by David Bromwich
Will the summer of 2010 be remembered as the time when we turned into a nation of sleepwalkers? We have heard reports of the intrusion of the state into everyday life, and of miscarriages of American power abroad. The reports made a stir, but as suddenly as they came they were gone. The last two weeks of July saw two such stories on almost successive days.
First there was “Top Secret America,” the three-part Washington Post report by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin on the hyperextension of private contracts, government buildings, and tax-funded expenditures in the secret surveillance economy. Since 2001, the new industries of data mining and analysis have yielded close to a million top secret clearances for Americans to spy on other Americans. Then at the end of July came the release of 90,000 documents by Wikileaks, as reported and linked by the New York Times, which revealed among other facts the futility of American “building” efforts in Afghanistan. We are making no headway there, in the face of the unending American killing of civilians; meanwhile, American taxes go to support a Pakistani intelligence service that channels the money to terrorists who kill American soldiers: a treadmill of violence. Both findings the mainstream media brought forward as legitimate stories, or advanced as raw materials of a story yet to be told more fully. This was an improvement on the practice of reporting stories spoon-fed to reporters by the government and “checked” by unnamed sources also in government. Yet, as has happened in many cases in the mass media after 2001 — one thinks of David Barstow’s story on the “war experts” coached by the Pentagon and hired by the networks — the stories on secret surveillance and the Afghanistan documents were printed and let go: no follow-up either in the media or in Congress.
We seem to have entered a moral limbo where political judgment is suspended and public opinion cannot catch its breath.