About me.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding Managing Editor of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affairs newsmagazine. One of Foreign Policy magazine 's top 100 Global Thinkers, TED Speaker and Foreign aid Critic

Sunday, July 21, 2013

America’s slippery slope

How the US war on terror threatens to undermine the cause of individual liberty

In 1948, George Orwell published his novel, 1984, a classic statement of the danger to individual liberty paused by increasing technological sophistication, especially in the hands of the state. The novel is set in a country with an all-powerful state, Big Brother, characterised by a state-controlled economy with few monopolistic producers and controlled labor. Yet this is not what made Big Brother all-powerful. Two factors did.
The first was technology’s perfection of state-power. According to Orwell, the growth and spread of television would make it easy for self-perpetuating elite to manipulate, condition, and monitor the masses without explicit resort to using terror.

So, every citizen (or at least every citizen important enough to be worth watching) could be kept for 24 hours a day under the watchful eye of the police and being indoctrinated by official propaganda. This created a real possibility of enforcing complete uniformity of opinion on almost every subject. Anyone viewing cable TV in America today can see many elements of this.

The second factor supporting the rule of Big Brother was the threat of perpetual war. Orwell’s book is about a world of three giant powers with unstable frontiers – Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia. The possession of nuclear weapons made it impossible for any of these powers to be attacked and defeated by another. However, for purposes of domestic control, each one of these powers needed to create the illusion that they were permanently at war with one another.

This assumed threat to national security is the crux of Orwell’s message in the novel: the danger of slipping into totalitarianism did not simply arise from new technologies of manipulation, control and surveillance. 

Rather it arose from these technologies being pressed into the service of “national security”. Using the power of television, for example, people would be conditioned to believe that their nation is at war on a large number of fronts – wars without any apparent end. America’s “war on terror” could turn out to be the true realization of what Orwell predicted 65 years ago.

These thoughts were brought back to me vividly during the last one month when I began following the story of Edward Snowden, the 29-year American intelligence analyst who has revealed that the United States government conducts a secret surveillance program of its citizens by hacking into their phone records, emails and social media. This program, even if it were legal (its legality is contested by many lawyers), is arbitrary and conducted secretly without any credible oversight.

Since Snowden exposed these programs of surveillance, individual journalists and media organisations in America have been outdoing each other condemning him as a traitor. Most media commentary in seems to side with the government. 

There is little criticism of the NSA’s actions and even this is often couched in euphemisms that take away the real danger to our right to privacy. This is especially so given that American media and human rights organisations use much stronger language when such violations are revealed to have been done by such countries as China, Russia or Cuba.

Thus, American media has been denouncing Snowden for preferring to go to countries like China and Russia or planning to go to Cuba which America accuses of being hostile to free speech. Never mind that when Nelson Mandela was fighting for democracy and human dignity in South Africa, it is Cuba, Russia and China that stood by him and defended the cause of liberty. America, on the other hand, declared him a terrorist alongside his political party, the ANC. Mandela was only removed from the US list of terrorists in September 2007.

One only needs to watch and read mainstream American media to see how Orwell’s predictions could turn to be deadly accurate. An almost complete uniformity of opinion on critical matters has been achieved. One can switch channels from Fox to CNN, NBC to MSNBC and ABC or turn to Time, Newsweek, The New York Times or Washington Post and the message would be similar. 

This is largely due to the concentration of wealth and the control of mass media in a few large corporations, a factor that has stifled diversity. When alternative views are brought in, it is not even for pretence of balance, but to show that there is a lunatic fringe within American society that holds crazy opinions.

But Snowden’s point of view needs to be debated as well i.e. should the state conduct such comprehensive surveillance of its citizens in secret – without their knowledge or consent? Snowden faced a moral choice between serving the cause of liberty by exposing what he considered a threat to it (and therefore committing a crime) or adhering to his oath of secrecy and thereby not violating the law (so as to remain free and earning US$200,000 per year). 

If I were in his shoes I would have done exactly what he did but with one difference – do it in America and accepted to go to jail for it. This is because I believe the defense of liberty is more sacred than respect for the law, especially when it is bad law. However, the one violating the law via civil disobedience must be willing to face the consequences of such action.

As Orwell predicted, the “war on terror” has furnished the US government an opportunity to pass draconian laws that directly threaten civil liberties – like the Patriot Act, in the name of national security. 

It has come in the context where police and other security agencies have ever more sophisticated technological capabilities at their disposal to conduct comprehensive surveillance of all citizens of America and other people around the world. This is America’s slippery slope to totalitarian control and the true expression of a police state.

The “war on terror” has also allowed the US government to develop a preemptive theory of justice. This is the view that law should not only be used to convict the guilty but also to prevent the potentially guilty from staying free to commit crimes. 

The essence of surveillance is to develop huge quantities of data on citizens that are put in a computer program that has the capacity to “predict” future behavior and intentions of an individual. Then such an individual is put on a security watch list.

Furthermore, the “war on terror” has led to Guantanamo prison, Abu Ghraib and many other illegal detention facilities used by the US and her allies around the one. There, many suspected terrorists are jailed without charge for months and sometimes years on end. 

Often they are tortured. One such detention facility is in Uganda on Summit View in Kololo. The Uganda government arrests young Somali men and gives their name to the US embassy. When their name corresponds with that in their computer system, Uganda hands them over to America and they are taken – God-knows-where. Given the similarity in Muslim names, one can imagine the amount of abuse orchestrated by America.

Finally, the “war on terror” has allowed America to launch “preemptive” wars (actually wars of aggression) in Afghanistan and Iraq and the use of drones to indiscriminately bomb these countries and others like Yemen and Pakistan. It has also allowed drones to be used for surveillance on continental USA. 

