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A Love Affair with Authority: How Big Changes in the Federal Government are Affecting Small Town America

By David McNair
January 13, 2002

The legislative actions taken by our federal government to combat terrorism and strengthen national security, such as the passage of the USA Patriot Act shortly after 9/11 and the recently passed Homeland Security Bill, represent a government reorganization that Americans have not seen the likes of since the creation of the Department of Defense in 1947. Of course, Congress discussed that restructuring for two years before President Truman signed the legislation, whereas the USA Patriot Act was taken rather lightly and passed in just six weeks. But as President Eisenhower pointed out in his farewell address to the nation in 1961, massive restructurings like this were not to be taken lightly:

"This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence—economic, political, even spiritual—is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society."

Eisenhower went on to coin the term "military-industrial complex" and warned Americans that they must "never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes." Of course, Ike was no peacenik. He felt the military-industrial complex was necessary and that "our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction." But he also had the good sense to realize, and the courage to tell us, that a massive restructuring of government like this was more than just a different way of doing business—it had and would change our lives as Americans.

In similar fashion, the effects of the latest government restructurings are being felt across the nation. In fact, many Americans are beginning to realize that these changes are having a profound effect on the general attitudes of state and local authorities, who seem to be trying to mirror federal initiatives by adopting more authoritarian policies. For example, at a high school in Dayton, Ohio, two students were commended by their principal for turning in another student who wore an anti-Bush t-shirt. The student’s t-shirt was confiscated and he was later interrogated by the FBI and the Secret Service. And at another high school in Pennsylvania a teacher found himself surrounded by armed guards for writing a note thought to be supportive of Osama bin Laden. Working on a book about how to face adversity, the teacher had scribbled "Osama bin Laden did us a favor…he vulcanized us, awakened us and strengthened our resolve" on a scrap of paper before throwing it in the wastebasket. A short time later, he was surrounded by school security and questioned in the school parking lot. In yet another incident, a woman on jury duty in Grand Rapids, Michigan, was sentenced to 24 hours community service for telling a judge during the jury selection process that she had negative feelings about the police. Clearly, we are in the midst of a love affair with authority. How else does one explain these incidents? How else can one explain the unlikable Rudy Guiliani’s transformation into sainthood post 9/11? Or for that matter, Attorney General John Ashcroft’s transformation from Fourth Amendment advocate (see Ashcroft’s 1997 article "Keep Big Brother’s Hands Off the Internet") to cheerleader for the Justice Department’s Operation TIPS system (Terrorism Information and Prevention System), which sought to enlist Americans to spy on one another? (Thanks to Congressman Dick Armey (R-TX), Operation TIPS was removed from the Homeland Security Bill). And how does one explain the creation of the Total Awareness Information System, a Pentagon IT program which seeks to monitor and analyze the electronic transactions of millions of Americans, and whose logo is a variation of the great seal of the United States, featuring an all-seeing eye above a pyramid seeming to scan the earth? Perhaps there’s good reason for all this given the potential threats we face, and our natural desire for authority figures in times of crisis, but how might federal initiatives like this influence the governmental chain of command and affect the future of our society?

Across the country, cities and towns are beginning to give police and security personnel even more freedom and authority. In New York City, the NYPD is trying to get rid of a federal order that prevents police from spying on people who exercise their constitutional rights. The order was imposed after a lawsuit in the 1970s proved the NYPD was guilty of widespread surveillance abuses of political activists. In Washington D.C. there’s an initiative to begin installing video cameras in certain neighborhoods, an initiative gaining ground in other cities as well. And even before 9/11, police tactics with regard to the war on drugs and drunk driving have grown startlingly militaristic. (See Joel Miller’s Oldspeak article about the drug war, Cops at War). In Fairfax, Virginia, recently, a team of police officers in SWAT-like gear raided a tavern and hauled people eating dinner out on to the street to give them sobriety tests. And even here in Charlottesville, Virginia, the impulse toward guarding the fortress was revealed in a November city council meeting when, after a long list of boring, small-town legislative agenda had been addressed, one council member suggested the city consider coming up with its own Homeland Security program. What’s next, councilman, a missile defense system?

