Who’s afraid of a Chinese balloon?

The US response ignores the country’s own track record of global surveillance and bombing.

US Navy sailors prepare material recovered off the coast of Myrtle Beach
US Navy sailors with the remains of a Chinese balloon recovered off the coast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, in the Atlantic Ocean after it was shot down, on February 10, 2023 [Ryan Seelbach/US Navy via AP]

Sometimes on this planet of ours, militaries do silly things.

There was that time in 2021, for example, that the United States army accidentally stormed a sunflower oil factory in Bulgaria. That same year, the Italian armed forces erroneously blew up a chicken coop in northern Italy.

A bit farther back, in the Battle of Karansebes of 1788, the Austrian army accidentally attacked itself, resulting in some 10,000 casualties.

Now, another bizarre military stunt has been pulled on the world stage — but on purpose.

On February 4, a US fighter jet shot down what the United States insists was a Chinese “spy balloon” off the coast of South Carolina; according to China, it was merely a weather balloon that had blown off course. The airborne object was taken out with a Sidewinder missile — which, at $400,000 a pop, was also the weapon of choice a week later as the US military went about frenetically shooting up more unidentified stuff in the sky.

Belligerent and huffy pronouncements ensued from the US political establishment, and President Joe Biden refused to apologise for downing the Chinese balloon — while Aviation Week floated the suggestion that one of the unidentified items might have been a cheap balloon reported missing by the Northern Illinois Bottlecap Balloon Brigade, a hobbyist club.

In response to the fate of the Chinese balloon, China’s top diplomat Wang Yi categorised US behaviour as “almost hysterical” and urged the US “not to do such preposterous things simply to divert attention from its own domestic problems”.

To be sure, the US suffers from an abundance of terrestrial issues that are rather more existentially perilous than a balloon off the coast of South Carolina. These range from the lack of a functioning healthcare or education system to the ongoing epidemic of homelessness to the fact that mass shootings might as well be declared an official national pastime.

On February 18, a gunman in a rural Mississippi town fatally shot six people — the latest episode in a never-ending horror show. But, hey, China is the real threat to American “safety and security”.

It meanwhile bears emphasising that, even if the Chinese balloon was indeed conducting surveillance rather than meteorological operations, the US reaction is still pretty “preposterous” given the country’s own stellar track record of surveilling everyone and everything in the world. This includes decades of particularly aggressive spying against China itself, from the Cold War era of U-2 spy planes up to the present day.

Of course, the US’s unilaterally endowed right to act as Big Brother-in-Chief extends to the practice of spying on US citizens, too — speaking of “domestic problems”. Take the CIA, which on top of all the energy it expends committing misdeeds abroad somehow also manages to find the time to engage in the unlawful mass surveillance of Americans, with no proper oversight or safeguards against violations of privacy.

Then there is the FBI, which as the American Civil Liberties Union notes has a “long history of abusing its national security surveillance powers”, starting with the COINTELPRO programme during the Cold War that “targeted numerous non-violent protest groups and political dissidents with illegal wiretaps, warrantless physical searches and an array of other dirty tricks”.

Now in the “war on terror” era, the FBI has shown even greater dedication to dismantling basic civil liberties. Muslim communities have been especially persecuted with relentless unwarranted surveillance and plenty of “other dirty tricks” — like when the agency opted to spend heaps of US taxpayer money paying informants to entrap unsuspecting folks in FBI-manufactured terror plots.

Last but not least, the National Security Agency (NSA) has done its own bit for “national security” by presiding over the secret and illegal mass surveillance of Americans, including the interception of phone and internet communications.

Amid all the ruckus over the Chinese balloon, I spoke with a former employee of various prominent defence companies contracted by the NSA and the Pentagon, who requested anonymity. He speculated that Biden was simply endeavouring to appear “tough on defence” with his aerial escapades in order to satisfy the more trigger-happy sectors of the establishment.

After all, there is nothing tougher than blowing up a balloon with a $400,000 missile.

The balloon’s “guts” are currently being analysed at the FBI laboratory in Quantico, Virginia, where they were transported after being recovered off the Atlantic coast. Whatever the ultimate diagnosis is, it is safe to assume that we have not seen the end of the preposterousness, particularly given the utterly jam-packed nature of the sky these days, where one can take one’s pick of potential airborne menaces.

But freaking out about a Chinese “spy balloon” also discounts all the literal aerial terror that is Made in the USA — from bombing and strafing Afghanistan and Iraq to saturating the heavens with armed drones. In 2011, a CIA drone strike on Yemen extrajudicially murdered Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, a 16-year-old US citizen.

Now that the military precedent has been set for frantically blasting balloons and random unidentified objects out of the sky — and as Made-in-USA panic fuels an atmosphere of bellicose Sinophobia — it’s time for a reality check.

In other words, you might say, it is time to burst America’s balloon.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.