John Whitehead's Commentary
Playing the Government’s Game: When It Comes to Violence, We All Lose
“When it gets down to having to use violence, then you are playing the system’s game. The establishment will irritate you – pull your beard, flick your face – to make you fight. Because once they’ve got you violent, then they know how to handle you. The only thing they don’t know how to handle is non-violence and humor.”—John Lennon
Yes, the government is corrupt.
Yes, the system is broken. By broken, I mean it’s “dysfunctional, gridlocked, and, in general, incapable of doing what needs to be done.”
Yes, the government is out of control and overreaching on almost every front.
Yes, the government’s excesses—pork barrel spending, endless wars, etc.—are pushing the nation to a breaking point.
Yes, many Americans are afraid. Who wouldn’t be afraid of an increasingly violent and oppressive federal government?
Yes, the citizenry has little protection against standing armies (domestic and military), invasive surveillance, marauding SWAT teams, an overwhelming government arsenal of assault vehicles and firepower, and a barrage of laws that criminalize everything from vegetable gardens to lemonade stands.
Yes, in the eyes of the American surveillance state, “we the people” are little more than suspects and criminals to be monitored, policed, prosecuted and imprisoned. As former law professor John Baker, who has studied the growing problem of overcriminalization, noted, “There is no one in the United States over the age of 18 who cannot be indicted for some federal crime.”
Yes, the United States of America is not the democracy that is purports to be, but rather an oligarchy ruled by a wealthy corporate elite.
Yes, politics is a sham. Average Americans have largely lost all of the conventional markers of influencing government, whether through elections, petition, or protest, have no way to impact their government, no way to be heard, and no assurance that their concerns are truly being represented.
Yes, the Obama administration’s efforts to identify, target and punish “domestic extremists” through the use of surveillance, corporate spies, global police and the Strong Cities network sends a troubling message to all Americans that any opposition to the government—no matter how benign—will be viewed with suspicion and will likely be treated with hostility.
Yes, we have reached a tipping point. The freedoms we once enjoyed are increasingly being eroded: speech, assembly, association, privacy, etc.
Yes, something needs to be done about the government’s long train of abuses, power grabs, erosion of private property, and overt acts of tyranny.
Yes, many Americans, increasingly dissatisfied with the government and its heavy-handed tactics, are tired of being used and abused and are ready to say “enough is enough.”
No, violence is not the answer.
A handful of armed protesters are not going to fix what’s broken in the government by forcing a showdown with government agents. In fact, this kind of scenario plays right into the government’s hands by provoking a violent confrontation that allows government officials to sanctimoniously justify their use of surveillance, military weaponry and tactics, and laws criminalizing guns and hate speech in order to target anyone who even vaguely resembles an “anti-government extremist.”
Take the latest spectacle in Oregon, for example.
Armed activists led by brothers Ryan and Ammon Bundy have occupied a federal wildlife refuge. The Bundys (infamous for their 2014 standoff with the Bureau of Land Management over grazing rights on federal land in Nevada) are protesting the government’s prosecution of two ranchers, Dwight and Steven Hammond, who have been sentenced to five years in prison for allegedly setting back fires on government-owned land in Oregon. (Mind you, the government owns more than half the land in Oregon.)
Few conflicts are ever black and white, and this situation involving the Bundys, the Hammonds and the BLM is no exception. Yet the issue is not whether the Hammonds are arsonists as the government claims, or whether the Bundys are anti-government extremists as the government claims, or even whether ranchers should have their access to government-owned lands regulated as the BLM claims.
No, as I point out in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, the larger question at play here is who owns—or controls—the government: is it “we the people” or private corporations?
Are American citizens shareholders of the government’s vast repositories, or are we merely serfs and tenant farmers in bondage to corporate overlords? Do we have a say in how the government is run, or are we merely on the receiving end of the government’s dictates? What recourse do we have if we don’t approve of the government’s actions?
Almost every struggle between the citizenry and the government is, at its core, about whether we are masters or slaves in this constantly evolving relationship with the government.
- Do parents have a right to allow their children to play outside alone, or must they abide by the government’s dictates about how to raise their families?
- Do homeowners have a right to manage their private property as they see fit, whether it’s with solar panels, vegetable gardens or rain barrels, or must they first seek the permission of the government?
- Do activists have a right to freely associate with one another, assemble in public, and voice their opinions publicly or privately, or must they be constrained by what the government and its corporate partners deem to be appropriate?
- Do residents of a community have to obey whatever a police officer says, lawful or not, or do Americans have a right to resist an unlawful order without getting shot or arrested?
It doesn’t matter what the issue is—whether it’s a rancher standing his ground over grazing rights, a minister jailed for holding a Bible study in his own home, or a community outraged over police shootings of unarmed citizens—these are the building blocks of a political powder keg.
Much like the heated protests that arose after the police shootings in Ferguson and Baltimore, there’s a subtext to the Oregon incident that must not be ignored, and it is simply this: America is a pressure cooker with no steam valve, and things are about to blow.
