Scaling the G8 Summit

Georgia greets the world with martial law


You know you've left reality behind when a local G8 booster avers that a hand-made table represents the American South. Everyone knows NASCAR represents the South, with racin' closely followed by humidity, sweet tea, and the most beautiful women in the world as regional hallmarks. But good luck getting NASCAR fans to shut up and quit drinking when the president of France is in town. And if Frenchie eyeballs the ladies, it's on, buddy.

Instead, attendees arriving for the Sea Island summit that starts today will get a hermetically-sealed, Disneyfied look at the South. Considering the security precautions in place, some 20,000 security personnel with a $25 million budget, it is fair to wonder if the Constitution still applies along the Georgia coast.

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed legal challenges against local edicts, clearly handed down after prodding from state and federal officials, which require any gathering larger than six people to get an almost impossible-to-get permit. A federal appeals court recently struck down similar restrictions on public protest enacted by the city of Augusta in an attempt to keep the Masters golf soiree free of icky, caddy-class demonstrators. Even so, a last minute judicial bitch-slap of the summit is unlikely.

Meanwhile the Coast Guard has effectively closed down recreational boating and much of the commercial shipping traffic in the area around Sea Island, part of the anti-terror precautions that are now standard operational procedure for any event that is likely to garner widespread news coverage. And Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, following in the tradition of a pre-emptive war, has declared a pre-emptive state of emergency for six counties that will last until June 20.

Georgia officials have tried to compare the legal declarations and security prep in Glynn County and surrounding areas to the ones undertaken for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, with simple public order at issue. But there is one glaring difference that is perhaps too obvious to belabor. The Olympics or a golf tourneys are not primarily political events. G8 summits, in contrast, function primarily as political events, and every leader in attendance will come with a detailed political agenda.

Moreover, the summits are looked upon as a way for leaders to enhance their standing both at home and internationally, so they function as extended public relations operations as well. For the host leader, propaganda is not too strong a word.

So measures at the Olympics that one could argue had the intent and effect of limiting possibly disruptive public protest at that non-political gathering are wholly inappropriate for a G8 summit. Some form of mass protest, as distinct from the clearly illegal cretinous nihilism that some displayed at the WTO confab in Seattle in 1999, is to be expected when several world leaders get together under one roof. That is not disruption, it is democracy.

Besides, there is absolutely no reason for world leaders to commandeer popular, public spaces like a coastal vacation spot for a few days except to make pleasing photo ops for themselves. If security is such an all-consuming worry, then face-to-face meetings could be held on an aircraft carrier in the middle of the ocean; a media pool of a half-dozen could report back on the happenings. Meeting on a ship would make driving around in electric cars exceedingly tough, true, but we've got to prioritize. Cutesy PR stunts go to the back of the hydrogen-powered bus in wartime.

The top priority of this and every G8 Summit is to make world leaders look like they are on top of world problems. For George W. Bush the event will also provide some evidence that his Iraq policy hasn't made him a complete international outcast—that his opposite numbers will still drop by for a grip-and-grin as long as a few nights in a resort far away from the sweaty, restless rabble are part of the deal.

That is the actual state of emergency unfolding in Georgia, where massive state and institutional power will be used to secure political, personal, and very petty gain.