John Whitehead's Commentary
What’s in Store for Our Freedoms in 2016? More of Everything We Don’t Want
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”—George Santayana, The Life of Reason, Vol. 1
In Harold Ramis’ classic 1993 comedy Groundhog Day, TV weatherman Phil Connors (played by Bill Murray) is forced to live the same day over and over again until he not only gains some insight into his life but changes his priorities. Similarly, as I illustrate in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, we in the emerging American police state find ourselves reliving the same set of circumstances over and over again—egregious surveillance, strip searches, police shootings of unarmed citizens, government spying, the criminalization of lawful activities, warmongering, etc.—although with far fewer moments of comic hilarity.
What remains to be seen is whether 2016 will bring more of the same or whether “we the people” will wake up from our somnambulant states. Indeed, when it comes to civil liberties and freedom, 2015 was far from a banner year.
The following is just a sampling of what we can look forward to repeating if we don’t find some way to push back against the menace of an overreaching, aggressive, invasive, militarized surveillance state.
More surveillance. The surveillance state is alive and well and kicking privacy to shreds in America. Whether you’re walking through a store, driving your car, checking email, or talking to friends and family on the phone, you can be sure that some government agency, whether the NSA or some other entity, will still be listening in and tracking your behavior. This doesn’t even begin to touch on the corporate trackers that monitor your purchases, web browsing, Facebook posts and other activities taking place in the cyber sphere. We are now in a state of transition with the police state shifting into high-gear under the auspices of the surveillance state. In such an environment, we are all suspects to be spied on, searched, scanned, frisked, monitored, tracked and treated as if we’re potentially guilty of some wrongdoing or other. Even our homes provide little protection against government intrusions. Police agencies, already empowered to crash through your door if they suspect you’re up to no good, now have radars that allow them to “see” through the walls of your home.
More militarized police. Americans will continue to be rendered powerless in the face of militarized police. In early America, government agents were not permitted to enter one’s home without permission or in a deceitful manner. And citizens could resist arrest when a police officer tried to restrain them without proper justification or a warrant. Daring to dispute a warrant with a police official today who is armed with high-tech military weapons would be nothing short of suicidal. Moreover, as police forces across the country continue to be transformed into extensions of the military, Americans are finding their once-peaceful communities transformed into military outposts, complete with tanks, weaponry, and other equipment designed for the battlefield. Having already transformed local police into extensions of the military, now the Department of Homeland Security, the Justice Department and the FBI are preparing to turn the nation’s police officers into techno-warriors, complete with iris scanners, body scanners, thermal imaging Doppler radar devices, facial recognition programs, license plate readers, cell phone Stingray devices and so much more.
More police shootings of unarmed citizens. Owing in large part to the militarization of local law enforcement agencies, not a week goes by without more reports of hair-raising incidents by police imbued with a take-no-prisoners attitude and a battlefield approach to the communities in which they serve.
More so-called “terrorist” attacks. Despite the government’s endless propaganda about the threat of terrorism and even in the wake of the shootings in San Bernardino and Paris, statistics show that you are 17,600 times more likely to die from heart disease than from a terrorist attack. You are 11,000 times more likely to die from an airplane accident than from a terrorist plot involving an airplane. You are 1,048 times more likely to die from a car accident than a terrorist attack. You are 404 times more likely to die in a fall than from a terrorist attack. And you are 8 times more likely to be killed by a police officer than by a terrorist.
More costly wars. The military industrial complex that has advocated that the U.S. remain at war, year after year, is the very entity that will continue to profit the most from America’s expanding military empire. The U.S. Department of Defense is the world’s largest employer, with more than 3.2 million employees. Thus far, the U.S. taxpayer has been made to shell out more than $1.6 trillion to wage wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. When you add in our military efforts in Pakistan, as well as the lifetime price of health care for disabled veterans and interest on the national debt, that cost rises to $4.4 trillion.
