The Counterrevolution: Governing Our New Internal Enemies

The Counterrevolution: Governing Our New Internal Enemies

The Counterrevolution: Governing Our New Internal Enemies

A domestic counterinsurgency model of government and policing is being imposed on American soil on US citizens and residents.


An investigator with the California Highway Patrol recently interpreted the Black Power salute as proof of “intent and motivation” to violate the civil rights of right-wing protesters. The FBI Domestic Terrorism Analysis Unit last August announced a new designation of “Black Identity Extremist,” which it now deems a violent threat. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump just appointed as director general of the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration someone who’s made anti-Muslim comments. Arrests for deportation by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement rose 30 percent in the first year of the Trump administration. And the Trump administration continues to enforce its Muslim ban and to seek funding for a wall on our Southern border.

When you add to that the hypermilitarized policing we have witnessed on the streets of Ferguson, Baltimore, and around the country, the use of a robot bomb to kill a criminal suspect in Dallas, Texas, and the NYPD surveillance of mosques and Muslim businesses post 9/11, a pattern arises: Increasingly, our government is turning its own citizens and residents into an internal enemy. A new way of thinking is taking hold. A new way of governing.

These measures form part of a new way that we, in the United States, govern ourselves at home, inspired by the theory and practice of counterinsurgency warfare. These measures fit together, like pieces of a jig-saw puzzle, in a momentous political transformation: not from the rule of law to a provisional state of exception, as many suggested after 9/11, but rather from an earlier model of governing based on large-scale warfare to one modeled on tactical counterinsurgency strategies.

For most of the 20th century, we governed ourselves differently: Our political imagination was dominated by the massive battlefields of the Marne, by the Blitzkrieg, and the fire-bombing of Dresden. It was an imagination of large-scale war, with waves of human bodies and columns of tanks, military campaigns, battlefields, fronts, theaters of war. And alongside these vast military engagements, President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched an equally massive economic and political campaign—the New Deal. J. Edgar Hoover declared a large-scale War on Crime. Lyndon B. Johnson inaugurated a society-wide War on Poverty in an effort to create the Great Society. Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan initiated a massive War on Drugs, and others allied themselves—President Bill Clinton among them.

But the transition from large-scale battlefield warfare to anti-colonial struggles and now to the war against terrorism brought about a historic transformation in the way that we govern in the United States. Variously called unconventional, anti-guerilla, or modern warfare, this new prototype of counterinsurgency war is the very opposite of large-scale battlefield encounters: It involves strategic, surgical operations, total information awareness, targeted elimination of a radical minority, psychological techniques, and political savvy to gain the trust of the general population. The target is no longer an enemy army, so much as it is an internal enemy. It involves a new way of thinking about war, and politics, that gradually has come to dominate the American public imagination.

Counterinsurgency theory rests on a very specific understanding of politics. As David Galula, a French commander in Algeria, emphasized, counterinsurgency “simply expresses the basic tenet of the exercise of political power,” which Galula summarized as follows: “In any situation, whatever the cause, there will be an active minority for the cause, a neutral majority, and an active minority against the cause. The technique of power consists in relying on the favorable minority in order to rally the neutral majority and to neutralize or eliminate the hostile minority.”

General David Petraeus, in his edition of the United States Army and Marine Corps Field Manual on counterinsurgency, published in 2006, would repeat Galula’s lesson in the very first chapter: “In almost every case, counterinsurgents face a populace containing an active minority supporting the government and an equally small militant faction opposing it. Success requires the government to be accepted as legitimate by most of that uncommitted middle, which also includes passive supporters of both sides.”

This mindset has come to dominate the American imagination, first abroad but now at home. The United States has undergone a dramatic transformation in the way it governs. Long in the making—at least since the colonial wars abroad and the domestic turmoil of the 1960s—this historic transformation has come about in three waves.

First, militarily: in Vietnam and now in Afghanistan, US military strategy shifted importantly from a conventional model of large-scale battlefield warfare to unconventional forms of counterinsurgency warfare. War is fought differently today.

