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The Police State Is Here

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“There are those who still think they are holding the pass against a revolution that may be coming up the road. But they are gazing in the wrong direction. The revolution is behind them. It went by in the Night of Depression, singing songs to freedom.”

Those are the words of Garet Garrett, the 20th-century journalist and writer, who lamented the collapse of the old Republic and the rise of the American managerial/administrative state — the consummation of which he had witnessed in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Garrett’s observation came to mind the other day as I was contemplating the current state of civil liberties and privacy in 21st-century America. Could it be that rather than fending off the possibility of a police state arising in the future, we are already confronted with the grim reality of one in the present?

The country’s degeneration into a police state has been observable for decades, but it accelerated after 9/11 when the George W. Bush administration exploited the crisis atmosphere to ram through a series of unconstitutional and tyrannical measures. Fear became the coin of the realm as the American people traded away their liberties for the empty promise of security.

That such a deal would turn sour was foreseeable. Benjamin Franklin told his fellow countrymen 250 years ago, “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

His admonition, of course, hasn’t always been heeded. The country’s history is replete with examples of the American people succumbing to paroxysms of fear and hysteria, often resulting in gross violations of civil liberties. But these episodes, however terrible, were short-lived because they were reactions to temporary crises. Today Americans are confronted with something entirely different — we are told this crisis is permanent.

The federal government now boasts 16 national intelligence agencies, spending an estimated $100 billion per year and employing an army of staffers and contractors who routinely (and illegally) spy domestically. Investigative journalist James Bamford recently wrote in Wired magazine that the National Security Agency is putting finishing touches on a massive data storage center in Utah as part of its “Stellar Wind” program, a massive surveillance and data-mining operation that involves collecting, storing, and examining billions of domestic phone calls and email messages.

This project is a culmination of a decade-long effort by the nation’s spy agencies to create a panoptic society, in which the entire population is brought under round-the-clock government surveillance. This is no longer the stuff of dystopian futuristic novels and is now a grim reality, largely because of the stupendous increases in computing power and storage capacity achieved in recent years. “Total information awareness” is now feasible thanks to the geniuses in Silicon Valley — and it is now considered permissible by the psychopaths and control freaks running the national-security state.

John Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute provided an excellent summation of the problem in a piece he wrote late last year:

The U.S. government now has at its disposal a technological arsenal so sophisticated and invasive as to render any constitutional protections null and void. And these technologies are being used by the government to invade the privacy of the American people. Several years ago, government officials acknowledged that the nefarious intelligence gathering entity known as the National Security Agency (NSA) had exceeded its legal authority by eavesdropping on Americans’ private email messages and phone calls. However, these reports barely scratch the surface of what we are coming to recognize as a “security/industrial complex” — a marriage of government, military and corporate interests aimed at keeping Americans under constant surveillance. The increasingly complex security needs of our massive federal government, especially in the areas of defense, surveillance and data management, have been met within the corporate sector, which has shown itself to be a powerful ally that both depends on and feeds the growth of governmental bureaucracy.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recently made headlines when it purchased 450 million rounds of .40-caliber ammunition. Why is DHS hoarding that much ammo? What kind of trouble are they expecting?

The Transportation Security Agency has extended its jurisdiction beyond airports and now is groping and irradiating Americans at train stations, bus depots, and the nation’s highways.

So-called fusion centers have popped up in 49 states, amassing files on ordinary Americans for doing the most ordinary of things.

State and local police departments have been gradually assimilated into what journalist William Norman Grigg calls the “vertically integrated Homeland Security State.” This integration has largely been a function of the federal government’s so-called wars on drugs and terrorism.

In this process, police departments have been transmogrified into virtual standing armies, endowed with an array of military-grade weapons and equipment. SWAT teams, once a rarity, have proliferated throughout the country and are increasingly used in routine police work. And this militarization of the police has been coupled with the use of actual military personnel domestically.

The emergence of the police state has predictably resulted in the swelling of the nation’s prison population, which is now the largest in the world. Police are now jailing people for the “crimes” of selling raw milk or buying too much Sudafed. A massive snarl of regulatory red tape dangles above the head of every American, threatening to impose crushing fines and even imprisonment. As former assistant Treasury Secretary Paul Craig Roberts says, “long before 9/11 US law had ceased to be a shield of the people and had been turned into a weapon in the hands of the government.”

The nation’s courts, rather than checking the police state’s relentless expansion, have become its enabler. The Indiana Supreme Court ruled in Barnes v. State that citizens do not have the right to resist police officers who enter their homes illegally. The U.S. Supreme Court delivered a severe blow to the Fourth Amendment when it ruled in Kentucky v. King that police could break into a home without a warrant so long as they suspected that those inside were in possession of illegal drugs. And just a few weeks ago, the court ruled that law-enforcement officials, whether local, state, or federal, have the authority to strip-search anyone they arrest for any reason.

What recourse do the people have when police forces violate the very law they are sworn to uphold and the courts become complicit in their abuse? As disturbing as that question is, it is one that American people must ask themselves if the country’s descent into tyranny is to be arrested.

The recently passed Federal Aviation Administration Air Transportation Modernization and Safety Act includes an amendment authorizing the use of spy drones in American airspace. The bill’s passage was apparently anticipated by law-enforcement agencies across the nation, as many of them had already deployed spy drones as part of their domestic police work. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the FBI, and the DEA are also using spy drones in their operations.

The Patriot Act, the Military Commissions Act, the Protect America Act, and the more recent National Defense Authorization Act of 2012 (NDAA) are all grossly unconstitutional, yet they passed through Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support. The NDAA is particularly egregious, for it not only explicitly authorizes indefinite detentions of U.S. citizens on American soil but also requires that detainees be held in military custody.

The Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act codifies the federal government’s practice of intimidating and silencing protestors. The ostensible purpose of the law is to prevent the unlawful disruption of government business or “official functions,” but what is “unlawful” is left to the discretion of federal agents. Indeed, the language of the law is so vague that it arguably constitutes a suspension of the First Amendment right to free speech and peaceful assembly.

And then there is the National Defense Resources Preparedness executive order, which authorizes a federal-government takeover of the entire economy during a declared “national emergency.” President Obama claims this authority under the Constitution, of course, and the Defense Production Act of 1950, a law that historian Robert Higgs says gives the president “lawful authority to control virtually the whole of the U.S. economy whenever he chooses to do so and states that the national defense requires such a government takeover.”

So all the president has to do is to declare a nebulous “national emergency,” and his agents can seize control of every factory, farm, and business in the country and lay claim to all its resources, including labor.

The intent of this short essay is not to provide a “list of horribles” committed by the government (although such an accounting is useful) but to point out that the much-feared police state has come into being. Its growth had been gradual, which contributed to the public’s indifference, but it metastasized after 9/11, when the remaining legal barriers to the state’s expansion were taken down in the name of “national security.” A large portion of the public appears to be appropriately alarmed, but it remains to be seen whether this will reach a critical mass in time to reverse the country’s destructive course.

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    Tim Kelly is a columnist and policy advisor at The Future of Freedom Foundation in Fairfax, Virginia, a correspondent for Radio America’s Special Investigator, and a political cartoonist.