The strongest police state in history: We are all terrorists now

In case they are unaware of the laws some people are imposing on them, Americans should be furious about the latest legal grab at their last freedoms. A new law, cunningly woven into the annual defense appropriations bill and passed overwhelmingly, enables the US military to apprehend you anywhere in the world and detain you indefinitely. This law gives the strongest military the world has ever seen total power over you. You may want to reread that last sentence. It is true. The provisions target US citizens, giving every one of them the rights of a suspected terrorist with no recourse. As Guantanamo Bay prison has demonstrated, citizens of other countries had no rights to begin with. Therefore, due to its habit of picking up citizens of other countries, the US government can now wield its power over anyone in the world. That means you. They can detain you indefinitely without charge if they say you are a suspect. And no one will be punished if you are innocent (except you). No one will be held accountable, no matter what happens. This law is perhaps the most frightening in a long line of legal takeovers of your freedom.

Did I say this will be the strongest police state in history? Surely not, you say? Well, the totalitarian states have been strong, but they have rarely had the opportunity to catch people outside the state’s borders. And they did not have military bases all around the world. Remember, it is the trillion-dollar, million-man military that is now authorised to detain anyone anywhere for any length of time.

How did our liberties slip away? Anthony Gregory explains.

Ten years of the war on terror, decades of the war on drugs, and a century of growing government power in general, particularly in the presidency and various police authorities, have perhaps desensitized Americans to what is at stake here. As the proverbial frogs in the pot of water, we are accustomed to rising temperatures and so do not notice when our flesh begins to boil. Yet when the Senate overwhelmingly accepts the principle that the military should displace civilian courts even for citizens captured on American soil, it has adopted a standard of justice remarkably tyrannical even compared to America’s very rocky history.

A hundred years of encroaching control over our minds and bodies plus one spectacular terrorist attack and freedom somehow seems like a luxury to Americans who do not realise they are frogs.

Needless to say, these laws are unconstitutional, like so many other laws that a small minority of the people who swore to uphold the constitution tried to stop. The Bill of Rights, a wonderful idea in its time, lies in tatters. (See here for the history of the gutting of the constitution and limiting of Americans’ freedoms over the past decade.) Now that the government has such power and employs it every day, there is no reason to believe it will hold back. The tired, old canard that, if you just keep your head down and do not commit any crimes, you will be fine, is clearly untrue. Even if this bill had not passed, the US government (though of course not just the US one) can already spy on you from anywhere in the world by listening to your phone calls and reading your emails; has drones circling the skies in the US and all around the world, looking for anything anyone with any power at all deems “suspicious”; can lock you up and torture you in one of its many prisons (and not just ones you have heard of), as it already has with Bradley Manning and foreign journalists (Barack may be even worse than Bush with regard to torture); and can assassinate you without due process. Thus, as any informed libertarian already knew, these despicable practices have been going on for some time. The powerful are merely trying to make them easier.

Continuing the War on Terror will do that. The bill says that suspects will be held only until the end of hostilities. So, as Jon Stewart says, when terror surrenders, you’ll be free to go. For those who do not understand statist war, you must know that war is the health of the state, and the state exists to take your freedom. The more war, the more power the state has; the more power the state has, the less freedom you have. That is a consistent pattern in history. The War on Terror is not so much a war as a series of military operations designed to expand US government power everywhere it can, but the effect is the same. To stir up instability in Central Asia, secure supplies of natural resources and keep restive people down are its goals. This law will help win that war for the powerful.

War creates terrorists, as occupied people facing brutality from foreign powers have peaceful modes of resistance taken away from them. If terrorism is on the rise, blame the dictators and warmongers. (Oh, and when there is not enough terrorism and the hype dies down, the FBI will still arrest people for it.) Likewise, if crime is indeed rising in the US, it could be because of the fallout from the financial crash, which was of course the fault of the elites, and it could be because the criminalisation of and atrocious crackdown on drugs despite all logic incentivises the formation of gangs. Wars, whether on terrorism, drugs or the poor, create the conditions that politicians can use to justify accumulating ever more power. To think that the government exists to keep you safe is now obviously a myth.

But it is not just the Department of Defense that has been amassing power. The police and the courts have always been the tools of the elite, but are now conducting a war on liberty in the US. If you think I am exaggerating, please see my post on police here. Here is a preview. A man was recently sentenced to 75 years in jail for filming police. (Here is that link again.) The law, the police, the courts all tear society apart and destroy lives by criminalising victimless acts and subjecting innocent people to endless captivity. With its multiple layers of security apparatus, from the police to the FBI to the CIA to the DEA to Homeland Security to the military, not to mention the help of friendly governments around the world, the US federal government has enormous resources for violence at its disposal. It has already targeted Antiwar.com, Greenpeace and PETA under the pretext of investigating terrorism; who will be next? (Find more incredible facts about how the US is becoming a giant prison here.)