In these wars and indiscriminate bombings, thousands of innocent civilians die either as collateral damage or as mere suspects. This is a war being fought on many fronts and without any end in sight. Every day, the systems of surveillance and control intensify – from monitoring all global money transfers and individual bank accounts to hacking into emails, telephone records and social media. Now even America’s allies like the EU are not spared these evils.

Let us assume, just for argument’s sake, that the civilians who die due to these bombardments are collateral damage – unintended victims of aerial strikes against suspected terrorists. But even the real targeted victims deserve due process. 

How can one man have power to decide to summarily execute suspects without trial in an impartial court? Today, the US president and his security team are the ones who decide who the suspect is; then they proceed to investigate, establish a case, prosecute it, judge, issue a sentence of death and execute it with drones.

This arbitrary use of power means that victims of these drone attacks are not tried in a court of law to prove their guilt or otherwise – they are killed summarily. Rarely in the history of this world has so much power over life and death been concentrated in so few hands. Initially Americans thought that the war on terror was aimed at foreigners. 

This led many to acquiesce to draconian measures against migrants – like ruthless deportations. It also led many Americans to support aggressive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in the name of homeland security. As Snowden has shown, the creeping hand of totalitarian control is taking root in America itself, as no citizen is now free from surveillance.

Since 9/11, the US has been on a slippery slope towards a totalitarian government. Of course, the formal structures of the democratic system remain – seemingly free, fair and regular elections, political party competition, a mass media that believes itself to be free, a judiciary that is independent, a parliament that makes a lot of noise, regular changes in government, vibrant civic associations etc. But increasingly, America’s democracy is largely based on adherence to procedures and rituals.

Beneath the appearances, individual liberty in America is being systematically eroded under the excuse of national security. Indeed, the “war on drugs” in America, which routinely sends scores of young black males to jail, has now been joined by the “war on terror” in the contemporary lexicon of fear. 

Meanwhile, American citizens are being conditioned to large-scale systems of surveillance and pre-emption based on information that is not being publically disclosed. So successful has been Big Brother that most Americans do not seem bothered by this.

There is ample evidence to show that the existence of democratic institutions and processes is not incompatible with the perpetration of totalitarian practices. Slavery and Jim Crow in America thrived in spite of – and precisely through – these democratic institutions and processes. 

The worst legislations in America’s south during the Jim Crow era were passed using America’s democratic processes. Current legislations promoting a “war on drugs” that have led to the mass incarceration of black males have equally been promoted through America’s democratic institutions.

Many people may be willing to tolerate these growing intrusions on civil liberties in the naive belief that the leaders of democratic nations carrying them out are good fellows with noble intentions; and that no law-abiding citizen needs to fear. But this is a dangerous argument; for we must remember that totalitarianism does not need to be brought about by evil men like Idi Amin, Josef Stalin or Adolf Hitler. 

Indeed, it can be brought about by the cumulative effect of the actions of otherwise well-intentioned leaders whose every action is justified by immediate necessity. As the saying goes, the road to hell is often paved with good intentions and is traversed at a creep rather than a gallop.

This brings me to the principle of proportionality i.e. that a response to a problem must be proportional to the provocation. On 9/11, America lost two and a half buildings, four planes and 3,000 lives. Since then, three people have died on American soil as a result of a terrorist act – during this year’s Boston marathon. 

I do not seek to downplay the tragedy of those who lost loved ones or the potential for worse terrorist attacks. But America’s response to 9/11 is clearly out of proportion to the threat terrorism poses. Indeed, most American deaths due to some form of terrorism since 9/11 have happened in foreign lands as a result of its aggressive and preemptive wars.

Meanwhile, in 2010 alone, there were 31,672 deaths due to firearm and 35,498 motor vehicle deaths across America. Indeed, since 2001, over 550,000 Americans have died in car accidents, nearly 400,000 due to firearms. 

In spite of this much higher casualty rate, the US government has not imposed draconian legislation on roads or on gun ownership. Instead, this year legislation seeking to increase background checks on people purchasing guns was defeated in the Senate.

Yet since 9/11 America has launched preemptive wars abroad that have led to the death of more than a million people in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and Pakistan. It has passed draconian laws, installed systems of surveillance around the world, taken control of all bank records, reinforced airport security to absurd levels, killed, tortured and jailed thousands of people. 

Indeed, it cannot be justified by the argument that the American state is driven by the desire to protect its citizens against death since all death, whether in a road accident or firearm is still death. What makes deaths at the hands of terrorists intolerable to Americans while that at the hands of bad drivers and trigger-happy gun owners more tolerable?

It is difficult to justify America’s post 9/11 actions at home and abroad merely by the fear of terrorism. Instead it seems that terrorism has only furnished the US state with an excuse to employ its vast array of technological capabilities to promote totalitarian control at home and abroad. 

Some may argue that a country with deeply entrenched liberal democratic traditions as America cannot slip into totalitarianism. But we need to remember that democratic institutions, traditions and norms can slowly and incrementally be eroded.

The lesson liberals should take from this is that the victory of liberty is never secure. Liberal democrats, while recognizing that sometimes states can be justified to curtail individual liberties for the sake of national security, should be clear what restrictions are justifiable and for how long. 

Here, it is important to reiterate the benchmark set by the philosopher, Frederick von Hayek. He argued that every new invasion on individual liberty must be justified – not merely by its effect on the problem it is designed to solve or the danger it is designed to avert – but by its effect on the system of liberty as a whole.


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