A populace which considers itself under attack is capable of consenting to disproportionate, unjust and even abhorrent governmental actions in the name of ‘self-defence’.
In May 1985, when US President Ronald Reagan decided to invade Nicaragua, he declared a state of emergency on the basis that the Nicaraguan government posed ‘an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security…of the United States’, noting that they were only ‘two days’ driving time from Harlingen, Texas’. For some context, in 1985, Nicaragua had a gross domestic product of $3 billion, whereas the United States had a military budget of $405 billion.
These comments were not greeted with derision by the electorate, but with solemn concern, and so President Reagan invaded Nicaragua under the guise of ‘self-defence’. This was later ruled to be unlawful under international law by the International Court of Justice (1).
Fear, it seems, tends to trump logic. President Reagan clearly understood this well.
Today, rather than the Nicaraguan threat, large swathes of society in Western liberal democracies are concerned about the ‘terrorist threat’, which became acute in the mind of society after the shocking events of September 11, and the subsequent London, Madrid and Paris attacks.
Worryingly, it seems like we’re more scared than ever. And fear has reduced large portions of society to the role of the gushing cheerleader for the latest ‘essential initiative’ from our dear leaders to save us from the latest threat in the big, bad and scary world.
Immediately after September 11, we were told of the extraordinary threat of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, and that an invasion of Iraq was needed in ‘self-defence’. Britain’s most popular daily newspaper, The Sun, even led with the headline ‘Brits 45 mins from doom’ (2).
As it turned out, much of the evidence marshalled by Vice President Cheney to support the urgency of the threat was based on fabricated and misleading evidence (3). Nevertheless, a coalition led by the United States invaded Iraq in what was almost certainly a war of aggression contravening the UN Charter. This is the same crime for which the Nazi leadership were hanged at the Nuremberg trials, for, as the US prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials put it: ‘[t]o initiate a war of aggression…is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.’
The post-9/11 atmosphere of hysteria has not merely allowed US governments to confront external ‘threats’, but also domestic ‘threats’, which has led to an attack on civil liberties unprecedented in American history. James Madison, the father of the US constitution, predicted that ‘[i]f tyranny and oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy.’
In May 2003, commenting on the so-called USA PATRIOT Act passed by Congress, Professor Gary Orfield of the UCLA noted that ‘[t]he loss of civil rights often begins with the reduction of rights in a time of crisis, for a minority that has become the scapegoat for a problem facing the nation. The situation can become particularly explosive in a time of national tragedy or war. But when civil rights for one group of Americans are threatened and the disappearance of those rights is accepted, it becomes a potential threat to many others’ (4).
And so it has come to pass. As Edward Snowden revealed, the United States now spies on its citizens in a way that the KGB and Stasi never even approached. Snowden was famously quoted as saying, ‘I, sitting at my desk [could] wiretap anyone, from you or your accountant, to a federal judge or even the president, if I had a personal email’ using the NSA’s analytical software, XKeyscore. Internal NSA training materials even describe the software to allow surveillance of ‘almost anything done on the internet’ (5). XKeyscore has now been shared with the intelligence agencies of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Germany.
As The Intercept revealed, the United Kingdom’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) has a similar program, code-named KARMA-POLICE, with a simple, yet chilling, aim: to record the website browsing habits of ‘every visible user on the internet’ including ‘visits to porn, social media, and news websites, search engines, chat forums, blogs, emails, Skype calls, text messages, cell phone locations, and social media interactions’. This spying is done without a court order and is shared with members of the so-called ‘Five Eyes’, the surveillance arms of the UK, US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand (6). Such oversight gives intelligence agencies almost complete knowledge of a person’s ‘movements, habits, religious beliefs, political views, relationships, and even sexual preferences’.
Politicians defend these programs by claiming that such activities target terrorists, and not the Joe Citizen. Those suggestions fail the most basic scrutiny of the evidence, and contradict a consistent lesson of history: power corrupts. Who watches the watchers? For example, leaked documents show NSA engaged in euphemistic ‘LOVEINT’, a practice whereby NSA staff spied on their ‘love interests’. Worse yet, in July 2015, after the ‘efforts of several FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces’, the FBI arrested two animal rights activists, Joseph Buddenberg and Nicole Kissane. They were charged under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) for releasing ‘thousands of minks from farms around the country and vandalising various properties’, and the FBI made a press release denouncing their (non-violent) protests as being ‘domestic terrorism’. As Greenwald reports, the AETA was heavily lobbied for by the ‘agriculture, pharmaceutical and farming industries. Its drafting and enactment was led by the notorious and powerful American Legislative Exchange Council…the primary purpose of [AETA]…was to expand the scope of criminal offenses to include plainly protected forms of political protest, and to heighten the legal punishments and intensify social condemnation by literally labelling animal-rights activists as “domestic terrorists” (7).
