"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
At the height of the Occupy Wall Street evictions, it seemed as though some diminutive version of “shock and awe” had stumbled from Baghdad, Iraq, to Oakland, Calif. American police forces had been “militarized,” many commentators worried, as though the firepower and callous tactics on display were anomalies, surprises bursting upon us from nowhere.
There should have been no surprise. Those flash grenades exploding in Oakland and the sound cannons on New York’s streets simply opened small windows onto a national policing landscape long in the process of militarization — a bleak domestic no man’s land marked by tanks and drones, robot bomb detectors, grenade launchers, tasers, and most of all, interlinked video surveillance cameras and information databases growing quietly on unobtrusive server farms everywhere.
The ubiquitous fantasy of “homeland security,” pushed hard by the federal government in the wake of 9/11, has been widely embraced by the public. It has also excited intense weapons- and techno-envy among police departments and municipalities vying for the latest in armor and spy equipment.
In such a world, deadly gadgetry is just a grant request away, so why shouldn’t the 14,000 at-risk souls in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, have a closed-circuit-digital-camera-and-monitor system (cost: $180,000, courtesy of the Homeland Security Department) identical to the one up and running in New York’s Times Square?
So much money has gone into armoring and arming local law-enforcement since 9/11 that the federal government could have rebuilt post-Katrina New Orleans five times over and had enough money left in the kitty to provide job training and housing for every one of the record 41,000-plus homeless people in New York City. It could have added in the growing population of 15,000 homeless in Philadelphia, my hometown, and still have had money to spare. Add disintegrating Detroit, Newark, and Camden to the list. Throw in some crumbling bridges and roads, too.
But why drone on? We all know that addressing acute social and economic issues here in the homeland was the road not taken. Since 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security alone has doled out somewhere between $30 billion and $40 billion in direct grants to state and local law enforcement, as well as other first responders. At the same time, defense contractors have proven endlessly inventive in adapting sales pitches originally honed for the military on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan to the desires of police on the streets of San Francisco and lower Manhattan. Oakland may not be Basra but (as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld liked to say) there are always the unknown unknowns: best be prepared.
All told, the federal government has appropriated about $635 billion, accounting for inflation, for homeland security-related activities and equipment since the 9/11 attacks. To conclude, though, that “the police” have become increasingly militarized casts too narrow a net. The truth is that virtually the entire apparatus of government has been mobilized and militarized right down to the university campus.
Perhaps the pepper spray used on Occupy demonstrators last November at University of California-Davis wasn’t directly paid for by the federal government. But those who used it work closely with Homeland Security and the FBI “in developing prevention strategies that threaten campus life, property, and environments,” as UC Davis’s Comprehensive Emergency and Continuity Management Plan puts it.
Government budgets at every level now include allocations aimed at fighting an ephemeral “War on Terror” in the United States. A vast surveillance and military buildup has taken place nationwide to conduct a pseudo-war against what can be imagined, not what we actually face. The costs of this effort, started by the Bush administration and promoted faithfully by the Obama administration, have been, and continue to be, virtually incalculable. In the process, public service and the public imagination have been weaponized.
Farewell to Peaceful Private Life
We’re not just talking money eagerly squandered. That may prove the least of it. More importantly, the fundamental values of American democracy — particularly the right to lead an autonomous private life — have been compromised with grim efficiency. The weaponry and tactics now routinely employed by police are visible evidence of this.
Yes, it’s true that Montgomery County, Texas, has purchased a weapons-capable drone. (They say they’ll only arm it with tasers, if necessary.) Yes, it’s true that the Tampa police have beefed the force up with an eight-ton armored personnel carrier, augmenting two older tanks the department already owns. Yes, the Fargo police are ready with bomb detection robots, and Chicago boasts a network of at least 15,000 interlinked surveillance cameras.
New York City’s 34,000-member police force is now the ground zero of a growing outcry over rampant secret spying on Muslim students and communities up and down the East coast. It has been a big beneficiary of federal security largess. Between 2003 and 2010, the city received more than $1.1 billion through Homeland Security’s Urban Areas Security Initiative grant program. And that’s only one of the grant programs funneling such money to New York.
The Obama White House itself has directly funded part of the New York Police Department’s anti-Muslim surveillance program. Top officials of New York’s finest have, however, repeatedly refused to disclose just how much anti-terrorism money it has been spending, citing, of course, security.
Can New York City ever be “secure”? Mayor Michael Bloomberg boasted recently with obvious satisfaction: “I have my own army in the NYPD, which is the seventh largest army in the world.” That would be the Vietnamese army actually, but accuracy isn’t the point. The smugness of the boast is. And meanwhile the money keeps pouring in and the “security” activities only multiply.
