All-American Terrorists

The F.B.I. announced the arrest of 13 members of our species who were planning to make America great again. Here are five of them:

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From The New York Times:

Storming the State Capitol. Instigating a civil war. Abducting a sitting governor ahead of the presidential election.

Those were among the plots described by federal and state officials in Michigan on Thursday as they announced terrorism, conspiracy and weapons charges against 13 men. At least six of them, officials said, had hatched a detailed plan to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who has become a focal point of anti-government views and anger over coronavirus control measures.

The group that planned the kidnapping met repeatedly over the summer for firearms training and combat drills and practiced building explosives, the F.B.I. said; members also gathered several times to discuss the mission, including in [a basement] accessible only through a “trap door” under a rug.

The men spied on Ms. Whitmer’s vacation home in August and September, even looking under a highway bridge for places they could place and detonate a bomb to distract the authorities, the F.B.I. said. They indicated that they wanted to take Ms. Whitmer hostage before the election in November, and one man said they should take her to a “secure location” in Wisconsin for a “trial,” Richard J. Trask II, an F.B.I. special agent, said in the criminal complaint.

Mr. Trask said that one of those arrested had bought a Taser for the mission last week and that the men had been planning to buy explosives on Wednesday. Court records indicated that at least five of the men had been arrested on Wednesday in Ypsilanti, Mich.; it was not immediately clear if the sixth man had been taken into custody. . . .

The F.B.I. said a leader in the kidnapping plot had reached out to members of an unnamed anti-government group for help, and the state charged an additional seven men, all from Michigan, with providing material support for terrorist activities, being members of a gang and using firearms while committing felonies.

The seven men were said to be affiliated with an extremist group known as the Wolverine Watchmen, and the state’s attorney general accused them of collecting addresses of police officers in order to target them, threatening to start a civil war “leading to societal collapse” and planning to kidnap the governor and other government officials.

The seven men were charged with state crimes, which carry penalties of two to 20 years in prison.

Ms. Whitmer and Dana Nessel, the Michigan attorney general, tied the extremist plot to comments from President Txxxx and his refusal at times . . . to condemn white supremacists and violent right-wing groups. . . . Ms. Whitmer said extremists had “heard the president’s words not as a rebuke but as a rallying cry — as a call to action.”

. . . the F.B.I. director, Christopher A. Wray, said in September that the most pressing threats facing the nation were from anti-government and white supremacist groups, who . . . have carried out the most lethal domestic attacks in recent years.

The F.B.I. investigation of the kidnapping plot began early this year, according to an affidavit, after a social media discussion of violent government overthrow. The F.B.I. used confidential informants, undercover agents and intercepted messages to monitor the group. . . . The six men were charged with conspiracy to commit kidnapping, which can carry a life sentence.

The authorities said that [two of the men] had decided to “unite others” to “take violent action” against state governments that they thought were violating the Constitution . . . . The F.B.I. said [one] had talked of storming the Michigan Statehouse with 200 men and trying Ms. Whitmer for treason. . . .

Ms. Whitmer has been the subject of criticism from right-wing protesters for measures she imposed to try to control the spread of the coronavirus, which has infected about 146,000 Michigan residents and killed about 7,200.

In April, thousands of people gathered at the State Capitol to protest the executive orders she issued shutting down most of the state. Mr. Txxxx openly encouraged such protests, tweeting, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!”

. . . In May, a man was charged with threatening to kill Ms. Whitmer and Ms. Nessel. And the protests at the Capitol in Lansing featured some signs with swastikas, Confederate flags and demonstrators who advocated for violence against Ms. Whitmer, including one man who carried a doll with brown hair hanging from a noose. Many in the crowd carried semiautomatic weapons, leading some Democrats in the Legislature to call for a ban on guns in the Capitol.

Republicans in the Legislature sued Ms. Whitmer in May over the executive orders, and last week opponents of her lockdown filed petitions with more than 500,000 signatures to repeal a 1945 law that gives governors authority to declare emergencies during times of a public health crisis. The Michigan Supreme Court ruled last week that the law, which Ms. Whitmer had cited, was unconstitutional [deciding it conflicts with another Michigan law regarding emergency declarations]. . . .

