A chill wind

It is no exaggeration to say that today was an abysmal day for the economy. A 678-point, 7.3% drop in the Dow is nothing to sneeze at. It's too early to say whether this signifies the beginning of another Great Depression, but it is worth remembering what the last one led to, both politically and militarily. We have much to fear, and little to be optimistic about. Historians love to argue, but it would be difficult to find one who would not admit that at the very least, the Great Depression contributed to both the rise of extremist politics and the world war to which they led.

In terms of the latter, we are in a far worse position than we were in 1939-1941, when we sat isolated between the Atlantic and the Pacific, and were at peace with the world. We have been engaged in a bloody and protracted occupation of a country, Iraq, where insurgents have often moved around the cities and countryside with far greater impunity than our own soldiers. After five long and terrible years, we are at the point of hoping only for enough stability for Iraq's government to take responsibility for security long enough to permit us a graceful exit.

With a resurgent Russia no longer willing to be a bystander in the affairs of its "near abroad," a nuclear-armed Pakistan tottering on the brink of Islamic revolution, and a nominally Communist China asserting its economic might and demonstrating its technological prowess by moving into the exploration of space, we must be cognizant of the fact that with our economy in a shambles, we can no longer pretend to be the world's only superpower. We now live in an interconnected and multipolar world.

With respect to the political sphere, we are but a few weeks away from a national election, and if anything we have more to fear politically than we do militarily. Consider the following:

Item: The administration currently in power has permitted, even encouraged, the use of torture, and failed miserably to protect basic rights guaranteed to Americans by the Constitution (I have written more about this subject here.)

Item: The U.S. Army 3rd Infantry Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team has been redeployed within the U.S.:

They may be called upon to help with civil unrest and crowd control or to deal with potentially horrific scenarios such as massive poisoning and chaos in response to a chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or high-yield explosive, or CBRNE, attack.Training for homeland scenarios has already begun at Fort Stewart and includes specialty tasks such as knowing how to use the "jaws of life" to extract a person from a mangled vehicle; extra medical training for a CBRNE incident; and working with U.S. Forestry Service experts on how to go in with chainsaws and cut and clear trees to clear a road or area…

The 1st BCT's soldiers also will learn how to use "the first ever nonlethal package that the Army has fielded," 1st BCT commander Col. Roger Cloutier said, referring to crowd and traffic control equipment and nonlethal weapons designed to subdue unruly or dangerous individuals without killing them.

The package is for use only in war-zone operations, not for any domestic purpose.

Or so they say.

Item:The current vice-presidential candidate of the party in power has implied that the presidential candidate of the opposing party is a terrorist sympathizer, and stated in her acceptance speech, "Al-Qaida terrorists still plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America …he's worried that someone won't read them their rights?" (emphasis mine)

Item:The same candidate, Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, implied, in a misquote of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, that women who don't support her are going to hell.("There's a special place in Hell reserved for women who don't support other women.")

Item:The GOP presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain, has abandoned all pretense of conservatism in favor of an erratic populism that in its promising of huge rewards for no cost resembles nothing so much as Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny . Case in point: his plan for the government to buy up bad mortgages directly at face value.

Item:Writer Christopher Hitchens, who was once a Trotskyist but now embraces a more "conservative" world view, is now on record as saying that America's only worthy institution is the military:

In addition to exhibiting extraordinary efficiency and, most especially under the generalship of David Petraeus, performing some great feats of arms and ingenuity, the American armed forces manifest all the professionalism and integrity that our rulers and oligarchs lack. Who was it who the stricken inhabitants of New Orleans and later of the Texas coastline yearned to see? Who was it who informed the blithering and dithering idiots at FEMA that they could have as many troops as they could remember to ask for, even as volunteers were embarking for Afghanistan and Iraq? What is one of the main engines of integration for blacks and immigrants, as well as one of the finest providers of education and training for those whom the system had previously failed?

Ah, yes. Can't blame the military for anything, they're perfectly honorable, decent, and capable. It's just that the civilian leadership has let them down, stabbed them in the back as it were. Seems I've heard that song before.

Item: At a rally in Florida, Gov. Palin criticizes Barack Obama as a friend of terrorists, when someone in the crowd calls out "kill him!" 1(http://voices.washingtonpost.com/the-trail/2008/10/06/in_fla_palin_goes_for_the_roug.html), nor does she denounce this outburst, and instead continues her speech.

Taken one at a time, with the exception of the first two items, all these things are explainable as the sort of silliness and drama that normally takes place on the campaign trail. But in a situation like the one we are in today, with the economy imploding and the public's fears at a high level, one needs to be cautious. History shows that economic dislocation can lead to political extremism and governmental upheaval, and those who think that we are somehow immune to such things are sadly mistaken. We've had plenty of homegrown extremists--just look at Huey Long, William Pelley, and Father Coughlin.

I don't really believe that this is what McCain and Palin are aiming towards. At least I hope not. But to the extent that they are tapping into dark forces that they don't really understand and ultimately can't control, they should be more careful. Sinclair Lewis once said that "when Fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross." His book, It Can't Happen Here, is eerily prescient when read in this age of the so-called Patriot Act, indefinite detention and extraordinary rendition. It should be mandatory reading.

As we approach Election Day, there's a chill wind blowing. Let's try to make sure we don't reap the whirlwind.

  1. Palin does not react