Second, in foreign affairs: As the counterinsurgency paradigm took hold militarily, US foreign policy began to mirror the core principles unconventional warfare—total information awareness, targeted eradication of the radical minority, and psychological pacification of the masses.

And third, at home: With the increased militarization of police forces, irrational fear of Muslims, and over-enforcement of anti-terrorism laws, the United States has begun to domesticate the counterinsurgency and to apply it to its own population.

The result has been radical: The emergence of a domestic counterinsurgency model of government, imposed on American soil, in the absence of any domestic insurgency. The counterinsurgency has been turned on itself and torn from reality, producing a new and radical form of government. It began after 9/11. But in the last year, it has gotten a lot worse.

Governing through the counterinsurgency warfare paradigm has, since 9/11, been distilled into three core strategies.

First, bulk collect everything about everyone in the population. This is the model of NSA’s TREASURE MAP program: “every single end device that is connected to the Internet somewhere in the world—every smartphone, tablet and computer” must be known. The data of everyone, especially the neutral or passive majority, is crucial because that is the only way to identify accurately the active minority. This has been turned on the American population since 9/11.

Second, identify and eradicate the revolutionary minority. Total information about the entire population is what makes it possible to discriminate between friend and foe. Once suspicion attaches, individuals must be treated severely to extract all possible intelligence, with enhanced interrogation techniques if necessary; and if they are revealed to belong to the active minority, they must be disposed of through detention, rendition, deportation, or targeted assassination. Unlike conventional soldiers, these minorities are dangerous not because of their physical presence on a battlefield, but because of their ideology and allegiances.

Third, the passive majority must be assuaged. Remember, in this new way of seeing, the population is the battlefield. Its hearts and minds must be assured. In the digital age, this can be achieved, first, by offering distractions and entertainment: a rich new environment of YouTubes and NetFlix, Facebook posts and Tweets, Amazon Prime, Second, by targeting enhanced content (such as sermons by moderate imams) to deradicalize susceptible persons—in other words, by deploying new digital techniques of psychological warfare and propaganda. Third, now, with a reality-TV presidential style that turns every new day into, in Donald Trump’s words, “a new episode of a television show.”

These three maxims have been deployed aggressively in the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. But in a historical development that can only be described, tragically, as poetic justice, this counterinsurgency paradigm has been domesticated. Gradually—and increasingly—these strategies have come to shape the way that we, in the United States, govern ourselves domestically. It is Americans who have become the target of their own counterinsurgency strategies: total-information awareness, targeted extraction of minority suspects, and the continuous effort to prevent majority citizens from sympathizing in any way with any minorities.

As a result of Department of Defense programs that distribute excess military equipment, millions of dollars’ worth of armored vehicles, military weapons, and tactical equipment has reached local police forces across the country. According to The Washington Post, transfers through one program, the Excess Property Program, increased from 34,708 in 2006, worth $33 million, to 51,779 in 2013, valued at $420 million. Overall, since the Excess Property Program began almost two decades ago, the Post reports, “it has transferred equipment valued at $5.1 billion.” Alongside the military equipment, weapons, and apparel, local police forces are increasingly deploying counterinsurgency practices learned in the villages and moats of Iraq and Afghanistan.  

Meanwhile in 2015, North Dakota became the first state to pass legislation authorizing the use of armed drones by law-enforcement agencies in the state. The weapons permitted must be “less than lethal,” according to the new law; but they could include Tasers, rubber bullets, tear gas, and pepper spray. In July 2016, the Dallas police department became the first domestic law-enforcement agency to use a robot bomb to assassinate a criminal suspect. The suspect was negotiating with the police, exchanging gunfire, and claimed to have explosives on him. As the standoff wore on, Dallas police chief David O. Brown gave orders to attach an explosive device to the arm of a “bomb robot” and send the robot in the direction of the suspect. When it got sufficiently close to the suspect, the Dallas police detonated the bomb, killing the suspect. Following that incident, the research institute the Police Foundation released a 311-page report with guidelines to assist police departments in using drones in such a way, as its title suggests, “to Enhance Community Trust.”

