John Whitehead's Commentary
What We Should Not Be Thankful for This Thanksgiving
“Hold on, my friends, to the Constitution and to the Republic for which it stands. Miracles do not cluster, and what has happened once in 6000 years, may not happen again. Hold on to the Constitution, for if the American Constitution should fail, there will be anarchy throughout the world.”—Daniel Webster
I will be the first to acknowledge that there is much to be thankful for about life in America, especially when compared to those beyond our borders whose daily lives are marked by war, hunger and disease. Despite our kvetching, grumbling and complaining, most Americans have it pretty good compared to less fortunates the world over.
Still, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that all of our so-called blessings will amount to little more than gilding on a cage if we don’t safeguard the freedoms on which this nation was founded, freedoms which have historically made this nation a sanctuary for the oppressed and persecuted. And if there is one freedom in particular need of protecting right now, it is the Fourth Amendment, which has been on life support for quite some time.
It used to be that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which enshrines the rights to free speech, free press, assembly, religious exercise and petitioning one’s government for a redress of grievances, was considered the most critical of the amendments in the Bill of Rights. Since writing my book A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, however, I have come to believe that the Fourth Amendment, which demands that we be “secure” in our persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures by the government and, consequently, stands as a bulwark against the police state, is, in fact, the most critical.
Frankly, the right to speak freely doesn’t help you when your home is being invaded by a SWAT team or the government is spying on your emails and phone calls, and tracking your whereabouts. It certainly doesn’t help you when you’re in the back of a police cruiser or face-to-face with a cop hyped up on the power of his badge. In fact, exercising your right to free speech in such scenarios today, even nominally, will more than likely get you pepper sprayed, tasered, shot or at the very least charged with resisting arrest or disorderly conduct.
In the true spirit of Thanksgiving, then, which George Washington looked upon as a time to unite in prayer and beseech God “to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed,” here is a list of things about this emerging police state that I am not thankful for and will never remain silent about as long as the government remains the greatest threat to our freedoms.
Police shootings of unarmed citizens. No longer is it unusual to hear about incidents in which police shoot unarmed individuals first and ask questions later. This trend originates from a police preoccupation with ensuring their own safety at all costs, with tragic consequences for the innocent civilians unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. For example, consider the 16-year-old teenager who skipped school only to be shot by police after they mistook him for a fleeing burglar.
SWAT team raids. On an average day in America, at least 100 Americans have their homes raided by SWAT teams (although I’ve seen estimates as high as 300 a day), which are increasingly used to deal with routine police matters: angry dogs, domestic disputes, search warrants, etc. Unfortunately, general incompetence (officers misread the address on the warrant), collateral damage (fatalities, property damage, etc.) and botched raids (officers barge into the wrong house or even the wrong building) tend to go hand in hand with this overuse of SWAT teams, with tragic consequences for the homeowner who mistakes a SWAT raid for a home invasion, such as the 107-year-old Arkansas man killed after a “shootout” with a SWAT team or the 19-year-old Seattle woman who was accidentally shot in the leg by police after she refused to show her hands.
Arresting Americans for altogether legal activities such as picking their kids up from school, holding Bible studies at home, and selling goat cheese. Unfortunately, our government’s tendency towards militarization and overcriminalization, in which routine, everyday behaviors become targets of regulation and prohibition, have resulted in Americans getting arrested for making and selling unpasteurized goat cheese, cultivating certain types of orchids, feeding a whale, holding Bible studies in their homes, and picking their kids up from school. This last incident actually happened in Tennessee, when Jim Howe, a father of two elementary school-aged kids, was arrested and jailed after insisting on walking his son home as soon as school let out rather than waiting 35 minutes for carpoolers to get their kids first.
Jailing Americans for profit. At one time, the American penal system operated under the idea that dangerous criminals needed to be put under lock and key in order to protect society. Today, as states attempt to save money by outsourcing prisons to private corporations, imprisoning Americans in private prisons run by mega-corporations has turned into a cash cow for big business, with states agreeing to maintain a 90% occupancy rate in privately run prisons for at least 20 years. And how do you keep the prisons full? By passing laws aimed at increasing the prison population, including the imposition of life sentences on people who commit minor or nonviolent crimes such as siphoning gasoline.
