Creating a nation of spies and informants

In most countries that have endemic terrorism, leaders know that they cannot protect their people from random attacks and their usual appeal is for people to remain calm and go about their normal business. In the US, though, the leaders seek to ratchet up the fear all the time. When did you last hear a leading US politician or high government official say that we should simply go about our business and not be obsessed with terrorist attacks? Where is the modern day equivalent of Franklin Delano Roosevelt to say that the only thing we need to fear is fear itself?

Instead we now have the US government joining up with Walmart (yes, Walmart!) and other places in a “See something, say something” program to encourage people to keep a sharp eye on the people around them and report any ‘suspicious’ behavior to store managers. Isn’t there something creepy about the cabinet secretary in charge of the equally creepily named ‘Department of Homeland Security’ appearing on video screens all over the place urging people to become essentially spies and informants for the government?

Besides, what are people supposed to be looking for? Are they supposed to be like Mr. Whipple, constantly on the lookout for people squeezing the Charmin?

It seems like the next logical step will be to pass laws to create some kind of counter-terrorism investigative unit that reports only to high government officials (say the head of the Department of Homeland Security) and is exempt from all the quaint old legal restraints that used to preserve our civil liberties, such as obtaining warrants to intercept our private communications or to take people in for questioning or to read them their rights and allow them to have lawyers. The people who work for this agency will be granted immunity from any legal oversight in order to allow them to pursue ‘terrorists’ freely, all to keep us safe of course. People will be asked to cooperate with this agency and report to them anyone who is acting suspiciously, whether it be neighbors, co-workers, passers by, shoppers (see Walmart, above) or even friends and family members. Such an organization will bear a strong resemblance to the Stasi, the notorious East German secret police, but our media will not be so impolite as to point this out.

Does this sound paranoid? Paul Craig Roberts says that initial steps in this direction are already being taken and that all the half-baked terrorist plots that required government coaxing and even bribes to get people to agree to participate in are part of the process of softening us up to accept these moves as being necessary to ‘protect’ us.

What is it really all about? Could it be that the US government needs terrorist events in order to completely destroy the US Constitution? On November 24, National Public Radio broadcast a report by Dina Temple-Raston: “Administration officials are looking at the possibility of codifying detention without trial and are awaiting legislation that is supposed to come out of Congress early next year.” Of course, the legislation will not come out of Congress. It will be written by Homeland Security and the Justice (sic) Department. The impotent Congress will merely rubber-stamp it.

The obliteration of habeas corpus, the most necessary and important protection of liberty ever institutionalized in law and governing constitution, has become necessary for the US government, because a jury might acquit an alleged or mock “terrorist” or framed person whom the US government has declared prior to the trial will be held forever in indefinite detention even if acquitted in a US court of law. The attorney general of the United States has declared that any “terrorist” that he puts on trial who is acquitted by a jury will remain in detention regardless of the verdict. Such an event would reveal the total lawlessness of American “justice.”

Scott Horton at Harpers describes how all this is done by abusing the term “terrorist” so that it becomes a catch-all term that can be applied to anyone the government dislikes, like Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. Burma and Zimbabwe are the leaders in this kind of abuse but the US is quickly catching up, and the proposed SHIELD legislation is another step towards that goal.

Naomi Wolf, author of The End of America (2007), has also been warning about this for some time and says that the invocation of the Espionage Act of 1917 to prosecute WikiLeaks and Julian Assange is a dangerous sign of things to come.

The Espionage Act was crafted in 1917 — because President Woodrow Wilson wanted a war and, faced with the troublesome First Amendment, wished to criminalize speech critical of his war. In the run-up to World War One, there were many ordinary citizens — educators, journalists, publishers, civil rights leaders, union activists — who were speaking out against US involvement in the war. The Espionage Act was used to round these citizens by the thousands for the newly minted ‘crime’ of their exercising their First Amendment Rights.

That is why prosecution via the Espionage Act is so dangerous — not for Assange alone, but for every one of us, regardless of our political views.

