Canada, America, Together into the storm
April 12, 2012
Canada, America, Together into the storm
April 12, 2012
Thank you very much. Thanks so much for that and thanks for coming out this evening. And thank you as well to Prism Magazine and to the Ottawa School of Journalism and Communication and to the National Press Club Foundation for sponsoring the event; and particularly thank you to Bill Owen, who is a resident of Ottawa and a long time reader of mine whose idea it was to have me come here, and who really did a fantastic job on organizing the event. I really appreciate that.
I’m really happy to be in
and to be here to speak about these issues. The reason for that is the
following: I actually go to a lot of events and have been speaking at a lot of
events over the past several years about issues of civil liberties erosions and
endless war and militarism, and growing government secrecy and executive
authority in the post 9/11 era. Typically, because I write about the conduct of
the Canada United States government
primarily, most of those events that I attend are in the .
But over the past several years, I’ve been asked with increasing frequency to
speak about these issues in countries other than the United States . I also have a very
international readership. I think only something like 55 or 60 percent of the
people who read me are located within the United States United
States and the rest are outside of the .
These facts used to be a little bit baffling to me. I had a hard time at first,
understanding why, given my focus on the policies and conduct of the United States government,
that that was the case. One of the things I’ve realized from going to different
countries and speaking about these issues and becoming somewhat immersed in
their political controversies and political disputes, and speaking with people
in those countries who work on the same issues, is that there really is an
extreme similarity in the dynamic of how these issues express themselves in
what I would describe generally as western countries, but more specifically in
the United States and it’s predominantly English speaking allies, by which I
mean Britain, Australia and Canada. US
The similarity that I would…I think there are a lot of ways in which you could talk about these similarities, but the principal way that I would talk about it and think about is that it is defined by this extremely glaring paradox, and that paradox is the following: the west really started to pay attention to the concept of what it considers to be terrorism [which essentially means violence committed by Muslims directed at the west] it really started to pay attention in any significant way to that issue and to it’s understanding of that problem, with the September 11 attack on the United States. It isn’t very surprising, in fact it’s perfectly natural that in the immediate aftermath of that event which was pretty traumatic for people not just in the United States but in the west, who perceived that there was this new-found vulnerability, to react or even over-react in ways that they hadn’t previously considered doing. So, it made sense that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, in the weeks and months and even, say, the first couple of years that people were willing to vest more power in their government in exchange for promises of safety.
And yet, one would expect just naturally, that as cultures and societies became increasingly removed from that traumatic event, we’re now over a decade away from the 9/11 attacks; we’re more than six years away from the subway attacks in London; neither Australia nor Canada have ever had a serious terrorist attack perpetrated by Islamic radicals. You would think that as the threat and the perception of the threat subsided, that these policies would begin to recede, and that the willingness of the populations to vest these extraordinary powers in their government would be reduced as well. What has happened, instead, and this is what I refer to as the paradox [and it’s happened not only in the
but also in its closest allies] is exactly the opposite. As we’ve gotten
further away from the memory of the 9/11 attack, as the perception of the
threat from Islamic radicalism and what we consider to be terrorism, as that
perception diminishes, the claims that governments are making on increased
power in the name of terrorism, have actually been increasing, and they’ve been
increasing radically and dramatically especially as of late. So you see claims
in the United States
that the government has the power to do things like not just imprison people
without due process of charges of any kind, but to target their own citizens
for assassination. You see proposals pending by the British and Canadian
governments to dramatically increase their ability to engage in surveillance on
the internet. You see in United States
all kinds of measures to increase the tension and surveillance authorities, all
being justified in the name of this threat that has actually really diminished
significantly over the past decade. Australia
So, this is what I mean by the similarity. The trends are very similar between the
and other countries that express an interest in having these discussions. It’s
not really immediately obvious that that should be the case. I mean, different
countries, even English speaking allies of an Anglo tradition, have very
different political cultures. They have very different understandings of their
relationship to their government. They have different understandings of what
threats are and what really threatens their interests. And yet, you do have
this extreme similarity that I just think at first glance is surprising. I
think it’s really worth asking what it is that accounts for these similarities.
Why is it that these countries of seemingly disparate political orientations,
are none the less progressing ever more aggressively on this route of
empowering the government to detain and to surveil; to a belief in the virtues
of militarism and endless war and an expanding national security state; to
allowing government and political officials to operate behind an increasingly
opaque wall of secrecy. What is it that accounts for this trend that really can
be seen across cultural lines and in a variety of countries that have sort of
banded together in the wake of 9/11 in common cause? United States
I think there are a few factors that account for this that are really worth considering. The first one is that it is all driven by a common mindset, a common mentality. That mentality can be described along the following lines: it is the mentality that says that if you can be convinced that there’s some threat that’s being posed to your security and your safety, it is worthwhile to empower the government, to take whatever steps it can take to minimize the risk that’s being posed to your security and your safety, without regard to assessing whatever costs doing so might entail to things like your liberty or your privacy or your ability to restrain political power. It’s really a mind set that venerates security, physical security, above all other values, all other political values. So that as long as you can be convinced that there’s some mild benefit to security from a certain government policy or power, then people who have acquiesced to this mind set are willing to accept that proposed power or proposed policy. The reason that that explains the paradox that I started off by describing, [the paradox that as we move further away from 9/11 and the threat of terrorism, we continue to allow greater government power in the name of terrorism and greater government secrecy and assaults on liberty, and the like]; the reason that mind set explains that is because it is a self perpetuating mind set. Once you go down that path of thinking, it is impossible to remove yourself from that path. The reason is that there is never a moment when we reach a state of complete and absolute safety. That’s a purely illusory state of affairs. We’re always going to have some sort of threat that can be identified to our security and our physical well being. If governments are in a position where they can justify new powers based on simply identifying added or new or still existing threats to physical security, then it will always be the case, by definition, that governments can convince their population to allow them greater and greater power in the name of this threat.
