Why Does Our Government Still Spy On, Arrest and Persecute Dissidents?
Recently, an American Civil Liberties Union report pointed out, "Anti-terrorism training materials currently being used by the Department of Defense (DoD) teach its personnel that free expression in the form of public protests should be regarded as ‘low level terrorism’.”
Although DoD officials removed the offensive section at the urging of ACLU members, the DoD stance is still troubling since a longstanding practice to designate peaceful, law-abiding activists as dangerous and treasonable still exists in many government departments and agencies.
Indeed the participants of the first antiwar protest against the Vietnam incursion, put together in the mid-1960's using Gandhi's Salt March as a model for a nonviolent demonstration, faced government operatives filming them face by face from rooftops as they moved en masse down Broadway to the UN Plaza.
(My mother, a pacifist married to a World War II Conscientious Objector, and I, a child at the time of the march, both were in attendance. When the film crew focused on us, she stood tall, faced the agents with their telephoto lens, glared in disdainful defiance and, simultaneously, threw the corner of her coat over my face. Afterwards, she muttered, "How dare they try to intimidate us!")
With that history in mind, it shouldn’t be assumed that the treatment of Nobel Peace Award winner Aung San Sui Kyi in Myanmar would be all that different if she were leading protests in the United States. While it's commendable that U.S. spokespersons object to her most recent arrest, they still might seem to be a bunch of hypocrites.
For instance, a number of Nobel Peace Award recipients, such as the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), have had difficulties of their own on American soil.
"AFSC’s work, always open and resolutely nonviolent, has been under government surveillance for decades. The Service Committee secured nearly 1,700 pages of files from the FBI under a Freedom of Information request in 1976,” the AFSC said in seeking more recent “war on terror” records.
“These [earlier] files show that the FBI kept files on AFSC that dated back to 1921. Ten other federal agencies kept files on AFSC, including the CIA, Air Force, Navy, Internal Revenue Service, Secret Service, and the State Department. The CIA has intercepted overseas mail and cables in the 1950s, and some AFSC offices (and even its staff's homes) have been infiltrated and burglarized in the late 1960s into the 1970s."
AFSC associate general secretary for justice and human rights, Joyce Miller, asked, “How can we speak of spreading democracy in Iraq while dismantling it here at home?” She further remarked, “Political dissent is fundamental to a free and democratic society. It should not be equated with crime.”
Add to the AFSC problems, those pertaining to Nobel Peace Award recipient Nelson Mandela, who only a year ago had the designation "terrorist" removed from his name, under protest by the State Department, so that he no longer suffered travel restrictions from the U.S. government.
Yet his travel curtailment was not nearly as awful as was Ramzy Baroud's blockage. He, the editor of Palestine Chronicle, had his U.S. passport seized by a consular officer at an overseas American Embassy. Similarly, Sen.Edward Kennedy was, also, flagged by the U.S. no-fly list.
Then again, Ted Kennedy received much less harassment than did Nobel Peace Award winner Mairead Corrigan Maguire after her flight from Guatemala had been directed to Ireland through Houston:
"She was probably tired and ready to get back to Belfast, where her attempts to bring about an end to The Troubles in 1976 made her at 32 the youngest Nobel Peace Prize-winner ever,” according to an article in the Houston Press.
“Since then, she's been given the Pacem in Terris Award by Pope John Paul II, and the United Nations selected her (along with the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Jordan's Queen Noor and a dozen or so other fellow Nobel Laureates) as an honorary board member of the International Coalition for the Decade.
"Unfortunately for Maguire, her flight back home to Northern Ireland was routed through Houston, where none of that meant diddly. Federal Customs officials were far less interested in any of that than they were in a box on the back of the transit form she filled out on her flight.
"'They questioned me about my nonviolent protests in USA against the Afghanistan invasion and Iraqi war,' Maguire said later in a statement. 'They insisted I must tick the box in the Immigration form admitting to criminal activities.'
"Maguire was detained for two hours -- grilled once, fingerprinted, photographed, and grilled again. She missed her flight home. She was only released after an organization she helped found -- the Nobel Women's Initiative -- started kicking up a fuss."
One can add to her troubles countless other ones wherein human rights and environmental supporters have been repeatedly hassled for no other reason than that they're holding views that don't jive with positions at any number of U.S. government institutions.
One needn't return in time to the McCarthy Era to find many individuals who have been investigated and persecuted for holding vilified opinions. For example, Stephen Lendman, a peace advocate and writer in his seventies with a permanent knee injury that delimits travel, has been repeatedly investigated by the FBI.
At the same time, he is joined by myriad others such as assorted activists in Maryland whose names were put on federal terrorist lists by state police who infiltrated their groups. As such, their perfectly legal activities, freedom of speech and right to unhindered assembly have been criminalized.
Simultaneously, there's a certain inescapable irony and disingenuous quality presented by the Western government heads who are harshly critical of the Iran crackdown on dissenting citizens while they, themselves, condone similar ironfisted policies in their own lands.
Their two-faced position is barely hidden beneath the surface of their mock concern for the well-being of Iranian protesters as they urge their own and allied troops into battle, show little (if any) sincere remorse over the slaughter of masses of civilians that happen in the process and make sure that demonstrators at home are disregarded, denigrated or preemptively rounded up as happened at the 2008 Republican National Convention and similar events.
Then again, one might find himself in pretty good company if he were singled out as unpatriotic and treacherous for holding viewpoints or undertaking actions that go contrary to the perspectives that a certain hawkish and totalitarian segment of society holds.
All the same, every method conceivable might be used to hunt down the offenders and, when taken to the extreme, render their seemingly provocative positions ineffectual by any means possible, including imprisonment and murder.
Anyone who doubts this to be the case needs only to remember what happened to people like Howard Fast; the slain Freedom Riders Andy Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner; the thirteen shot students at Kent State University at which Ohio National Guardsman fired sixty-seven rounds over a thirteen second period, and scores of others who have stood against mainstream policies.
Meanwhile, stigmatizing dissidents is a fairly common practice. As such, “There are 1.1 million people on the [U.S.] Terrorist Watch List and there is a 35 per cent error rate, minimum, for that list,” according to ACLU's Michael German.
Furthermore, the overzealous and aggressive surveillance tactics used by the National Security Agency (NSA) to check the public's e-mails, telephone calls and other communications are the same ones as were in use during George W. Bush's administration. Likewise, the amount of spying on personal exchanges is as high as it ever was.
In relation to recent claims by Justice Department and national security officials that the over-collection was unintentional, U.S. Rep. Rush Holt, a Democrat from New Jersey and Chairman of the House Select Intelligence Oversight Panel, commented: “Some actions are so flagrant that they can't be accidental.”
Additionally, the act of tracking e-mailed transmissions and other interactions has seemed in violation of federal law, according to lawyers at the Justice Department. Regardless, the practice continues.
At the same time, the decision to designate social activists as troublemakers, while singling them out for intimidation, threats and investigations, carries serious legal and political implications in democratic societies.
The further measure of subjecting them to the sorts of difficulties that Mairead Corrigan Maguire, Ramzy Baroud, AFSC members and innumerable others have endured is clearly based in xenophobic, paranoid and despotic thinking. It embodies the kind of authoritarian mentality and oppressive activities that one finds in the worst types of tyrannical regimes.
As Harry S. Truman suggested, "Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear."
Due to this fear, are we, then, to all conform with lock-step in perverse obedience to the State's dictates, outlooks and agendas in an increasingly Orwellian milieu?
If not, then we must constantly remind ourselves and each other of U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas's vision: "Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us."