Whither America’s Freedoms?

Copyright © by Len Holman, 11/30/11


  Many years ago, when I was an inquisitive kid riding home from the movies with my parents, I saw—from my place in the back seat—a couple of police cars and a line of traffic in front of us.  I asked my father what was going on and he shrugged.  “Must be an accident,” he said.  It turned out the police were checking for drunk drivers.  This is a common occurrence today, but not then.  When we got to the place where the cops were stopping every car on the road, my father rolled down his window and asked why we were being stopped and the cop shined his flashlight into my dad’s eyes, then ran the beam around the inside of the car.  Then—and here’s the part that stands in sharp relief to today’s citizen passivity—my father chewed the cop out for stopping us for no reason—we might say today that the officer had no probable cause:  we weren’t weaving or driving over the line.  The cop finally let us through the checkpoint, but my dad was fuming and I remember his saying in a VERY angry tone, “What the hell is this country coming to?” 

  Well, here we are, many years later and we know the answer—and it’s not pretty.  We could call up instances of repression and injustice in American history, starting at the beginning and going from three-fifths of a person, through the trampling of the Sioux sacred land in the Black Hills by gold seekers, detouring through the anti-Chinese immigration policy, the fire-bombing of Dresden, the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the “free speech zones” of Bush 2, the Patriot Act, and.…well, the list, as they say, goes on.  But I prefer to start with the shocking, horrific, unbelievable assault on 3,000 Americans in New York 0n 9/11.  This was the day that “official” America gave up the pretense of being that shining city on the hill.  Before 9/11, we—as a people and a government—committed egregious sins against freedom and against other people, but we never gave up the myth we created, the myth that Everything Would Be All Right, that we would persevere, make it all come out on the side of Justice and human dignity and peace, that we would be on the side of the angels.  But so far, the terrorists are winning.  No, they’re not storming the beaches in Santa Monica, or flying planes into malls, but they have twisted us into a country that is fast becoming unrecognizable—at least to those of us of a certain age.  The Tea Party wants to take us all back to 1789.  I’d be happy to start at 1999. 

  Here are some chilling examples of our inability to find our way out of the forest:  we still hold prisoners at Guantanamo because we won’t try them in criminal court—they are too dangerous to be given due process.  We deploy drones like pigeons deploy droppings, with Pakistan becoming angrier and angrier, and we have increased their use mightily since Bush fils removed to his ranch to watch cloud shapes.  We have killed an American citizen with a drone and we justify it by saying he was a terrorist fomenting terrorist ideals and, apparently, because he spoke fluent English—an act even Ron Paul denounced.  Ron Paul.  We assassinated Bin Laden and claimed it was unavoidable because he was armed with a TV remote.  We supported Qaddafi for years, but decided he had to go and hid behind that keen NATO logo, claiming the “international community” (isn’t that phrase worn out by now?) wanted to “protect” innocent civilians, but turned it into a bombing campaign that finally got our once-buddy removed—and dead.  Current law requires the government to get a warrant to conduct any that intrudes on a citizen’s “reasonable expectation of privacy.” 

  The Obama administration, fearful of its reputation, the Tea Party vote, the nine Al Qaeda members still running around the mountains in Pakistan, and Fox News, is arguing before the Supreme Court that no warrant need be acquired to affix a GPS tracker to a car whose driver is suspected of the possibility of committing crimes.  There’s no expectation of privacy, the argument goes, when you’re driving.  This will come as no surprise to the many hundreds of couples who conceived their children while driving 70 mph on the Ventura Freeway, but as a legal, ethical, American maneuver, it smells—not of teen spirit, but of desperation.  We have airport pat-downs, data-mining of phone calls, surveillance cameras everywhere, and snooping into libraries to see what Americans are looking at—not reading, necessarily, just looking at.  Of course, no President wants to be in the wheelhouse if the ship hits an iceberg, so he or she will take precautions, and those precautions are the terrorists’ gift to our national psyche.  Not just precautions, but Howard Hughes-type precautions, excessive, over-the-top precautions, where the FBI lures Americans into crime, where “rendition lite” is still a roaring business and “lone wolf” wackos want to bring down the government by throwing rocks at the White House. 

  An atmosphere has been created—not just here but abroad and that’s scary, but what’s really scary is that few American seem to care.  We watch “debates” which are merely chances for the candidates to give campaign speeches we’ve all heard many times before, and then we watch the chattering class “analyze” what happened—as if something actually happened.  Protestors occupy public spaces in the winter, get their heaters and tents taken away, get pepper-sprayed like a man painting a house, and swallow enough tear gas to stop a T. Rex.  They are in the way of commerce and tourism.  We are amused by Google Earth and look at our roof top and driveway, but when the police use drones to look in our windows, shouldn’t they need a warrant?  Our expectation of privacy doesn’t extend to our roofs, but surely it extends to the inside of our houses.  If the drones have thermal imaging, along with Hubble-style magnification, that’s even more problematic.  This issue shouldn’t even be a matter of public debate, but the children of Facebook and Twitter, who tell everything to everyone all the time, don’t seem to value the privacy I grew up accepting as the norm.  And when it’s gone—this privacy some value so much—we’ll have lost a core strand of the American experience, and the next generation won’t even know what the word “privacy” means.  Eric Blair, we need you now.


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