I think when we talk ten years removed from 9/11, and in this world that we consider the post 9/11 era, I think if we talk about that mind set in the way I’ve just described it, it doesn’t seem all that odd or weird or extraordinary, the idea that we should consider physical security to be the most important value that outweighs all other considerations. That doesn’t seem like a particularly radical or fringe notion. In fact, in the United States, there are lots of politicians, including ones who are on the right wing of the Republican Party, who pride themselves on exuding what they consider to be this sort of tough guy demeanor, this sort of I’m a rugged individualist who is going to stand firm up to my enemies, they will constantly say, without really much controversy if you raise the issue of civil liberties or privacy, or government surveillance, what they’ll say with a perfectly straight face with no recognition that it’s an odd or radical concept, they say well civil liberties really don’t matter much if you’re dead, which is really a way of saying that as long as I can do something to increase my own security I’m willing to do that, because staying alive is the most important value. They say it as though it’s just the most obvious thing in the world, that it’s not controversial.
What’s really strange about that concept is that it really is an extremely radical concept. By radical, I mean it’s really a new concept, a new way of thinking, certainly in recent western political traditions. If you look back, for example, on what American school children are taught about the American founding and the reasons why we should revere the American founders, the sort of mythical proclamation that is supposed to define the American ethos was when Patrick Henry stood up and was told that revolution against the greatest empire on the earth at the time, the British Empire, was likely to be a futile cause, that they going to wipe out the American colonists, and he stood up and said “Give me Liberty, or give me death”; which is a renunciation of this idea that the only thing that matters is physical security. It’s the opposite embrace. It’s the idea that there are certain things more important than maximizing physical safety, including being able to live with basic liberties, being able to live free of despotism and tyranny. This was not supposed to be a radical concept. This was supposed to be the defining ethos of the American political project that all American school children are taught to embrace. And yet, I think not just in the
but in its Western allies as well, that value has really been lost. United States
And one of the, just to make it a little bit less abstract than Patrick Henry’s sort of mythical proclamation, if you look at the US Constitution, and this is true of Constitutions in pretty much every single western country, what you find is that value that I just described embedded very clearly in the document; pervading our understanding of what political liberties are supposed to be about. The example I always like to focus on is the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution which says that the government shall be barred from searching or seizing people’s homes or property or papers or affects unless they can first demonstrate to a court that there’s probable cause to believe that the people or the homes that they want to search relate substantially to criminal activity. The reason why that’s a pretty amazing right to embed into the constitution [and there are similar rights in most western Constitutions], is because it’s actually a pretty risky thing to do to constrain the ability of the police to investigate crimes that way; to say to the police you can not enter homes and you can not search whatever you want to search unless you first convince a court that there’s evidence to reach a level of probable cause so that the court approves what it is you want to do, because if you restrain the police that way, what you’re basically doing is ensuring that lots of really evil and violent criminals are going to remain unapprehended. It would be so much better for security if we allow the police to invade whatever homes they wanted at will, to search whomever they wanted under any circumstances at any moment. A mindset that said that physical security was the most important thing that catching people who mean to do us or our families harm, is the most important political priority, a mind set like that would never have approved of the Fourth Amendment, because why would you possibly want to restrain the police in their efforts to keep you and your family safe? And yet, exactly the opposite judgment was made at the time the American Constitution was written, and was ratified. It’s the exact opposite political tradition and political judgment that permeates western conceptions of freedom generally, which is the idea that there are other values that compete at least on an equal basis, and in fact are more important than mere physical security. And yet, the 9/11 attack enabled governments to propagate this mind set of fear mongering, so that it has caused large majorities of western countries, of western populations to abandon that central political judgment that really had endured for several centuries. Once you abandon that political judgment it becomes self perpetuating. It no longer matters how proximate a particular threat is, how close you are to the threat of terrorism. As long as threat of terrorism is still vaguely out there, or the threat of crime is vaguely out there, [and it always will be] then the government can always convince the citizenry that greater and greater powers are warranted. I think that’s what you’re seeing in all of these western countries: this idea that’s really permeated these countries, like a contagion, like a virus, and it’s what’s really accounts for this paradox that I described taking place in all of these different nations.