More attempts by the government to identify, target and punish so-called domestic “extremists.” In much the same way that the USA Patriot Act was used as a front to advance the surveillance state, the government’s anti-extremism program will, in many cases, be utilized to render otherwise lawful, nonviolent activities as potentially extremist. To this end, police will identify, monitor and deter individuals who exhibit, express or engage in anything that could be construed as extremist before they can become actual threats. This is pre-crime on an ideological scale and it’s been a long time coming. Moreover, under the guise of fighting violent extremism “in all of its forms and manifestations” in cities and communities across the world, the Obama administration has agreed to partner with the United Nations to take part in its Strong Cities Network program and hire a domestic extremism czar.
More SWAT team raids. More than 80% of American communities have their own SWAT teams, with more than 80,000 of these paramilitary raids are carried out every year. That translates to more than 200 SWAT team raids every day in which police crash through doors, damage private property, kill citizens, terrorize adults and children alike, kill family pets, assault or shoot anyone that is perceived as threatening—and all in the pursuit of someone merely suspected of a crime, usually some small amount of drugs.
More erosions of private property. Private property means little at a time when SWAT teams and other government agents can invade your home, break down your doors, kill your dog, wound or kill you, damage your furnishings and terrorize your family. Likewise, if government officials can fine and arrest you for growing vegetables in your front yard, praying with friends in your living room, installing solar panels on your roof, and raising chickens in your backyard, you’re no longer the owner of your property.
More debt. Currently, the national debt is somewhere in the vicinity of a whopping $18.1 trillion and rising that our government owes to foreign countries, private corporations and its retirement programs. Not only is the U.S. the largest debtor nation in the world, but according to Forbes, “the amount of interest on the national debt is estimated to be accumulating at a rate of over one million dollars per minute.”
More government contractors. Despite all the talk about big and small government, what we have been saddled with is a government that is outsourcing much of its work to high-paid contractors at great expense to the taxpayer and with no competition, little transparency and dubious savings. According to the Washington Post, “By some estimates, there are twice as many people doing government work under contract than there are government workers.” These open-ended contracts, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, “now account for anywhere between one quarter and one half of all federal service contracting.”
More overcriminalization. The 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.
More strip searches and the denigration of bodily integrity. The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was intended to protect the citizenry from being subjected to “unreasonable searches and seizures” by government agents. While the literal purpose of the amendment is to protect our property and our bodies from unwarranted government intrusion, the moral intention behind it is to protect our human dignity. Unfortunately, court rulings undermining the Fourth Amendment and justifying invasive strip searches have left us powerless against police empowered to forcefully draw our blood, forcibly take our DNA, strip search us, and probe us intimately. Accounts are on the rise of individuals—men and women alike—being subjected to what is essentially government-sanctioned rape by police in the course of “routine” traffic stops.
More injustice. Americans can no longer rely on the courts to mete out justice. The courts were established to intervene and protect the people against the government and its agents when they overstep their bounds. Yet the courts increasingly march in lockstep with the police state, while concerned themselves primarily with advancing the government’s agenda, no matter how unjust or illegal. As a result, Americans have no protection against police abuse. It is no longer unusual to hear about incidents in which police shoot unarmed individuals first and ask questions later. What is increasingly common, however, is the news that the officers involved in these incidents get off with little more than a slap on the hands.
More political spectacles. Americans continue to naively buy into the idea that politics matter, as if there really were a difference between the Republicans and Democrats (there’s not). As if Barack Obama proved to be any different from George W. Bush (he has not). As if Hillary Clinton’s values are any different from Donald Trump’s (with both of them, money talks). As if when we elect a president, we’re getting someone who truly represents “we the people” rather than the corporate state (in fact, in the oligarchy that is the American police state, an elite group of wealthy donors is calling the shots). Politics in America is a game, a joke, a hustle, a con, a distraction, a spectacle, a sport, and for many devout Americans, a religion. In other words, it’s a sophisticated ruse aimed at keeping us divided and fighting over two parties whose priorities are exactly the same.
More drones. As corporations and government agencies alike prepare for their part in the coming drone invasion—it is expected that at least 30,000 drones will occupy U.S. airspace by 2020, ushering in a $30 billion per year industry—it won’t be long before American citizens who will be the target of these devices discover first-hand that drones—unmanned aerial vehicles—come in all shapes and sizes, from nano-sized drones as small as a grain of sand that can do everything from conducting surveillance to detonating explosive charges, to middle-sized copter drones that can deliver pizzas to massive “hunter/killer” Predator warships that unleash firepower from on high.