The alleged plot in Michigan was infused with elements that have been the focus of anti-government extremists for years, said J.J. MacNab, a fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, such as accusing government officials of tyranny.

Most of all, Ms. MacNab said, they want their acts to serve as examples — to inspire others to carry out similar attacks.

“Starting a revolution is a common thread in the overall anti-government extremist movement,” Ms. MacNab said.

Homeland Security analysts have warned in recent days of potential attacks from extremists seeking to retaliate against government-ordered social distancing measures and closures. . .

The F.B.I. said it had monitored the kidnapping plot throughout the summer as the target narrowed to the governor’s personal vacation home. The group discussed the governor in vulgar terms and called her a “tyrant.”

“Have one person go to her house. Knock on the door and when she answers it just cap her,” one of the men said in an encrypted group chat, according to the F.B.I. . . .

“I just wanna make the world glow, dude,” the affidavit quoted [one of the men] as saying in a profanity-laced tirade. “We’re gonna topple it all . . . “

How It Beat Us

If you want a deep analysis of how this country screwed up its response to Covid-19 and what we need to do better next time, read this long article by Ed Yong for The Atlantic Monthly. It’s been recommended by intelligent people. I don’t intend to read the whole thing. The first 700 words were enough (by the way, Dr. Fauci says we need to get new cases down to 10,000 a day from the current 50 or 60 thousand or else the fall is going to be very bad):

America has failed to protect its people, leaving them with illness and financial ruin. It has lost its status as a global leader. It has careened between inaction and ineptitude. The breadth and magnitude of its errors are difficult, in the moment, to truly fathom.

In the first half of 2020, SARS CoV 2—the new coronavirus behind the disease COVID 19—infected 10 million people around the world and killed about half a million. But few countries have been as severely hit as the United States, which has just 4 percent of the world’s population but a quarter of its confirmed COVID 19 cases and deaths. These numbers are estimates. The actual toll, though undoubtedly higher, is unknown, because the richest country in the world still lacks sufficient testing to accurately count its sick citizens.

Despite ample warning, the U.S. squandered every possible opportunity to control the coronavirus. And despite its considerable advantages—immense resources, biomedical might, scientific expertise—it floundered. While countries as different as South Korea, Thailand, Iceland, Slovakia, and Australia acted decisively to bend the curve of infections downward, the U.S. achieved merely a plateau in the spring, which changed to an appalling upward slope in the summer. “The U.S. fundamentally failed in ways that were worse than I ever could have imagined,” Julia Marcus, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School, told me.

Since the pandemic began, I have spoken with more than 100 experts in a variety of fields. I’ve learned that almost everything that went wrong with America’s response to the pandemic was predictable and preventable.

A sluggish response by a government denuded of expertise allowed the coronavirus to gain a foothold. Chronic underfunding of public health neutered the nation’s ability to prevent the pathogen’s spread. A bloated, inefficient health-care system left hospitals ill-prepared for the ensuing wave of sickness. Racist policies that have endured since the days of colonization and slavery left Indigenous and Black Americans especially vulnerable to COVID 19. The decades-long process of shredding the nation’s social safety net forced millions of essential workers in low-paying jobs to risk their life for their livelihood. The same social-media platforms that sowed partisanship and misinformation during the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Africa and the 2016 U.S. election became vectors for conspiracy theories during the 2020 pandemic.

The U.S. has little excuse for its inattention. In recent decades, epidemics of SARS, MERS, Ebola, H1N1 flu, Zika, and monkeypox showed the havoc that new and reemergent pathogens could wreak. Health experts, business leaders, and even middle schoolers ran simulated exercises to game out the spread of new diseases. . . . [They showed that] the U.S. was not ready for a pandemic, [sounding] warnings about the fragility of the nation’s health-care system and the slow process of creating a vaccine. But the COVID 19 debacle has also touched—and implicated—nearly every other facet of American society: its shortsighted leadership, its disregard for expertise, its racial inequities, its social-media culture, and its fealty to a dangerous strain of individualism.