So, That’s one reason that I think accounts for that common trend among these different countries. A second reason is that these policies that all of these countries banded together to pursue in the wake of 9/11 in the name of terrorism: militarism, war, taking a militarized approach to the problem of terrorism, empowering the government domestically to monitor and surveil various populations and really the population as a whole; that gives rise to a very powerful industry, basically a national security state and a surveillance industry that essentially needs the continuation of these policies as the fuel that feeds it, even once the justification for those policies no longer exists. So, you can look back. This is not a controversial conception. You can look back fifty years to the farewell address given by Dwight Eisenhower, who was a Republican two-term American President. He was also a five star general who commanded WWII troops and is often credited with winning WWII for the
No radical, he, Dwight Eisenhower, and yet, when he left his presidency after
two terms, he gave a speech to the United States and he warned the United
States about what he called the military industrial complex. The collaboration
between the public war making factions of the government and the private
industry that produces armaments and produces weapons and produces defense
technology, and the way in which these two factions band together, he warned,
fifty years ago, would threaten to subvert democracy. They would essentially
become more powerful even in democratically elected officials that they would
be beyond the realm of democratic accountability; and their voracious appetite
for more profit would basically ensure that they would continuously create the
pretext for war, for more militarism, for more surveillance for more of a
national security state mind set, even when there was no justification for it. United States
You see this mind set, that he warned about fifty years ago, and it’s so much worse now, constantly. I know there’s a debate in
a controversy in
over the government’s acquisition of F-35 fighter jets, and this spiraling cost
and the procurement process. One of the really funny and weird things is that,
in preparation for my coming here I actually immersed myself pretty intensively
in this controversy. I read a lot of articles and a lot of columnists and a lot
of debates about it taking place in Canada . One of the things that you
will never find, even from opponents of the government’s attempt to purchase
these weapons, and it’s really a
conspicuous absence, yet it doesn’t really seem to strike many people in its
absence] is any real explanation for why Canada needs these extremely
sophisticated fighter jets. You know, I remember, I started reading it, and I
spent like a few days reading it; and there was all this technical debate about
whether the procurement process was corrupt and was it a reasonable expectation
that the costs had spiraled. Then all of a sudden, I just took a step back and
put that down and I actually I did, I said to myself, why does Canada need
these weapons, is there a country threatening Canada? Is there some reason that
these extremely sophisticated fighter jets will ward off the threat of
terrorism? And the reason that that explanation is lacking is because this
machine of militarism marches on without any need for any real pretext or
justification. There are some vague claims about how national security requires
this purchase, but it really is a culture that drives policy, and it doesn’t
really need to give an explanation to the citizenry. What’s really most amazing
about that is, I know just from the couple of days that I’ve been here and in
the couple of weeks that preceded my arrival when I was following Canadian
debates, one of the things that you see in Canadian political discourse is
something you see in almost every western political culture now, which is
constant claims from the government and the political class that the country is
burdened by extreme levels of debt, and that as a result, all kinds of
government services need to be cut. Just listening to local television here in Canada , I heard all kinds
of discussions about huge layoffs on the part of government agencies. There are
all kinds of debates about what social services need to be cut, even though
cutting these social services and laying off people will take money out of the
economy and exactly the time that the economy is restricting. But, there’s this
constant claim that there’s huge economic pressures that compel the government
to eliminate all luxury items and anything including even necessities, and yet,
at the very same time, there’s hundreds of billions of dollars being spent on
weapons that the government plainly does not need. This is true in the Ottawa
even more so. It’s true in United States Britain,
it’s true in .
It’s true throughout the western world. The reason is that this industry, this
complex, about which Dwight Eisenhower warned, is really that powerful that it
can continue to commandeer the money from the middle classes of this country,
the tax payers, at exactly the same time their being told they have to
sacrifice and subject themselves to all kinds of austerity and pain, they can
commandeer this money to feed the insatiable beast that is endless militarism,
even without even pretending that there’s a real justification. It, too, is a
self perpetuating complex. Australia
And then the third factor that I think explains the common dynamic that I described, this paradox in all of these countries, is the fact that power is extremely addictive; that’s just true as part of human nature. One of the things that happens when governments can convince their populations that there’s some grave external threat or even internal threat, that necessitates a posture of militarism and greater government power to protect the population, is that political leaders become increasingly unconstrained in the power that they exercise. This, too goes back, that observation is as old as politics, itself.
as part of the Roman Empire observed that in
times of war the law falls mute; meaning once a government can convince its
citizenry to go to war, law and legal constraints, the instruments we use to
constrain political leaders, simply no longer matters. James Madison, the
American founder probably most responsible for the framing of the American
Constitution, said that war is the greatest enemy of liberty; the one most to
be dreaded, because at times of war, the population not only acquiesces to but
encourages and demands restrictions on political liberty, which is another way
of saying increasing government power. So, when you constantly tell a population for a decade that it faces this grave and significant threat, whatever you want to call it, terrorism, Islamic radicalism, domestic crime, you put the population in a posture of fear.
... when you constantly tell a population for a decade that it faces this grave and significant threat, whatever you want to call it, terrorism, Islamic radicalism, domestic crime, you put the population in a posture of fear.Once, they’re in a posture of fear, they no longer want to constrain political leaders. And political leaders like that state of affairs. They become addicted to it. The more it happens, the more they want it to happen. You see this with western leaders as well, who not because they’re consciously malignant in their intentions, but sometimes because they believe they’re benevolent, they believe that they should not be constrained by bothersome concepts of law or democratic accountability or transparency. They know that keeping the population in a state of fear is the way to convince them not to so constrain them.