Why, for instance, are New York cops traveling to Yale University in New Haven, Conn., and Newark, N.J., to spy on ordinary Muslim citizens, who have nothing to do with New York and are not suspected of doing anything? For what conceivable purpose does Tampa want an eight-ton armored vehicle? Why do Texas sheriffs north of Houston believe one drone — or a dozen, for that matter — will make Montgomery County a better place? What manner of thinking conjures up a future that requires such hardware? We have entered a dark world that demands an inescapable battery of closed-circuit, networked video cameras trained on ordinary citizens strolling Michigan Avenue.
This is not simply a police issue. Law enforcement agencies may acquire the equipment and deploy it, but city legislators and executives must approve the expenditures and the uses. State legislators and bureaucrats refine the local grant requests. Federal officials, with endless input from national security and defense vendors and lobbyists, appropriate the funds.
Doubters are simply swept aside (while legions of security and terrorism pundits spin dread-inducing fantasies), and ultimately, the American people accept and live with the results. We get what we pay for — Mayor Bloomberg’s “army,” replicated coast to coast.
Budgets Tell the Story
Militarized thinking is made manifest through budgets, which daily reshape political and bureaucratic life in large and small ways. Not long after the 9/11 attacks, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, used this formula to define the new American environment and so the thinking that went with it: “Terrorist operatives infiltrate our communities — plotting, planning, and waiting to kill again.” To counter that, the government had urgently embarked on “a wartime reorganization,” he said, and was “forging new relationships of cooperation with state and local law enforcement.”
While such visionary Ashcroftian rhetoric has cooled in recent years, the relationships and funding he touted a decade ago have been institutionalized throughout government — federal, state, and local — as well as civil society. The creation of the Department of Homeland Security, with a total 2012 budget of about $57 billion, is the most obvious example of this.
That budget only hints at what’s being doled out for homeland security at the federal level. Such moneys flow not just from Homeland Security, but from the Justice Department, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Commerce Department, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Defense.
In 2010, the Office of Management and Budget reckoned that 31 separate federal agencies were involved in homeland security-related funding that year to the tune of more than $65 billion. The Census Bureau, which has itself been compromised by War on Terror activities — mapping Middle Eastern and Muslim communities for counter-terrorism officials — estimated that federal homeland security funding topped $70 billion in 2010. But government officials acknowledge that much funding is not included in that compilation. (Grants made through the $5.6 billion Project BioShield, to offer but one example, an exotic vaccination and medical program launched in 2004, are absent from the total.)
Even the estimate of more than $635 billion in such expenditures does not tell the full spending story. That figure does not include the national intelligence or military intelligence budgets for which the Obama Administration is seeking $52.6 billion and $19.6 billion respectively in 2013, or secret parts of the national security budget, the so-called black budget.
Local funding is also unaccounted for. New York’s Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly claims total national homeland security spending could easily be near a trillion dollars. Money well spent, he says — New York needs that anti-terror army, the thousands of surveillance cameras, those sophisticated new weapons, and, naturally, a navy that now includes six drone submarines (thanks to $540,000 in Homeland Security cash) to keep an eye on the terrorist threat beneath the waves.
And even that’s not enough.
“We have a new boat on order,” Kelly said recently, alluding to a bullet-proof vessel paid for by, yes, Homeland Security (cost unspecified). “We envision a situation where we may have to get to an island or across water quickly, so we’re able to transport our heavy weapons officers rapidly. We have to do things differently. We know that this is where terrorists want to come.”
With submarines available to those who protect and serve (and grab the grant money), a simple armored SWAT carrier should hardly raise an eyebrow. The Tampa police will get one as part of their security buildup before the city hosts the Republican convention this summer. Tampa and Charlotte, which will host the Democratic convention, each received special $50 million security allocations from Congress to “harden” the cities.
Marc Hamlin, Tampa’s assistant police chief, told the Tampa city council that two old tanks, already owned and operated by the police, were simply not enough. They were just too unreliable. “Thank God we have two, because one seems to break down every week,” he lamented.
Not everyone on the council seemed convinced Tampa needed a truck sheathed in 1.5-inch high-grade steel, and featuring ballistic glass panels, blast shields, and powered turrets. City Council Vice Chairwoman Mary Mulhern claimed she found the purchase “kind of troubling,” a sign that Tampa is becoming “militarized.” Then she voted to approve it anyway, along with the other council members. Hamlin was pleased. “It’s one of those things where you prepare for the worst, and you hope for the best,” he explained.
When Mulhern suggested that some of the windfall $50 million might be used to help the city’s growing homeless population, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn set her straight. “We can’t be diverted from what the appropriate use of that money is, and that is to provide a safe environment for the convention. It’s not to be used for pet projects or things totally unrelated to security.”
Tampa will also be spending more than $1 million for state of the art digital video uplinks to surveillance helicopters. (“Analog technology is almost Stone Age,” commented one approving council member.) Another $2 million will go to install 60 surveillance cameras on city streets. That represents an uncharacteristic pullback from the city’s initial plan to acquire more than 230 cameras as well as two drones at a cost of about $5 million. Even the police deemed that too expensive — for the moment.