The main reason the government wants all this power (inasmuch as power is not an end in itself for many of the people involved, and aside from the large amounts of money politicians make from prison and related lobbies) is that dissent against government and the elites is growing. (Find a more developed argument here.) The protests that have gone global since Tunisia’s Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest corruption and repression have threatened the elites’ position and they are not happy. Most recently, we have seen unnecessary brutality against people demonstrating peacefully at Occupy sites around the world. The photos of tear gas sprayed casually into the faces of the young and old; the arrests of thousands of people for nothing. Democracy or dictatorship, state brutality is everywhere. The elites are sending a message: do not question authority or you will be punished. The only cure for this disease that I know of is to disobey their command. I would like to see more people to join in occupations until this unjust, parasitic institution crumbles to dust.

The lion’s share of the blame for this state of affairs goes to the psychopaths and fools (these are not insults; they are reality) who have been running the US for so long. The US federal government has trillions of dollars that it forced out of the pockets of millions of people. Think how many wars, how many full-body scanners, how many drones, soldiers, police, jails, surveillance systems, tons of tear gas and pepper spray it can buy with that money. And that means that the money it takes from people is used to oppress them. The government does not obey its own laws, so we should not, either. Laws are nothing more than institutionalised control over people, arbitrary interpretations of morality and handouts to lobby groups at the barrel of a gun.

But while most of the blame belongs with the state who forcibly takes everyone’s freedom away, Americans have let their government get away with it all. Ignorant people who do not understand government, war, terrorism and crime continue to believe the government looks out for their best interest. Most of them have not demanded change, content to amble slowly along some meaningless path with their heads down and their fingers in their ears. Others are so scared of crime, terrorism and illness that they gladly give the government as much power as it wants. Sure, we are subject to humiliation whenever we get on an airplane; sure, the US has the biggest prison population in the world; sure, the upper 1% owns a third of the nation’s wealth; and sure, my neighbours are losing their homes; but at least we live in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Not anymore, you don’t. The most dangerous thing is to believe we are free when we are not. It is impossible to escape from a jail we do not realise we are in.

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Stop trying to combat terrorism

It has been nine years since the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in the US, and we are still talking about fighting terrorism and killing terrorists. However, if we really want to end terrorism, we should start not by combating it, but by understanding it.

Misguided policies are usually at the root of terrorism. Governments in Central Asia, for example, are still pouring money into anti-terrorist campaigns putatively aiming to end terrorism. Instead, they strengthen the state vis-a-vis the people who hate it, and strengthen calls for terrorism by giving the people ever-better reasons to engage in it. Miroslav Jenca, head of the UN Regional Centre for Preventive Diplomacy for Central Asia, told Xinhua that the instability in Central Asia was a breeding ground for terrorist activity. “[T]he wider region is fast becoming the main front on the global war against terror.” But tactics so far have done nothing. Is it because they are insufficiently integrated into a region-wide or global campaign? No, it is because they ignore the reasons people are so discontented. People in Central Asia, from western China to eastern Uzbekistan, are repressed and harassed by their governments and treated like scum. Separatism, Islamic militancy and other hostile outbursts against the state are almost inevitable in such conditions. Do governments not know that, or do they simply want to fight a war with no end in order to extend their governments into more people’s affairs and take away more people’s freedoms? As we ponder that question, Uzbekistan holds 14 human rights activists in jail and 25 men under arrest for terrorism in Tajikistan have escaped from prison.

Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are just two examples of state failure accelerated by overzealous anti-terrorist campaigns. The US government has helped fund counter-terrorism efforts in Central Asia in return for bases by which to attack terrorist targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The US Department of Defense says the International Security Assistance Force or ISAF has helped “set the economic, political and security conditions for the growth of an effective, democratic national government in Afghanistan.” But merely to look at the headlines, we see huge corruption and ineffective governance in Hamid Karzai’s government; violence against foreign soldiers and locals by Taliban, whose membership does not seem to be waning despite the pressure on them; and a battle for hearts and minds that is tumbling down the sinkhole of counter-insurgency. Perhaps I am being unfair, assuming that nine years is long enough to bring about results. But while the public in countries contributing troops to the ISAF grows restive, the Taliban and other so-called “terrorist” groups are not shrinking. Is this War on Terror showing any meaningful reduction in terrorism?