SARS CoV 2 is something of an anti-Goldilocks virus: just bad enough in every way. Its symptoms can be severe enough to kill millions but are often mild enough to allow infections to move undetected through a population. It spreads quickly enough to overload hospitals, but slowly enough that statistics don’t spike until too late. These traits made the virus harder to control, but they also softened the pandemic’s punch. SARS CoV 2 is neither as lethal as some other coronaviruses, such as SARS and MERS, nor as contagious as measles. Deadlier pathogens almost certainly exist. Wild animals harbor an estimated 40,000 unknown viruses, a quarter of which could potentially jump into humans. How will the U.S. fare when “we can’t even deal with a starter pandemic?,” Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina . . . asked me.

Despite its epochal effects, COVID 19 is merely a harbinger of worse plagues to come. The U.S. cannot prepare for these inevitable crises if it returns to normal, as many of its people ache to do. Normal led to this. Normal was a world ever more prone to a pandemic but ever less ready for one. To avert another catastrophe, the U.S. needs to grapple with all the ways normal failed us. It needs a full accounting of every recent misstep and foundational sin, every unattended weakness and unheeded warning, every festering wound and reopened scar.

Un-Christian Christians

From Matt Hanson writing for The Baffler:

After a set in Tennessee, the story goes, a couple of locals confronted the Texas-born comic [Bill Hicks] and declared that they were Christians and they didn’t like his act. Without missing a beat, Hicks responded with “well then, forgive me.” Instead, they broke his arm.

You might think reacting in such a spirit of vengeance is pretty much the exact opposite of how any self-professed Christian is supposed to behave. Yet there were deeper and more distinctly American pathologies at work: the guys who supposedly beat up Hicks were responding politically, not theologically. It wasn’t an attempt to defend Jesus’ honor or the tenets of whatever church they might have belonged to—it was to show that little punk who was really boss. They probably didn’t even notice the irony; and why would they? They may have grown up in an evangelical culture, but that culture glorifies what we now refer to as toxic masculinity. This “muscular Christianity” encourages both aggression and victimhood, emboldening believers, especially men, to impose their collective will on the rest of the public whenever they suddenly feel empowered or aggrieved.

In Jesus & John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted A Faith and Fractured a Nation, the historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez explores this moral schizophrenia. We know there are legions of people on the religious right who talk a good game about following Christ but end up voting overwhelmingly for venal, crass, blustering wannabe tough guys like the current president and his enablers in Congress. But much of the evangelical leadership is this way, too . . .

The question is often asked . . . why the white evangelical community consistently supports people who don’t practice what the Gospels preach. Du Mez argues, using an extensive amount of research, that white evangelical culture often glorifies the aggressive, patriarchal idea of manhood, which has become intertwined with what it means to be a conservative Christian in the modern age. They conflate a guy like John Wayne with Jesus because their idea of evangelical Christianity rejects the gentle, egalitarian aspects of Jesus’ teachings in favor of all the usual culture war gripes about big government, gun control, immigration, and gay rights. Thus, “a nostalgic commitment to rugged, aggressive, militant white masculinity serves as the thread binding them together into a coherent whole.”

It’s not hard to see that religion has always been one of the most effective ways of enforcing the social order, especially in a relatively young and wide open country like America. It’s more effective to tell the weirdos and the sissies—those pesky un-American types—to get off your lawn when you assume that the creator of the universe is in your corner. In [a country]obsessed with religion and rugged individualism, where holding your own and taking no shit is considered a cardinal virtue, sticking to your guns (metaphorically and literally) is how you define the rules of the game and make sure you win it in the end. Harold Bloom once quoted Spinoza’s comment that one must love God without having any expectation that he loves you back, which he called the most un-American idea ever. . . .

One of the book’s . . . insights is that being evangelical isn’t just about agreeing to a certain set of theological principles—that’s just where the rest of the lifestyle management begins. . . .

You don’t have to go very far in the evangelical world to see how a “God made boys to be aggressive” mentality is more or less taken for granted. Even if physical purity, restraint, and accountability are supposed to be the name of the game, plenty of pastors brag about how hot their wives are, and how the Bible encourages women to submit to their husbands sexually, and if their hubby strays, it’s their fault for not keeping him interested or satisfied. When notorious televangelist Jimmy Swaggart was caught with a hooker for the second time he refused to confess and told his congregation “the Lord told me it’s flat none of your business.”

