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Tyranny Is Bipartisan

(Photo: Fort George G. Meade Public Affairs Office / Flickr)

The NSA spying scandal has produced a wide range of reactions, but most people with a strong opinion seem to be in one of two camps.

There are those who are outraged with our federal government its NSA, and say that there is no justifiable reason for average American citizens to be under such high scrutiny from intelligence agencies.

And, on the other end of the spectrum, there are those who say, “So what if the government is listening to my calls, reading my emails, or seeing who I text? I’ve done nothing wrong. I’ve lived an exemplary life. I have nothing to worry about and nothing to hide.”

This latter group make up the people – perhaps even more than the NSA itself – who are threatening political dissent in America.

You may live an exemplary life, and have no problems with your government. But at some point in time, somewhere down the road, our government may do something, large or small, to which you object.

If you stand up and speak out about this perceived injustice, or decide to run for political office to help correct this perceived injustice, and this new, toxic and all-knowing government you are standing up to knows that just a few years ago you did something online that was bad, or had an affair, or said something disparaging of others, it can now use that information to silence you, blackmail you, or stop you from becoming politically active.

Say 5 years ago, you accidentally visited a Neo-Nazi website online, or attended a meeting at which, unbeknownst to you, there was a “radical” or even a criminal or a terrorist. And back then, years ago, you mentioned the meeting to a friend in an email. If the government had this information and wanted to maliciously go after you today, they could just drop by your home one day, and simply say, “We can assert you have connections to this individual and we’re willing to smear you in public with it. Maybe even to arrest you for it, even if we’d never be able to get a conviction. Are you REALLY sure you want to speak out against us?”

This is exactly what happened to President Obama, when his association to Bill Ayers first came to light. Republicans in Washington pounced on him for being associated with the radical leader, even though the two had only briefly met years earlier and Obama had long-ago disavowed Ayers.

A high-profile presidential candidate with massive institutional support can withstand such a charge of “consorting with the enemy.” But could you?

And that’s just the beginning; this sort of thinking (that it’s “just fine” if the government knows pretty much everything you’ve ever done) sets up the possibility of a far more serious form of tyranny.

One of the more corrosive yet subtle forms of government abuse of their citizens is the “everybody is a criminal” model. Students of the law and history know of it as “selective prosecution.”

There are two steps necessary to put this into place:

First, pass a law that pretty much everyone has broken or breaks at some point in their lives, but nonetheless has serious consequences, while assuring everybody it’s only for “serious offenders.” Actually only use it against serious offenders, and don’t enforce it widely. Over time, pretty much everyone will break that law and could be, if the government ran amok or wanted to take that person out, subject to prosecution.

Second, build the database. The only other thing necessary to put the heavy boot-heel of an oppressive government on the necks of those people an out-of-control government doesn’t like is a database which includes the proof against every citizen who has ever broken that law.

For example, look at our nation’s copyright laws, and the current laws regarding downloading music and video – or even articles, photos, or web-pages – from the internet.

Today it’s nearly impossible to find someone with access to the Internet who hasn’t, at least once, illegally downloaded a song, movie, picture, or other piece of copyrighted material. Or emailed a cute kitty picture to a friend. A picture that was copyrighted. In other words, nearly everybody is a criminal.

Right now, our government only rarely prosecutes people who do this sort of thing. But if they wanted to, if another Richard Nixon (or worse) became president and he wanted to take you out, and he had a copy of everything you’ve ever downloaded or emailed for forwarded, you could spend a good chunk of your life in prison. And odds are nobody would even notice.

Criminal penalties for first-time offenders of our copyright laws can be as high as five years in prison and $250,000 in fines. Civil penalties can run into many more thousands of dollars in damages and legal fees. The minimum penalty is $750 per song.

Now, say this new version of Richard Nixon knows that 5 years ago you went on to a music website, and downloaded some music illegally. Or got some from a friend in email and forwarded it to another friend.

And, say the new Nixon also knows that, through monitoring your emails, you plan to show up at a local political protest over the weekend. Occupy or Tea Party; it doesn’t matter if it pisses him off. Tyranny is nonpartisan.

Boom – the police are kicking down your door and you’re in jail before breakfast…and before the protest.

Think it’s impossible? Variations on that were used against protesters at the Republican National Convention in 2008 before they even got out of their house. And variations on that theme are used daily in oppressive nations around the world. “You violated a tax law,” or, “You violated the law that requires you to register your change of address” are common examples from the Middle East and Asia.

And here’s the biggest crime against a democratic republic that people who say, “I don’t care what they know…” are committing.

By consenting to the government gathering information on them, they’re consenting to the government collecting information on everybody. Enough people consent – or just fail to dissent – and that apparent national consensus sets the stage for the “soft” tyranny of selective prosecution.

This is how most oppressive regimes around the world, both modern and historic, work.

When everybody is a criminal, or everybody has something to fear being exposed, and the government knows everything about everybody, that government has the absolute power to totally shut down dissent or political activism.

By failing to speaking out against wide-net data collection without Fourth Amendment-required warrants and probable cause, sworn under oath, that the data is being collected on a criminal or crime, these people are helping establish what Edward Snowden called “the architecture of tyranny.” They’re setting up a power structure that’s just waiting for the next Richard Nixon – or worse.

Republican Congressman Peter King has recently lied about what Glenn Greenwald reported, and then, on the basis of that lie, called for that reporter to be arrested and prosecuted. If somebody like King ever sits in the Oval Office, the next person he wants to throw in prison could be you.

We must stand up and speak out. This is truly a Pastor Niemoller moment.