Civil liberties and cell phones

I go to a fair number of public talks and on occasion have even been one of the speakers. Invariably at question time there will be people in the audience (usually the first in line to the microphone) who are familiar figures who always speak at such events. They either have a particular agenda that they wish to push and will somehow connect it to the topic at hand, or they have a particular political slant and they will aggressively criticize the speaker on that basis. Sometimes they will ramble, making a small speech, and have to be prompted to actually pose a question. At other times, especially if the featured speaker is a high profile political figure, they may try to hog the microphone and transform the question time into a private debate. Some of these people feel strongly that they have something to say and have no platform to say it, and use these public functions to get it off their chest.

Sometimes these people are simply pranksters, practicing a kind of performance art or trying to prick the balloons of self-important politicians and celebrities.

Some members of the audience get annoyed at the time taken up by these people and try to shout them down. I tend to be more tolerant, treating these episodes as amusing interludes. It seems to me that the price we pay for freedom of speech is that we have to tolerate the occasional jokester or egotistical or obnoxious or even mentally disturbed person taking up time at public meetings. Their behavior is not really appropriate but usually harmless and at worst a waste of time. So I am willing to let it go, both as an audience member and as a speaker.

But as a society we seem to be becoming increasingly intolerant of these kinds of behavior. I am sure many have seen the disturbing video of the 21-year old University of Florida student Andrew Meyer who was Tasered at a meeting at which John Kerry was speaking on September 17, 2007.

To me the student speaker seemed like the many people who attend such events, someone who has many things to say and tries to quickly say them in the guise of a question. He spoke rapidly for about a minute and a half, which is quite long for question time, but not abnormally so. The security people first started trying to shut him down after just thirty seconds. Although the student seemed impassioned and excitable, his behavior came nowhere close to warranting the heavy-handed treatment that he received from the security services. There is no indication that he was dangerous or threatening to anyone.

A previous shocking episode of a student being Tasered in the UCLA library was also captured on cell phones last year and broadcast on YouTube.

What is going on here? Have we become so intolerant of any kind of lack of order that we are willing to so readily condone the use of force to suppress speech? Are we really a people who are so cowed by authority figures that we accept the forcible restraint of any person who even argues with officialdom? One can understand security forces responding with some urgency to prevent harm when there is a clear and present danger. But there seemed to be no indication of that kind in either of these two cases. These were not fast-moving situations that threatened to get out of hand. In both cases, the authorities greatly outnumbered the person being subdued. They both seem to be situations where things could have been settled through patient discussion.

Paul Craig Roberts comments that the fact that the police were confident enough to Taser a student questioner in the midst of a crowd and the presence of a US Senator who did not vigorously protest the action is a sign of how far we have gone down the road of authoritarianism.

Usually when police violate constitutional rights and commit acts of police brutality they do it when they believe no one is watching, not in front of a large audience. Clearly, the police have become more audacious in their abuse of rights and citizens. What explains the new fearlessness of police to violate rights and brutalize citizens without cause?

The answer is that police, most of whom have authoritarian personalities, have seen that constitutional rights are no longer protected. President Bush does not protect our constitutional rights. Neither does Vice President Cheney, nor the Attorney General, nor the US Congress. Just as Kerry allowed Meyer’s rights to be tasered out of him, Congress has enabled Bush to strip people, including American citizens, of constitutional protection and incarcerate them without presenting evidence.

These are not rare instances. If you go to YouTube you can see a whole lot of situations where people are getting Tasered in situations that did not seem to require such strong measures.

I do not own a cell phone but am glad about the ubiquitous presence of such devices, even though they can be abused. Combined with the ability to easily upload to YouTube, they may be an important tool in preserving civil liberties. Because of them, we are no longer dependent on only official sources or the media for information, which is often sanitized by both to paint the authorities in the most favorable light. We now can see the raw footage of events and judge for ourselves.

It has already been realized by politicians that because of cell phones they are always being recorded and they cannot deny things that they said or did as they could have in the past. George Allen’s 2006 bid to be re-elected as Virginia’s US senator was doomed partly by the infamous ‘macaca’ incident captured on a cell phone.

But I don’t think that it has yet dawned on security services that the presence of cells phones means that they no longer control the narrative and cannot blandly assert that they were responding to a threat when they use what seems to be unnecessary force on unarmed people or non-threatening people.

But all the cell phones in the world will not help if people are not outraged when they reveal abuses.

POST SCRIPT: Bush gaffes in Australia

President Bush in Australia made a series of gaffes.

Anyone who speaks in public constantly, no matter how sharp-witted, will make mistakes and slips of the tongue. So why do we focus so much on Bush’s slips? As someone said, with Bush it is the seeming inevitability of it that is the attraction. It is like watching accomplished comedians performing a routine with a careful setup that telegraphs the punch line. You know what is coming and that expectation forms part of the humor, building up to the moment, so that when it inevitably occurs, part of our laughter is due to the release of the tension.

Bush has established for himself a reputation as someone who is completely out of his depth and when he seems to confirm that expectation, the humor is greater than if the same thing had been said and done by (say) Bill Clinton or Richard Nixon.


  1. John says


    Thanks for the link to the latest installment of the President’s unique understanding of geopolitics. Another reason, I think, that his speech comes off as being so funny is his own emphasis of the particular verbal blunder. Notice the stress that he puts on “OPEC.”

    On of my favorite examples is from an interview with NPR’s Juan Williams. Again, he highlights the offending phrase with his intonation.

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