A number of years ago, after some sort of nationally tragic shooting — a political assassination…a crazed gunman on the loose… I can’t remember which — I had this thought: If I were a government strategist working for America’s Cold War adversary, the Soviet Union, and my mission was to create instability in the United States, I would do everything I could to encourage an indiscriminate proliferation of guns across our nation. The distrust, divisiveness and fear this would generate would be an inexpensive “battlefield” victory.
Back then, whenever anyone questioned the presence of so many guns in civilian hands, the National Rifle Association defended those millions of weapons as America’s insurance against a Soviet invasion. It was a kind of Hollywood scenario, like in the movie “Red Dawn.” (Today, ironically, the “patriotic” NRA’s rationale is that guns might someday protect us from our own government.)
The NRA’s Soviet invasion rationale was clearly bogus. It’s highly doubtful that Soviet intelligence ever believed that the best strategy to weaken the United States as a world power would be to physically invade our huge nation. But if other less costly methods had been found, they might have been worth trying.
Anyway… the Soviet Union is now long gone. And until recently I hadn’t thought much more about my musings on how a foreign power could weaken the fabric of our society by simply encouraging a potentially dangerous American peculiarity. But recently, I’ve realized I was on to something. Over the past year as we’ve learned of Russia’s meddling in our election I now see clearly how a shrewd adversary can weaken a nation’s internal cohesion and its position in the world without setting foot in that country or firing a single shot.
Of course this isn’t a new concept. It’s been a “realpolitik” tactic for centuries. Our own intelligence agencies, to our shame, have played this game to remove foreign opposition numerous times. To name three, think of government disruptions in Chile, Iran, Indonesia. And now we’ve seen that game being played on us — and not just during the 2016 election.
Russia, for its size, is actually a relatively poor country but it longs to regain its former influence. What a bargain it’s been to simply use the Internet to damage the strength of its biggest rival — us.
In today’s Chicago Tribune, the “Perspective” pages included a story about the “Heart of Texas” Facebook page and the @itstimetosecede Twitter feed. It turns out that both of these online activities, spreading fear of and hostility among American citizens toward our government were created in Russia.
It certainly seems likely that Russia has tried subversive activities like this before. (I suspect today the KGB enthusiastically blesses the success of our NRA.) And no doubt there will be meddling in the future. It’s so cheap and easy to do. Sadly, the homegrown division that has been battering our country for years has made us especially vulnerable to such international espionage. Our long history of racism adds to that vulnerability.
Now, we all know that a successful democracy depends on a well-informed public. But the Internet with all of its promise for the spread of information is also a potent conduit for misinformation and propaganda. Perhaps the most potent ever. Democracy has a tough enough task just dealing with fear, ignorance and greed.
Not to mention our societal inequities and the economic desperation of many. But a democracy when it’s at its best should be able to work through these difficulties to find approaches that are as fair as possible for the general populace.
So how do we combat international foes that use the Internet to subversively weaken our national resolve? It will never be easy. There will be new techniques used in the future, less ham-handed than the ones we’ve detected. Perhaps other countries will also attempt such things (if some haven’t already). But now that we are alerted to this danger, I expect our national security agencies and our Internet businesses will create much stronger barriers to such meddling.
In this brave new cyber world, is there anything we as individuals can actually do to fight such powerful dangers? Well, nothing new. Each of us just needs to keep using the weapons that our democracy has always provided – weapons people in Russia or China or North Korea don’t have. We have the freedom to stay informed, to question what we’re told, to seek out and compare ideas. This means turning to more than one TV channel, radio station, newspaper or website. The better informed we all are with facts that are actually real, the smarter our choices will be on Election Day. — And by the way, that approach works in Texas too.
NTDO member since 1973
P.S. In last week’s newsletter I recapped the events at the Annual NTDO Dinner. However, I neglected to mention two things that happened. The NTDO Volunteer of the Year Award was presented to Flip Corboy, longtime New Trier Dem and steadfast member of our Executive Committee. Also, the room observed a moment of silence for our dearly missed Office Manager Sharon Pietrzak Suzda who passed away earlier this year.
Illinois Attorney General:
Scott Drury, IL State Rep, 58th District
Aaron Goldstein, 33rd Ward Committeeman
Kwame Raoul, IL State Senator 13th District
Nancy Rotering, Mayor of Highland Park
Jesse Ruiz, Board of Commisioners, Park District
Illinois State Representative – 58th District:
U.S. Representative – Illinois 6th District:
Cook County Assessor:
Frederick (Fritz) Kaegi