This is far from a feverish projection: if you study the history of closing societies, as I have, you see that every closing society creates a kind of ‘third rail’ of material, with legislation that proliferates around it. The goal of the legislation is to call those who criticize the government ‘spies’, ‘traitors’, enemies of the state’ and so on. Always the issue of national security is invoked as the reason for this proliferating legislation. The outcome? A hydra that breeds fear. Under similar laws in Germany in the early thirties, it became a form of ‘espionage’ and ‘treason’ to criticize the Nazi party, to listen to British radio programs, to joke about the fuhrer, or to read cartoons that mocked the government. Communist Russia in the 30’s, East Germany in the 50’s, and China today all use parallel legislation to call criticism of the government — or whistleblowing — ‘espionage’ and ‘treason’, and ‘legally’ imprison or even execute journalists, editors, and human rights activists accordingly.

Do we really want to create a society where measures carefully developed over centuries to preserve civil liberties and encoded in laws and constitutional protections are tossed away, and where people see as their duty to act as spies for the government on their friends, co-workers, neighbors, and random people around them?

What such initiatives invariably do is result in a lot of ‘false positive’ information, where people who were doing perfectly legal things are reported because their actions lie outside the narrow range of activities that the observer is familiar with. This will result in law enforcement agencies being swamped chasing false leads and the falsely accused people spending enormous amounts of time and money trying to clear their names.

Stephen Sondheim on The Colbert Report

A truly great lyricist of musical theater has an enjoyable conversation with the host. Colbert’s suggested ending for the song Send in the Clowns is priceless.

<td style='padding:2px 1px 0px 5px;' colspan='2'Stephen Sondheim
The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog</a> March to Keep Fear Alive

The radio discussion on the Pew religion survey

The call-in radio program on the Pew survey on religious knowledge (in which atheists and agnostics turned out to know the most about religion) was interesting. The other members of the panel were Tim Beal, a professor of religious studies at my own university (whose field of specialization is the Old Testament), and Reverend Marvin McMickle, the pastor of a Baptist church in Cleveland. (You can listen to the program here and it is also available as a downloadable podcast.)

The discussion got quite interesting around the 21-minute mark when Beal pointed out that many professors of religious studies are, in fact, atheists. I followed up by pointing out that the more one knew what was in the Bible or the more one learned about the background to the Bible, the more likely one was to become an unbeliever. Most people’s knowledge of religion is what they learned as stories when they were children in Sunday school and does not get much more sophisticated than that. I pointed out that almost anyone who went to seminary and studied the Bible learned that much of what they believed had no basis and that this came as a shock to many, moving them towards unbelief. I quoted the study by Daniel Dennett and Linda La Scola on unbelieving priests where they said that a common joke they heard from them was that “If you emerge from seminary still believing in God, you haven’t been paying attention.”
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The disgusting treatment of Bradley Manning

The man accused of being the source for WikiLeaks has not been convicted of any crime. And yet look at how he is being treated.

For 23 out of 24 hours every day — for seven straight months and counting — he sits completely alone in his cell. Even inside his cell, his activities are heavily restricted; he’s barred even from exercising and is under constant surveillance to enforce those restrictions. For reasons that appear completely punitive, he’s being denied many of the most basic attributes of civilized imprisonment, including even a pillow or sheets for his bed (he is not and never has been on suicide watch). For the one hour per day when he is freed from this isolation, he is barred from accessing any news or current events programs.

Just by itself, the type of prolonged solitary confinement to which Manning has been subjected for many months is widely viewed around the world as highly injurious, inhumane, punitive, and arguably even a form of torture.

For that reason, many Western nations — and even some non-Western nations notorious for human rights abuses — refuse to employ prolonged solitary confinement except in the most extreme cases of prisoner violence.

This is why the conditions under which Manning is being detained were once recognized in the U.S. — and are still recognized in many Western nations — as not only cruel and inhumane, but torture.

All this is occurring under the administration of an alleged ‘constitutional scholar’ who campaigned to stop the abuses committed by his predecessor.

Meanwhile, veteran journalist John Pilger says that Julian Assange is also being held in solitary confinement in London’s largest prison.

The consequences of anti-tax extremism

As the tax cut mania spreads, more and more public services are being cut. Some of you would have heard the appalling story of firefighters who stood by and watched a house burn down because the occupant had not paid a $75 fee for fire protection. That is yet another sign of how public services are now being privatized and will be available only to those who can afford to pay for them. Will police be next?

Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie satirized this trend a long time ago.