More dumbed down, locked down public schools. Our schools have become training grounds for compliant citizens. Despite the fact that we spend more than most of the world on education ($115,000 per student), we rank 36th in the world when it comes to math, reading and science, far below most of our Asian counterparts. Even so, we continue to insist on standardized programs such as Common Core, which teach students to be test-takers rather than thinkers. Making matters worse is the heavy police presence in schools, which have become little more than quasi-prisons in which classrooms are locked down and kids as young as age 4 are being handcuffed for “acting up,” subjected to body searches, and suspended for childish behavior.
More ignorance about our rights. Americans know little to nothing about their rights or how the government is supposed to operate. This includes educators and politicians. For example, 27 percent of elected officials cannot name even one right or freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment, while 54 percent do not know the Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war.
More prisons. Our prisons, housing the largest number of inmates in the world and still growing, have become money-making enterprises for private corporations that manage the prisons in exchange for the states agreeing to maintain a 90% occupancy rate 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. Little surprise, then, that the United States has 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prisoners.
More corruption. If there is any absolute maxim by which the federal government seems to operate, it is that the American taxpayer always gets ripped off. This is true, whether you’re talking about taxpayers being forced to fund high-priced weaponry that will be used against us, endless wars that do little for our safety or our freedoms, or bloated government agencies such as the National Security Agency with its secret budgets, covert agendas and clandestine activities. Rubbing salt in the wound, even monetary awards in lawsuits against government officials who are found guilty of wrongdoing are paid by the taxpayer.
More censorship. First Amendment activities are being pummeled, punched, kicked, choked, chained and generally gagged all across the country. The reasons for such censorship vary widely from political correctness, safety concerns and bullying to national security and hate crimes but the end result remains the same: the complete eradication of what Benjamin Franklin referred to as the “principal pillar of a free government.” Free speech zones, bubble zones, trespass zones, anti-bullying legislation, zero tolerance policies, hate crime laws and a host of other legalistic maladies dreamed up by politicians and prosecutors have conspired to corrode our core freedoms. As a result, we are no longer a nation of constitutional purists for whom the Bill of Rights serves as the ultimate authority. We have litigated and legislated our way into a new governmental framework where the dictates of petty bureaucrats carry greater weight than the inalienable rights of the citizenry.
More fascism. As a Princeton University survey indicates, our elected officials, especially those in the nation’s capital, represent the interests of the rich and powerful rather than the average citizen. We are no longer a representative republic. With Big Business and Big Government having fused into a corporate state, the president and his state counterparts—the governors, have become little more than CEOs of the Corporate State, which day by day is assuming more government control over our lives. Never before have average Americans had so little say in the workings of their government and even less access to their so-called representatives.
More fear. We’re being fed a constant diet of fear, which has resulted in Americans adopting an “us” against “them” mindset that keeps us divided into factions, unable to reach consensus about anything and too distracted to notice the police state closing in on us.
James Madison, the father of the Constitution, put it best: “Take alarm,” he warned, “at the first experiment with liberties.” Anyone with even a casual knowledge about current events knows that the first experiment on our freedoms happened long ago. Worse, we have not heeded the warnings of Madison and those like him who understood that if you give the government an inch, they will take a mile. Unfortunately, the government has not only taken a mile, they have taken mile after mile after mile after mile with seemingly no end in sight for their power grabs.
If you’re in the business of making New Year’s resolutions, why not resolve that 2016 will be the year we break the cycle of tyranny and get back on the road to freedom? No matter what the politicians say about the dire state of our nation, you can rest assured that none of the problems that continue to plague our lives and undermine our freedoms will be resolved by our so-called elected representatives in any credible, helpful way in the new year.
“We the people”—the citizenry, not the politicians—are the only ones who have ever been able to enact effective change, and there is a lot that needs to change.
All of the signs point to something nasty up ahead.