David Model / Op Ed News – 2010-12-31 18:24:12
(December 26, 2010) — Zealously hunting for a rationale to indict Julian Assange for the Wikileaks documents reveals the obsession of presidents to suppress information exposing improper or illegal conduct. They treat the freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment as privileges to be withdrawn when those freedoms threaten to cause them a serious problem. Their pretext for their response is to blur the distinction between subversion and dissent.
Together with the suppression of individual freedoms, Homeland Security, the Patriot Act, unwarranted search and seizures, assassination squads, harsh response to protests and the designation enemy combatant are part of a security regime that leads Americans on a dangerous path to tyrannical government, some might even say dictatorship. Ironically, the structure of American democracy was heavily based on the fear of monarchies and the accumulation of too much power at the highest levels of government.
A healthy democracy is based on an open society with a free exchange of ideas and tolerance of dissent where seeking the truth is considered the noblest pursuit. John Adams warned us about the dangers of tyranny even in a democracy when he uttered the words: “The Jaws of power are always open to devour, and her arms always stretched out if possible, to destroy the freedom of thinking, speaking, and writing.”
Former British foreign secretary Robin Cook postulates a far grimmer scenario when he claimed that: “All the checks and balances that the founding fathers constructed to restrain presidential power are broken instruments.”
At the extreme end of the spectrum are those who believe that the United States is becoming or is a police state. Naomi Wolf, author and political consultant, argues that: “It is clear, if you are willing to look, that each of these 10 steps [to becoming a fascist state] have already been initiated today in the United States by the Bush administration.” As well, Michael Ratner, president of the Centre for Constitutional Rights, worries that: “It is no exaggeration to say we are moving toward a police state.”
There have been numerous attempts since 1798 to suppress dissent in the United States but in recent years the sophistication of technology, a corroborative media, a climate of fear and the abdication by Congress of its critical role as a check on the powers of the president, not to mention its collaboration in the expansion of his powers, has resulted in significantly greater powers of the chief executive to suppress dissent.
Previous attempts to suppress dissent usually occurred when perceived internal or external threats induced fear over the security of the state in the same way that terrorism justifies the extreme security measures that are in place today.
When the United States was on the brink of war with France in 1798, the Federalist Party passed the Alien and Sedition Acts to safeguard the union from internal threats. The Alien Act targeted immigrants who might side with France and the Sedition Act criminalized malicious writings which defamed, brought into contempt or disrepute, or excited the hatred of the people against the Government, the President, or the Congress, or which stirred people to sedition.
Then in 1962, President Lincoln facing an armed rebellion within the United States suspended habeas corpus, the foundation of all the freedoms guaranteed in the constitution.
During the outset of the civil war, President Lincoln, facing riots and hostile militias, particularly in Maryland, suspended Habeas Corpus in Maryland and parts of some mid-western states. Article 1, Section 9 of the constitution prohibits the suspension of Habeas Corpus “unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it”. Since Section 9 refers to Congressional powers, Lincoln’s decision was very controversial.
President Wilson signed the Espionage Act into law in 1917 which criminalized vaguely defined anti-war activities such as gathering information with the intention to injure the United States or with the intention of promoting its enemies during World War 1. It was followed by the Sedition Act of 1918 which defined as illegal acts defaming the American flag or the uniforms of military forces.
During Word War II, President Roosevelt issued executive order 9066 granting the military the power to create internment camps to hold all persons of Japanese ancestry for the duration of the war.
Other attempts to suppress dissent include the FBI Cointelpro program which appallingly authorized the assassination of suspected internal threats to American security and the harsh treatment of protestors at various events including the 1968 Chicago Convention, Berkley sit-ins and Kent State.
Since 9/11, civil, political and legal rights both nationally and internationally have been severely curtailed all in the name of protecting the security of the United States.
One of the cornerstones of the emerging quasi-police state in America is the Patriot Act which grants agents of the state the powers to treat ordinary American citizens as suspected terrorists if, in their judgment, there is reasonable cause.
US government officials can now name individuals as terrorists without a public hearing, conduct search and seizures in private homes, tap telephone lines, subpoena anyone’s telephone, medical and university records without any real legal obstacles.
Surreally, it expanded the definition of terrorism to include domestic terrorism, enlarging the scope of activities to which the Patriot act implies. Since its passage, Americans can be detained indefinitely under the aegis of the Patriot Act. In addition, it granted immigration authorities the power to detain and deport immigrants.
Congress overwhelmingly supported passage of the original and reauthorization Bills with the Senate voting 98 in favor in 2001 and 89 in favor in 2006. In the House, 357 voted in favor in 2001 and 280 in favor in 2006.
On February 2010, President Obama signed into law, legislation that would temporarily extend for one year three controversial provisions of the Act.
In contrast, there was sharp opposition in Congress to the Sedition Act of 1798. Vice President, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and the entire Democratic-Republican Party condemned the Act as unconstitutional. As well, there was strong public opposition to the Sedition Act.
When Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, the press and Supreme Court opposed it as unconstitutional. Congress called an emergency session to introduce a bill to provide indemnity for President Lincoln’s suspension of Habeas Corpus although the democrats strongly opposed the suspension. The press demanded that the suspension be tested in the courts to determine its validity.
President Wilson’s introduction of sedition legislation in 1918 met with considerable opposition from Republicans and the final vote in the Senate was 48 to 26 and in the House 293 to 1 in favor. Congress repealed the Sedition Act on December 13, 1920.
Although the Sedition Act was upheld in the Supreme Court in Abrams v. United States in 1919, it was subsequently considered unconstitutional in cases such as Bradenburg v. Ohio in 1969 which virtually rendered it extremely unlikely that similar legislation would be considered again.
Massive popular non-violent protests acting within the law are a key mechanism for communicating to the administration and Congress that there is opposition to government policies. Clearly, first amendment rights protect the protesters from intimidation, harassment or detention by agents of the state.
Following the principle that First Amendment rights are only privileges, President Obama mobilized all the resources at his command to ensure that protesters at the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh were denied an opportunity to deliver their message and furthermore he precipitated a deterrent to dissuade people from participating in future demonstrations. Highly militarized police from across the nation attacked the protestors with batons, pepper gas and Long Range Acoustic Devices (LRAD)
In all the above pre-9/11 examples involving the suspension of civil, legal and political rights, there was strong opposition and the above-mentioned Acts were short-lived. There was no danger that those security measures would lead to a permanent and growing abrogation of constitutional rights.
Dissent has always been fragile but is now becoming a security threat that requires an immediate and harsh response. Without dissent, there is no democracy. Just ask Julian Assange.
Author’s Bio: I have been a professor of political science at Seneca College in Toronto. I have published five books the last of which Selling Out: Consuming Ourselves to Death was released in May/08. As well, I have been featured in CounterPunch, Z Magazine,Dissenting Voice and College Quarterly. Additionally, I have delivered numerous papers at international academic conferences including Cambridge and Oxford. Author’s Website: http://consuming-ourselves.blogspot/
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