US State Dept. to Americans: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

By Jake Strickler, Staff Writer

Author’s Note: This piece was written on Wednesday, November 25th. Here are a few other events that have taken place in America in the interim:

On the night of the 25th, Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump came under fire for mocking a New York Times reporter who had cast doubt on his own story about groups of Muslims gathering in New Jersey on September 11, 2001, to celebrate the attacks in New York and Washington. Trump and his support base have latched on to this story to justify racist rhetoric aimed at the American Muslim community, despite investigation concluding that the story is, at its most plausible, an enormous exaggeration. Trump’s mocking of the reporter highlighted the man’s arthrogryposis, a physical disability that results in severely limited mobility of the arms. Trump was subsequently photographed signing a female supporter’s lower chest with a permanent marker. He maintains a strong lead among the party’s candidates, and GOP leadership has begun circulating memos instructing members to prepare for the high possibility of Trump’s eventual nomination. 

On Friday the 27th, a Planned Parenthood office in Colorado Springs, Colorado, was stormed by a middle-aged white male who has been known to hold extremist, right-wing, anti-establishment beliefs and has a history of criminal behavior. He killed three people and wounded nine more. Upon arrest, he made reference to a series of videos purporting to show Planned Parenthood employees callously discussing the harvesting and sale of the tissue and organs of aborted fetuses. Several independent investigations into the organization’s behavior have found no evidence of wrong-doing, and the videos have been proven to be deceptively edited. Nevertheless, virtually every GOP candidate has accepted the videos at face value, and has provided virulent oratory about them that nearly led to a shutdown of the Federal Government in September.

On Tuesday, December 1st, the US Department of Defense announced that a to-be-determined number of special forces ground troops will be deployed in Syria, joining the 3,300 troops already stationed in Iraq.

On Wednesday, December 2nd, a 28-year-old second-generation Pakistani-American named Syed Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik, a 27-year-old woman born in Pakistan, entered the office of the Department of Health in San Bernardino, California – Farook’s place of employment – wielding automatic weapons. They had left their six-month-old daughter at home with Farook’s mother. They opened fire on employees gathered for a Christmas party before fleeing and leading police on a city-wide manhunt. By the time they were located and killed by police in a dramatic shootout, they had left 14 dead and another 21 injured. Reports have surfaced that Farook had been in contact with radical Jihadists currently under investigation by the FBI for in some way being involved in international terrorism, though a concrete motive for the shooting is yet to be established.

Earlier, in the summer of 1964, a young musician named Bob Dylan who had recently abandoned folk music for a much more aggressive rock & roll style in order to mirror the social and political turbulence occurring worldwide wrote the following lines: “As some warn victory, some downfall/Private reasons great or small/Can be seen in the eyes of those that call/To make all that should be killed to crawl/While others say, ‘Don’t hate nothin’ at all/Except hatred.'”


On Tuesday morning, the U.S. State Department issued a “Worldwide Travel Alert,” active for the next three months, cautioning all American citizens to exercise extreme discretion when planning to travel, well, anywhere. “Current information,” the advisory begins, “suggests that…terrorist groups continue to plan terrorist attacks in multiple regions.  These attacks may employ a wide variety of tactics, using conventional and non-conventional weapons and targeting both official and private interests.” Coming in the wake of recent attacks on civilians in, among other places, Somalia, Egypt, Lebanon, Chad, Cameroon, France, Nigeria, Mali, and most recently, Tunisia, this is indeed scary stuff.

duck and cover
Children practicing the classic “duck and cover” maneuver in preparation for nuclear attack. 1950s.

The advisory, of course, carries no regulatory weight. U.S. citizens are free to travel as they please, so long as they don’t mind doing so under a dark cloud of imminent and unspecified threat. And this is not, I will add, the first time that such an advisory has been issued. In December 2014, the same was done after 17 people were taken hostage by a violent Islamist in a café in Sydney and two were killed. Before this, the alarm was sounded in August 2013 (precautionary measure in response to general threats originating in the Middle East and North Africa), September 2011 (tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks), and May 2011 (following the killing of Osama bin Laden).

