A Sunny Day at the Circus


Three years ago a Blue Angels’ practice session for the 2004 Chicago Air and Water Show prompted me to compose a piece for LRC about my brush with joining the US Navy back in the 1980s.

That column explored the rationalizations people must make in order to follow orders like the "pre-conscience" Jason Bourne in the recent movie The Bourne Ultimatum, to accept orders to kill and maim other unidentified persons simply on the say-so of some accepted authority figure.

Like the fictional Jason Bourne, real-life pilots operate on a foundation of belief that what they are doing is moral and right in a "big picture" way, much as Jason Bourne accepted the role of assassin on the belief that his murderous acts were "right" because they were saving American lives.

The movie well captures the reality; those doing the killing have no way of actually knowing if what they are doing is right or moral. They just accept, just as men have accepted such orders since before the dawn of civilization. It’s a carryover of savagery into modern life we all seem to ignore.

Today’s boat ride on Lake Michigan stirred a different take on this year’s practice sessions of America’s sleek, high performance jet fighters (the admittedly small dots above and to the left of the Sears Tower in the photo represent what I think are an F-15 and an F-22 with a nearly invisible P-51 Mustang between them).

This year we were treated to flybys by a variety of planes, including a B-52, a B-1 (oh boy was that an ear-splitter!) and the Air Force Thunderbirds aerobatic team.

The roaring pass of plane after plane after plane could have made me sad, thinking of the innocent people who find themselves within the blast radius of a General Dynamics’ MK82 bomb.

Not today. All I could do was to look around at the awe-struck faces of revelers thronging Navy Pier and think how successful is the game.

The game? We all know it. How do a few people successfully parasitize a vastly larger number of people?

They stage circuses.

They appeal to a sense of the collective: "We’re all in this together."

They appeal to pride.

Look around. What the IRS doesn’t extract, the Fed colludes to allow the Congress to borrow…and spend (the very engine of inflation, which steals our savings every hour of the day). A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.

New weapons systems to battle adversaries who don’t exist; a worldwide empire of military bases; unimaginable riches showered via foreign aid, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund; a couple of wars through which to launder yet more of the Public Treasury; space programs to send men into orbit and even potentially back to the moon to collect a few more rocks; and an army of people to make a tidy living administering the entire sorry program.

Of course the real money is in skimming a tenth of a percent here and a hundredth of a percent there. Given that Uncle Sam’s accounting has been a shade short of FASB standards for a lifetime or so, it’s not much of a stretch to assume that some individuals have found a path to real riches in "public service" or its "corporate provision." Somebody’s got to buy those penthouse condos on the lake and the seacoasts, and maybe there aren’t enough honest entrepreneurs and trust fund babies around to fulfill demand.

When we look skyward and see some really cool machine that only Americans can boast of, and the roar of the afterburners sends a chill down our spines, recall that the circus is in town, the magicians are diverting the audience’s attention from one side of the stage to the other, and — sure as shootin’ — there’s a hand in your pocket and it’s lifting more of your hard-earned cash.

There’s plenty of justification. Just ask the Ringleader…or is that Ringmaster?

The death and destruction is bad enough, but I can’t help imagining the smirking faces of the people who have figured out how to ride me like a draft animal.

I don’t recall being born with a saddle on my back.

August 20, 2007

David Calderwood [send him mail] a businessman, artist, and author of the novel Revolutionary Language, selected January 2000 Freedom Book of the Month at