The protests in Turkey have, after a short period of US media pretending they didn’t exist, become a hot topic. And though it began over the demolition of a beloved park, the protests have taken on a much wider and important focus. In Brazil, protests over the price of public transit have likewise evolved into a sort of referendum on the government’s conduct. So with the United States’ spying programs recently laid bare by Edward Snowden, why the hell aren’t we out there being teargassed like the rest of the world?
America has always seemed, to me, really averse to protest and confrontation of the government. There is of course a long list of sizable protests in the US, and Occupy Wall Street happened recently enough that I can remember the hope it would get something done. But then, there are countless revelations that I feel should have birthed a movement, a demand for change that wasn’t confined to a vote or an argument on Facebook. Abu Ghraib, drone warfare, warrantless wiretapping, the Bradley-Manning-leaked video “Collateral Murder.” Obama’s assertion of the right to assassinate American citizens. And now, the NSA has acknowledged, at least in part, the claim that it is and has been spying on us in ways many people (not this guy) thought were too unconscionable to be possible. These things have provoked protest, and I don’t want to erase the work and dedication of those who were big enough to actually care. But they should have been bigger. They should have presented a threat the government had to deal with, not just an annoying Jiminy Cricket twinging at their conscience. Jiminy Cricket is called that for a reason. Cause he’s a fucking cricket. You can crush him under your pinky.
So why is it that Americans are so reluctant to make a stand? The last thing we really rose up about was money. These people have too much of The Money. We’re not getting an equitable share of The Money. Before that, we took to the street to protest the war in Iraq. And those are worthy causes. OWS protested, essentially, capitalism and its exploitative nature. The war in Iraq was stupid, wasteful, a war, and initiated on fabricated intelligence. Why has none of this other stuff coming out stuck? Murdering civilians? Bombing weddings? Torturing and raping our prisoners of war? These are evils that no country should want its name on. At the same time they’re all symptoms of a larger problem: the War on Terror. Any one of these outrages could have sparked a movement, one where the demands and solution would be clear, but none did, and most, if not all, continue.
The time to be outraged about that stuff has passed. I mean, you’d look pret-ty silly if you suddenly tried to start a protest movement against black-site prisons. That was like ten years ago, and you didn’t complain back then, did you? But Snowden’s leak is providing an opportunity to be outraged about a new thing, a thing that affects us here, and brings back all the outrages of the past. So let’s go! Let’s go assemble peacefully, and when the police get rude we can turn it into something really worthwhile!
Okay, so you’re not a terrorist. You’re a normal person, and the worst you’ve got in your online history is some sexy chats on Facebook and links to white supremacist material you can totally explain away. That’s kinda embarrassing, but what have you got to hide? Why should you brave clouds of teargas and risk a baton to the kneecap and otherwise take time out of your busy life to protest something that’s only going to affect bad guys? This is a common sentiment, one that we saw in the surveillance scandal of 2007, as well. People tend to understand the aversion to a wide-sweeping program that nullifies privacy, but many don’t deem it worth complaining about. Either they think that the terrorist beast is too dangerous for us to cling to our rights like that, or they sympathize with the cute little idealists and agree that it’s not cool, but they don’t have enough of a stake in it because, again, they’re not a terrorist or criminal.
This is a dangerous way of looking at it. While most people are at this point politically correct enough to acknowledge “not all terrorists are Arab or Muslim,” they kind of just assume that any of the shit Arab and Muslim innocents go through in the name of stopping terrorism will be confined to those groups and not spill over into their own American lives. Because…uh, because they’re Muslims and we’re not.
A common criticism of the War on Terror goes something like this: “‘Terrorism’ is just a concept, a bogeyman. Anyone can be a terrorist under the right circumstances. The insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan may be killing our soldiers, but they’re defending their homeland from a hostile invasion. A terrorist is someone who is an obstacle to the interests of the US government. It can be anyone.” This is a pretty well-understood idea, and enough groups on both sides of the political spectrum have been targeted by DHS and the FBI for it to ring true.
The problem is that when it comes to any measure or technique used in the War on Terror, people seem to forget that. A common reaction to drone bombings is “Well, they were aiming at a terrorist.” Guantanamo, “Well, they could be a terrorist. They got put in there, after all.” NSA Surveillance, “I’m not a terrorist.” It seems like the only time people care to criticize the premise of the War on Terror is when it directly affects them, when their brother or aunt or best friend or whoever gets sent to a dangerous place. When it’s in the background, not touching them, just reading their email or whatever, it’s a regrettably creepy part of a benevolent system meant to protect them. It’s not 1984, it’s not communist Russia, it’s information gathering and it’s for our own good. There seems to be no end to this attitude, of simply sitting down and accepting the new invasions of privacy and violations of due process.
But that criticism is no less true when you forget about it. Anyone can be a terrorist. Anyone can be a threat to the government, and anyone can become a threat without even trying. And while the War on Terror, or, as Obama calls it, the “Overseas Contingency Operation,” certainly serves the purposes of fighting terrorists, that’s not all it does. It serves a multitude of purposes.
It asserts US dominance by daily demonstrating our capacity and willingness to kill at a distance, with a lack of concern for civilians. By imposing our cyborg will upon countries like Yemen and Pakistan, and sustained military presence in Afghanistan, we gain influence and power in an area of interest to our government and friendly corporations. With this violent control comes a capacity to protect and insure our oil supply. We stake a gentleman’s claim on resources within those countries to be harvested in the future. The fight may be against “terrorists,” but there’s much more at stake than American lives.
The NSA’s program has legal access to every American. In the context of fighting terrorism, this makes perfect sense. It could be anyone! If you think of its full potential, though, this becomes a much scarier prospect. Maybe it’s true that PRISM, MAINWAY and Boundless Informant were put in place to fight terrorism. Obama claims that this is a narrow program, deliberately targeted. They even need a warrant to monitor domestic individuals! But anyone can be a terrorist. And terrorists aren’t just Arabs or Muslims. And like the war itself, there are many other purposes for its tools.
Monitoring burgeoning political movements and their members, watching for signs of radicalism and gathering bonus dirt on any up-and-comers. Keeping information from the American people by hunting down government, or possibly corporate, whistle blowers. Monitoring inconvenient or simply prominent people. Dismantling the next Occupy. These are all perfectly legal uses of the surveillance network, and all perfectly defensible by the government of a people that accepts “for your safety” as justification for apparently anything at all.
Every person in this country is a potential threat. And despite the government’s promises of restraint and responsibility, they would be neglecting their duties if they didn’t look into every credible lead. They would be stupid to just “keep an eye on” what looked like brewing trouble. It’s not 1984, it’s not communist Russia, but at what point will we decide it’s skirting too close?
It’s unlikely that the government intended this information to get out. But now that it has, they’re watching for a reaction. So far, it’s as complacent and small-minded as all the other non-reactions to their crimes. This is our chance. We have to respond. This is a bullshit apparatus in support of a bullshit war. We have to get off our asses and get on the street or this is going to be the new normal.