Sorry, You’re Under Surveillance

Orwell, Kafka,
They could see;
That government,
Would soon watch me.

For governments keen on muzzling and thwarting opposition, terrorism is a God-sent cover. A nation subject to terrorist attack can get away with deception, surveillance, secret arrests, harassment, entrapment, censorship, spying, stealing, and grievous infringements on travel. Nothing to it…you just cite national security.

GibberishRussia is tops at this, as are Iran, Israel, China, Myanmar, and a few other relatively autocratic lands. The U.S. is no slouch either. Most comical, were it not so serious, would be the inane No-Fly Rule. Luckily for Americans, who must all live with the Department of Homeland Absurdity, the press is occasionally willing to describe an egregious anecdote or two.

For example, The Washington Post recently ran an article detailing a Justice Department admission that the FBI improperly investigated Greenpeace and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

Snafus are easy to come by under total secrecy. For example, there’s no way to find out if you’re on the No-Fly List and no known way to get off it, even if your inclusion was the result of an obvious screw-up. Nor can anyone say how big the list is. The FBI hints from time to time that it may be as high as 20-40,000 people. Private security analysts think one million would be more like it. Guess we’ll have to wait for WikiLeaks to find out.

Next on the federal target list is your cell phone. As more and more of them contain a GPS feature, your phone company knows not only where you are at all times, but where you’ve been. Law enforcers drool over that kind of data and would love to have access to it without a warrant. Since the framers of the Constitution unaccountably overlooked this question, the courts are hashing it out now. Keep your fingers crossed.

Your phone also holds the obvious danger of being tapped. Both Presidents Bush and Obama like that idea. Plenty of illegal tapping has gone on in all administrations (remember Richard Nixon?) and they fight like wolverines to keep getting away with it. Better send a check to the ACLU.

And when evidence fails or can’t be gathered quickly enough to warrant detention, racial profiling makes a handy safety net.

But even Caucasian victims are ignored by the press if they are abused while opposing certain sacred activities, like war, trade conferences, banking conclaves, or political conventions. Those subjects are a bit too dear to media owners and advertisers to allow objective reporting. One can’t get too excited about trifles like preventive detentions, provocateurs, illegal confiscations or eavesdropping perpetrated on that kind of dangerous protestor. Protests that question corporate power need to be ignored. Who gets covered instead are the usual “black-clad anarchists.” Curiously, these agitators are often seen wearing standard issue police boots.

Probably the supreme irony of all this and other government stomping on civil rights is that it breeds countless new enemies. How many more worldwide jihadists and domestic extremists do we have to generate before realizing that true national security grows from exercising justice, not oppression?

OtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut. www.otherwords.org