Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Our Surveillance State

“We learn from history that we do not learn from history”
-- Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

A thoughtful American, an American who is familiar with history and with the tendency of history to repeat itself, is apt to be horrified at the increasing power of our government to conduct surveillance on its citizens. The idea that secret courts use secret evidence to authorize warrantless investigations of Americans ought to bring to mind the Star Chambers of bygone years. Any number of tired clichés will apply: a bright red line has been crossed. The proverbial canary in the coal mine has died. 

It could be a lack of comprehension. We are told that spying on Americans requires a warrant, and this is adequately reassuring for many people. To be reassured by this glib claim, however, is to fail to understand the meaning of a warrant. Any authorization that is issued by a secret court that has been given extra-Constitutional powers, based on secret evidence, and executed by faceless enforcement officials, is not a “warrant” at all. 

In a democratic society, a warrant is a public document. It allows concerned citizens to evaluate the judge’s decision, the soundness of the evidence, and the appropriateness of the actions of enforcement officials. It is not some kind of magic talisman which legitimizes the invasion of privacy and the loss of liberty. A warrant, properly understood, is one means by which citizens can oversee their own government and be satisfied that the government is not overstepping its authority. In a democratic society, the people have the power and ability to audit the activities of their government. This is how a government will remain accountable to the people. 

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court demands that private companies such as Verizon hand over information on Americans that ought to be considered confidential, such as data on private phone conversations. Moreover, under the law, it is stated that “no person shall disclose to any other person that the FBI or NSA has sought or obtained tangible things under this Order.” This secret court can compel law-abiding Americans to refrain from exercising their First Amendment right to free speech. Employees at Verizon have been pressed into the service of this new Surveillance State. If they do not inform on the activities of their fellow citizens, they will be liable for criminal sanctions. 

What does history teach us?  As Hegel said, history teaches us that we do not learn from history. And the question is why don’t we learn? I had a conversation recently where I drew a comparison between the current situation in the United States and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) that existed from the 1940’s until the Berlin Wall finally collapsed for the want of a legitimate foundation. 

To me, the comparison seemed apt. In the GDR, a police force known as the Stasi had the authority to spy on law-abiding citizens. In a relatively short span of time, the number of Stasi grew to an alarming size, and every single adult citizen of GDR could reasonably expect that, at least some of the time, that there would be a faceless official listening in on his or her phone calls. 

I was told that this was an unreasonable comparison to make. Maybe this is the reason we do not learn from history: the idea that we, as Americans, would not make the same mistake that the East Germans made. Americans, we suppose, would never be seduced by the ideology of communism. By making this supposition, we have in effect decided that the example of the GDR can teach us nothing. We have decided that the East Germans who accommodated themselves to a horrifying Surveillance State are utterly unlike us. 

I persisted, saying, “You must see the parallels between the secret courts of the GDR and the secret courts we have here in the United States?” I was told, “The situation in the GDR was so much worse.” 

In fact – and particularly during the early years – the citizens of the GDR did not believe that they were living in a bad situation. The people of Germany had survived the trauma of World War II, ashamed of their own complicity in Nazi imperialism. The German economy was in ruins. People were starving. People were unemployed. People had a hard time imagining a better future. There was no unified German government, only a provisional, coalition government representing the interests of the United States, Great Britain, France, and the USSR.

A band of communists formed, promising a way of government that would permanently abolish imperialistic ambitions. They promised a government that would make, as its top priority, satisfying the basic needs of its people.  When the GDR came into power, the economy rapidly improved, particularly in the agricultural sector. East Germans could buy food inexpensively, drink inexpensive beer, live in subsidized apartments, enjoy free health care, and never have to worry about crime or unemployment.  

Robert Havemann was one of the leading opponents of the GDR. Yet, he was able to appreciate how the government had been able to maintain popular support. He understood that the GDR had a higher standard of living than neighboring countries. He understood the appeal of living in a secure, stable, predictable society. 

Nineteen years after its founding, however, the GDR was less confident in the support of the people. The Constitution was re-written. “Important basic rights, which were guaranteed in its first constitution, were abolished in a new constitution, including the right to strike and the right to an impartial court of justice, in which citizens can protest the measures of state organs.” In the new Constitution, agitating against the state had become a crime. 

And it seemed that, merely by happenstance, there was no longer, “even a single critical and independent newspaper” to challenge what members of government were telling its people. Havemann reflected on the situation in a telling passage, 

It is very obvious that all the repression and limitations on freedom bring about the opposite of what they were intended to achieve. They are supposed to serve the security of the state, but in fact they are the main cause of the increasing insecurity of the state. Under such conditions, even the last bit of trust between citizens and the state will ultimately fade away – from both sides, in fact. ‘He who does not trust will not be trusted in return’ – this is how it was put by the Chinese scholar Lao Tse, who lived two and a half millennia ago.
My reason for writing this, dear reader, is that I feel a duty to donate some of my time to speak out as a concerned American citizen. If any of what I have said resonates with your own views, please tell your friends.

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