Muslims in Canada have been arrested under terrorist charges, including recently. Many of the “Toronto 18” accused of a terrorist plot in 2006 have been charged. It is likely that their desire for violence came from their seeing Muslims around the world suffer. One notoriously talked about beheading Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Terrorism in Canada, including attempting to kill a pro-war prime minister, suggests to me the Toronto 18 plot was an expression of rage against Canada’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan. History lends itself to this analysis. In 2004, bombs went off in Madrid three days before a general election that were obviously a protest of Spain’s involvement in Iraq. With little regard to Spanish politics at the time, some accused the Spanish people of caving in by electing a new government and immediately ending Spain’s commitment to Operation Iraqi Freedom. However, pre-election polls suggested Spanish voters had been at best lukewarm on the war and the government who had led them to war. For two days following the Madrid bombing, the government tried to manipulate information and blame the Basque militant group, ETA; the public’s finding out it was in fact an offshoot of al Qaeda added anger to shock. A few days after the election, Martin Wolf of the Financial Times wrote an article headed “The world must unite against terrorism”, in which he called the removal of Spanish troops from Iraq a victory for the terrorists. Whether or not that is true is irrelevant. A more important question is, was it the right thing to do? He proceeded to conclude that Britain must not follow suit. A year later, Britain suffered its own terrorist bombing, almost definitely to end the UK government’s killing and debasement of Muslims in Iraq.

Muslims are accused of becoming radicalised in madrassas, some of which are funded by the Saudi royal family to spread its brand of Islam around, and perhaps to spread Islamic extremism. I am no fan of religion of any kind, least of all the Saudi Wahhabist variety. But similar schools with similar messages have existed for centuries. The influence of Saudi-funded mosques and missions is a shadow compared to what Muslim terrorists actually rebel against: repression, murder, injustice and occupation. (Incidentally, the Arabic word “madrassa” does not mean “place where people go to get transformed into jihadist suicide bombers” but “school”.) The US has always been nominally against those things, but its foreign policy says otherwise.

Terrorism is a weapon of the weak. It is usually an expression of anger and frustration at a state (unless it is performed by a state) by people who believe they have no better option. The enormous overreactions to terrorism are evidence that it works. We need to stop throwing money and lives into the bottomless pit of killing terrorists and begin listening to them and their supporters and changing foreign policy behaviour accordingly.

Perhaps we could take all the money we are spending on guns, drones and bombs to kill terrorists and put them toward public health in that part of the world. We could spend it building friendly relations among people of our countries, rather than just the elites getting together to carve them up. How about the ISAF and NATO and the Coalition of the Willing leave Iraq, Afghanistan and those other countries altogether, at least until the people welcome them back? Watch the terrorists’ grievances and claims to legitimacy wash away.

Another perspective on drone attacks

In my last post, I argued that the US government’s crocodile tears at the execution of an Iranian protester were hypocritical in light of its accidental killing of civilians in drone attacks in Pakistan. I was attempting to provide perspective that the US government did not have. However, perhaps I was in need of perspective.

According to Pakistan’s Daily Times, civilians in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas should and do support such drone attacks. Farhat Taj says that, having discussed the matter with hundreds of residents of Waziristan, the people “see the US drone attacks as their liberators from the clutches of the terrorists” (the Taliban and al Qaeda). She also says that the civilian casualty figures commonly quoted, six to seven hundred, are misleading. Her whole report is an eye-opener.

An earlier article in the same paper describes the Awami National Party, the ruling party of Northeast Pakistan, as highly supportive of drone attacks and American involvement to oust the Taliban et al. (although that may be because the latter are a threat to its power). Another party, the Pakistan Muslim League, was opposed to drone attacks but nonetheless encouraged the US to help revive the economy. So continued American involvement is not all bad for anyone but the Taliban.

For more perspective on why the Taliban are so unpleasant, one might start with Robert Fisk. In his book The Great War for Civilisation, Fisk explains that the Taliban imposed the kind of state they knew. They grew up in refugee camps in Pakistan, terribly poor, their mothers and sisters reduced to servitude, with no education or entertainment or hope but the Quran. It is no wonder they turned to a particularly brutal and purist form of Islam when they took over Afghanistan. They are still imposing it where they are today.

Is assassination by drone the best way to end their rule and bring peace to Central Asia? If combined with the right political and economic strategy, it may be.

Drone attacks outweigh the death of a protester

The US government is making very public its opposition to the death sentencing of an Iranian student protester. It also called for the release of all Iranian political prisoners. As much as I agree with its stance, the Barack administration is hardly the best group to adopt it.

The day after the US’s tearful solidarity speech, the New America Foundation released a report that estimated that 32% of those killed in American drone attacks in Pakistan were civilians. The report details the casualties of each attack since the beginning of 2010, calling this the Year of the Drone.

Drones are unmanned airplanes that launch missiles at ground targets of assassination. If there is a good chance soldiers will be killed, the US (and Israeli) military sends in a drone. Scholars are divided over the legality of their use. The Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research at Harvard University issued a manual with the applicable rules, for instance that all targets must be combatants, or “civilians directly participating in hostilities” (Rule 10). Accidentally killing civilians is probably not legal, and of course it throws open the moral questions of using drones at all. But it happens in almost every strike.

So as bad as Iran’s government is, US government criticism for it is at best hypocritical. Let us say they both need to change.