Clearly, the societal impulse toward authoritarianism has been intensifying in recent years, both in the way the authorities are behaving and the way citizens are allowing authorities to behave. The passage of the USA Patriot Act, the Homeland Security Bill, and the development of such programs as Operation TIPS and the Total Information Awareness System is reinforcing this trend and having a "trickle down effect" on all areas of our society. Of course, the Office of Homeland Security has yet to be funded, a small detail the last Congress left out when it passed the bill, but in many ways that is beside the point. What’s trickling down is similar to what Eisenhower warned us about; specifically, the profound influence these structural changes on the federal level are having on the reality of our daily lives as Americans. The prerogative is in motion and the force of that alone can sanction all kinds of radical change. For example, a vocational school in San Jose, California, is now offering courses in a seven-month "Homeland Security Specialist" program, even though there are no actual jobs available for people with such a degree. And if the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) has its way, a new proposal would require anyone traveling outside the United States to provide detailed personal information in order to fly. In addition, many local health departments are saying that President Bush’s federal smallpox vaccination program, an effort to combat bio-terrorism, will severely disrupt their ability to provide effective health services in other areas. Shouldn’t we be outraged at having to be hauled out of a restaurant by police to take a sobriety test? Or having to give our life histories to take a Paris vacation? No, the thinking goes, it’s just the price we have to pay for preparedness; it’s just the authorities doing their job, protecting us from the threat of drunk drivers, or terrorists, drug dealers, and other dangers lurking in the shadows. Depending on how real these threats become, and how fearful we as Americans become, and how willing we are to let the government solve our problems, a "lock-down" mentality is almost certain to take root in the national psyche, justifying all kinds of modifications and changes to our Constitution and the Bill of Rights, just as the Cold War and the fear of nuclear holocaust justified the marriage of our national economy and the mass production of arms.

However, resistance to this trend has found footing on a local level as well. In February of last year, The Bill of Rights Defense Committee was founded in Northampton, Massachusetts. The group pressed the town to pass a resolution aimed at protecting local citizens from the "trickle down effect" of the USA Patriot Act and the Homeland Security Bill on local authorities. So far, over 22 towns and cities across the country have followed Northampton’s lead, passing resolutions that require local law enforcement to "preserve residents' freedom of speech, religion, assembly and privacy; rights to counsel and due process in judicial proceedings; and protection from unreasonable searches and seizures even if requested or authorized to infringe upon these rights by federal law enforcement acting under new powers granted by the USA Patriot Act or orders of the Executive Branch." Essentially, these resolutions are asking local authorities to honor constitutional protections that have been largely stripped away at the federal level. Now that Congress has allowed the executive branch to push through legislation that would have been flatly rejected by the public before 9/11 (Note: almost everything in the USA Patriot Act had been proposed by the government at one time or another, and each time these proposals were rejected because of the threats they posed to our civil liberties.), this grassroots movement and the government’s promise not to abuse its new powers are the only real defense we have against what Congressman Ron Paul (R-TX) has called the "Homeland Security Monstrosity."

Everyone has had their eye on Attorney General John Ashcroft and the Justice Department, as well as on Congress and the Bush Administration, but who’s watching the county judge who overlooks a warrant-less search by the local cops or punishes a jurist for saying she doesn’t trust the police? Or the small town principal who encourages students to report fellow students who make anti-government remarks? Or the security guard looking through your trash at work? Or the millions of civil servants who might now feel it is their duty to serve the Homeland Security office? Might the directives from our authorities on high be influencing the attitudes of the local politicians, judges, law enforcement officials and other civil servants who have command over our daily lives? Might these directives be influencing the public’s attitudes about authority itself? And ultimately, might the restructuring of the federal government in 2001-02, as Eisenhower said of the restructuring in 1947, affect the "very structure of our society" in a way that will change the American experience?

Of course, only time will tell. But in the meantime, you might want to find out what your federal and local authorities are up to.



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