When They're White, They're 'Tactical Athletes'

When They're White, They're 'Tactical Athletes'
Some crackers. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Edited by Sam Thielman

IN REIGN OF TERROR, now available in paperback, I wrote:

Never would America acknowledge that the violent, reactionary dangers that it attributed to its enemies were also part of its own history. That was the meaning of Oklahoma City. It was the meaning of January 6. A white man with a flag and a gun, the man who had made America great, was not a terrorist. The 9/11 era said he was a counterterrorist. America had never been the sort of place that would tell him he was anything else.

Helpfully, Smith & Wesson, one of America's top gun manufacturers, has now elaborated on this point in a recent tweet:

Since it wasn't grown in the hipster-racist region of Williamsburg, Smith & Wesson and others object, you don't get to call this a Proud Boys ad, it's just selling sparkling fascism. But they know exactly what they're doing. The black-and-yellow is forevermore chud colors—which sucks, because that was always the sharpest Fred Perry colorway—and signaling doesn't require the laurel logo. I'm not familiar with Performance Brand, S&W's corporate partner, and I have myself been known to wear t-shirts of questionable taste [This is true.—Sam], but they sure seem like they're riding the Proud Boys wave, at minimum.

For a major corporate entity like Smith & Wesson, a company who reported net sales of $121 million last quarter, a literal Proud Boy partnership could end up being a liability, particularly with a seditious conspiracy trial underway. It's a smarter business strategy to do the euphemistic, OK-hand-gesture thing in tweets like this. A subsection of the audience can reasonably draw the inference that Smith & Wesson stands with the valiant gang members who seek to intimidate bookstores and libraries hosting drag queen story hours. The company can say it's done no such thing.

But I'm more interested in their choice of euphemism: Tactical Athlete.

That's an impressive one in the annals of post-9/11 military cosplay—that is, the iconography of the War on Terror, something you'll find dissected in REIGN OF TERROR. Sportsman, the traditional designation, definitely seems flaccid by comparison. A tactical athlete sounds more like someone who hones themselves on the range, the Black Mamba of the black rifle. Any given night, at home or on the road, the tactical athlete is capable of dropping 30 on a defender, or, in this case, into them. Sure enough, the term appears to have migrated from military, law enforcement and first-responder circles into general purpose use/corporate exploitation, fitting another pattern REIGN OF TERROR deals with.

Obviously, it's not going to be a group of black people or Muslims who get referred to as Tactical Athletes. As we know from the 9/11 era, there are other terms for them, like gang member or terrorist. They're more likely to be the targets of Tactical Athletes. Tactical athleticism is a rhetorical border to be policed. Those who volunteer to stand watch are the market Smith & Wesson is courting here. When the next January 6 happens, we'll see what the Tactical Athlete has holstered, and who manufactured it.

IT'S GONNA BE ME AND FRANCIS FUKUYAMA talking about the 20th anniversary of the Iraq War in Washington D.C. on Tuesday, March 7 at 2 p.m. at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Well, not just us, but that made for the better bolded header.

We'll be talking about the legacies of the Iraq War along with Stephen Wertheim, the Wall Street Journal's Vivian Salama, Carnegie's Christopher Civvis and Matt Duss, who was for years Bernie Sanders' foreign-policy adviser, and who organized this event. You can stream the event at the link above, or, if you're in DC, take the afternoon off and come see us talk, say hi, etc.

Never did I imagine I would ever be talking opposite Francis Fukuyama. Life takes you some places.

THE BIDEN ADMINISTRATION is this week making a push to once again renew a surveillance power called Section 702, one of the pillars of the National Security Agency's post-9/11 surveillance-at-scale authorities. That's PRISM and Upstream data collection—respectively, data taken from the servers of major internet companies; and data taken transiting the internet.

Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, put out a statement Tuesday morning urging Congress to re-up "this vital intelligence collection authority," a "top priority" for the administration. Attorney General Merrick Garland and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, who in their institutional capacities are the top guardians of Section 702, circulated a letter to the political leadership of the House and Senate with familiar talking points about the unique surveillance value 702 blesses—that is to say, a dragnet, something that separates Americans from their Fourth Amendment rights once their communications are "incidentally," i.e., inevitably, collected by NSA—except this time there's a twist.

"Section 702 has been used to identify and protect against national security threats to the United States and its allies, to include both conventional and cyber threats posed by the People's Republic of China, Russia, Iran, and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea," they write. Their first bullet point: "Section 702-acquired information has been used to identify multiple foreign ransomware attacks on U.S.critical infrastructure." All that is in this letter that I have and which doesn't appear to be online. You can find similar language in a speech Associate Attorney General Matthew Olson (a former director of the National Counterterrorism Center) gave on Tuesday.

Why's that significant? Because the defense of Section 702 used to be that it enabled a life-or-death suite of surveillance activities that stopped terrorist attacks. Now shredding the Constitution is necessary to stop ransomware! I'm so old that I remember how civil libertarians warned about precisely this—that because the language of the 2008 FISA Amendments doesn't specify collection of communications relating to terrorism, nothing would stop NSA from widening its targeting aperture. We already knew this was happening from the Snowden leaks. I write in REIGN OF TERROR that 702 surveillance during a single week in February 2013 gathered communications on "Mexican internal security, Japanese trade, Venezuelan military procurement, and, for good measure, al-Qaeda." Official acknowledgement that Section 702 was more about unrestrained NSA surveillance than the War on Terror is certainly pyrrhic vindication.

Naturally, the officials elide the relentless cascade of manifested surveillance abuses that 702 has caused. 702 is less an abused statute than an abusive one, constitutionally speaking. The damage it does to people's right to be secure in their communications absent probable cause of a specific violation of the law is inherent to its functioning, not a deviation, not a series of oopsies.

I won't front. I don't have a sense of whether 702 is actually endangered on Capitol Hill. In my experience, the intelligence agencies tend to get their way with lawmakers, particularly on areas of central importance like 702, which has been reauthorized three times since its 2008 creation. I've watched this happen again and again, before and after Snowden, before and after Trump.

But Jake Laperruque, deputy director of the Security and Surveillance Project at the Center for Democracy & Technology, thinks 702 is imperiled this time around.

"We've got a new Democratic House leader who voted against Section 702 the last time it came up, a GOP House majority that hates FISA and FBI surveillance, and tons of documentation in recent years of FBI misusing this warrantless surveillance for backdoor searches to pull up the communications of members of Congress, a local political party, journalists, political commentators, and students," Laperruque says. "The administration may think it can just set up a 'security or privacy' false dichotomy, but it needs to accept the reality that FISA 702 is toxic, and it won't survive without major, substantive reform."

LASTLY, the new and final release date for my debut DC Comics miniseries, the superhero spy thriller WALLER VS. WILDSTORM #1, is March 28! It is no longer March 21, as I found out, uh, this morning! I know it's been a lot of rescheduling. But the issue itself is currently off to the printer. I cannot wait for you to see it – and once it's out, I'll be using this newsletter to say much more about the story.