This week’s revelations about the 1971 burglary of an FBI office by seven antiwar activists shows the similarities between the U.S. government’s war on communism and the war on terrorism.
In case you haven’t read about the burglary, here is the link to the New York Times article on what happened. The video that accompanies the article is really worth watching. The activists suspected the FBI of engaging in illegal surveillance of protestors and demonstrators but lacked the hard evidence to support their suspicions. So, after months of careful planning, they burglarized an FBI office in Pennsylvania and absconded with FBI files. The files confirmed that the FBI was in fact involved in illegal surveillance of antiwar groups.
The incriminating documents were published by the Washington Post, over the vehement objections of the FBI. The burglars were never caught. Just this week, some of them have come forward, admitting what they had done and giving the reasons as to why they had done it. See this op-ed by Bonnie Raines, one of the burglars, in today’s Guardian.
Back then, the justification that the U.S. national-security state used for spying on Americans was the so-called communist threat. The communists were coming to get us. They were everywhere. That’s why tens of thousands of American men, many of whom had been conscripted, were dying in Vietnam—to prevent the dominoes from falling and finally reaching the United States. That’s the war that young people were protesting against in 1971.
By spying on antiwar groups the FBI was just trying to keep us safe—safe from communists who the FBI was certain was joining up with the protestors—and protecting “national security”—the same justifications that today are given as part of the “war on terrorism.”
Never mind that it is the foreign policies of the Pentagon and the CIA that has led to the constant threat of terrorism that they say they need to protect us from. That’s considered irrelevant. What matters is that the terrorists, like the communists, are coming to get us and that the only way to prevent that is to have the government spy on its own citizens and destroy other aspects of civil liberty.
This is precisely the type of thing that goes on in totalitarian countries. That’s what life was like in East Germany. It’s what life is like in North Korea today. Government officials carefully monitoring the activities of the citizenry, with the aim of keeping people “safe” and protecting “national security.”
As we now know, the FBI, under J. Edgar Hoover, was using much of the information he was acquiring through his domestic surveillance schemes to blackmail people into doing his will. Those people included presidents of the United States and the members of Congress.
The revelations about the FBI surveillance in 1971 and the Edward Snowden revelations about the NSA show that there is a conflict of visions for the United States.
One vision holds that the federal government should have the unfettered authority to do whatever is necessary to keep us “safe” and protect “national security.” The people who hold this vision say that the U.S. government is an innocent babe in the woods and that people around the world just hate America for its “freedom and values.”
The other vision holds that freedom and privacy are paramount and that people should never permit government to infringe upon them for any reason. After all, what’s the point of embracing totalitarianism in a quest to remain free? This vision holds that the U.S. national-security state, through its brutal policies overseas, including regime change operations and support of cruel dictatorships, that is responsible for the anger and hatred that people have for the United States. End foreign interventionism and foreign empire and the terrorist threat against the United States disintegrates, along with the justification that the U.S. national-security state uses to justify its infringements on civil liberties and privacy.
Ultimately, it’s a choice. Do you want to live in a free society along with the risks that come with freedom? Or do you want to live in an unfree society that can never keep you safe, including from the government itself?
This week’s revelations of what the FBI was doing 40 years ago, along with the ongoing NSA scandal, help to frame the issue well.