This is what happens when a parasitical government muzzles the citizenry, fences them in, herds them, brands them, whips them into submission, forces them to ante up the sweat of their brows while giving them little in return, and then provides them with little to no outlet for voicing their discontent.
As psychologist Erich Fromm recognized in his insightful book, On Civil Disobedience: “If a man can only obey and not disobey, he is a slave; if he can only disobey and not obey, he is a rebel (not a revolutionary). He acts out of anger, disappointment, resentment, yet not in the name of a conviction or a principle.”
Let me say it again: an armed occupation of a government property only plays right into the government’s hands and increases its power over the citizenry. Yet it speaks to a growing tension over how to bring about meaningful change when dealing with a government that refuses to listen to its citizens.
This is what happens when people get desperate, when citizens lose hope, and when lawful, nonviolent alternatives appear pointless.
Whether the parties involved are blameless or not, whether they’re using the wrong tactics or not, whether their agendas are selfless or not, this is the face of a nation undergoing a nervous breakdown on all fronts.
Now all that remains is a spark, and it need not be a very big one, to set the whole powder keg aflame.
The government has been anticipating and preparing for such an explosion for years. For example, in 2008, a U.S. Army War College report warned that the military must be prepared for a “violent, strategic dislocation inside the United States,” which could be provoked by “unforeseen economic collapse,” “purposeful domestic resistance,” “pervasive public health emergencies” or “loss of functioning political and legal order”—all related to dissent and protests over America’s economic and political disarray. Consequently, predicted the report, the “widespread civil violence would force the defense establishment to reorient priorities in extremis to defend basic domestic order and human security.”
In 2009, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released two reports, one on “Rightwing Extremism,” which broadly defines rightwing extremists as individuals and groups “that are mainly antigovernment, rejecting federal authority in favor of state or local authority, or rejecting government authority entirely,” and one on “Leftwing Extremism,” which labeled environmental and animal rights activist groups as extremists.
Incredibly, both reports use the words terrorist and extremist interchangeably.
That same year, the DHS launched Operation Vigilant Eagle, which calls for surveillance of military veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, characterizing them as extremists and potential domestic terrorist threats because they may be “disgruntled, disillusioned or suffering from the psychological effects of war.” These reports indicate that for the government, anyone seen as opposing the government—whether they’re Left, Right or somewhere in between—can be labeled an extremist. Under such a definition, John Lennon, Martin Luther King Jr., Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson and Samuel Adams—all of whom protested and passionately spoke out against government practices with which they disagreed—would be prime targets.
Fast forward a few years, and you have the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which President Obama has continually re-upped, that allows the military to take you out of your home, lock you up with no access to friends, family or the courts if you’re seen as an extremist. Now connect the dots, from the 2009 Extremism reports to the NDAA and the UN’s Strong Cities Network with its globalized police forces, the National Security Agency’s far-reaching surveillance networks, and fusion centers that collect and share surveillance data between local, state and federal police agencies.
Add in tens of thousands of armed, surveillance drones that will soon blanket American skies, facial recognition technology that will identify and track you wherever you go and whatever you do. And then to complete the circle, toss in the real-time crime centers being deployed in cities across the country, which will be attempting to “predict” crimes and identify criminals before they happen based on widespread surveillance, complex mathematical algorithms and prognostication programs.
Hopefully you’re getting the picture, which is how easy it is for the government to identify, label and target individuals as “extremist.”
All that we have been subjected to in recent years—living under the shadow of NSA spying; motorists strip searched and anally probed on the side of the road; innocent Americans spied upon while going about their daily business in schools and stores; homeowners having their doors kicked in by militarized SWAT teams serving routine warrants—illustrates how the government deals with people it views as potential “extremists”: with heavy-handed tactics designed to intimidate the populace into submission and discourage anyone from stepping out of line or challenging the status quo.
What we’re grappling with is a double standard in what the government metes out to the citizenry, and how the citizenry is supposed to treat the government.
SWAT teams can crash through our doors without impunity, but if we dare to defend ourselves against unknown government assailants, we’ll be shot or jailed.
Government agents can confiscate our homes, impound our cars and seize our bank accounts on the slightest suspicion of wrongdoing, but we’ll face jail time and fines for refusing to pay taxes in support of government programs with which we might disagree.
Government spies can listen in on our phone calls, read our emails and text messages, track our movements, photograph our license plates, and even enter our biometric information into DNA databases, but those who dare to film potential police misconduct will likely get roughed up by the police, arrested, and charged with violating various and sundry crimes.
This phenomenon is what philosopher Abraham Kaplan referred to as the law of the instrument, which essentially says that to a hammer, everything looks like a nail. In the scenario that has been playing out in recent years, we the citizenry have become the nails to be hammered by the government’s battalion of laws and law enforcers: its police officers, technicians, bureaucrats, spies, snitches, inspectors, accountants, etc.
This is exactly what those who drafted the U.S. Constitution feared: that laws and law enforcers would be used as tools by a despotic government to wage war against the citizenry.
That is exactly what we are witnessing today: a war against the American citizenry.
Is it any wonder then that Americans are starting to resist?