The San Bernardino massacre, in which a seemingly harmless county worker and his wife murdered 14 people in cold blood and wounded 21 others, marks a new phase in the cycle of war and repression that characterizes the post-9/11 era. The authorities recognize this, and they are moving swiftly to take advantage of their opportunity. As Rahm Emmanuel famously put it:
“You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”
On the left as well as the right, the cry goes up: Give the government more power! Protect us! Oh, and there’s always this old standby: Bombs away!
As Jeh Johnson, Homeland Security chieftain, put it to the New York Times: “We have moved to an entirely new phase in the global terrorist threat and in our homeland security efforts.” Terrorists have “in effect outsourced attempts to attack our homeland. We’ve seen this not just here but in other places. This requires a whole new approach, in my view.”
What is this “new approach”? The Times gives us a few hints:
“Unable to curb the availability of guns at home or extremist propaganda from overseas, the authorities may have to rely more on encouraging Americans to watch one another and report suspicions. Federal and local governments already have programs urging friends, families and neighbors to identify people targeted for recruitment.
“The attack may reignite the privacy-versus-security debate about encryption software sold by private-sector providers over government objections. And some administration officials said they needed to escalate efforts to stimulate contrary Muslim voices to counter extremist propaganda by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.”
Add to this the reality of universal government surveillance of American citizens – which, you’ll note, failed to uncover the San Bernardino plot – and what it boils down to is: an extensive system of government informers, akin to the American Protective League (APL) that terrorized the country during World War I.
That’s right: there’s nothing new about what they have in store for us. Given semiofficial status by the Justice Department in 1917, the APL investigated those suspected of evading the draft, spied on people in factories, public gatherings, and neighborhoods, looking for evidence of “subversion” everywhere. At its height, the APL claimed 250,000 dues-paying members.
Proposals for countering jihadist propaganda have their precedent in another World War I effort: the Committee on Public Information, headed up by journalist George Creel. The CPI was established by Woodrow Wilson’s executive order, with a mandate to...