The Byrne Report

The Byrne Report

Sawdust Arnie

IN EARLY AUGUST, the California National Guard and the U.S. Northern Command theoretically exploded a dirty bomb in Long Beach Harbor. Terrorists theoretically hijacked an airliner in Oakland. And “insurgents” were dealt with at San Francisco International Airport with theoretical bullets.

These war games–part of an ongoing series of homeland defense exercises–were coordinated in the war room of the Office of Emergency Services in Sacramento. For several days, a score of ranking U.S. Army and National Guard officers sat at rows of computer terminals, running response scenarios with about 100 California law enforcers and public safety officials. The atmosphere was relaxed. Cops and soldiers chatted as a plume of radioactive cesium chloride kissed the breath of a few million Angelinos–theoretically. Overhead, huge television screens were tuned to CNN, FOX and MSNBC pundits jabbering about Saddam, 9-11, Saddam, Iraq, Saddam, World Trade Centers, Saddam, al Qaida.

The war game–called Determined Promise–had little or nothing to do with saving civilian lives. It was all about testing the ability of local police, the National Guard and the Department of Defense to share intelligence–and to act upon it militarily.

As the Bush administration’s preemptive warfare strategy evolves to include the home front, law enforcement agencies are becoming increasingly intertwined with the military bureaucracy. In a significant break with our country’s traditional separation of police and military powers, the Determined Promise exercise combined local SWAT teams with federal troops as they acted out the crushing of suspected terrorists, including persons whom an Office of Emergency Services press release termed “insurgents.” (Defined, in case you didn’t know, as those “who rebel against authority.”)

The Department of Defense’s recent amalgamation of civilian and military intelligence agencies under the leadership of the Northern Command, the first combatant command created inside the United States since 1776, is a remarkable story–and it has gone almost unreported by the national press and electronic media.

But on Aug. 6, after it was announced that Gov. Schwarzenegger planned to stop by the war room for a visit, the media hastened thither, eager to be commanded. The governor’s handlers briskly told television camera people exactly where to set up their machines and when they could turn them on. Still photographers were ordered to sit on their knees in front of the podium. Reporters were told there would be no questions. The KOVR cameraman standing beside me confided that Schwarzenegger rarely takes questions from the press. “They call, we come,” he sighed. “It sells the peanut butter.”

It was then that two words lodged deep inside my eclectically educated brain rose to the surface: “lictor” and “fasces.” Lictors, I later confirmed with, were bodyguards for dictators, vestal virgins and provincial governors in ancient Rome. They escorted the Roman official when he spoke in public, and performed menial tasks, such as opening gates and beating up rebels. Lictors carried fasces, bundles of rods surrounding an ax in the middle. The fascio (“symbol of unity, strength and justice”) was used for lashing, or even terminating, troublemakers.

Suddenly, the cacophony of the room evaporated. Two huge lictors emerged on a balcony. When all was judged to be safe, Arnold appeared, resplendent in a gold suit, golden hair, bronzed and chiseled face. He slowly descended through a florescent glow, acknowledging the adoration of his retainers in a ceremony as ancient as the gods of Rome. With the learned noblesse oblige of a movie star, he stopped to shake the hand of a worshipper or bend low to whisper, to pat a back. The cameras whirred in silence. Nary a cough, nor a question marred his reception by the press, perfectly controlled by the lictors.

In my mind’s ear, I heard a speech made by a real Roman politician. In 1928, as reported in the book Sawdust Caesar by George Seldes, head of state Benito Mussolini summoned the editors of 70 Italian newspapers to an assembly. “I consider Italian Fascist journalism to be an orchestra,” Il Duce said. “It knows how to serve the regime. It does not wait the word of command every day. It has it in its conscience.

“[A]part from strictly political questions . . . criticism can, with limitations, be exercised for all other questions. . . . Just as it should be permissible to say that Mussolini as a violin player is a very modest amateur, so it should be permissible to criticize objectively art, prose, poetry or the theater without any veto.”

The assembled press corps of California hung on Arnold’s few words. Praising the natural beauty of California and the strength of our economy, Schwarzenegger reached for the concentrated homily: “The terrorists attack us because they are jealous of us.” The cops and soldiers applauded.

The orchestra duly recorded Arnold’s utterance for later playback–never bothering to question or even to notice the extraordinary but largely unconcealed militarization of American society that was taking place inside the room.

Arnold plays the violin very well.

From the November 3-9, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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