Fedspotting

The other day I found a military helicopter hovering over my house. We live in the flightpath—the ancient avian flightpath and VFR aid of the Lower Colorado River, and the approach to the airport—so passing helicopters are a daily experience. But you could hear how close this one was, and you could hear the distinct chop, that heavy and slow Nam vintage sound of a Bell Huey. Apocalypse Now. When I stepped out of the old trailer I use as my front yard office, there it was, close enough that if you were on the roof you could probably jump and grab the rails. And as soon as I got my phone out to film it, it peeled off as if caught snooping.

We see all sorts of curious things in the sky over here. An abundance of raptors live in the woods between the highway and the river. This time of year, when the trees are still naked, the hawks lord over the forest floor and the big barred owls come out at dusk. In the morning the osprey cruise over the river, dive-bombing the fat fish when they come up close to the surface. Sometimes you will see a northern caracara, the rugged crested eagle of the Mexican flag, sitting on the rocky beach gnawing on fresh kill. The belted kingfishers buzz around in pairs, their rattling calls like machine reels. If you walk back around the old wetland remnant behind the dairy plant, chances are one of the big herons will lift up into the foggy air before you like the last pterodactyl.

Heron 737

Under skies like this, it’s easy to become both a birder and a planespotter. If you pay attention, you start to notice weird stuff passing over. I saw a Mitsubishi Zero once, Tora Tora Tora all the way, the first of many warbirds, usually old fighters flown by the outfit that used to call itself the Confederate Air Force, and sometimes a big bomber. Once in a while the fighter jets will come screaming over at a low altitude, presumably trainers from one of the USAF bases in San Antonio. The Austin airport used to be an Air Force base, with B-52s pointed at our southern border. Wolverines!

I started using one of those flight tracker apps on my phone to augment the silhouettes I see in the sky, pulling up flight plans and call sign info. They don’t show military aircraft, but they show everything else, and I am sure at some point I will have a Trevor Paglen-worthy revelation of some dark traffic beyond the corporate jets headed out to the oil patch and the mysterious windowless cargo planes lumbering off to faraway shores. Last fall I saw an eastbound jumbo jet at around 20,000 feet with an escort of five fighters in tight formation. The app didn’t show the 747 or whatever it was, but said the fighters were registered to NASA. I watched their avatar on the screen, supposedly en route to Ellington base in Houston, but then they headed out over the Gulf and suddenly disappeared. The truth is out there.

Seeing signs of the military-industrial power of the federal state used to be a curiosity more than a threat. Little moments of wonder, manifestations of the technothriller fantastic in the mundane fabric of everyday life. They feel different now, under the dark mien of the new jefe and his scowling barons. When I posted the video of the chopper over my house a friend joked that I must have provoked such attention with my writing. I should be so lucky, I said, knowing that the likely explanation was the curious design of our house, a buried modernist bungalow camouflaged by a shaggy green roof, and the natural proclivity of all pilots to gawk at interesting sights. But there’s no question that the everyday projections of federal force are now infused with fresh fear, because that’s how they want us to feel. Especially, it seems, how they want some of our neighbors to feel, here under the Six Flags.

The ICE raids started yesterday. Forty-four people rounded up here on the first day. At the bar last night, two friends who teach grade school told us about their terrified students sharing the viral news, wondering if they would go home to find their parents gone. We heard from people we know worried about how they might be affected, asking us how we might help. The newspaper says the raids are focused only on “criminal aliens,” but you know it is also about generating fear, about actively destabilizing community. You know it’s about retribution and discipline, in a “sanctuary city” whose leaders have the temerity to express defiance. And when you see the armed representatives of the federal state now, rolling out into the streets, you realize that Texas and Yemen are not so far apart.

SWAT

The movie version

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In the movie version we were taught to expect, things would have turned out differently.

You could see that version playing out right after the event, in the pictures that emerged of special ops soldiers gone neo-cowboy, Grizzly Adams beards on horseback in the cold desert, outfitted by REI and action movie propmasters, hunting down medieval necromancers in their Blofeldian mountain hideouts—a postmodern western of virtuous retaliation.

But the movie lost its final reel when the bad guy escaped capture at the big showdown.  The ending never resolved, and even when that thread closed a decade later, it was enabled by illusion, and too late to close the wounds.

This was at the same time, you may recall, that the hypercapitalist abundance of the Long Boom that had been inflating everyone’s retirement accounts for the preceding decade, disguising the workplace as playpen, was revealed as a gigantic scam procured largely through fraud.

In the movie version we would not have used our injury as pretext to make a whiteboard war real in our naive neocon fantasy that we could defeat radical Islam by toppling one of the region’s strongest governments.  In the movie version the dictator would not have eluded capture so long, and we would have found his cache of secret weapons.