Such confidence is seductive to a certain kind of white evangelical male. Du Mez points out that for many white men,

to obey God was to obey patriarchal authorities within a rigid chain of command, and God had equipped men to exercise this authority in the home and in society at large. Testosterone made men dangerous, but it also made them heroes. Within their own churches and organizations, evangelicals had elevated and revered men who exhibited the same traits of rugged and even ruthless leadership that President Txxxx now paraded on the national stage.

For anyone who still wonders why the president’s base seems to hold fast no matter what he says or does, we should recall that inflicting the merciless cruelty—to dominate, as he often says—is the point. . . .

Zooming out from the hierarchical model of the nuclear family, we then have divinely inspired conservative government, which now shows its attitudes toward discipline by deploying military might against rebellious citizens. Then, naturally, at the top of the social pyramid is the Lord God almighty, whose ways may be mysterious and capricious (and quite harsh at times) but since he’s the almighty master of the universe, he is the ultimate giver of Law and Order. Best get with the program in this so-called Christian nation. Call it “God’s chain of command” in a trickle-down theocracy.

So today all that wounded pride and self-assumed authority make large swaths of the religious voting public want to vicariously identify with the loudest, crassest, most ignorant and arrogant, and least constrained president in modern history. And if the ravages of Late Capitalism have left you feeling emasculated, since your job isn’t paying what it used to and it’s hard to get a new one, then the thrill of identifying with a very rich playboy who promises to stick it to the people who did you wrong becomes pretty obvious. . . .

If you actually believe, as some Christians do, the Biblical principle that the devil is stalking the earth looking to devour vulnerable souls (1 Peter 5:8) then you’re not going to think twice about lining up to do political battle by way of spiritual battle. The difference between the two is almost nil. And the right wing has always known how to make that kind of paranoia work for them. The idea that money is spiritually corrupting is discarded, because money equates with political power and spiritual endorsement. Survival and success are all that matters, and it doesn’t come from being meek and poor.

America the Extraordinary

“Reddit shut down its popular but controversial forum devoted to supporting President Txxxx on Monday, following years in which the social media company tried but often failed to control the racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, glorification of violence and conspiracy theories that flourished there” (The Washington Post).

“The US is ‘unlikely’ to achieve herd immunity to the coronavirus even with a vaccine, according to the country’s leading public health expert, who warned that a ‘general anti-science, anti-authority, anti-vaccine feeling’ is likely to thwart vaccination efforts. In an interview with CNN, Dr Anthony Fauci also said people not wearing masks was ‘a recipe for disaster’”… (The Guardian).

“The videos are now showing up in your social media feed every hour or two, each one more over-the-top than the one before — viral missives from a world that seems to have gone mad and yet somehow exists right in our backyard. These ‘forgotten Americans’ are at the lectern at your county commission meeting if they’re not yelling at you in the produce aisle — screaming that the elected officials and their so-called scientific experts demanding they wear a mask to prevent the spread of coronavirus are really part of a vast conspiracy to take away their freedoms” (Will Bunch for The Philadelphia Inquirer).

Mr. Bunch continues:

It was another great day for liberty — and yet a horrible one for tens of thousands of Americans who now may die needlessly because so many cling to a warped idea of freedom that apparently means not caring whether others in your community get sick.

The reality is that those devil-worshiping elected officials and their mad scientists are trying to mandate masks in public for the same reasons they don’t let 12-year-olds drive and they close bars at 2 a.m.: They actually want to keep their constituents alive.

There’s a plethora of reasons why countries across Europe — even Boris Johnson’s United Kingdom, for God’s sake — crushed their coronavirus curve while the United States didn’t. Their shutdowns were somewhat longer, their reopenings came with better testing and contact tracing, their leaders set good examples, and their people showed common sense about social distancing and masks. But especially masks.

The most comprehensive study published in the journal Lancet found mask-wearing could reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission from 17% to 3%. No wonder the University of Washington says universal mask-wearing in the United States would reduce the coronavirus death toll between now and October by a whopping 33,000 human beings.