Alongside the military equipment, domestic police forces have begun to employ increasingly militarized strategies. Regularly now, civilian law enforcement responds to 911 calls about a suspicious person with full counterinsurgent raid tactics—fully militarized, guns-drawn, deploying tactical methods, in fact the exact same techniques that would be used in a raid in Iraq or Afghanistan. In part, this is due to the porous nature of police, military, and reserve personnel and training; in other part, it is due to the dominance of the counterinsurgency paradigm in the law-enforcement imagination.

It is, of course, important to emphasize that the domestication of counterinsurgency practices is not entirely new. The FBI’s treatment of the Black Panthers under J. Edgar Hoover took precisely the form of counterrevolutionary tactics at exactly the time when these practices and theories were being refined in Vietnam. Similarly, the armed takeover of Attica Prison by the New York State Troopers during the uprising had all the trappings of a counterinsurgency operation.

We’ve had internal enemies before. We’d had the Japanese internment camps during World War II. We’d had the Red Scare after World War I. We’d lived through the McCarthy hearings trying to ferret out the un-Americans—and COINTELPRO. We’d placed quotas on Chinese immigrants, and required for almost two centuries “whiteness” as a prerequisite for naturalization.

Yet despite this disappointing track record, something changed with the Muslim ban and the wall, and the militarized police response to peaceful protest and the movement for black lives. Not a small incremental change in degrees, but a change in kind.

We fully embraced, as a nation, the paradigm of the internal enemy—turning our Muslim communities, our Mexican communities, and other persons of color, especially the unarmed peaceful protesters at Ferguson and in Baltimore facing hypermilitarized police with night scopes and armored tanks—we turned them into an internal enemy. We turned them into an active minority. We turned them, out of whole cloth, into insurgents. And we fully embraced a counterinsurgency warfare paradigm of governing.

With the Electoral College victory of President Trump, our government turned the corner and fully domesticated the counterinsurgency model, turning whole swaths of Americans into the key lever to mobilize a country against its internal enemies—with Muslims as our internal enemy, and Mexican-Americans as well. With the new threat of “Radical Black Identity extremists.”

We saw it coming during the repression of peaceful protest in Ferguson and elsewhere, when the newly militarized forms of policing hit mainstream America. We saw it with the NYPD infiltration of mosques and surveillance of Muslim-owned businesses after 9/11, the NSA mission creep toward total-information awareness of all American communications and citizens, the targeted assassination of Americans abroad, we have been experimenting with these methods we and other colonial superpowers had invented in Indochina, Algeria, Malaya, and Vietnam.

There is something new here, in these designations, in the Muslim ban, in the wall: What is truly novel is that there is no insurgency that needs to be countered. The counterinsurgency paradigm now governs, domestically, without any real insurgency that it must suppress. In Algeria, there was a revolution. There was the FLN. In Vietnam, the Vietcong. In all the colonies, there were liberation movements and insurgencies, anti-colonial revolutions—all of which would ultimately prevail. But in the United States today, there is no real revolution, no ongoing insurgency. Yes, there are some mentally unstable people who gravitate toward radical Islam, or, alternatively, white supremacy. But there is simply no veritable insurgency going on.

If anything, the logic of domestic counterinsurgency is a self-fulfilling prophecy, insofar as it encourages unstable individuals—such as the San Bernadino shooter or the Chelsea pressure-cooker bomber—to embrace the most recent radical discourse, and then allows us to assemble them into an active minority, when in fact they are mostly lone-wolf individuals who gravitate to the most attractive radical discourse on offer today.

We face today the unprecedented situation of a new counterinsurgency paradigm of governing unmoored from the threats and dangers that gave rise to counterinsurgency theory. It is a new mode of governing sans insurgents, without an active minority. A new form of counterrevolution without revolution. And unless we understand and face down this new reality, there will be no way to stop it.

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