The United States of Fear

There is no question that the current level of fear of terrorist attacks is highly irrational. I should make it clear that I am not saying that terrorist attacks within the US are unlikely. Quite the contrary. It is very likely that there will be repeated attempts at bombings targeting innocent people within the US and that some of these will undoubtedly be successful and result in casualties. Given that the US is engaging in warfare in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, and bombing those countries and killing civilians in the process, there is no doubt that some people there, or people here who have sympathies with those being killed, are going to be enraged enough to seek revenge and use groups like al Qaeda or its proxies as vehicles to do so.

What I am saying is that being obsessed with taking extreme measures to prevent such attempts is irrational. The US is a big country that is still fairly open. It is impossible to prevent people who are willing to martyr themselves for a cause from harming other people. This is the reality we have to learn to live with if we are to maintain our sanity, let alone the freedoms and civil liberties that make life worth living.

As Evan DeFilippis writes:

The odds of dying on an airplane as a result of a terrorist hijacking are less than 1 in 25 million — which, for all intents and purposes, is effectively zero — according to Paul Campos, a law professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. By comparison, the odds of dying in a normal airplane crash, according to the OAG Aviation Database, are 1 in 9.2 million. This means that, on average, pilots are responsible for more deaths than terrorists.

In the same vein, the average American is 87 times more likely to drown than die by a terrorist attack; 50 times more likely to die by lightning; and 8 times more likely to die by a police officer, according to the National Safety Council’s 2004 estimates. I can go on, the point is this: the risk of a terrorist attack is so infinitesimal and its impact so relatively insignificant that it doesn’t make rational sense to accept the suspension of liberty for the sake of avoiding a statistical anomaly.

Would it be appropriate for the TSA to populate public parks, restaurants, casinos, zoos and public transit, all in the name of security? After all, in 2006 the Department of Homeland Security listed those places as “top terrorist targets.” And if we were to use the same logic forwarded by TSA-proponents, we would say that because people aren’t required to go to these places, it’s okay to coerce them into abridging their rights. It’s their choice, after all. Yet, we obviously wouldn’t accept such a system if it were implemented, so why do we accept the same humiliating system at airports?

Over at Mother Jones Kevin Drum argues that such comparisons are meaningless because people fear death from terrorism more than deaths from other routine causes and thus want their governments to take extreme measures to prevent it.

If, for example, I hear one more person compare the number of deaths from terrorism to the number of deaths from car accidents, I think I’m going to scream. Human beings react differently to accidental death than they do to deliberate attacks from other human beings. This is human nature 101. If you honestly think that the car-terrorism comparison is persuasive to anyone, you are so wildly out of touch with your fellow humans that there’s probably no hope for you.

I disagree. I think it is Drum who is out of touch. We live with the possibility of ‘deliberate attacks from other human beings’ all the time, in the form of muggings and assaults and murders. Even people living in high crime areas do not lock themselves up in their homes or demand the setting up of bomb detection equipment at every intersection. Drum has bought into the government propaganda that there is nothing worse than dying from a terrorist attack. If you look at countries that have had had long periods of random and deadly terrorist activity (Peru, Sri Lanka, Spain, Northern Ireland, India, etc.), you find that people just factor it in as a slightly elevated risk in their lives. They know that it is just bad luck if they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. If you are in a crowded place or at some big ceremonial function or somewhere where some major political figure is present, the odds of being harmed go up slightly. People gauge for themselves if the trade-off is worth it. Some avoid such places and events, others don’t. But for the most part people just go about their normal lives not worrying about being killed by explosives. That was the attitude of everyone I knew during the extremely long and violent period in Sri Lanka.

It is preposterous to think that people in America are intrinsically more fearful than the people in those other countries. What has happened is that they have been beaten down. Rather than appealing to people’s bravery and resilience, appeals that uplift and ennoble the human spirit, the US government seems to go out of its way to demoralize Americans by portraying them as weak and helpless and fearful, needing the protective arm of the government to go about even their normal daily routine.

The US national anthem correctly pairs the phrase ‘the home of the brave’ with ‘the land of the free’ because it is only brave people who are truly free. Shakespeare put it even better in Julius Caesar (Act 2, Scene II) saying “Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.”

Those who are fearful are only too willing to trade away their freedoms. As Benjamin Franklin said, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”