Just think of all the restrictions on freedom and liberty — from the government seeing what you checked out at the library to invasive searches at the airport — to prevent another attack like 9/11 that killed 3,000 people, or less than one-tenth the toll from not wearing masks. But for millions of Americans — not a majority, mind you, but enough to cause a public-health hazard in a pandemic — the idea of masks has been launched into a different orbit where freedom talk is injected with the uniquely American viruses of free-market capitalism and media manipulation, maybe with a dollop of white supremacy….

But … too much of the warped notion of freedom promoted by the aggressively not-mask-wearing President Txxxx and his No. 2, Mike Pence, and their prophets like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity won’t just get you high — to continue with the Sweet analogy — but could also kill you by an overdose. What the radio hucksters, and the wannabe dictators they installed, won’t tell you is that freedom without any social responsibility or empathy for others is ultimately hollow.

But let’s remember that American people — even the damaged souls that you’re laughing at on Twitter today — didn’t pervert the meaning of freedom on their own. The warped modern version of liberty was sold to them, first by right-wing public intellectuals like Ayn Rand, who killed thousands of trees to wrap unbridled selfishness in her endless tomes about freedom, and later by the salesmen of Big Capitalism.

Protecting your freedom became the ideal branding for what these pitchmen really wanted, which was political cover to dramatically lower taxes on millionaires (who, thanks to that, would become billionaires) and to crush unions and their demands for higher pay, freeing up profits to now pay CEOs 350 times what the average worker makes. Talk about finding the cost of freedom! With the help of academics like the Nobel economist James McGill Buchanan, backed by billionaires like the Koch brothers, warped freedom capitalism got a fancy name — free-market libertarianism…..

Confronted with scientific realities like man-made climate change, the forces of conservative libertarianism turned their guns toward expertise, with the goals of thwarting environmentalism and keeping corporate profits high. The bills for global warming are starting to come due, but that has been superseded for the time being by the COVID-19 crisis; the lack of trust for medical expertise from Main Street all the way to an ignorant president whom 62 million Main Streeters installed at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has proved lethal.

No other nation has botched its coronavirus response so badly because no other nation holds science in such low esteem. “Who made you perpetrators over my life?” the self-proclaimed Txxxx Girl demanded of the experts at the Palm Beach County meeting. In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Stanford psychiatry prof Keith Humphreys noted that the United States simply can’t impose a coronavirus testing regimen like South Korea or Singapore because we don’t trust the government on public health. “Clusters of gun-toting protesters opposing public health measures are a real — and uniquely American — problem,” he wrote, “but it’s the much more prevalent distrust in government’s role in public health that would curtail the success of any test, trace and isolate program.”

In a functioning society, freedom can flourish when it’s part of a broader social compact, when liberty is not abused because its practitioners also see themselves as part of a community, where they care about others — even, or especially, when it comes to wearing a mask and not spreading germs to your neighbor. But has there ever been a branding campaign as successful as America repackaging selfishness, self-interest, and extreme inequality as personal freedom?

That’s even true of the freedom that’s so central to my work life: the free press that exists under the First Amendment. I’ve seen how that only works well when publishers fuel their press freedom with common sense and an understanding of responsibility to the readers. In the internet age, the promise of an even greater media freedom has been polluted by billionaires from Fox’s Rupert Murdoch to Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, who made bigger profits off lies and unchecked conspiracy theories than off fact-checking in the public interest. The filth of Zuckerberg’s Facebook is what’s spewing, unmasked, from the self-styled “patriots” of Palm Beach County….

As the global pandemic advanced and as evidence mounted that COVID-19 is most lethal not just for the elderly but also for Black and brown Americans, it seems clear that for some white people, not wearing a mask isn’t just a freedom song but a defiant proclamation of their superiority. That’s validated every day by America’s white-supremacist-in-chief, whose refusal to wear a mask in public is in fact a different kind of mask, one of his deep insecurity. This toxic blend of narcissism and white privilege is Dxxxx Txxxx’s idea of leadership — even as he leads some of his voters to an early grave.

The flip side is that the millions who’ve marched in America’s streets after George Floyd’s murder — many, although not all, from the under-35 generation — are making the case that a better world, built around empathy and compassion for people who don’t look like ourselves, is coming. They are using their freedom of speech and assembly to forge a more perfect union, and I fervently wish that the 33,000 Americans who may be doomed by a lethal injection of phony liberty can somehow live to see it.