So, these are the factors that I think explain why this trend exists; why it’s so powerful, why it continues even as we move further and further away from a palpable threat of terrorism. I think the important thing to note about all of those factors, the ones that I just described, is how potent they are; how much they appeal to our base instincts; the desire for power, the pursuit of profit are incredibly central attributes of human nature. Once you are able to put a population in fear for their physical safety, the instinct to safeguard our physical well being, the well being of our families is incredibly base. When you add on top of that the tactic of convincing the population that it’s only a subset of the population, a small subset of the population that will be targeted by these civil liberties abuses, by this increasing government surveillance or detention, which in western countries means Muslims, which are minorities in all of these countries, when you add onto that this pernicious flavoring that all of that has is the idea that all of that won’t affect the majority of people in the society, it will only affect these others, who are sort of foreign and exotic even when they’re citizens of your own country. That, too, is a very base and primal appeal; the idea that there should be others who are demonized and treated differently is something that appeals to us as human beings as well. So these are incredibly potent forces being brought to bear to ensure the continuation of these policies. It’s easy to scoff at them, it’s easy to look at them in an overly rationalized or intellectualized way and be dismissive of them, but they’re incredibly powerful in terms of the appeal that they have to all human beings by virtue of our human nature.
So, I think it’s extremely important, in fact, incumbent upon anybody who wants to work against these trends, or to convince our fellow citizens that they should care more about them and to oppose them, to think about ways to compete with these very primal forces in terms of how they can be counterbalanced, and how you can convince people despite all of these extraordinarily formidable obstacles that have been arrayed in favor of these policies, how you can convince them to oppose these policies.
I think one of the things that often happens is, even among people who are sympathetic to the need to confront these policies, to battle against these trends, is a sort of attitude of defeatism sets in. Well, I just don’t believe that the average person is ever really going to care about theses rights; I don’t believe that they are ever going to be convinced that they’re more important than their physical safety. I just don’t think this is a possibility. Or, the tactic is just the wrong one. It’s too abstract and overly intellectualized. So, the attempt is made to convince people that they should care about basic liberties or civil protections or government transparency and accountability based on things that are just simply too abstract to compete with these primal drives. The idea that, well, these are the things that make us free as a people, or these are things that are embedded in our political tradition. These really don’t even compete with the power of fear or the demonization of others when it comes to persuading people to act. So, I think it’s very important, whenever people gather in a situation like this, and want to talk about basic freedoms and liberties and transparency and accountability, to do the hard work of thinking about how to talk about them in a way that will get other people who don’t already see that they’re important, to start realizing their importance.
So, I just want to spend a little bit of time examining some of those ways that I think that that can be highlighted, because I think that even for people who are intellectually sympathetic to a civil liberties agenda, to the idea that these things done in the name of security should be resisted, I think sometimes, even people in this room who are sympathetic to that agenda, also fall prey to the idea that maybe these conceptions aren’t really quite that important. The reason why it’s easy to fall prey to that mind set is because for most people in this room, I’d venture to bet, and for most people who are otherwise sympathetic to a civil liberties agenda or advocacy of these issues, when you wake up in the morning, on your list of immediate worries, you do not find things like fear that the government is going to come to your home and ship you to Guantanamo and keep you there for a decade without charges. Or, you probably don’t wake up worried that that afternoon, the government is going to send drones, unmanned drones over your house and launch a hellfire missile that will explode your house and kill your family. Or that you will be persecuted for your political speech by being charged with criminal offenses. So it’s easy to keep these at a sort of distance and to think, well, even though I’m intellectually sympathetic to them, I don’t really feel like they’re of immediate concern to me, and so it’s easy to deprioritize. So, I want to talk about why all of those assumptions are untrue and ways that I think that those assumptions can be dislodged when talking to other people about why they should care more about them or think that these things are disturbing.
So, the first thing I want talk about is the nature of what we even mean when we talk about these basic liberties. What does it mean when we refer when we describe civil liberties or the assault on civil liberties, or constitutional freedoms or the basic rights that in the western tradition that have come to define freedom. Really, all that means, it’s a pretty simple concept. All it really means is the limits and the lines that we’ve imposed on the government that they cannot cross under any circumstances, because we believe that to allow them to cross those lines is too dangerous and will inevitably lead to some form of tyranny.
So, for example, generally in western societies that consider themselves free, we have the idea that governments can’t imprison us unless they first charge us with a crime and present the evidence in a fair and open tribunal and convince either a jury or a judge beyond a reasonable doubt or some standard that we’re actually guilty of those crimes. We certainly believe that governments can’t simply target us for assassination. We think that powers that the government exercises that are the most consequential should not be exercised in complete secrecy and in the dark but instead should have all kinds of oversight and transparency to them. These are the kinds of things that we’re talking about: the most basic safeguards to political freedom when we talk about civil liberties.
