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Authoritarianism Has Quietly Enveloped Every Part of American Life -- We Must Fight Back

Privacy, not surveillance, is what must be justified now. We must make sure not to draw the wrong lessons from Boston.


Observing the media frenzy that surrounded last week's Boston marathon bombing and the eventual capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one thing became immediately clear: the attack gave media elites an opportunity to fully embrace their generally latent authoritarianism. Finally, they could openly and unapologetically align themselves with law enforcement officials, sham “counter-terrorism experts,” and whoever else bravely suggested that total surveillance is good and inevitable. (See Tom Brokaw  telling viewers that they must now submit to increasingly invasive searches, or Andrea Mitchell uncritically amplifying Tom Ridge's policies when he was head of the Department of Homeland Security as but two of the countless examples.) They could once again act as spokespeople for the government, uniting the country under the banner of American Exceptionalism.

The country's foremost jingoist, Thomas Friedman – the NYT columnist who once indelicately  suggested that the Muslim world suck the United States' collective phallus – wrote in his  column on April 17th that “cave dwelling is for terrorists.” Americans, he countered, live in freedom. The “cave” line's Islamophobia is as obvious as it is repugnant, and should be a reminder that not-so-subtle bigotry towards Muslims is acceptable and rewarded in polite society in this country. His larger point, that the United States will respond to this apparent terrorist attack by remaining a fully open society is either willfully delusional or a product of his privilege; he won't be profiled because of his name or religion.

Privacy, not surveillance, is what must be  justified now, though that was true before Boston. The elites either don't see it or simply pretend not to, but the authoritarianism unleashed by 9/11 has become institutionalized, normalized, and ubiquitous. The surveillance state didn't need Boston to implement its policies, though the bombing will certainly be used to  accelerate them and further marginalize dissent.

That domestic surveillance will continue to increase – especially with the arrival of drones – was true  before Boston. Miranda rights had already been  significantly weakened by the Obama DOJ in 2010. US officials already had the ability to  wiretap certain Americans without a warrant. Prior to the Boston bombing, US attorneys were fully capable of  over-charging activists in computer-based cases as full-on enemies of the state. The FBI and DHS didn't need the Boston bombing to  treat Occupy like a terrorist organization.

Police departments throughout the country had already been hyper-militarized, thanks to DHS funding in the name of counter-terrorism. And of course Mayors throughout the country didn't need Boston to criminalize peaceably assembling in parks to protest the unconscionable wealth gap in this country, or to deploy their hyper-militarized forces to dislodge those encampments. Anyone who wanted to see what police look like now needed only to watch as tanks rolled through Boston.

The list could go on.

No, the bombing in Boston didn't change the powers the state claims regarding so-called national security measures, because it could already claim virtually any power it wanted. But there's another thing the bombing didn't change: the critiques of those very powers.

Trevor Aaronson's in-depth  investigation into the FBI's “manufactured war on terrorism” remains as valuable as ever. The actions of the alleged Boston bombers don't change the fact that nearly every “terrorist” the FBI has captured in a sting operation is an economically precarious, mentally vulnerable outcast with no ability to enact a terrorist plot on his own. Nor does the attack in Boston justify the NYPD's  investigation of Ahmed Ferhani, a manufactured terrorism case so flimsy even the FBI wanted nothing to do with it.

And the bombing doesn't negate or excuse the disastrous effects that  surveilling Muslim communities has on innocent members of those communities. Surveilling innocent Muslims remains as odious and morally repugnant – not to mention counter-productive to the stated aims of identifying dangerous people – as it was on April 14th. That scores of pundits last week implored people not to engage in profiling – without acknowledging that Muslims are constantly profiled by the FBI, NYPD, and others – only underscores how invisible the criminalization of Muslims is.

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