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Spy on Me, I’m Innocent!

A government that sucks up ever vaster quantities of useless information on innocent people actually hurts its own ability to investigate crimes.

You’ve heard people say they want to be spied on, as long as it means that other people will be spied on too. I know you’ve heard people say this, and which people it was, and how your face looked when you heard it, and what your next telephone call was. Or, rather, I could know all of that if I were one of the thousands and thousands of low-level snoops it will take for our government to accomplish its surveillance goals.

The logic is completely flawed, however. As FBI whistleblower Coleen Rowley remarks, if you’re looking for a needle in a haystack, adding more hay doesn’t help. It makes you less likely to find the needle. A government that sucks up ever vaster quantities of useless information on innocent people actually hurts its own ability to investigate crimes. And the imagined intimidating effect of things like surveillance cameras in public spaces doesn’t actually reduce crime; it merely makes us think of each other as potential criminals.

On top of that, the over-investigation leads to all sorts of harm to innocent people that was completely avoidable: wrongful prosecutions and imprisonments, deaths and injuries during unnecessary confrontations, and disastrous cultural and legal changes. Once everyone has become a suspect, the burden of proof shifts to the defendant. Once activists are targeted for surveillance and suspicion, many become reluctant to engage in activism — which, believe it or not, leads to corruption and tyranny.

It’s also possible to be wrong about one’s innocence. There are over 5,000 federal crimes on the books, plus 300,000 regulatory crimes, plus regulations, plus state crimes. Almost everyone is certainly guilty of something or easily made to appear guilty of something.

All of these points become clearer, I think, when one learns, not just what could happen in the near future, but what is happening right now in the nature of abuses often considered futuristic or dystopian. A great place — maybe the best place — to start is John Whitehead’s new book, A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State.

This book captures the stories of slowly growing abuse and suppression, and collects them in sufficient mass to shock readers out of their complacency. Have police pulled you over and done cavity searches yet? They have to others. Have they forcibly drawn your blood to check for alcohol? Have they stopped you on a sidewalk and patted you down? Some things you simply don’t know whether they’ve done: have they scanned your pockets, bags, and clothing as you passed? Have they filmed you with a drone and stored the information, allowing a retroactive search of where you were when, should the need arise? Have they tracked you via your cell phone or your license plate? Do they know your web browsing history and the content of your emails? Have they entered your home and searched it while you were out? These actions are all “legal,” even if unconstitutional.

Some abuses you can’t help being aware of when they happen to you or someone you know. Tens of thousands have been arrested and committed to mental institutions. Local police have been militarized. Uniquely in the world, the U.S. military “donates” its weapons to local police forces. With the weaponry comes a militarization of uniforms, language, training, tactics, and thought. Over 50,000 no-knock SWAT-team-style police raids are carried out annually in the United States. Noticing this doesn’t make us paranoid. It exposes the paranoia of the police, who see an enemy in every member of the public.

“There was a time,” Whitehead notes, “when communities would have been up in arms over a botched SWAT team raid resulting in the loss of innocent lives. Unfortunately, today, we are increasingly being conditioned by both the media and the government to accept the use of SWAT teams by law enforcement agencies for routine drug policing and the high incidence of error-related casualties that accompanies these raids.” Whitehead details some of the specific tragedies.

Combine police that have been militarized with a public that has been armed, and you get stories like this one: “[A]n 88-year-old African-American woman was shot and killed in 2006 when policemen barged unannounced into her home, reportedly in search of cocaine. Police officers broke down Kathryn Johnstone’s door while serving a ‘no-knock’ warrant to search her home on a run-down Atlanta street known for drugs and crime, prompting the woman to fire at what she believed to be the ‘intruders’ in self-defense. The officers returned fire, killing the octogenarian. No cocaine was found.”

If only someone had had a gun!

According to Amnesty International, 90% of those killed by police tasers were unarmed when tasered. But when people are armed, they aren’t just tasered; instead they have dozens of bullets pumped into them.

Drones, in Whitehead’s view, open up a whole new level of militarization. As tear gas, tasers, sound cannons, assault vehicles, and other military weapons were passed on to police, so too are drones being domesticated. The reckless killing and blanket spying that will follow pale in relation to some of the suicidal stupidities the military has planned, such as nuclear-powered drones and drones carrying nuclear weapons.

It’s not too late to push back, assuming we come to understand the desirability and necessity of doing so.

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