One of the ways that it’s easy to convince the population to either accept and support assaults on those freedoms, or to at least passively accept that they’re going to happen, is to convince people that they will not be affected; that only some minority group, that probably deserves it in some way, will be. That’s what I was describing earlier by the way in which western countries have been convinced that since most of these abuses are being applied to Muslims, and maybe even to Muslims who are sort of more religious, who seem a little bit more inclined to identify as Muslims rather than as Canadians or Americans, or Brits, that specifically for those kinds of Muslims that these are the groups of people to whom these abuses are being confined, and therefore I don’t really need to care about them much.
So leave aside the question of whether or not that is an incredibly immoral way of thinking, that as long as it’s just them over there, who are being tortured and detained and assassinated, I don’t really need to worry about it as much; as long as it doesn’t happen to me. If somebody is of that mindset, there’s probably not a lot you can do to persuade them. But, leave that aside, that question, and instead, focus on the following, which is that it is simply an invariable truth, in the history of politics, in the history of government, that whenever a new power is acquired in the name of some threat, it always, not sometimes, not often, not usually, it always extends beyond its original application, beyond its original justification.
You know, it’s amazing, in the United States, in the wake of 9/11, one of the most controversial things that was done by the US government [and this was done in the weeks after 9/11, literally two weeks after 9/11] was the enactment of legislation called the Patriot Act that empowered the US government with all sorts of new powers of surveillance and infiltration. At the time, it was incredibly controversial. It was considered this radical step, but the country accepted it on the grounds that as the
smoldering, it was necessary to take these extraordinary steps to prevent it from
happening again. Well, ten years later, the Patriot Act is not even
controversial any longer. Every four years is has to get renewed and the vote
in the Congress, in the Senate is something like 91 to 9 to renew it. Now that
there’s a democrat in office, all the democrats and republicans, with very few
exceptions last time, last year, voted to renew the Patriot Act, with no
reforms, no changes of any kind. It’s become completely normalized. The reason
it’s become completely normalized whereas even in the week of 9/11, the weeks
after 9/11 it was considered radical, is because people have become convinced
that the Patriot Act is something that only gets applied to Muslim radicals.
That’s the only people on whom the government is interested in spying. And the
reality is completely the opposite. There are countless applications now, of
how the government uses the powers of the Patriot Act to spy on dissident
political groups, on peace groups, to infiltrate student organizations who are
opposing policies of the 9/11 attacks. The surveillance policies of the World Trade
have grown dramatically so that there are almost no limits, now, on the way in
which they can use these surveillance powers. I know, again, in my preparation
for coming to United States ,
there was a controversy. Some documents were obtained, just in this week I
believe, where this federalized, national centralized terrorist agency that is
designed and was created to monitor threats of terrorism on Canadian soil
basically got caught monitoring and infiltrating the Occupy movement that
existed on Canadian soil on the grounds that they’ve now expanded their mandate
so that any threats to Canadian national security, whether from Islamic
terrorists wanting to blow up shopping centers, to college students gathering
together and peacefully assembling in a park in order to protest financial policies,
is now within the purview of this agency and its powers can be used every bit
as much against them as they can against Muslims. I know there’s a controversy at
the defense ministry here where powers of spying and surveillance have been
used against political opponents of the defense ministry. This is always the
way in which power is expanded. Canada
Before I started writing about political issues I was a Constitutional lawyer. One of the types of work that I did was free speech advocacy, and free speech defense. In the course of that work, I would represent people who had some really repellant and pernicious political opinions. I mean really offensive political views. People like white supremacists and neo-nazis and people who believed in violence against immigrants; people who were very, very extreme in their views. Like most people who defend free speech in the
States, lawyers who defend free speech in the ,
like the ACLU and others, I would always get asked, you know, look, I totally
believe in free speech, they would say. I think it’s super important, but I
just don’t understand why you need to represent people like that. Why do you
need to represent those people in defense of this principle? The answer that I
would always give, really the only answer that you can give, is that whenever
the government wants to infringe political liberty, it always targets the
people who are the most marginalized and hated in the society, because that’s
the way the government convinces the citizenry that those abuses are
justifiable. The problem with the attitude that, well, I’m going to allow
government infringement of these rights as applied to those people over there [because
they kind of deserve it], is that once you’ve allowed that to take place given
your dislike for those people, or your belief that they’re sufficiently
separated from you that it doesn’t threaten you, those abuses become
legitimized. They become institutionalized. It then becomes impossible to argue
against them any longer. There’s a huge political controversy in the United
States, or at least there’s a political controversy in the United States [it’s actually
not huge; it should be] about the asserted power of President Obama to target
American citizens for assassination; literally to sit in secret, with no
transparency, no accountability and order American citizens killed -- executed by
the CIA, without even bothering to charge them with a crime. President Obama has
not only asserted this power, he has exercised it when he targeted Anwar al-Awlaki,
the United States US born, US citizen, Muslim preacher, who was in , for
assassination. He was killed last December by a drone attack. This is something
that you see constantly, is the idea that well, I’m comfortable having this
power asserted because it’s being applied to this extremist Muslim preacher,
who I kind of think probably deserves that. There’s no sense at all, that if
you allow the President this power; the power, I think, that is the most
tyrannical power a government can exercise, the power to target one’s own
citizens for death without due process, that power, eventually at some point,
even if you think Barack Obama is this sophisticated and noble and magnanimous,
progressive constitutional scholar, at some point, as troubling as this is to
some people, he’s going to leave office, and there’s going to be somebody less
