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The Skepticism of the Wise

by Berry Friesen (December 15, 2015)

Writing for The Mennonite, colleague John Stoner recalls a familiar Christmas story from the book of Matthew.  “Roman King Herod asked the Wise Men to come back and tell him where the young child was, so that he [could] come and worship him.  The men, being wise, saw an undisclosed purpose in Herod’s edict and committed their act of civil disobedience by not coming back and telling Herod anything. For us the question may be, are we wise enough to look for undisclosed purposes in messages from kings and presidents?”

Following my previous post, I ask whether we are wise enough to be skeptical of the open-and-shut way officials are describing the recent act of terrorism in San Bernardino.

Generally, people in the US freely discuss long-past events where conspiracies served hidden purposes. One example of this is Iran.  In 1953, the CIA launched a campaign of violence and deception (e.g., bombing the home of a cleric and making it appear to be the work of Communists) to bring down that nation’s first democratically elected government.

Another well-known example is Guatemala. In 1954, the CIA used “psychological warfare and political action” (e.g., propaganda about the president being a Communist and hired thugs to attack civilians) to bring down its first democratic government.  

If enough time has passed, informed people nod sagely when these events (and others like them—see here and here and here) are recalled.  But many of the same people will mount a fierce argument about similar events that are more recent, such as the overthrow of the elected government of Ukraine in February, 2014.  The thought that the CIA and US State Department engineered a coup that included the murder of police officers and peaceful demonstrators in the center square of Kiev is just unacceptable.

When the discussion shifts to domestic terrorism, people show even greater reluctance to be skeptical of their government leaders.  Thus, it may be true that our government occasionally arranges violent acts overseas, but here in America only “outsiders” would carry out terrorism, never public officials.

Yet the historical record does not support such naïveté.  For example, in 1962 the US Joint Chiefs of Staff signed off on a plan to blow up an American plane over US soil and blame it on Cuban President Fidel Castro.  It was only opposition from President Kennedy that foiled the plan.

Federal law enforcement has a long history of using agents to pose as members of dissident groups the government wants to discredit.  These agents instigate criminal activity or engage in violence themselves, thereby giving law enforcement a pretext to proceed against the entire group.  This was a standard practice in COINTELPRO, the illegal FBI project that targeted civil rights, anti-war, labor and feminist organizations during the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s.

A government agent played a decisive role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Emad Salem, working under-cover for the FBI, was at the center of the plot.  At the direction of his FBI supervisor, Salem provided the explosive material used in the assembly of the bomb rather than an inert substitute.  Six people died in that case of domestic terrorism; more than one thousand were injured.

Even more disconcerting are the anthrax attacks that killed five and injured seventeen shortly after 9/11.  The anthrax came from a high restricted US government lab; thus, the terrorism involved at least one government agent in some capacity.  Moreover, another unknown party made an early attempt to blame a Muslim scientist for the attacks, thus suggesting a conspiracy.  Yet the FBI closed the case, saying it has been resolved by the 2008 suicide of its leading suspect, Bruce Ivins. The FBI makes this claim even though it has admitted the anthrax could not have come from the lab where Ivins worked.

The terrorism on 9/11 also would not have happened without the help of government agents.  Many of the alleged hijackers entered the US with visas provided by the US Consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.  According to Michael Springmann, head of the Consular office during the relevant time, he was under intense pressure from CIA officials to issue visas to unqualified applicants.

Two of the alleged hijackers lived in San Diego with an FBI informer after entering the US.  Although the CIA knew the two men to be terrorists and had long tracked their international travels and bugged their phones, it did not inform the FBI of any of this.

Given this history of activity by the empire, what does wisdom require? The same skepticism we see in the wise men in their encounter with King Herod.

What undisclosed imperial purposes might domestic terrorism serve?  That will be the topic of my next post.