By Michael J. Altman
It seems like everyday a new story emerges from the hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables recently released by WikiLeaks. In the wake of Cablegate, WikiLeaks has found its site shutdown, its services from Amazon and Paypal refused, and its founder arrested. On one level this is to be expected. If you go around poking governmental bee hives you will get stung by very large angry governmental bees. But there seems to be something more going on here, at least to me. Every criticism and act of suppression against WikiLeaks always contains the same phrase: national security. The leaks are a threat to national security. But what do we talk about when we talk about national security?
National Security is a religious cult in the United States. It’s a cult in the anthropological sense—a combination of rituals and beliefs that a society holds sacred. It encompasses everything from war to legislation to surveillance to rhetoric. It relates to matters of life and death. It is sacred because it is a cult shared across our society and a cult that reflects America back to Americans. It is a force that binds American society together. We maintain National Security because we are American and we are American because we maintain National Security. It is woven into our national and social identity. Like religious cults from other cultures, National Security relies on secrecy, violence, mythology and morality for its sacred power. Through its online revelations, WikiLeaks poses a risk to all four of these sacred characteristics.
Secrecy has been a property of the sacred across time and cultures. Whether it is aboriginal rites of passage, Mormon endowment ceremonies, the rituals of the Freemasons, or the knowledge of esoteric communities, sacred things are often secret things.
The same holds true for the modern nation state. The cult of National Security is founded upon secret gnosis. We must keep our secrets and find out everyone else’s. Enter WikiLeaks and its rampant profanation of National Security through the revelation of secrets. Carrying the banner of “transparency,” WikiLeaks has begun to pull back the curtain and reveal the priest craft and the rituals of National Security. In its latest release, Cablegate, WikiLeaks released 250,000 diplomatic cables–a trove of National Security secrets pushed into the profane public sphere. But secrecy goes both ways. WikiLeaks itself is clothed by shadows. Its founder, Jullian Assange, moves about in secrecy and no one really knows who works for WikiLeaks and what it is they do. In unveiling the cult of National Security, WikiLeaks has had to maintain itself as a secret society.
These secrets are tied up with violence. Like secrecy, sacrifice and violence are hallmarks of the sacred: the crucified body of Jesus, the goddess Kali and her string of bloody heads, the blood sacrifice on the altar. From its first post this year, Collateral Murder, through its release of the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs, WikiLeaks’ releases offer an alternative presentation of the violence inherent in America’s cult of National Security. We all know that a war on terror involves violence. We hear the numbers of American casualties and we see the news video from Baghdad and Kandahar. But WikiLeaks brought the violence closer and amplified its scope. The Collateral Murder video highlighted the ambiguity of war by “depicting the indiscriminate slaying of over a dozen people in the Iraqi suburb of New Baghdad — including two Reuters news staff.” Meanwhile, the war logs offered a view into the inner workings of war on the ground and the banality of violence. The logs give details of significant acts and practices of the wars on the ground as told by soldiers—the banal everyday violence of war.
National Security desires to keep its violence either sacrificial and meaningful or a secret. Blood is to be shed for the sake of the country and the cult or it is to be kept out of sight. In a sense, National Security wants to show us the Eucharist–the sacrificial and redeeming violence–but must hide the bloody corpse on the cross. The violence of National Security is sacred, meaningful, and sacrificial. But the WikiLeaks releases begin to erode this sanctity by representing violence that is banal and ambiguous.
Through its revelations of secrets and profanations of violence WikiLeaks has also undermined the mythology surrounding National Security. By mythology I mean narratives that give meaning to the world. A series of narratives–often in sound bite form–give meaning to the cult of National Security: “We’re spreading democracy.” “Our Freedom is under attack.” “We have a special role in the world order.” “If we don’t…the terrorists win.” This same mythology is involved in the dramaturgy of full-body scans and back handed pat downs to the crotch. It is the mythology of “Mission Accomplished” banners and declarations of “the end of combat operations.”
WikiLeaks has disrupted the mythology that gives National Security its meaning. In representing the violence of the War on Terror as ambiguous and banal WikiLeaks has challenged the narratives that make the cult of National Security meaningful. The mythology of National Security gives the violence clear meaning and WikiLeaks threatens that meaning. The accounts from the war logs and the Collateral Murder video represent an ambiguous violence that cannot easily be made sense of by the current mythology of National Security. It almost appears to be violence for its own sake or no sake at all. By threatening to undermine the mythology of National Security, WikiLeaks destabilizes our ability to make sense of the wars going on in Iraq and Afghanistan and the violence that maintains the cult of National Security.
The biggest threat WikiLeaks poses to National Security is moral. As the secrets are revealed and the violence overspills the mythology, National Security loses its moral high ground. If our wars are just, if they protect National Security, if the dramaturgy of pat downs and body scans work, if the curbs of freedom provide safety, then National Security remains an inviolate sacred institution. But when American soldiers kill civilians, when drone attacks go awry, when the security line at the airport begins to seem like security theater, then ruptures emerge in the cult of National Security. WikiLeaks has begun to force such ruptures by profaning a cult that gives our lives a sense of safety and our world meaning.
At then end of the day all of us Americans want to believe we are the good guys. We have granted ourselves the moral high ground despite slavery, Fat Man and Little Boy, Vietnam, the Cold War, and Guantanamo Bay. But when does Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism run aground on the dead bodies of innocent civilians? There have been critics of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but through its document releases WikiLeaks fractured the moral sanctity of American National Security. When the secrets are revealed, the violence is profaned, and the mythology fails, then the morality becomes empty.
Right wing groups have attempted to turn this moral failure inside out. These conservatives have argued that because WikiLeaks’ source, Bradley Manning, is gay it proves that homosexuals lack a moral compass and, therefore, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell shouldn’t be repealed. For these groups, such as the American Family Association, the WikiLeaks releases don’t undermine the morality of National Security. Instead, they argue about the immorality of homosexuality—an immorality they believe threatens our military and National Security. But the question of morality remains.
At bottom that question of morality is the legacy of the WikiLeaks releases. It has been under such pressure and attack as of late because it has profaned a sacred cult in our society. WikiLeaks pushes us to ask what is right and what is wrong about the cult of National Security. It asks us to question its morality and sanctity. The WikiLeaks site has been moved a handful of times and has had its service interrupted off and on since the Cablegate release. The ferocity of the moves to suppress WikiLeaks and recover the secrets, sanctify the violence, reinvigorate the mythology and restore the morality points to just how sacred National Security is.
The cult of National Security is necessary and important. It really does work to keep us safe. But it also does a lot of other things. WikiLeaks asks us to sort through the cult and separate the sacred from the profane.
**Michael J. Altman is a Ph.D. student of American Religious Cultures in the Graduate Division of Religion at Emory University.