noble and less magnanimous in office who will inherit that power. For anyone
who is comfortable with the assertion of that power now, none of those people
will have standing to complain or object when that power is applied to people
they think don’t deserve to be executed without due process. That’s always the
nature of civil liberties abuses is that they always extend beyond their
original application, and if you don’t object at the first instance, then
you’re essentially enabling and aiding and abetting the institution of this
The second important reason why it’s so imperative to oppose these policies, even if you think or can’t perceive immediately why they don’t affect you, is because the values that they destroy are incredibly significant, and once destroyed, the destruction is really irreversible. I think there’s this sense, for example, among the younger generation that has grown up accustomed to internet usage, there’s this sort of ethos in Silicon Valley and among the internet generation that privacy is not really that important; that privacy doesn’t really have significant value; and there’s a generalized sense that the government has implicated, that privacy is not something you should value, unless you’re doing something wrong. If you’re not doing something wrong, if you’re not engaged in wrong doing, why would you care if the government knows what you’re doing; keeps track of what you’re doing; has files on you to record what you’re doing? This is something you would only care about if you’re actually engaged in wrong doing. The extent to which we’ve allowed privacy to be destroyed in the name of surveillance is almost impossible to overstate. It really is the case that there’s very little that you can do on the internet, which is where most of our intellectual and mental life occurs now without serious and permanent detection on the part of the government and private corporations. It’s difficult sometimes to convince people why privacy is critically important, but one of the ways you can convince people that they should care about it is you can look to the 1984 novel by George Orwell, in which he imagined this dystopia where no privacy exists, and there were monitors by Big Brother in every single crevice of one’s home, so there was literally nothing that you did that was beyond the reach of government monitoring. Most people would be instinctively averse to that sort of constant surveillance, even if they can’t really explain why. The reason is because privacy is also an important part of our human nature. We need privacy even though we’re social creatures, because privacy is the place where creativity flourishes; where we can experiment with different kinds of thought; where we can challenge and defy convention and orthodoxy. It’s the place where you can experiment about who you are and what type of person you want to be and what type of person you want to become; how you can express yourself; how you can find your own path and deviate from the norm. Only the private realm enables that, because when you’re constantly being watched by judgmental eyes there is a sense that you need to conform, that’s what it’s designed to do. So the loss of privacy, although it’s difficult to convey why, is an incredibly destructive trend for us to permit.
To be a little more concrete about it, in terms of the internet, the value of the internet, the political value of the internet depends almost entirely on the ability of citizens to engage in activism and to communicate with one another with anonymity and with privacy. The Western world was almost unanimous in cheering the developments of the Arab Spring last year; the ability of citizens in incredibly oppressed countries to band together and to communicate with one another, and challenge some of the world’s most entrenched despots. And yet, one of the reasons why they were able to do that is because, there are lots of reasons, but one reason is because the internet finally fulfilled its promise as this democratizing technology, to allow even populations that had been purposely deprived, to band together and communicate with one another in a way that turned them into a very powerful force. The only way that that was allowed, the only reason that happened, was because they were able to so without fear of constant government monitoring and constant government detection. That’s the reason that almost every western society is seeking to engage in full scale surveillance of the internet, because they know that if they can ruin the ability to use the internet with privacy and anonymity, then it will really gut the value of that technology to challenge those in power. That’s an incredibly important attribute of the internet that is under constant attack. I think it’s not all that difficult, if you look at the way in which the internet has been used successfully, to understand why it’s important to resist that.
The last point I want to make, [and then we’ll have time for a good substantial question and answering session] is what I think is probably the most significant harm from allowing these erosions to take place, even if you think they’re not directly affecting you. And yet, it’s probably the most difficult to convey. I spend a lot of time thinking about and a lot of time writing about this point. I want to just describe it this way: one of the things that happens when governments are permitted to constantly increase their own authority and their own power at the expense of the privacy and liberty of individual citizens, is that it fundamentally changes the relationship between the citizenry and their own government. More specifically, it does that by creating a climate of fear that radically alters the behavior and the sense of possibility that people in a certain society have. I just want to tell a little personal anecdote about when that really became crystallized for me and how that kind of moved beyond the realm of the abstract into the very concrete. I have spent a lot of time over the past couple of years writing about WikiLeaks, and I write almost always in defense of that group and the whistle blowing and sort of explosions in the wall of secrecy behind which governments operate that they’ve been able to effectuate. I remember the first time that I wrote about WikiLeaks was in January of 2010. This was before very many people had heard about WikiLeaks. I hadn’t heard about them at all. It was before they did any of their news making releases. It was before even they posted the video of the helicopters in
journalists and unarmed civilians. It was before they had really done much in
the way of big news making at all, at least in the Baghdad . The way that I had learned about WikiLeaks
was that there was a top secret report prepared by the Pentagon in 2008. This
top secret report decreed WikiLeaks to be an enemy of the State. It talked
about ways that the Pentagon wanted to go about destroying WikiLeaks, and
undermining their efficacy. It talked about fabricating documents and
submitting them, so that once WikiLeaks published them, they would publish
false documents and there credibility would be destroyed. It talked about uncovering
the identity of their sources so that nobody would feel safe leaking any more
to WikiLeaks. It was a very elaborate plan prepared by the Pentagon as to how
they would destroy this enemy of the State and it was marked top secret.