Transforming the schools into quasi-prisons and teaching young people that they have no rights. Zero tolerance policies which criminalize childish behavior continue to destroy the lives of young people such as the 14-year-old arrested for texting in class; the 6-year-olds suspended for using their fingers as imaginary guns in a schoolyard game of cops and robbers; the 12-year-old hauled out of school in handcuffs for doodling on her desk with an erasable marker; or the 17-year-old charged with a felony for keeping his tackle box in his car parked on school property, potentially derailing his chances of entering the Air Force.
Turning community police into a standing army, extensions of the military. What we must contend with today is the danger of having a standing army (which is what police forces, increasingly made up of individuals with military backgrounds and/or training, have evolved into) that has been trained to view the citizenry as little more than potential suspects, combatants and insurgents. It is particularly telling that whereas in the past, law enforcement strove to provide a sense of security, trust, and comfort, the impression conveyed today is one of power, dominance and inflexible authority. Yet appearances to the contrary, the American police force is not supposed to be a branch of the military, nor is it a private security force for the reigning political faction. It is supposed to be an aggregation of the countless local civilian units that exist for a sole purpose: to serve and protect the citizens of each and every American community.
Surveillance drones taking to the skies domestically. With at least 30,000 drones expected to occupy U.S. airspace by 2020, ushering in a $30 billion per year industry, police departments are already queuing up for their drones. Indeed, the drones coming to a neighborhood near you will be small, capable of flying through city streets and buildings almost undetected, while hovering over cityscapes and public events for long periods of time, providing a means of 24/7 surveillance. Able to take off and land anywhere, able to maneuver through city streets and hallways, and able to stop and turn on a dime, these micro-drones will still pack a lethal punch, equipped with an array of weapons and sensors, including tasers, bean-bag guns, “high-resolution video cameras, infrared sensors, license plate readers, [and] listening devices.”
TSA searches that accustom citizens to life in a police state. Under the direction of the Transportation Security Administration, American travelers have been subjected to all manner of searches ranging from whole-body scanners and enhanced patdowns at airports to bag searches in train stations and sports arenas. Mind you, this is the same agency that is now installing detention pods in airports, requiring passengers to submit to searches and screenings before they can exit the airport.
Illegal, invasive spying on Americans. There is no form of digital communication that the government cannot and does not monitor—phone calls, emails, text messages, tweets, Facebook posts, internet video chats, etc., are all accessible, trackable and downloadable by federal agents. In other words, there is nothing private from the government, which has used a variety of covert, unconstitutional tactics to gain access to Americans’ personal data, online purchases and banking, medical records, and online communications. The government’s methods include the use of supercomputers to hack through privacy settings, collaborations with corporations to create “back doors” for government access into encrypted files, and the use of strong-arm tactics against those technology and internet companies who refuse to cooperate. It is estimated that the National Security Agency has intercepted 15 to 20 trillion communications of American citizens since 9/11.
Thus, while there’s much to be thankful for—the blessings of family, security, food, opportunity, etc.—it’s the things I’m not thankful for that have me greatly concerned about the emerging American police state. So do me a favor. Before you get distracted by the gathering of family and friends and the feasting and the football and the fleeting sense of goodwill and the traditional counting of blessings, take a moment to remind yourself and those around you of the things we should NOT be thankful for this year—the things that no American should tolerate from its government—the things that don’t belong in the “city on a hill” envisioned by John F. Kennedy as the standard for a government “constructed and inhabited by men aware of their grave trust and their great responsibilities.”
Mind you, if we do not push back against the growing menace of the police state now, future Thanksgivings may find us giving thanks for creature comforts that serve only to lessen the pain of having lost our most basic freedoms. In other words, it’s time for “we the people” to heed Abraham Lincoln’s advice and take our place as “the rightful masters of both Congress and the Courts—not to overthrow the Constitution, but to overthrow the men who pervert the Constitution.”