Grocery bags loaded with food from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, better known as WIC, sit in a cart before being loaded into a vehicle in Jackson, Mississippi, Thursday, October 3, 2013.
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On a damp Friday morning eleven days into the government shutdown, a “few dozen” truckers took to the Capital Beltway in a demonstration with the Twitter hashtag #T2SDA (Truckers to Shut Down America). They wanted to tell lawmakers they were angry, launch an impeachment campaign against the president and pressure Congress to end itself.
They were on a “ride for the Constitution,” protesting big government, and yet the opinion polls were clear. In fact, the numbers were stunning. One after another, they showed that Americans opposed the shutdown and were hurting because of it. At that moment, according to those polls, nearly one in three Americans said they felt personally affected not by too much government, but by too little, by the sudden freeze in critical services.
In reality, that government shutdown was partial and selective. Paychecks, for example, kept flowing to the very lawmakers who most fervently supported it, while the plush congressional gym with its heated pool, paddleball courts and flat-screen televisions remained open. That’s because “essential” services continued, even as “nonessential” ones ceased. And it turned out that whether the services you cared about were essential or not was a matter of just who got to do the defining. In that distinction between what was necessary and what wasn’t, it was easy enough to spot the values of the people’s representatives. And what we saw was gut-wrenching. Stomach-churning.
Prioritized above all else were, of course, “national security” activities, deemed beyond essential under the banner of “protecting life and property.” Surveillance at the National Security Agency, for instance, continued, uninterrupted, though it was liberated from its obviously nonessential and, even in the best-funded of times, minimal responsibility to disclose those activities under the Freedom of Information Act. Such disclosure was judged superfluous in a shutdown era, while spying on Americans (not to speak of Brazilians, Mexicans, Europeans, Indians and others around the planet) was deemed indispensible.
Then there was the carefully orchestrated Special Operations Forces mission in Libya to capture a terror suspect off the streets of Tripoli in broad daylight, proving that in a shutdown period, the US military wasn’t about to shut off the lights. And don’t forget the nighttime landing of a Navy SEAL team in Somalia in an unsuccessful attempt to capture a different terrorist target. These activities were deemed essential to national survival, even though the chances of an American being killed in a terrorist attack are, at the moment, estimated at around one in 20 million. Remember that number, because we’ll come back to it.