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American Anniversaries from Hell

Anniversaries to not be proud of, from "mission accomplished" to the My Lai massacre.

| Thu Mar. 28, 2013 3:35 PM EDT

And not to leave out the rent-a-gun mercenaries who have been such a fixture of the post-9/11 era of American warfare, this September 16th will be the sixth anniversary of the moment when Blackwater guards for a convoy of US State Department vehicles sprayed Baghdad's Nisour Square with bullets, evidently without provocation, killing 17 Iraqi civilians and wounding many more.

All of the above only begins to suggest the plethora of blood-soaked little anniversaries that Americans could observe, if they cared to, from a decade-plus of the former Global War on Terror that now has no name, but goes on no less intensely. Consider them just a few obvious examples of what former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once called the "known knowns" of our American world.

Impossible Anniversaries

In anniversary terms, Rumsfeld's second category—the "known unknowns"—is no less revealing of the universe we now inhabit; that is, our post-9/11 lives have been filled with events or acts whose anniversaries might be notable, if only we knew the date when they occured. Take, for instance, the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program. Sometime in the first part of 2002, President Bush granted the National Security Agency the right to eavesdrop without court approval on people in the United States in the course of its terrorism investigations. This (illegal) program's existence was first revealed in 2005, but it remains shrouded in mystery. We don't know exactly when it began. So no anniversary celebrations there.

Nor for the setting up of the "Salt Pit," the CIA "black site" in Afghanistan where Khaled el-Masri, a German car salesman kidnapped by the CIA in Macedonia (due to a confusion of names with a suspected terrorist) was held and mistreated, or other similar secret prisons and torture centers in places like Lithuania, Poland, Rumania, and Thailand; nor for the creation of Camp Nama in Iraq, with its ominously named "Black Room," run as an interrogation center by the Joint Special Operations Command, where the informal motto was: "If you don't make them bleed, they can't prosecute for it."

Or how about the anniversary of the date—possibly as early as 2006—when Washington launched history's first known cyberwar, a series of unprovoked cyberattacks ordered by George W. Bush and later Barack Obama, against Iran's nuclear program (and evidently some Middle Eastern banks dealing with that country as well). Given its potential future implications, that would seem to be a moment significant enough to memorialize, if only we knew when to do it.

Don't for a moment think, though, that any little survey of known knowns and known unknowns could cover the totality of America's unacknowledged anniversaries from hell. After all, there's Rumsfeld's third category, the "unknown unknowns." In our advancing world of secrecy, with the National Security Complex and parts of the US military increasingly operating in a post-legal America, shielded from whistleblowers and largely unaccountable to the rest of us or the courts, you can be guaranteed of one thing: there's a secret history of the post-9/11 era that we simply don't know about—yet. Call this last category "the unknown anniversaries." We not only don't know when they began, but even what they are.

A Hidden History Waiting to Be Written

When I was a boy, I loved a CBS TV series called "You Are There," "anchored" by Walter Cronkite. It took you into history—whether of Joan of Arc's burning at the stake, the fall of the Aztec ruler Montezuma, or the end of the US Civil War—and "reported" it as if modern journalists had been on the spot. (For years, I used to joke that the typical moment went like this: "General Lee, General Lee, rumor has it you're about to surrender to Grant at Appomattox!" "No comment.") The show had a signature tagline delivered in one of those authoritative male voices of the era that still rings in my head. It went: "What sort of day was it? A day like all days, filled with those events that alter and illuminate our times... all things are as they were then, and you were there."

If such a show were made about the post-9/11 years, it might have to be called "You Weren't There." Our days, instead of being filled with "those events that alter and illuminate our times," would be enshrouded in a penumbra of secrecy that could—as with Bradley Manning, CIA agent John Kiriakou, or other whistleblowers—only be broken by those ready to spend years, or even a lifetime in prison. If the National Security Complex and the White House had their way, we Americans would be left to celebrate a heavily cleansed and censored version of our own recent history in which the anniversaries that should really matter would be squirreled away in the files of the state apparatus. There can be no question that a hidden history of our American moment is still waiting to be uncovered and written.

And yet, despite the best efforts of the last two administrations, secrecy has its limits. We should already know more than enough to be horrified by the state of our American world. It should disturb us deeply that a government of, by, and for the war-makers, intelligence operatives, bureaucrats, privatizing mercenary corporations, surveillers, torturers, and assassins is thriving in Washington. As for the people—that's us—in these last years, we largely weren't there, even as the very idea of a government of, by, and for us bit the dust, and our leaders felt increasingly unconstrained when committing acts of shame in our name.

So perhaps the last overlooked anniversary of these years might be the 12th anniversary of American cowardice. You can choose the exact date yourself; anytime this fall will do. At that moment, Americans should feel free to celebrate a time when, for our "safety," and in a state of anger and paralyzing fear, we gave up the democratic ghost.

The brave thing, of course, would have been to gamble just a little of our safety—as we do any day when we get into a car—for the kind of world whose anniversaries we would actually be proud to mark on a calendar and celebrate.

Among the many truths in that still-to-be-written secret history of our American world would be this: we the people have no idea just how, in these years, we've hurt ourselves.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.

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