Killing Snakes and Other Parables

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News out of Washington this week fascinates like a cobra swaying to an exotic melody.

The cobra stares intently and follows the motion of the flute. Will it strike? What restrains the snake? What motivates it? We think the snake is responding to the music. We imagine the snake to be unpredictable, and it makes the show worth watching. Entertaining even.

The snake we are watching is not a cobra, a small-brained reptile just doing what it does naturally. But the snake we are watching is indeed responding to something that we are not. We are thinking about the music, the sound and the fury. But this snake is responding to the motion, and it is doing so exactly as a predator would.

Allow me to explain.

Dana Priest, reliable and competent Pentagon and defense reporter for the Washington Post, recently wrote in an amazing bland manner about how the Bush administration, specifically the CIA and Defense Department, is seeking a way to legally hold people who are suspected of terrorism indefinitely, for the rest of their lives if need be, without ever being charged or facing a trial by judge or jury.

"Lifetime detention" is the administration’s stated goal, and from their perspective it would be a neat trick. No need to gather evidence, if evidence is too hard to come by. No need to meet any criteria of the court system. No need to worry about any rights of the accused and those annoying defense attorneys. Forget judges. No need to worry about dotting i’s and crossing t’s. It is the choice of a lazy beast.

Lifetime detention without charges is frightening. We listen to the music, or the news, and we think how scary it must be to people who hate us ’cause we’re free, or those who don’t like American style liberations, confiscations and occupations.

Elaine Cassel advises to "Brush up your Solzhenitsyn." Good advice, although from my readings of The Gulag Archipelago, The First Circle, and Cancer Ward, I don’t recall that old Alexander had much advice on how to change the system that is devouring you whole. He eventually left the Soviet Union, and for many years that country continued along the lines that A.S. experienced firsthand. Too many people in the Soviet Union made a personal economic choice to proceed apace, head down, heart closed, and intellect chained — at least when it came to dealing with the ber state.

Lifetime detention, in the name of freedom. Reminds me more of Harrison Bergeron. In this short story, Vonnegut perversely shares the solution. The illogic of the system, the imbalance of state control actually creates and energizes the anarchy it so fears. The terrorist, if you will.

Now, we must be careful in the use of the word "terrorist." The unreliable romantic partner might be an emotional terrorist. The screaming baby at 3 a.m. a domestic terrorist. Wal-Mart or the more popular baker and candlestick maker next door, an economic terrorist, depending on your perspective. And of course, all those bad people that hate America, or who happen to be standing next to people who hate America. Whatever. How nice to be able to make them instantly and permanently all just go away.

I think I get it. The tsunami state, Texas-style. People living on the edges of the bureaucracy, watch out. It’s not the music the snake appreciates. The snake is a skilled predator just doing what it does best.

Contrary to the impression it gives, the cobra doesn’t work for the snake charmer, or for the audience. It looks out for itself, itself alone, at all cost.

A few days after Dana Priest’s report, I read about the Pentagon reincarnation of the Salvador option. American-funded, sometimes-surrogate, special forces teams, criminal inclination optional, designed to assassinate key individuals or to kidnap them (or their loved ones) for lifetime detention.

Let’s just get these bad people off the street, says the White House. President Bush doesn’t want bad people on the streets of America or the world, endangering good people and their "freedom." If you disagree with this logic, this administration has only one question.

"What kind of terrorist are you?"

Like the cobra, the dim-witted state sees only motion, and instinct takes over. If it moves, it must be food.

In this land founded upon laws, we ought to be safe from the cobra state.

But we are not. Priest’s article on Washington’s declared goal of instituting "lifetime detention" — without charges, evidence, judges or hope — ran in the primary paper of the capital city of the greatest nation on earth, and no one shuddered. Government death squads, of the kind roundly condemned by previous American administrations, are now being discussed publicly by political appointees and American generals, and the only people wincing are anti-Reagan activists and left-wing has-beens.

Nature designed the snake to eat, not to be eaten. To move subtly and hypnotically such that the prey is lulled into a sense of safety. To strike its prey when the time is right, and not a moment too soon.

But snakes are cold-blooded creatures, and they are indeed lazy. They slow down and rest after they eat a bite, and they move away when they find their prey too difficult — too jumpy and nervous, too likely to fight instead of relaxing into the jaws of death, welcoming that terminal paralysis. The state is like that too.

Here’s to being jumpy and nervous, to fighting the snake. Here’s to deciding, against the odds and the musical score, that the snake just might be the prey.

Here’s to the mongoose. Quicker, smarter, and if I do say do myself, a lot more fun than the cobra. And because the mongoose is also a watchful creature, I’ll leave it at that for now.

Karen Kwiatkowski [send her mail] is a retired USAF lieutenant colonel, who spent her final four and a half years in uniform working at the Pentagon. She now lives with her freedom-loving family in the Shenandoah Valley, and writes a bi-weekly column on defense issues with a libertarian perspective for

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