Ironically, this report got leaked to WikiLeaks, which published it on its
website, the report in full, the top secret report, and the New York Times had
a very brief article about it. It talked about how the Pentagon had declared
this group that no one had really heard of before to be an enemy of the State.
I remember at the time [I didn’t know anything about WikiLeaks], but I remember
reading that report and the New York Time’s account of it and thinking that any
organization that has been declared an enemy of the State by the Pentagon and
that the Pentagon is working to destroy, is one that needs a lot more attention
and probably a lot of support. So, I went and looked at the history of
WikiLeaks and I had found that they had done some incredibly impressive work on
transparency. They had exposed corporate wrong doing in United States West
Africa. They had exposed government deceit in parts of Australia and in northern Europe.
The model and the template they had created was a very exciting one, because it
was allowing government transparency in a way that established newspapers for
all sorts of reasons were incapable of. Because I view pervasive government
secrecy as the lynchpin of all the abuses we’ve been talking about, and
transparency and sunlight as the ultimate weapon against them, I was very
enthused by the promise of this organization. I wrote a long article
highlighting their successes and the promise that I thought they held; and I
interviewed Julian Assange; and I published the interview with this article I
wrote. At the end of the piece that I wrote, I encouraged people who were also
supportive of their work to donate money to the organization, because they were
facing budgetary constraints that were preventing them from processing a lot of
the leaks that they were sitting on, including the ones that ultimately made
such news. I included some links to their PayPal account and some information
about how to wire money to their account as well. This is something I
periodically do. I encourage readers to donate money to organizations or to
causes I think are constructive. In response to my writing that, I had hundreds
of people, definitely dozens, probably hundreds, in all different venues, in
the comment section to the article I had written, by e-mail, at events like
this, come up to me and basically say the same thing, which is something along
the following lines. They would say look, I agree with you about the great
promise that WikiLeaks holds. You convinced me that this is an organization
that merits a lot of support, but I’m actually afraid that if I donate money to
them digitally, through PayPal or wiring money to their bank account, that I’m
actually going to end up on some government list somewhere; or worse that I at
some point, if WikiLeaks in the future is declared by the US government to be a
terrorist organization I could actually be prosecuted for materially supporting
a terrorist group. These are not people prone to paranoia or conspiracy. These
were very well grounded, rational, reasoned people who were expressing to me
this fear that I hadn’t previously considered, but given how many people that
had been expressing it [these were American citizens, largely] really amazed
me. It was actually pretty jarring and eye-opening. The reason is that
WikiLeaks is an organization that had never been, in fact the have never been
to this day, charged with, let alone convicted of any crime of any kind, nor
could they be, since they’re engaged in the art of pure journalism, what media
outlets around the world do, which is receive government secrets from people
who are in government and then publish those secrets to inform citizens about
what governments and corporate factions are doing. And yet, here were countless
people petrified of asserting their most basic first amendment rights of free
speech and free assembly and free petition, which is what donating money to a
political organization whose cause you support is. They were petrified of exercising their own constitutional rights.
They were petrified of exercising their own constitutional rights.They didn't need to be threatened with police invasions of their home or arrest if they did it. They didn't need a law to abolish free speech. The climate of fear that has been created was sufficient to get them on their own to voluntarily relinquish the exercise of their own rights. You can offer all the rights in the world on a piece of paper or a piece of parchment that you want, but if you put the citizenry into a position of fear about exercising those rights, those rights become worthless. The reason they were afraid of exercising those rights is because they've watched their own government over the past decade demonstrate repeatedly that they are willing to cross not some lines that we've imposed on how they can exercise their power but every line, without any consequence and without any recrimination.
