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Why Did the Media Devote So Much Attention to the Missing Malaysian Airplane?

Given our short attention spans when it comes to the news, the continued coverage was surprising. But was it necessary?

| Thu Apr. 3, 2014 4:17 PM EDT

The world, as Dick Cheney & Co. took for granted, looked ready to be dominated by the only (angry) hyperpower left after centuries of imperial rivalry. The US military, its technological capability unrivaled by any state or possible grouping of states, was to be let loose to bring the Greater Middle East to heel in a decisive way. Between that regular military and para-militarizing intelligence agencies, the planet was to be scoured of enemies, the "swamp drained" in up to 60 countries. The result would be a Pax Americana in the Middle East, and perhaps even globally, into the distant future. It was to be legendary. And no method—not torture, abuse, kidnapping, the creation of "black sites," detention without charges, assassination, the creation of secret law, or surveillance on a previously unimaginable scale—was to be left out of the toolkit used to birth this new all-American planet. The "gloves" were to be taken off in a big way.

Thirteen years later, those plans, those dreams are down the drain. The Greater Middle East is in chaos. The US seems incapable of intervening in a meaningful way just about anywhere on Earth despite the fact that its military remains unchallenged on a global level. It's little short of mind-blowing. And it couldn't have been more unexpected for those in power in Washington and perhaps for Americans generally. This is perhaps why, despite changing American attitudes on interventions and future involvement abroad, it's been so hard to take in, so little focused upon here—even in the bogus, politicized discussions of American "strength" and "weakness" which circle around the latest Russian events, as they had previously around the crises in Iran and Syria.

Somehow, with what in any age would have seemed like a classic winning hand, Washington never put a card on that "table" (on which all "options" were always being kept open) that wasn't trumped. Events in Ukraine and the Crimea seem to be part of this.

The Chinese had an evocative phrase for times of dynastic collapse: "chaos under heaven." Moments when it seems as if the planet itself is shifting on its axis don't come often, but they may indeed feel like chaos under heaven—an increasingly apt phrase for a world in which no country seems to exert much control, tensions are rising in hard to identify ways, and the very climate, the very habitability of the planet is increasingly at risk.

When The Losers Are The Winners

Even in a losing game, there are usually winners. One of the conundrums of this particular moment, however, is that the winners in our American world are exactly those who have repeatedly been playing the losing hands. Their reward for one self-defined disaster after another has been yet more money, yet wider areas of everyday life to control, and yet more power. No matter how inept they may prove as imperial players on a world stage, they can essentially do no wrong domestically when it comes to embedding themselves ever more deeply in our lives in the name of our "security" and our "safety." It's a remarkable tale. Legendary, one might almost say. As the power of American power to accomplish seemingly anything fades, the power of the national security state only grows.

It's true that, in the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations, the managers of our secret state have had to pull back in a few areas—especially the gathering and holding of phone metadata for the complete US population. But the significance of this is easy to exaggerate. It's worth remembering that in the wake of the Watergate era, the last time we went through a round of "reforms" of an out-of-control secret world, the national security state somehow ended up with its own secret court system and secret body of law to which all citizens became accountable even though they could know nothing about it. Four decades later, in a situation in which that secret state is so much stronger, such reforms may once again turn out only to enhance its power.

It's true as well that the CIA has had to pull back on some of the methods it used to such disastrous effect after 9/11, in particular closing those "black sites" it set up (though some may still exist, possibly in Somalia and perhaps on US naval ships) and on the use of torture. Nonetheless, the recent spectacle of the Agency's attack on Senator Dianne Feinstein and the staff of the Senate Intelligence Committee over a still-secret 6,300 page critical report on its Bush-era torture and black site programs should be instructive. After all, Feinstein has made her reputation, in part, as the senator from the national security state. She has typically supported the NSA's secret programs as well as those of other intelligence outfits, straight down the line. There has perhaps been no one more sympathetic among Democratic representatives in Congress.

On a single issue, a single set of programs by a single agency, however, she chose to differ and offer genuine criticism. You might think that, under the circumstances, she would still be handled by the secret state with kid gloves. Instead, the CIA referred her committee staff to the Justice Department for possible crimes, while she was attacked as if she were the Great Satan and finally driven to the Senate floor to denounce the CIA for potential criminal acts and infringing the Constitution. Even the president didn't come to her aid.

Think of this as a reasonable yardstick for measuring the real power relations between Washington's official overseers and those who are supposed to be overseen.

Think of the overseen as now negotiating from a position of significant strength the details of their future benefits package. And we can count on one thing: whatever changes are made, they will be largely cosmetic. The many parts of America's growing shadow government—secret law, secret surveillance, secret power, and the secret state—are here to stay.

From the 9/11 attacks on, that secret state and the militarized world of Washington that goes with it have shown themselves, even by their own standards, woefully incapable of handling a new and puzzling world. Their actions have repeatedly undermined the usual sort of imperial control, instead facilitating spreading chaos. Post-9/11, they have had a remarkable knack for creating not just blowback—the CIA term of tradecraft that scholar Chalmers Johnson put into our vocabulary—but something for which we have no word. Think of it perhaps as just the "blow" part of that term.

The orderliness of secret power in Washington and chaos under heaven, the growth of a police state and a planet run riot, turn out to be two sides of the same coin. If you want a news story that will glue eyes, then think of it this way: on September 12, 2001, the national security state entered the cockpit of (to modernize a phrase) the plane of state, hijacked it, and steered it directly for the Bermuda Triangle—and here was the strangest thing of all: no one even noticed.

Tom Engelhardt is a 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. He runs the Nation Institute's His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.

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