It’s hard not to notice the impact of the national security state in daily life, particularly for people who travel regularly or pay attention to news stories. Pat downs and x-rays at the airport, police road blocks with DNA swabs that are voluntary but are implied by the police to be mandatory, stop and frisk in minority neighborhoods, the shoot first and ask questions later garrison mentality of the police, SWAT team no-knock raids, and the nearly complete disregard by governmental authorities for citizens’ rights under Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable or warrantless search and seizure operations.
It may be hard to believe it is the citizens of the republic who allowed their agents in government to accumulate all that oppressive authority. People like to think government has a natural tendency to creep into citizens’ lives and to aggrandize itself at their expense, and that is true. What people often fail to acknowledge, especially in a nominally democratic republic such as the United States, is their own complicity in allowing the government to get away with it.
Fear can cause people to do some foolish things, and one of them is relinquishing unchecked authority to government following a catastrophe, such as what happened after the events of 9/11/2001 in the United States. Save us! Kill them! The tendency of people to allow themselves to be stampeded toward war has long been noted by manipulators in government, industry, and the press, who have used it to their advantage. There is a long history in America of cynical manipulations toward war, but perhaps the most blatantly obvious occurred at the start of the Spanish-American War shortly before the turn of the twentieth century.
The citizenry are usually stirred to support these wars by patriotic fervor and by some wildly exaggerated stories in the popular press of atrocities supposedly committed by the new enemy. Most people tend not to take time away from their busy lives to examine things more closely and rationally. Remember the Alamo! Until thirty or forty years ago, except for the large scale conflicts of the Civil War and the two World Wars, Americans could largely go about their daily lives without reference to the far away battlefronts their leaders had stirred them up to support initially.
In the 1941 film Citizen Kane, Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane, a newspaper publisher at the time of the Spanish-American War, throws a party to celebrate his hiring of the staff from a rival newspaper. His colleagues, played by Joseph Cotten as Jedediah Leland and Everett Sloane as Mr. Bernstein, provide commentary on the proceedings.
Superficially, that still seems to be the situation at home, where Americans can go shopping, while far away the world burns. Look more closely, however, and it becomes obvious that the so-called “War on Terror” is different than any other past war in that to a hitherto unprecedented degree it has allowed government to infiltrate lives at home as well as abroad in the name of security. The reasoning is that there is no “front”, as in a conventional war; the front is everywhere, and government must therefore defend everywhere, from flying drones over the huts of Afghani opium farmers to using the NSA to monitor the communications of American citizens.
A 2007 image of Susan Hallowell, Director of the Transportation Security Administration’s research lab, taken with the backscatter x-ray system, in use for airport security passenger screening. This is not the image that screeners see at the airports. The machine that took this image does not have the privacy algorithm.
People line up for security checks at the airport, the majority of them probably unconcerned with the larger issues of government oppression and infringements on their liberty as long as they can get through with minimal hassle to themselves. But the hassles will only grow. Highway road blocks and intrusive police demands will only increase. The courts will continue upholding these practices and implicitly grant the authorities ever more leeway in pushing people around in the name of security. The way the American military occupiers treated the Filipinos in the early years of the twentieth century continues reverberating in unexpected ways, such as in how it informed our use of torture in the early twenty-first century; our treatment of various Latin American countries throughout the twentieth century haunts our relations there and here to this day; and at last the methods, materiel, and mindset of occupation we are deploying throughout the world today, and particularly in the Middle East, have come home to us, the fearful perpetrators of so much unnecessary violence. That’s Homeland Security.
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
― Martin Luther King, Jr.
Back in 2014, after New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo put Eric Garner in a choke hold, which along with compression of the asthmatic Garner’s chest from having Pantaleo on top of him when he was on the ground, led to Garner’s death, a grand jury in Richmond County on Staten Island, where the altercation took place, refused to indict Pantaleo even though the medical examiner had ruled Garner’s death a homicide. Police were trying to arrest Mr. Garner in July for selling loose cigarettes. Eleven times Mr. Garner protested “I can’t breathe!” Officer Pantaleo pushed Mr. Garner’s face into the pavement. A bystander filmed everything using his cell phone.
After the grand jury decision in December, 2014, not to indict Officer Pantaleo, protests erupted in New York City and elsewhere around the country. Later that month a man shot and killed two New York City police officers, possibly in revenge for the grand jury decision. At the funeral for one of the officers, many New York City police turned their backs on Mayor Bill de Blasio when he delivered a eulogy, believing his public condemnation of Officer Pantaleo’s actions earlier in the year led to the murder of their two colleagues. The police officers’ feelings on the matter were inflamed by the rhetoric of their union leader, Patrick Lynch.
“No Justice, No Peace”; the Eric Garner Protest on 4 December 2014 in Manhattan, New York City. Photo by The All-Nite Images.
It’s not as if the murder of Eric Garner by a New York City police officer was an isolated incident, an anomaly. There had already been a long history of overly aggressive police tactics, particularly against minorities, aggravated in recent years by the unconstitutional and demeaning “stop and frisk” tactic, also particularly used against minorities. Mayor de Blasio criticized some police tactics during his campaign for office, and that did not set well with Patrick Lynch. When Mr. de Blasio became mayor at the beginning of 2014, tensions between himself and much of the police force were high, and after his public comments about the Eric Garner murder, the stage was set for a confrontation.
In a few incidents since then, some New York City police officers have expressed their displeasure with the Mayor by turning their backs on him in public. They have exercised their First Amendment rights to free expression while in uniform, on the taxpayers’ dime. Very well. That is nonetheless within their rights. Their protest, however, in its petulant contempt for the mayor, overlooks the role of one of their own, Officer Pantaleo, in touching off all the criticism of them and of how they too often are unaccountable when they abuse their power.
The nationwide protests of the grand jury decision were a criticism of abusive police power louder than anything Mayor de Blasio ever said. In turning their backs on him, the police were turning their backs on all Americans who were fed up with their abuses. The police, egged on by the bellicose Patrick Lynch, were attacking the messenger, Mayor de Blasio, rather than examining their own complicity in the retaliation that resulted in the deaths of their colleagues. Everyone has a right to protest, to express in public their criticism of policies and tactics they abhor. That is honorable. It is not equivalent to the public expression of grievance over criticism that you shouldn’t kill someone because he doesn’t like being harassed for selling loose cigarettes on the sidewalk.
“He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it.”
― Martin Luther King, Jr.