So, since the issuing of a Worldwide Travel Alert seems to be right on track for becoming an annual occurrence, why have I taken such an interest in this one? In short: it comes now in a context of extreme global chaos and insecurity that seems to be rapidly escalating and intensifying far beyond the control of any set of actors. We have just witnessed the largest and most brutal incursion of extremist violence into the Western world since the attacks of 9/11 and the subway bombings in Madrid and London of 2004 and 2005 respectively. This time, the people pulling the strings are not ensconced in remote mountain caves, but have managed to very visibly gain control of a sizeable chunk of the Middle East. They have amassed enormous financial reserves. They have access to a gigantic war chest of modern weapons and military tactics. They have left a trail of maimed and brutalized bodies in their wake. The fervency of their belief and the inhumanity of their violence have no limits. Evidence of all of this has been captured on hi-def video and Tweeted out around the world. And as we’ve seen with the Paris attackers, those sympathetic to and enlisted in their cause could be anywhere.

Previous advisories seemed to say, “Intel and chatter surrounding a geopolitical event/significant upcoming date lead us to believe that there is a heightened risk posed to American citizens traveling abroad, especially in certain regions. Please remain vigilant and aware when doing so.” But in light of the current situation, this most recent exhortation carries a weary sort of resignation and impotence: “We don’t know what might happen, or when or where, but there are a lot of horrific things that definitely could happen. So maybe it would be best to just stay home for a while. See if it blows over.” Or, to put it more succinctly and, I think, eloquently: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Edvard Munch, "The Scream." 1893. Courtesy Wikipedia.
Edvard Munch, “The Scream.” 1893. Courtesy Wikipedia.

A recent investigation of the development and meaning of this little collection of Japanese katakana symbols resembling an individual shrugging in futility describes how it has come to represent the complexity and incomprehensibility of the modern condition in a strikingly elegant fashion. Says one proponent of its usage quoted therein: “There’s no parallel word, but it stands in for any number of horrified and numb and nihilistic sentiments… like ‘I don’t even have the bandwidth to comprehend how terrible this all is.’” In a similar piece published by the Atlantic, the author makes the claim that “with raised arms and a half-turned smile, it exudes the melancholia, the malaise, the acceptance, and (finally) the embrace of knowing that something’s wrong…and you can’t do anything about it.One gets the impression that its prima facie simplicity masks myriad layers of meaning and higher capital-T Truth; that through mindful contemplation of its lines and contours can enlightened wisdom be attained. Because I enjoy sounding like a college freshman who just discovered Camus, I argue that the singularly 21st century shrug emoji is one of the few valid and rational responses to the modern world available. It’s Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” updated for the digital age.

Now, obviously, the State Department communique does not utilize this symbol or even explicitly invoke the sentiments that it represents, so everything I’m saying here is interpretive nonsense. But when viewed in its proper context, I strongly believe that the underlying implication is the same. And, ironically, I think that it serves to intensify and perpetuate generalized panic and uncertainty. To examine this, I’d like to take a look at the two other major news stories that filled Tuesday’s news cycle in America.

First off, nearly concurrent with the State Department’s release came the news that Turkey had shot down a Russian fighter plane flying over its soil. These two countries are ostensible allies in the fight against ISIS, (although some, including Vladimir Putin, claim that Turkey is offering some implicit support to the group, not least of which support comes in the form of Turkish money allegedly finding its way into ISIS coffers through the purchase of oil). Both states ­­­possess nuclear weapons, and Putin has promised “serious consequences” for the action.

Meanwhile, on the home front, dashboard camera footage of the 2014 shooting death of 17-year-old black male Laquan McDonald was released. It shows McDonald walking erratically in the vicinity of several police officers, who proceed to open fire, shooting the boy 16 times in the span of 15 seconds. He was carrying a three-inch-long blade, and had PCP in his system, but posed no apparent threat to the officers involved and was at least ten feet away from them at the time of the shooting. As I’m writing this, protests have erupted in Chicago, with those involved blocking off a major highway. This comes as another chapter in the tragic saga of black males dying at the hands of white police officers, which has set off periodic events of mass protest and dissent in cities around the country.

Surveillance and social control in the 1956 film adaptation of Orwell's 1984.
Surveillance and social control in the 1956 film adaptation of Orwell’s 1984.

The situation in Turkey is exceedingly grim, but so are events taking place in this country. Let’s take a look at a handful of other domestic developments from the past few weeks. The governors of 31 U.S. states have declared that they will not be accepting refugees fleeing violence in the Middle East, even after stringent background investigation and vetting by U.S. intelligence organizations. Prominent politicians have said that they may consider taking them in, as long as they’re not Muslim. Other popular policy suggestions have included the implementation of a registry of all Muslims in the country, the intense surveillance of registered Muslims, the closing of Mosques, and the widespread use of waterboarding and other torture techniques in defense of homeland security.

