There's a Law
I fell with my angel down the chain of command
There's a Law, there's an Arm, there's a Hand - Leonard Cohen
There's lots of talk, as there should be these days, about Martial Law, because it's coming to America just as surely as another attack. I think we can say that safely now, if we haven't been saying it already for years. In 2003, General Tommy Franks said he doubted that the Constitution would survive a WMD attack. The doubts should have since been erased: "the US military has devised its first-ever war plans for guarding against and responding to terrorist attacks in the United States.... [T]he new plans provide for the likelihood that the military will have to take charge in some situations."
But when it comes, will Americans recognize it?
I don't know if you recall it, but I remember an old SCTV episode parodying a New Year's Eve special for 1984. Everything was normal until the stroke of midnight. Then suddenly, the message: "Please Stand By." When programming resumed it was drab, mad and Orwellian: Eugene Levy, for instance, hosting a game show called Doublethink, in which contestants try to guess whether choco rations have gone up or down, for the prizes of razor blades and shoe laces.
Say "Martial Law" to people, and often their first thought is detainment: multitudes of dissenters being hauled off to FEMA camps, disappearing into an American Gulag. For others, it's soldiers in the streets. For some, military courts.
I'm not denying the essence of those fears - the Gulag is already real enough for Jose Padilla - but that's my point: the fears have already been realized. Padilla and many others have vanished. The soldiers are in the streets. A formal declaration of martial law seems almost a quaint nod to constitutional formalities, when we consider the violence these people have already done to the constitution.
There will be no "Please Stand By" for America. No on/off toggle for totalitarianism will be thrown with Martial Law, and those expecting one may find themselves saying "Hey, this isn't so bad." America is passing through gradations of grey, the next nearly indistinguishable from the last. It's only in stepping back, in comparing now to then - five years ago; 10, 25 or 50 - that you realize how your eyes have adjusted to the dark.
After the shock of a mass casuality event, and during the aftershocks of martial law, what will be the chief tone Homeland Security will want to set? It will be reassurance. Why? Because FEMA may have many camps, but it doesn't have enough to hold everyone. For the few to maintain power, the many need to participate in their own subjugation. They must be self-contained. And so, Michael Chertoff will attempt to alleviate the psychological sting of martial law, while he rubs the poison in, and invite Americans to "go about their business." (Privacy fears unjustified, Chertoff said this week.) It will be a soft sell of "temporary" measures, dictated by a supposed self-necessity. Americans will be encouraged to pretend that things are normal, or normal enough, and that the measures, while serious and unfortunate, don't affect them. And to keep it that way, many will watch what they say and watch what they do, and become detainees under self-monitored house arrest.
And this is going to happen, unless something else happens, fast. What that might be doesn't particularly matter. But to forestall their intention it must be as big as their own, and as beautiful as theirs is bloody.
Thursday the FBI issued a warning to police that al Qaeda - the CIA's "Database," the late Robin Cook called it, a month before his untimely death - may attempt to use "fuel trucks as weapons to attack Los Angeles, New York and Chicago." Just the day before, a truck carrying explosives was vaporized, and cratered a highway in Utah. I wonder in which direction it was heading?