Some ten years ago, following the federal attack on the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, an interesting trend struck rural America, one that recalled the early days of the American Republic. Faced with a growing sense that the greatest threat to our security was not the private terrorist but the public bureaucrat, local militias began to be formed. They consisted of men, mostly in the working class, gathering and drilling with legally owned weapons, making plans for defending their communities in the event of some sort of government imposition.
The movement generated a lot of left-liberal hysteria. You could easily get the impression we were dealing with death squads here, not private defense organizations. Despite voluminous precedent in history for civilian militias, the movement was pretty well smashed by media and government harassment after the Oklahoma bombing was unjustly pinned on the militias (none of the convicted had any militia -- as versus US military -- connections). In general, however, the movement seemed to be not only an innocuous non-threat but actually a perfectly rational response to the perception that federal bureaucrats had wildly overstepped their bounds.
Ten years later, starting next week, armed men with guns will be marching and drilling again, seeming to prepare for the worst. But instead of small firearms, they will be using big guns. Instead of low-budget operations, they will spend $16 million of money that you and I earn that is taxed away, and it will involve not tire-plant workers on the weekend but several thousands G-men in 100 federal, state, and local government agencies. The drill will last not a morning but stretch out over five days.
It will be the largest drill ever conducted by the federal government. It is called TOPOFF for Top Officials, and it posits two simultaneous attacks by GLODO, a fictional terrorist organization. GLODO drops a bomb in Seattle and unleashes a biological warfare attack in Chicago. The idea is to test the response of government agencies under absurdly idealized conditions -- a test of human volition under a scenario that everyone knows is phony. We know in advance that real life will be radically different.
If at first this looks like a particularly silly episode of the old television series Get Smart, remember that we are dealing here with people who have real power and have been whipped up into a state of frenzy about threats for a very long time. As former Labor Department official Morgan Reynolds says, ever since 9-11 "there has been a constant wartime atmosphere," in which the government has become completely consumed by fear. Washington, DC, today represents the true "paranoid style" of American politics.
This is actually the second major TOPOFF drill to be conducted. The first took place in 2000, and "went exceptionally well," according to one official. A year later, 9-11 occurred and all bets were off. They were originally authorized by Congress in 1998, part of a war on terror that long predates 2001.
You won't know the results of the latest drill, because, as the Washington Post reports: "the lessons learned from the exercise will not be made public to prevent potential adversaries from benefiting from the information." But we can safely predict it will again be a wonderful success from the point of view of government.
After 36 hours, for example, the official schedule is for law enforcement agencies to discover the "safe house" where the bomb and biological agents were found. This from a government that can't find either Bin Laden (who?) or Saddam (who?)!
There is nothing inherently wrong with preparing for the worst. That is precisely what the militias were doing in the early 90s when they provoked massive outcries of hysteria. They were merely making plans on how to defend themselves should the worst come to pass.
What the feds are doing is less clear. Are they acting in defense or in offense? The categories are very much conflated. To what extent will they pay any attention to the rights of Americans in the event of disaster? Or will the drill involve curfews, controls, martial law, and totalitarian-style control? What is to stop the feds from doing to Seattle what they did to Baghdad?
The militias of the early 90s were drilling to defend their homes and property against an uncertain foe. The feds are drilling for protection of themselves and for total control over everyone else. Why the hysteria about the former but the silence on the latter? Why should we assume, as a default position, that the militias were secretly up to no good but the public agencies only have our wellbeing in mind?
For years, those who said that the federal government had a secret plan for a total takeover in the event of a disaster were called members of the paranoid fringe. Now, these plans are openly discussed and we are supposed to consider them a responsible exercise of public service.
The very existence of the plan tells us something about how the feds believe the war on terror is going. They apparently believe that terrorism is going to get worse rather than better, which suggests that they do not believe all their justifications for the war itself, namely that it will deter terrorism in the future. It doesn't inspire much confidence to know that the feds are assuming that the worst of it is to come. What a commentary on their policy up to now!
The one thing we can know for sure about the next terrorist attack is that we do not know where it will come from, of what it will consist, or what the effects will be. The feds can plot and plan all they want, but they cannot possibly prepare for the unknown. But what they can do is socialize bureaucrats in the culture of total control, which is one of many reasons this drill is taking place.
And yet given the nature of things, we can also know that should terrorism on this scale come our way, we won't be able to rely on the federal government to help us. It will be too busy protecting its own interests as usual, escorting high officials to their mountain bunkers, and otherwise barking orders and jailing people it can get to while letting the real threats it cannot identify get away. If our families and communities are to be protected, it will be through private efforts, including the work of armed civilians, the very people demonized way back when.
This raises the question of what the feds really hope to accomplish. The drill serves to remind the civilian population of precisely who is in charge, conveying the impression that the object of our fear should be GLODO and not TOPOFF. But while we all focus on the threat from the outside, our own government has been preparing and drilling on the assumption that at some point in the future, it will need to exercise total, despotic control over every aspect of civilian society.
Where are the nonviolent, anti-gun activists who railed against militias now? The world's biggest and most deadly government -- the biggest and most deadly in human history -- will be doing a trial run for the total state next week, and we hear nothing but silence. It is considered a normal part of government for thousands of bureaucrats to spend millions plotting a total takeover of society.
In a free society, the job of preparing for the worst should be left to individuals in their capacities as members of communities and families. When government uses the excuse of preparedness, we are on solid ground in concluding that it is up to no good. In the real world, we have more to fear from the reality of TOPOFF than the fiction of GLODO.
Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr. is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama, and editor of LewRockwell.com.