A black man protesting a rally for leading Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump was brutally beaten by Trump’s supporters, while onlookers hurled vitriolic epithets like “monkey” at him. In response, Mr. Trump has stated, “Maybe he should have been roughed up…it was disgusting what he was doing.” Two men opened fire on a Black Lives Matter protest in Minneapolis, injuring five. A metaphysical bookstore in my hometown of Denver, Colorado called Isis Books & Gifts (named after the ancient Egyptian goddess) has been repeatedly vandalized because, as the owner of the store puts it, “some…people [believe] that somehow the terrorists have a store, a gift store, in the middle of Denver, Colorado.”

What all of these have in common is a basic fear and hatred of the racial “other.” Violence and chaos both outside of America and within have lifted the lid on the dark and insidious current of racism and xenophobia that has flowed in this country for as long as it has existed, but is seldom acknowledged these days. The scale and power of these sentiments is being revealed, and as it becomes apparent how mind-bogglingly large it all is, an ever-increasing number of people have embraced them. Hatred has gone mainstream and, at the present moment, is no longer something to be expressed quietly and in unguarded moments with like-minded people, but loudly and confrontationally and in public as a signifier of patriotism and level-headedness. It’s as if much of the country has experienced a false breakthrough wherein they have “discovered” that just letting it all out has been the solution the whole time and if only political correctness hadn’t stopped them from doing it sooner, the world might not be in such a mess now! Nobody is there to tell them that it just isn’t that simple, and if there were, they surely wouldn’t listen.

The Berlin Wall: the securitization of ideology.
The Berlin Wall: the securitization of ideology.

The most dangerous elements in American media and politics have positioned themselves to ride the crest of this wave, and to take full advantage of the momentum it generates. Mr. Trump, for example, is benefitting from the fact that his “big and beautiful” wall keeps out people of all races; whether tomorrow’s frightening hoard of foreign invaders comes from Mexico, Syria, or Timbuktu, the wall has the same perceived effectivity. Every time this man stands by a vile racist untruth fervently gobbled up by his supporters, or declares that violence against people who don’t like what he says is a good thing, or somebody like Chris Christie elbows his way onto national television to declare that President Obama is directly responsible for the Syrian refugee crisis (and, by extension according to this infantile logic, for the attacks in Paris), the already yawning rift extant in this country is widened exponentially. Frankly, an America where spouting vicious, repulsive, humiliating race hatred translates into a bump in the polling numbers scares the hell out of me just as much as brewing world war on the other side of the planet does.

The Worldwide Travel Warning now in effect, while obviously altruistic in intention, actually contributes to and exacerbates this dynamic. By painting every square inch outside of U.S. borders in the shocking red of danger, violence, and instability, it not only ignores the chaos and division that has arisen within those borders, but dumps a big bucket of high-test gasoline on the conflagration. If everything and everyone on the outside is a potential threat, the logic of the zeitgeist goes, that means that everybody who has come, or may come, from outside is contaminated and should be treated with the utmost caution and distrust or, better yet, kept out entirely and allowed to be consumed by the chaos they seek to escape.

The more things change, the more they remain the same.
The more things change, the more they remain the same. Post-WWI American Legion poster.

But securitization of the outside is not enough, by the dictates of this ideology, since the enemy may already be here, may have already infiltrated our institutions and safe spaces. Therefore, securitization of the inside is required as well. We must create a registry of and keep careful watch over those who are different, those who we perceive as representing even the most miniscule possibility of threat. By allowing the triumph of a dictatorial, antihuman, ultra-nationalistic, and virulently racist will, we can attain the scantest illusion of security; we can feel safe in our own homes (provided they’re well stocked with guns, canned goods, and jugs of water). If this seems like hyperbole, take a look at the political organizations that have risen to national prominence in many European countries on platforms of neo-fascism and racial superiority. My money’s on their support base growing by leaps and bounds after recent events.

So, the necessary counter-argument runs, what should the State Department have said? Isn’t it a significant part of their mandate and function to keep Americans safe when overseas? To make them aware of extant threats and dissuade them from putting themselves in harm’s way? With extremely dramatic and existentially terrifying geopolitical events taking place on an almost daily basis and no concrete ability to predict what might happen next (although Mr. Trump said on Wednesday that he does in fact possess the occult gift of absolute foreknowledge regarding terrorist attacks; in his words: “I can feel it”), isn’t making the American public aware of this situation the height of responsibility? I am in 100% agreement with every single one of these points. But as I peer into the swirling abyss of apocalyptic violence and instability and consider the question of how this could have been handled differently, one answer shines insistently through: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

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