly after the Orlando shootings, I was driving to a neighborhood Chinese restaurant with my wife’s high school friend when I made a passing comment about the need to ban assault rifles. To my surprise, this otherwise liberal fellow begged to differ. Then he pointed out that he had three guns in the back of his MINI Cooper. Everyone is coming out of the closet these days, so why not gunmen?

Guys with guns dominate the headlines. Young armed men are dispensing death in public places in service of any number of philosophies (racism, homophobia, the Islamic State, misanthropy). Meanwhile, the American police force has been conducting a veritable waragainst African-American men: 248 black men died last year at the hands of the police, 36 of them unarmed. Also last year, 42 police officers died by gunfire, a 14 percent decline over the previous year. This year, however, the numbers are rising. Including last week’s shooting in Dallas, 26 police have been shot and killed in 2016. Overall, there were 372 mass shootings in the United States in 2015, and an astonishing 13,286 people died by gunshot.

In this war on the American streets, it can be difficult to know who is on what side. In Dallas last week, when Micah Johnson killed five cops, he wasn’t the only civilian with a gun in the vicinity. According to the Dallas mayor, more than 20 men in camouflage gear with rifles started to scatter when Johnson opened fire. Texas, after all, is an open-carry state.

Instead of implementing gun control measures in the wake of Dallas and Orlando and all the other recent outbreaks of firearm violence, Congress has deadlocked on the mildest of reforms. Gun sales, meanwhile, are up.

The number of households possessing guns has actually declined to around one in three, but not the overall number of guns in circulation. The average gun owner now possesses eight guns, twice as many as 20 years ago. The United States ranks number one in the world in per capita gun ownership: an astounding 112 guns per 100 residents. The next closest is Serbia at 75 (engulfed by war in the 1990s), followed by Yemen at 54 (engulfed by war today).

Guns have become the new smartphone: an indispensable accessory for the modern age. I fear that one day a pop-up window will appear in my browser advertising the new iFirearm (iGun is already taken).

Apple’s latest creation will come loaded with apps, like one that tells you all the establishments that welcome customers who are packing heat. Siri will inform you from a little speaker in the handle about the nearest location of an active shooting — and you can decide whether to run in the opposite direction or head toward the bloodshed waving your firearm.

I can even envision a deadly new reality series based on that app: Who Wants to be a Hero?(Of course, despite the exhortations of Donald Trump, the NRA, and others to add rather than subtract guns from a mass shooting, the police recommend that if you have a firearm and you’re at the scene of a shooting, you should keep it holstered — or else the police will take youfor the gunman.)

I used to think that the United States was backwards when it came to gun control, that we still lived by an archaic frontier ethos of Lawman versus Outlaw. Some day we would grow up, put away our childish things, and join the civilized world of the Europeans and Japanese.

But perhaps they are the anachronisms. Perhaps it will soon become as futile to resist the spread of guns as it was to ignore Facebook and Twitter. Even Europe is not immune from the trend. The Gunman has turned up in Norway (Anders Breivik) and England (Thomas Mair). Gunmen have terrorized France and Belgium. So far in 2016, according to Vice, mass shootings have taken place in Serbia, Cyprus, Austria, Italy, Portugal, Germany, and multiple times in Russia.

Of course it’s worse elsewhere. Some countries have completely succumbed to the lawlessness of the frontier — Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Somalia — where everyone “guns up” in order to survive. Africa and Latin America are home to numerous “murder capitals” such as Caracas, San Salvador, and Cape Town. Just like at the OK Corral, the Lawman battles the Outlaw in these violent lands.

Having intervened militarily in the crescent of crisis stretching from Central Asia to North Africa, the United States has fancied itself the Lawman upholding the principles of international law. But in reality, Washington has more frequently acted as the Outlaw, squeezing the trigger in extrajudicial executions (through drone strikes), causing the collateral damage of civilian deaths, and invading countries on dubious pretexts.

During previous wars — in Korea, in Vietnam — the Gunman at home and the Gunman abroad were involved in two separate enterprises. Today, however, the two worlds are beginning to collide.

The War at Home

Micah Johnson, a product of the JROTC program, enlisted in the Army Reserve in 2009. His engineer brigade deployed to Afghanistan in 2013. He received an honorable discharge as a result of a deal involving a sexual harassment charge. He apparently didn’t see any combat in Afghanistan, but he continued to conduct his own military training stateside, becoming an expert marksman.

Angered by the recent spate of police killings of African Americans, he set up in a location overlooking a Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Dallas and killed five police officers.

Two of the five officers had also served overseas in the military, while a third had worked for a private military contractor. This is not exactly a coincidence. Police forces in the United States are the logical employment for ex-soldiers. It’s hard to find precise statistics, since police departments don’t release this information. But The Dallas Morning News reported in 2015that hundreds of Dallas police officers are military veterans and 119 are active reserve members (out of approximately 3,600 officers), which tracks with the 15-20 percent of each academy class who are former soldiers.

Over the last few years, large numbers of combat troops have returned from Afghanistan and Iraq and are looking to return to civilian life. The federal government decided to address high unemployment among veterans and the staffing needs of police forces by directing resourcesto the preferential hiring of former military in law enforcement.

