American News

The Daily Devil’s Dictionary: Innovating with “Vigilance”

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© Ruslan Grumble

March 27, 2018 00:30 EDT

Matt Taibbi lists the policies Americans have recently approved of in the name of vigilance.

In summing up US military history over the past 70 years and the legacy of the Iraq War, author and journalist Matt Taibbi mentions the innovation that 9/11 permitted: “[O]nly a continually expanding regime of extreme vigilance could successfully fight this new menace.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:


A state of induced fear thanks to which a population will suspend its critical faculties to the point of putting all its trust in the authorities who claim, with little or no accountability, to have their eyes open and the means of confronting the source of fear, however mysterious it may appear

Contextual note

Taibbi lists the policies Americans have recently approved of in the name of vigilance: “Secret prisons? Sure. Torture? Sure. Warrantless surveillance? Sure. Need to read our library records, toss out habeas corpus? Sure and sure.”

The opposite of vigilance is mutual trust and a general sense of social solidarity, which appear to be the minimal conditions for democracy to function. Trust and solidarity provide effective means to eliminate or at least mitigate a persisting sense of imminent danger. A terrifying event, such as 9/11 — which happened nearly 17 years ago — will cause an immediate panic and fear of an incomprehensible threat, but in their aftermath such events stimulate collective energy and a sense of solidarity.

This positive coming together makes social life not just bearable, but can become a rich source of comfort, creativity and even empowerment. That appeared to be the pattern after Pearl Harbor, symbolized by the image of Rosie the Riveter alongside the traditional role of citizen soldiers going off to war.

It doesn’t happen, however, when those in power see and relish the value of prolonging, intensifying and exploiting fear to bolster their image as the players uniquely qualified to exercise vigilance. Their message is this: “[Y]ou have so many reasons to be fearful that only we can protect you. This ‘clash of civilizations’ is bigger than any of us. You are powerless, so simply trust us to manage (rather than solve) this problem that is decidedly beyond your grasp.”

Richard Nixon long ago phased out the citizen soldier when he abolished the draft toward the end of the Vietnam War. Now it’s the iconic volunteer troops to be admired, adored and indeed worshipped for doing a job reserved for mercenaries, in a society in which everyone is in a sense a mercenary. And, of course, Rosie the Riveter has been replaced by robotics and, in any case, wouldn’t have time to engage in a collective mission because she’s probably working three jobs just to maintain her family’s survival in our ultra-competitive economy.

The population no longer feels connected either with the cause or its eventual solution, which they can’t understand as they rely for guidance on the omnipresent corporate media, whose job is to validate the vigilance of the authorities, who keep imagining and imposing increasingly sophisticated means of protecting the population.

Historical note

Most people see vigilance, like prudence and caution, as traditional virtues. Dangers exist and societies as well as individuals put in place measures to confront them. The Oxford Dictionary defines vigilance as “The action or state of keeping careful watch for possible danger or difficulties,” certainly a wise thing to do for anyone. But “possible” has been replaced by the idea of permanent and inevitable. We have entered a different world, one in which nuance, doubt and critical thinking have become, as Taibbi points out, “nonjusticiable,” a barbaric concept if ever there was one in a democracy.

It has become increasingly difficult to think of the word “vigilance” without conjuring up the notion of vigilante, which the same dictionary defines as “A member of a self-appointed group of citizens who undertake law enforcement in their community without legal authority, typically because the legal agencies are thought to be inadequate.”

When acts are “nonjusticiable,” we have achieved the equivalent of vigilante law. As Taibbi tell us, “They’ve created in the interim an entirely separate, secret set of rules giving them the right to kill, imprison, torture, or spy on anyone.”

The “self-appointed group” knows how to manage elections, at least with the help of astute political marketers and companies like Cambridge Analytica. And with a newly inflated military budget (yet again), they have clearly taken over the reins of power from the democratic institutions and “legal agencies thought to be inadequate.”

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Ruslan Grumble /

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