There’s just one other personal anecdote that I want to share to just bolster that point and to underscore and highlight what I mean. In addition to WikiLeaks, I also spent a lot of time, and still spend a lot of time, writing about the case of Bradley Manning, the Army private who is accused of being the principal leaker to WikiLeaks of those news-worthy leaks. In December of 2010, I wrote an article, detailing the ways in which he was being confined, in extremely oppressive and inhumane conditions, ones that the UN just recently, the top torture investigator at the UN just last month concluded was both inhumane and cruel; that he was subjected to extreme protracted solitary confinement, was harassed in all these sadistic ways, ones that the US government itself has characterized as torture when done by other countries, that studies show result in possibly permanent psychologically crippling afflictions. One of the things that was so baffling to me about what was being done [and a lot of people asked me this question as well, which was] why would the Obama administration want to subject him to this level of mistreatment? It actually seems counterproductive. Because, for one thing, it makes prosecution more difficult, because if you drive a prisoner into insanity through the treatment to which you subject him, you can not convict him. It also means that any statements he makes while in custody that are incriminating can be subject to challenge: that he only made them because he was being coerced by the conditions. It also created sympathy for him and turned him into a martyr among people who were otherwise unsympathetic to those leaks. In fact, President Obama’s State Department spokesperson, PJ Crowley, denounced the treatment as stupid and counterproductive and then was forced to resign. It really elevated the controversy around Bradley Manning and created lots of sympathy for him. So, it was hard to figure out why they’d want to do it. It seemed counterproductive, contrary to their own interests. After spending some time being asked this a lot, and actually asking myself it a lot, why would they want to do this, the thing that I realized is that the reason that Bradley Manning was put into those conditions and treated with such cruelty and inhumane barbarism, is the same reason that the US government abducted hundreds of people and shipped them thousands of miles away to a Caribbean island, and dressed them in orange jumpsuits and shackles and showed the world that. It’s the same reason that the US government bombs people at will and blows up huge numbers of families and civilians and innocent people all the time, knowing that it’s going to do that and yet continues to do it. It’s a way of expressing to the world, especially to anybody who might challenge US government power and policy and authority, that if you want to challenge what we’re doing, if you are a would be whistle blower who discovers things that we’ve done corruptly and in secret and wants to expose it to the world, think about it twice and look at what we’ve done to Bradley Manning without any limits. Or, if you’re somebody who wants to resist US government invasions or occupations, look at what we’ve done to Guantanamo prisoners or to people around the world that we’ve abducted, detained and rendered for torture, and we’ve done all this without consequence because there are no lines that we won’t cross and that we can’t cross at will. It’s a way of conveying to the population that you should be in a posture of fear when it comes to thinking about challenging what we’re doing. That’s the motive for it, it’s the effect of it and the ultimate outcome.
I think that it’s very difficult sometimes to convince people that that really is the case; that a climate of fear has arisen, because typically people consider climates of fear to be something that exists in other countries, those bad tyrannies over there. The way that populations get convinced to view themselves as free, even when they’re not, is that people are very willing to delude themselves. It’s not a fun thing to realize that there are certain liberties that you’ve always thought you had and taken for granted, that you actually can’t exercise without punishment. So, people convince themselves, well, actually, those aren’t things that I want to do. I don’t actually want to meaningfully challenge the government. I don’t want to oppose government policy in any meaningful way. I don’t want to go and join the Occupy movement. I’m not doing it because I’m afraid to. I’m doing it because I don’t want to. So, there is nothing that I want to do that I’m restrained from doing and therefore, by definition, I’m free.
The socialist activist, Rosa Luxemburg, put it this way, she said: "He who does not move, does not notice his own chains.". He who does not move does not notice his own chains.
He who does not move does not notice his own chains.If you basically are somebody who convinces yourself that you don’t really want to engage in politically controversial speech, or dissident political activism, you won’t realize the restrictions that have been imposed on those basic liberties. That’s the way that societies get put into postures of tyranny while they convince themselves that they’re actually still free. That’s why the climate of fear is actually more pernicious, it’s more insidious as a form of tyranny than overt tyranny; than actually communicating to the population that they no longer have these rights.
So, those are the ways that I think it’s possible to convey to people why they ought to care about these kinds of trends in a concrete way. The last point I want to make is, you know it’s very easy to gather in a place like this and spend an hour and a half or so talking about these not very sunshiny developments. When you do that, this sort of gloominess can set in. Like, I just listened to this person talk for an hour about all the horrible things that are taking place by these hugely formidable forces. I think I want to go jump off a bridge. That’s a reaction that you can induce if you talk about it in this way. It is true, that if a society remains in this posture of fear and in continuously viewing its own liberties as unimportant that the political culture can sufficiently degrade so that these changes become irreversible.
I had this sort of jarring experience a couple of months ago. I went and spoke at this college campus, and I talked about the differences in the post 9/11 era and how these liberties have been eroded. There were some high school students, 16 or 15, who had come from far away to hear me speak. They were people who worked at the high school newspaper. Afterwards they came up to me and said, you know, you keep talking about this world that existed before 9/11 as though we all are supposed to understand how things have changed. Well, for people my age, this girl said, this 15 year old girl said, I was actually five years old at the time of 9/11, or four years old, and so people my age, my peers, don’t really even know a world before 9/11. This is the entirety of our understanding of what political culture is. That’s how these trends can become truly irreversible, is the political culture so accepts them as normalized, that they don’t even know there’s a possibility for anything else.
And yet, the thing that I always think is the ultimate antidote to that kind of defeatism, is what happened in the Arab spring, where you saw populations that had kept deliberately deprived in every single way, not just materially, but spiritually and in every conceivable way, purposely kept weakened and deprived, challenging the most entrenched despots that the world knows, ones that have been in power for decades literally, that are funded and supported and propped up by the United States and it’s allies. And yet, they created, almost overnight, explosively, this extremely intimidating force that threatened those seemingly invulnerable powerful factions. If those people, with those resources are capable of that level of political change, then people in the western world, with our resources and our opportunities are certainly capable of the same thing. If we aren’t doing it, if we’re not succeeding in that effort, it’s not because it’s impossible. It’s simply because we just haven’t figured out the right way to do it. What I look to do when I get up in the morning and I write and I come to places like this and gather with people, and I presume what you look to do by virtue of the fact that you’re here, is to find the right way to communicate to our fellow citizens that this cause is urgent and to figure out the best way to do it.
So, with that, I thank you very much for coming.