All of this hardware will remain in Tampa after the Republicans and any protestors are long gone. What use will it serve then? In the Tampa area, the armored truck will join the armored fleet, police officials said, ferrying SWAT teams on calls and protecting police serving search warrants. In the past, Hamlin claimed, Tampa’s tanks have been shot at. He did not mention that crime rates in Tampa and across Florida are at four-decade lows.
The video surveillance cameras will, of course, also stay in place, streaming digitized images to an ever-growing database, where they will be stored waiting for the day when facial recognition software is employed to mix and match. This strategy is being followed all over the country, including in Chicago, with its huge video surveillance network, and New York City, where all of lower Manhattan is now on camera.
Tampa has already been down this road once in the post-9/11 era. The city was home to a much-watched experiment in using such software. Images taken by cameras installed on the street were to be matched with photographs in a database of suspects. The system failed completely and was scrapped in 2003. On the other hand, sheriffs in the Tampa Bay area are currently using facial recognition software to match photographs snapped by police on the street with a database of suspects with outstanding warrants. Police are excited by that program and look forward to its future expansion.
The Rise of the Fusion Centers
Homeland Security has played a big role in creating one particularly potent element in the nation’s expanding database network. Working with the Department of Justice in the wake of 9/11, it launched what has grown into 72 interlinked state “fusion centers” — repositories for everything from Immigration Customs Enforcement data and photographs to local police reports and even gossip. “Suspicious Activity Reports” gathered from public tipsters — thanks to Homeland Security’s “if you see something, say something” program — are now flowing into state centers. Those fusion centers are possibly the greatest facilitators of dish in history, and have vast potential for disseminating dubious information and stigmatizing purely political activity. And most Americans have never even heard of them.
Yet fusion centers now operate in every state, centralizing intelligence gathering and facilitating dissemination of material of every sort across the country. Here is where information gathered by cops and citizens, FBI agents and immigration officers goes to fester. It is a staggering load of data, unevenly and sometimes questionably vetted, and it is ultimately available to any state or local law-enforcement officer, any immigration agent or official, any intelligence or security bureaucrat with a computer and network access.
The idea for these centers grew from the notion that agencies needed to share what they knew in an “unfettered” environment. How comforting to know that the walls between intelligence and law enforcement are breached in an essentially unregulated fashion.
Many other states have monitored antiwar activists, gathering and storing names and information. Texas and other states have stored “intelligence” on Muslims. Pennsylvania gathered reports on opponents of natural gas drilling. Florida has scrutinized supporters of presidential candidate Ron Paul. The list of such questionable activities is very long. We have no idea how much dubious data has been squirreled away by authorities and remains within the networked system. But we do know that information pours into it with relative ease and spreads like an oil slick. Cleaning up and removing the mess is another story entirely.
Anyone who wants to learn something about fusion center funding will also find it maddeningly difficult to track. Not even the Homeland Security Department can say with certainty how much of its own money has gone into these data nests over the last decade. The amounts are staggering, however. From 2004 to 2009 alone, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that states used about $426 million in Homeland Security Department grants to fund fusion-related activities nationally. The centers also receive state and local funds, as well as funds from other federal agencies. How much? We don’t know, although GAO data suggest state and local funding at least equals the Homeland Security share.
Yet, as Tampa, New York City, and other urban areas bulk up with high-tech anti-terrorism equipment and fusion centers have proliferated, the number of even remotely “terror-related” incidents has declined. The equipment acquired and projects inaugurated to fend off largely imaginary threats is instead increasingly deployed to address ordinary criminal activity, perceived political disruptions, and the tracking and surveillance of American Muslims. The Transportation Safety Administration is now even patrolling highways. It could be called a case of mission creep, but the more accurate description might be: bait-and-switch.
The chances of an American dying in a terrorist incident in a given year are 1 in 3.5 million. To reduce that risk, to make something minuscule even more minuscule, what has the nation spent? What has it cost us? Instead of rebuilding a ravaged American city in a timely fashion or making Americans more secure in their “underwater” homes and their disappearing jobs, we have created militarized police forces, visible evidence of police-state-style funding.
[Note on Sources and Further Reading: The following documents can all be found in pdf format by clicking on “here”: the UC Davis Comprehensive Emergency Management plan here, Census Bureau figures on Homeland Security spending here, a report on questionable fusion center actions here, the GAO report on fusion centers here, a report on the decline in the terrorist threat here, and Congressional testimony favoring counterterrorism “mission creep” here.]
To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.
Stephan Salisbury is cultural writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer. His most recent book is Mohamed’s Ghosts: An American Story of Love and Fear in the Homeland (Nation Books).More Stephan Salisbury.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)