“[F]orce alone cannot make us safe. We cannot use force everywhere that a radical ideology takes root; and in the absence of a strategy that reduces the well-spring of extremism, a perpetual war – through drones or Special Forces or troop deployments – will prove self-defeating, and alter our country in troubling ways.”—Barack Obama, May 23, 2013
President Obama’s declaration that “America is at a crossroads” in the fight against terror, a fight that is increasingly turning inwards, setting its sights on homegrown extremists, should give every American pause.
We have indeed reached a crossroads. History may show that from this point forward, we will have left behind any semblance of constitutional government and entered into a militaristic state where all citizens are suspects and security trumps freedom. Certainly, this is a time when government officials operate off their own inscrutable, self-serving playbook with little in the way of checks and balances, while American citizens are subjected to all manner of indignities and violations with little hope of defending themselves. We have moved beyond the era of representative government and entered a new age, let’s call it the age of authoritarianism.
Even with its constantly shifting terrain, this topsy-turvy travesty of law and government has become America’s new normal. Don’t believe me? Let me take you on a brief guided tour, but prepare yourself: the landscape is particularly disheartening to anyone who remembers what America used to be.
The Executive Branch: Whether it’s the Obama administration’s crackdown on whistleblowers, the systematic surveillance of journalists and regular citizens, the continued operation of Guantanamo Bay, or the occupation of Afghanistan, Barack Obama has surpassed his predecessors in terms of his abuse of the Constitution and the rule of law. Despite his prior stint as a professor of constitutional law, President Obama, like many of his predecessors, has routinely disregarded the Constitution when it has suited his purposes, operating largely above the law and behind a veil of secrecy and specious legal justifications.
Drone Strikes on American Citizens: For almost two years, the United States government has been targeting American citizens abroad for death by drone, with at least four American citizens assassinated by drones outside the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq. These assassinations of individuals entitled to the full protection of the Constitution have been carried out without any due process whatsoever—no charges detailing their alleged wrongdoings were brought before them, no trial was conducted to determine their guilt or innocence, and no convictions of guilt were found. Obama has also gone to great lengths to give the impression that the drone assassination program is a carefully controlled, highly selective process, within the bounds of the rule of law. Yet when hundreds of individuals, innocent women and children among them, are being killed as a result of these drone strikes, clearly the process is far from controlled or selective. These “signature strikes,” which involve targeting groups of unknown men who resemble al-Qaeda members, are the equivalent of bombing a fraternity house because there are young men inside who may be up to no good. It is a practice that is inhumane, immoral and illegal, and no amount of legal parsing or political whitewashing will remove this particular stain.
Expanding the War on Terror: Although Obama insists he has no intention of continuing the wars in which the United States is embroiled, administration officials are sending an altogether different message—namely, that America’s engagement in the ongoing war on terror spans the entire globe. At a recent congressional hearing, Michael Sheehan, the assistant secretary of defense for special operations, cited the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) law as justification for the administration’s ability to send American troops to places such as Yemen and the Congo without first seeking congressional authorization. Sheehan also asserted that the United States conflict with al-Qaeda will last for another ten or twenty years. As Senator Angus King (I-Maine) remarked to Sheehan: “You guys have essentially rewritten the Constitution here today… I don’t disagree that we need to fight terrorism. But we need to do it in a constitutionally sound way.”
Law Enforcement: By and large the term “law enforcement” encompasses all agents within a militarized police state, including the military, the police, and the various agencies such as the Secret Service, FBI, CIA, NSA, etc. Having been given the green light to probe, poke, pinch, taser, search, seize, strip and generally manhandle anyone they see fit in almost any circumstance, all with the general blessing of the courts, America’s law enforcement officials, no longer mere servants of the people entrusted with keeping the peace, are part of an elite ruling class dependent on keeping the masses corralled, under control, and treated like suspects and enemies rather than citizens.
The Legislative Branch: It is not overstating matters to say that Congress may well be the most self-serving, semi-corrupt institution in America. Abuses of office run the gamut from elected representatives neglecting their constituencies to engaging in self-serving practices, including the misuse of eminent domain, earmarking hundreds of millions of dollars in federal contracting in return for personal gain and campaign contributions, having inappropriate ties to lobbyist groups and incorrectly or incompletely disclosing financial information. Pork barrel spending, hastily passed legislation, partisan bickering, a skewed work ethic, graft and moral turpitude have all contributed to the public’s increasing dissatisfaction with congressional leadership. Thus, it is little wonder that a recent Gallup poll shows Congress with a 79 percent disapproval rating.
The Judicial Branch: The Supreme Court was intended to be an institution established to intervene and protect the people against the government and its agents when they overstep their bounds. Yet through their deference to police power, preference for security over freedom, and evisceration of our most basic rights for the sake of order and expediency, the justices of the United States Supreme Court have become the architects of the American police state in which we now live. As a result, sound judgment and justice have largely taken a back seat to legalism, statism and elitism, while preserving the rights of the people has been deprioritized and made to play second fiddle to both governmental and corporate interests.
A Suspect Society: Due in large part to rapid advances in technology and a heightened surveillance culture, the burden of proof has been shifted so that the right to be considered innocent until proven guilty has been usurped by a new norm in which all citizens are suspects. This is exemplified by police practices of stopping and frisking people who are merely walking down the street and where there is no evidence of wrongdoing. Making matters worse are Terrorism Liaison Officers (firefighters, police officers, and even corporate employees) who have been trained to spy on their fellow citizens and report “suspicious activity,” which includes taking pictures with no apparent aesthetic value, making measurements and drawings, taking notes, conversing in code, espousing radical beliefs and buying items in bulk. TLOs report back to “fusion centers,” which are a driving force behind the government’s quest to collect, analyze, and disseminate information on American citizens.
We the People: Essentially, there are four camps of thought among the citizenry when it comes to holding the government accountable. Which camp you fall into says a lot about your view of government—or, at least, your view of whichever administration happens to be in power at the time, in this case it being the Obama administration. In the first camp are those who trust the government to do the right thing, despite the government’s repeated failures in this department. In the second camp are those who not only don’t trust the government but think the government is out to get them. In the third camp are those who see government neither as an angel nor a devil, but merely as an entity that needs to be controlled, or as Thomas Jefferson phrased it, bound “down from mischief with the chains of the Constitution.” Then there’s the fourth camp, comprised of individuals who pay little to no attention to the workings of government, so much so that they barely vote, let alone know who’s in office. Easily entertained, easily distracted, easily led, these are the ones who make the government’s job far easier than it should be.
I haven’t even touched on the corporate state, the military industrial complex, SWAT team raids, invasive surveillance technology, zero tolerance policies in the schools, overcriminalization, or privatized prisons, to name just a few, but what I have touched on should be enough to show that the landscape of our freedoms has already changed dramatically from what it once was and will no doubt continue to deteriorate, unless Americans can find a way to wrest back control of their government and reclaim their freedoms.
John W. Whitehead is an attorney and author who has written, debated and practiced widely in the area of constitutional law and human rights. Whitehead’s concern for the persecuted and oppressed led him, in 1982, to establish The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties and human rights organization whose international headquarters are located in Charlottesville, Virginia. Whitehead serves as the Institute’s president and spokesperson, in addition to writing a weekly commentary that is posted on The Rutherford Institute’s website (www.rutherford.org), as well being distributed to several hundred newspapers, and hosting a national public service radio campaign. Whitehead’s aggressive, pioneering approach to civil liberties issues has earned him numerous accolades, including the Hungarian Medal of Freedom.