No Comment — May 21, 2008, 10:48 am

“Main Core”: The Last Round-Up

P.D. James’s 1992 novel, The Children of Men, recently realized in a fine film by Alfonso Cuarón, jumps thirty-five years into the future to give a dismal view of Britain as a struggling state. An island of relative order in a disintegrating world, Britain has turned to severe police state methods to deal with swarming immigrants. Vast internment camps have been established into which foreigners and “undesirables” are herded. There is public talk of resettlement of those interned, but in fact the fate that the detainees face is ominous—summary executions and violence within the camps claim many lives.

James is known for her dark fiction, but even within her work, The Children of Men assumes a special place. It is effective precisely because it is believable. The author appears to be peering through a dark mirror, into a bleak future that could be, the dismal underside of the Anglo-Saxon spirit.

Could America’s future also look like this? That speculation is hardly absurd. When James wrote her work more than fifteen years ago, the United States had no agency with a curiously Teutonic name (“Homeland Security”–very close to the name of the ubiquitous security service in her novel); it had no internal isolation camps into which tens of thousands of immigrants could disappear without a court date or chance to be heard; it had no Guantánamo concentration camps. So much has changed in fifteen years.

But there are plans that would draw America far closer to James’s nightmare. In the current issue of Radar, my Harper’s colleague Christopher Ketcham (whose piece on buffaloes in the current issue is not to be missed) discusses a secret program that may be at the bottom of some recent press reports.

Ketcham starts his narrative with former Deputy Attorney General James Comey’s dramatic disclosures about the nighttime visit that Alberto Gonzales and Andrew Card paid on an ailing, hospitalized John Ashcroft. They whipped out papers and pressed the sedated Ashcroft to sign them. In what has come to be viewed as the most noble act of his term, Ashcroft angrily sent Gonzales and Card on their way. Comey later provided a riveting account of this incident, under oath, in Congressional testimony.

So what was this program all about? Speculation for months has focused on a massive surveillance program that skirted the criminal law restrictions contained in the FISA statute. Maybe. But Ketcham suggests there is more. He focuses on the Government’s super-secret Continuity of Governance program–its plans for government following a catastrophe, such as a devastating attack or massive natural disaster.

According to a senior government official who served with high-level security clearances in five administrations, “There exists a database of Americans, who, often for the slightest and most trivial reason, are considered unfriendly, and who, in a time of panic, might be incarcerated. The database can identify and locate perceived ‘enemies of the state’ almost instantaneously.” He and other sources tell Radar that the database is sometimes referred to by the code name Main Core. One knowledgeable source claims that 8 million Americans are now listed in Main Core as potentially suspect. In the event of a national emergency, these people could be subject to everything from heightened surveillance and tracking to direct questioning and possibly even detention.

Ketcham goes on to explain how the database would be used and who’s on the list. And surely Congress is keeping an eye on this program, yes? No, not really. And when civil libertarians raise concerns about the treatment of detainees in Guantánamo and other legal black holes fashioned by the Bush Administration, they are told that this is designed only for the “worst of the worst,” never for U.S. citizens. But experience has shown that such divisions rarely stand; abusive practices break through the barriers set in place for them. Main Core does not propose to turn America into one huge Guantánamo. But it could point to an America that looks much like the nightmare portrayed in The Children of Men. It’s about time we all got a good look at those blueprints.

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Editor's Note

Many comedians consider stand-up the purest form of comedy; Doug Stanhope considers it the freest. “Once you do stand-up, it spoils you for everything else,” he says. “You’re the director, performer, and producer.” Unlike most of his peers, however, Stanhope has designed his career around exploring that freedom, which means choosing a life on the road. Perhaps this is why, although he is extremely ambitious, prolific, and one of the best stand-ups performing, so many Americans haven’t heard of him. Many comedians approach the road as a means to an end: a way to develop their skills, start booking bigger venues, and, if they’re lucky, get themselves airlifted to Hollywood. But life isn’t happening on a sit-com set or a sketch show — at least not the life that has interested Stanhope. He isn’t waiting to be invited to the party; indeed, he’s been hosting his own party for years.

Because of the present comedy boom, civilians are starting to hear about Doug Stanhope from other comedians like Ricky Gervais, Sarah Silverman, and Louis CK. But Stanhope has been building a devoted fan base for the past two decades, largely by word of mouth. On tour, he prefers the unencumbered arrival and the quick exit: cheap motels where you can pull the van up to the door of the room and park. He’s especially pleased if there’s an on-site bar, which increases the odds of hearing a good story from the sort of person who tends to drink away the afternoon in the depressed cities where he performs. Stanhope’s America isn’t the one still yammering on about its potential or struggling with losing hope. For the most part, hope is gone. On Word of Mouth, his 2002 album, he says, “America may be the best country, but that’s like being the prettiest Denny’s waitress. Just because you’re the best doesn’t make you good.”

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