In the movie version, when New Orleans flooded, we would not have abandoned the poor to fight it out.  Heroes in uniform would have rescued them, instead of shooting them on the bridge as they too tried to escape.

(Do you remember at the time, when the news earnestly disseminated stories that people in New Orleans were slipping into cannibalism?)

In the movie version, I suppose the bankers might have been even more criminal than they were in real life, but we would not have had to spend the better part of a decade propping up a fragile simulation of prosperity with zero interest monetary policy designed to make entropy look like growth.

In the movie version, the principal force of “change” would not be a hate-spewing narcissist freak allowed to use the mass mind manipulator of mainstream media to stoke the darkest embers of our primitive tribal natures.

On days like today I read the news and feel like we let Osama win, by breaking the master narrative and failing to heed “the better angels of our nature.”

There’s a more hopeful future out there, one we can imagine, but it won’t manifest without us doing a better job of mapping it out.  It’s a future based on diversity, equality, a conception of prosperity that embraces the limits of the land and sky that sustain us, and a freedom that finds its strength in the collective genius of many individuals rather than silverback cults of individual power acquired through competition and consumption.

The end of the Cold War extinguished the utopian visions that fueled most of the progress of the post-Enlightenment West, and 9/11 shifted the American movie into torture porn mode—the Cheneyite narrative that we must become evil ourselves in order to combat dark forces and protect our “homeland.”  Fifteen years later, we can’t seem to navigate our way back to a more redemptive endpoint.  Perhaps because we need to envision a new place to go—an aspirational destination, the kind of thing that our social theories and speculative fictions used to provide.  Dystopia may be what sells, but it’s not a place I want to live.  No one person has the answers—especially not a politician or another boss—but maybe the chorus of the networked multitude will soon write its own music.

Looking through holes in the border wall

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[pic: The U.S. border where it walks into the Pacific, viewed from Tijuana.]

If I had never left Iowa, the state where I grew up, I might find all this talk of building border walls more persuasive.  Iowa is a long way from Mexico. But I’ve lived in the borderzone longer than I’ve lived anywhere else, and spent a good bit of time crossing over. Since 9/11, I’ve seen the U.S.-Mexico border become one of the most fortified places on Earth.  Six hundred miles of sophisticated new physical barriers have been constructed since 2006, in the places where the Border Patrol said they were needed, expanding on the barriers that have been going up since the Clinton years—like the fortification pictured above that comes up out of the Pacific between Tijuana and San Diego.  Other sections are fortified by the “virtual fence” of sensors, drones, blimps, surveillance towers and armed patrols—much of it using technologies and methods developed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It’s easy to talk about border walls.  I’ve written about them—here, here and here—arguing that their real purpose is not so much to actually keep people and contraband out as it is to persuade citizens far from the border that the legal fiction the wall renders tangible really exists.

It’s not as easy to look at border walls, especially if you don’t live within driving distance of one—or don’t want to confront the reality that diversity is the future no matter what barriers we may erect.  But there are other ways to experience the reality of U.S. border fortifications that already exist.

Last year, for a conference in Monterrey, I conducted an experiment in looking at the border wall without ever getting up from my chair.  Drawing inspiration from the work of the artist Jon Rafman and the Mexican photographer Alberto Rodríguez, I traversed the length of the border in Google Street View, on both sides, looking for holes in the wall.  Here is some of what I found.  Even better, try it yourself.  Open Google Maps, find a spot along the border, launch Street View, and look for a way to cross.  If you can find a hole, click on it, and see what happens.

brownsville gate rev

Border wall gate at Brownsville, Texas

 

muro minimal rev

21st century border wall as minimalist land art, looking at Arizona from Sonora

 

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Hole in the border wall, Matamoros

 

mexicali stripes rev

View through the border wall, Mexicali

 

trampoline rev

Texas backyard: trampoline, border wall, nine eyes

 

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FM 1419, Texas

 

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Border wall gate, Arizona

 

basura matamoros rev

Forager in the shadows by a crack in the border wall at Matamoros, Gateway bridge span in the background

 

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DMZ of “Friendship Park,” San Diego Imperial Beach, looking at the border wall where it goes out into the Pacific

 

tecate perros espiritus rev

Spectral street dog in Tecate, “Pueblo Magico”

 

gate 212 az rev

Under construction, Arizona

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Nogales, pedestrian crossing

 

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Arc lights over the border zone, suburban San Diego

 

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Nogales, long view

 

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Art museum with border wall, Texas

 

nogales crosses rev

Memorials to a few of those who didn’t make it alive

 

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Arizona DMZ, at the spot where this Border Patrol officer made the Google car turn around.