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Path to Autocracy: Could America Become a Police State?

(Photo: Daniel Lobo / Flickr)

In his 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell said “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.” Farfetched? Ask a curfew-confined resident of Egypt, where democracy disappeared overnight in a sea of blood.

In an interview August 21, 2013, with the Huffington Post, Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg said, “We have not only the capability of a police state, but certain beginnings of it right now.” An exaggeration? Consider the massive resources being expended on arms and “security” that would be at the disposal of a renegade general or a power-obsessed dictator.

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Intrusive technologies for surveillance have allowed government agencies such as the National Security Agency (NSA) to circumvent the Fourth Amendment. Leaked documents show that the NSA has collected data on virtually all Americans.

Despite some surveillance limitations in the USA Patriot Act and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, those statutes give NSA almost unchecked authority to monitor the international calls and emails of American citizens. Furthermore, even the FISA court has acknowledged that it lacks the tools or capability to evaluate the government’s representations about its compliance with the law. Our government can now, if it wishes, monitor the private records of citizens, including those involved in legitimate protests.

In the name of post-9/11 security, the Patriot and FISA acts have severely compromised the civil liberties of all Americans. Yet it’s not just a matter of individual privacy. Ellsberg observed that when people know that their every comment on phones or emails “is being recorded and can be retrieved,” they won’t feel free to speak their minds. That’s especially true when what they want to say contradicts official policy or can be seen as political protest.

In his pre-vacation news conference on August 9, 2013, President Barack Obama addressed NSA surveillance in a few sentences. He said he will work with Congress to increase the oversight of controversial programs (pledging to name a panel of outside experts to review the technologies of data collection) and to have an adversary in the court to counter government requests for surveillance. He acknowledged that the government can and must be more transparent in how it conducts surveillance.

Those steps would indeed represent an improvement – if they are in fact adopted by Congress and honored by the NSA and other government agencies. Yet one may ask a a more basic question: Why do we need a FISA Court and the warrantless searches it allows? Why should our government not simply honor the Fourth Amendment and its requirement of search warrants on a showing of probable cause? We now know that NSA uses the new data gathering software as a fishing expedition.

Expanding surveillance is only one troubling part of America’s post-9/11 world. Security lobbyists, the media and the government itself continue to stoke public fears of another attack on “the homeland.” Thus there remains a national preoccupation with “security,” which trumps our traditional values of freedom and privacy. In the past few years, we have seen:

• An increasing amount of the federal budget go to military and security programs.

• A readiness of the executive branch to sign blank checks for “counterterrorism.”

• A continuing over-classification of government documents.

• A zero tolerance for government leakers and whistleblowers.

• A new reliance on drones for domestic surveillance.

• An expanding recourse to indefinite detention.

• An expansion of stop-and-frisk policing.

• Extended incarceration for even minor offenses.

• A 12-year “war on terror” that continues today in far-flung places.

This mindless sacrifice of taxpayer money and the rule of law fails to take into account the relatively low risk of death from terrorist acts as compared with disease, car accidents, suicides, falls and drownings.

It is time for Americans to say: “Stop!” Let’s stop building a platform and all the related tools that some future autocrat could use to stamp on our faces. If enough of us complain now to our elected representatives, we can overcome the powerful lobbies that would take away our hard-earned civil liberties.

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