Perhaps the most sinister practice has commenced under President Obama, whereby the NSA has started spying on Congress, constituting a real threat to the separation of powers fundamental to democracy (and written in the US Constitution). After all, if the executive holds ‘dirt’ on members of Congress, how forcefully can Congress act to curb the executive’s power? Almost comically, enthusiastic Congressional defenders of the NSA’s warrantless spying members of Congress like Dianne Feinstein, Pete Hoekstra and Jane Harman (the latter calling the warrantless program ‘essential to national security’), quickly retracted their support upon learning that their own private conversations were also being watched by the NSA. As Glenn Greenwald neatly surmises ‘[o]vernight, privacy is of the highest value because now it’s their privacy, rather than just yours, that is invaded’ (8).
The threats from executive action are not merely limited to surveillance. President Obama signed the National Defence Authorisation Act (NDAA) permitting the military to indefinitely detain US citizens (including citizens arrested in the US) without a conviction, a trial, or even the prospect of a trial, essentially bypassing the judiciary. The US has already detained foreign nationals (including Australian and British nationals) without trial at Guantanamo Bay. Given the legal authorisation that now exists under the NDAA, the step from foreign nationals to US citizens is now a matter of executive will. In this respect, it is pertinent to recall that in the Declaration of Independence from the King of England, the founding fathers explicitly referred to the King’s ‘render[ing] the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power’ and ‘depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury’ as key injustices necessitating independence from the King’s dominion.
The US judiciary is under similar attack. In May 2013, United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), a neo-conservative think tank, launched a campaign to ‘name and shame’ parties linked to trade with Iran. As part of this campaign, it named Greek billionaire Victor Restis. Restis strongly denied any trade ties with Iran and launched defamation proceedings against UANI. Incredibly, the US government intervened in the case and submitted that the case be dismissed on the grounds that allowing it to commence would damage national security. The plaintiff was not even permitted to challenge the Department of Justice’s claim that national security would be harmed. The Department of Justice simply sent its sealed brief (which Restis’ lawyers were not permitted to view) to the presiding judge, Judge Ramos, met with Judge Ramos in his chambers (without Restis’ lawyers present), after which Judge Ramos decided to dismiss Restis’ case, based on argument and evidence that his lawyers could not see or challenge. Restis was not even informed why his case was dismissed. In other words, the rule of law was suspended.
Greenwald, again, provides a useful summary: ‘As a result of the DOJ’s protection, UANI cannot be sued. Among other things, it means this group of neo-con extremists now has a license to defame anyone they want. They can destroy your reputation with false accusations in a highly public campaign, and when you sue them for it, the DOJ will come in and whisper in the judge’s ear that national security will be damaged if—like everyone else in the world—UANI must answer in a court of law for their conduct. And subservient judicial officials like Judge Ramos will obey the US government’s dictates and dismiss your lawsuit before it begins, without your having any idea why that even happened’ (9).
In the midst of this hysteria, there is surprisingly little analysis on the gravity of the terrorist threat to the United States. In 2015, at least fifteen persons died in the US as a result of toddlers accidentally discharging firearms, whereas Islamic terrorism in the US caused five deaths (10). In fact, a quick Internet search revealed that in 2010, firearms in America alone caused 31,672 deaths, whilst 13,186 people died in terrorist attacks worldwide in the same year (11).
Clearly, the depth of the public’s fear of terrorism does not correspond with the data showing the actual threat to American lives posed by terrorism. In turn, whilst objectively greater threats to public safety, such as armed toddlers(!), merit little governmental interest, the government cites the threat to public safety of terrorism to justify almost any invasion of civil liberties.
The easiest inference to draw is that the exploitation of this fear has allowed the Bush and Obama administrations to gut inalienable civil liberties which are fundamental to a vibrant and functioning democracy. And, where the US leads, other Western liberal democracies follow. A summary of changes to Australian national security laws since 9/11 are contained in a useful article from The Guardian available here (12).
Power is a zero-sum game. Any power that the government obtains is at the expense of the population. The gradual erosion of liberties, and expansion of governmental power, has been a consistent trend, and perhaps the true legacy of, the storied events of September 11. Each new step down this path takes us closer to tyranny.
More pithy, perhaps, is an excerpt from Milton Mayer’s famous book They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45, in which a German describes the gradual descent of the thriving democracy of the Weimer Republic to the totalitarian Nazi state:
‘What happened here was the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to being governed by surprise; to receiving decisions deliberated in secret; to believing that the situation was so complicated that the government had to act on information which the people could not understand, or so dangerous that, even if the people could not understand it, it could not be released because of national security. And their sense of identification with Hitler, their trust in him, made it easier to widen this gap and reassured those who would otherwise have worried about it.
‘This separation of government from people, this widening of the gap, took place so gradually and so insensibly, each step disguised (perhaps not even intentionally) as a temporary emergency measure or associated with true patriotic allegiance or with real social purposes. And all the crises and reforms (real reforms, too) so occupied the people that they did not see the slow motion underneath, of the whole process of government growing remoter and remoter.’
4) “One Nation Indivisible, under God, with Liberty and Justice for All: Civil Rights for Arabs, Muslims, and South Asians” Professor Gary Orfield (2003)
11) “The Last Gun” Tom Diaz (2013)