The convergence of the war abroad and the war at home is not simply one of overlapping personnel. Police departments increasingly resemble the U.S. military. SWAT teams look like invading forces. Surplus military equipment, like grenade launchers and armored personnel carriers, has transformed police officers into battlefield warriors. Even robot-controlled bombs, like the one that killed Micah Johnson, threaten to turn the terrain of American cities into something more closely resembling Baghdad.

It’s not the military veterans, however, who are necessarily behind the more gung-ho attitude among police. Writes one officer:

I worked with a lot of guys who were combat veterans from the Vietnam era, and they certainly didn’t have anything to prove to anybody. They were probably less likely to get involved in violent confrontations than the types of cops I see nowadays, most of whom do not have a military background, and some who are acting out, at least to some degree, video game fantasies about being a bad ass.

If you throw together a large number of combat-hardened veterans with cocky video-game-trained recruits, add a new array of firepower, and round it out with training programs designed by former military contractors, it’s no surprise that our police forces have begun to operate as if they’re in a war zone. SWAT teams conduct raids like they’re breaking down doors in Afghanistan — tens of thousands of them every year. The police approach young black men as if they are potential terrorists with concealed weapons and intent to kill.

From a statistical standpoint, it’s a mystery why police departments believe that bulking up is necessary. Violent crime in America has not simply declined, but declined dramatically (by half between 1991 and 2013). Of course, the federal government has made it practically freefor municipalities to get all this war gear, which they would need, if at all, only in worst-case scenarios.

But the real reason for this arms race is fear.

The Fear

The war abroad and the war at home are both fueled by the same fear of encroaching chaos. In an invaluable New Yorker article by Evan Osnos, here’s how David Grossman, the author ofOn Combat, describes his post-apocalyptic vision:

He predicted that terrorists will detonate a nuclear weapon on a boat off the coast of the United States, and that they will send people infected with diseases — “suicide bio bombers” — across the border from Mexico. Then he said, “I’ll tell you what’s next, folks: school-bus and day-care massacres.” Eventually, he wound his way to the solution: concealed carry. “There is a time, in the first five to ten minutes in every one of these events, when one or two well-trained people with a concealed weapon can rise from the entire pack.” Americans, Grossman told us, must accommodate to a future of “armed people everywhere.”

Armed people everywhere: Talk about self-fulfilling prophecies. The NRA is selling guns to people worried about “armed people everywhere” and thereby creates its own worst nightmare (or perhaps its own largest potential membership).

But note how closely Grossman links terrorists attacking the U.S. homeland with the worst fear of American families: They will go after our children. Grossman knows that parents will do practically anything to defend their children, who have nothing but stuffed animals and schoolbooks to defend against men with assault rifles. But parents can’t be there all the time.

With that in mind, gun manufacturers have been marketing firearms to youth in an effort to arm the next generation. Well, it took a while for smart phones to reach the pre-teen set. If assault weapons indeed form an indispensible part of making America great again, then why wait for kids to vote or drink before they start training to take out potential enemies?

These fears of attack have always contained an undercurrent of racism, a suspicion that those with brown or black skin (from the Middle East, from over the border, from the ghetto) want “what’s ours.” The initial spike in gun sales in the United States for something other than hunting dates back to 1992 and the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict, according to former gun salesman and economic historian Mike Weisser:

“It was the first time that you could see a live riot on video while it was going on,” Weisser said. “They had a helicopter floating around when a white guy pulled up to the intersection. These black guys pull him out of the truck and are beating the shit out of him right below that helicopter.” The new market for self-defense guns was born, Weisser said, and it was infused with racial anxiety.

The marriage of racism and guns has necessarily generated its own armed response. During the civil rights movement, as a number of recent books have documented, anti-racism activists often resorted to carrying and using firearms to protect themselves and fight back against a determined and armed adversary.

Akinyele Omowale Umoja took the title of his book We Will Shoot Back from Charles Evers, who replaced his murdered brother Medgar as the state field secretary of the NAACP: “We made up our minds…that if a white man shoots at a Negro in Mississippi, we will shoot back.” Charles Cobb traces a much longer tradition of bearing arms in This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible: “Armed self-defense (or, to use a term preferred by some, ‘armed resistance’) as part of black struggle began not in the 1960s with angry ‘militant’ and ‘radical’ young Afro-Americans, but in the earliest years of the United States as one of African people’s responses to oppression.”

As long as the police continue to kill young black men, the People’s New Black Panther Party’smessage — “We want every black man and woman throughout the country to legally arm themselves,” according to the Dallas chapter head — will resonate with anyone familiar with this historical tradition. Without radical reform, the police will lose the trust of the community. Loss of faith in governance over all will surely follow.

Gun Versus Computer

The avatars of earlier eras — the Farmer, the Monk, the Explorer, the Worker — represented the cutting edge of society. They heralded a powerful social transformation. They each sparked a revolution.

The comparable figure for our era should be the software engineer. Computers have indeed transformed the way we live.

But the gun, a much older technology, threatens to turn back the clock. The NRA and criminal cartels and the Islamic State are all pushing for their own revolution that will put guns in the hands of everyone. If they succeed, governance will end, and states will fail. In a war of all against all, the Gunman will take law into his own hands.

And we human beings, who started out as hunters and gatherers so many millennia ago, will end up in this benighted age as hunters and hunted.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, July 13, 2016