By DAN VALENTI
PLANET VALENTI News and Commentary
(FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE, MONDAY, APRIL 21, 2013) — One of THE PLANET‘s favorite words is “balance.” Generally speaking, we tend toward balance in our lives, it being defined by the middle point between two extremes. When something gets out of balance, the tendency is to lurch in the opposite direction, as on a tight rope — lean toward one side, and your body will immediately flail to shift to the opposite.
Random assaults — be they by organized groups, lone gunmen, or young men with bombs for brains — induce a swerve of societal fear. Teetering off of our center point, we lurch in the other direction. Indiscriminate onslaught produces systematic countermeasures. The uncertainty of fear causes the certitude of protective force. Add it all up, and are you left with balance? That is the question to ask in the wake of the Boston bombings.
Over-reaction, An Attempt to Restore Balance
The over-reaction on the part of officials to the Boston Marathon bombings was a reach to restore balance in a city suddenly wrenched out of the foregone conclusion of the day’s satisfaction and joy. Viewed coldly and analytically, the situation did not require the massive SWAT response that followed the release of photos and videos of the two bombers. Boston and Boston-area local police could well have handled the situation. Viewed emotionally, however, the armed-to-the-teeth military-type armada played to a social need to feel protected. Watertown residents applauded the SWAT teams, even though they stood a practically non-existent chance of being harmed by a wounded, scared, teen-aged fugitive with no escape plan, no aid or sustenance, and facing thousands of big, strong, Humveed condotierri.
They came by the thousands in with their assault vehicles, Kevlar, choppers, machine guns, night vision, and suits of armor to find … a whimpering, wounded teenager hiding under the tarp cover of a backyard boat. Hardly a fair fight, and hardly worthy of the epithet of “hero.” These were professionals doing a job for which they’ve been trained.
Is the odd chance of the loose canon’s rare firing the reason to induce a police state in America? Officials, politicians, and all those nominally in charge of public safety will say “yes.” Politically, they have no other choice, as evidenced in the manner in which every politician wanting a little wet ink used the situation to their own gain. Officials won’t say it so blatantly, but their thoughtless, emotion-based reactions will say it for them, for example, the knee-jerk calls for more “security” for the Pittsfield Fourth of July Parade. Pittsfield, answer for yourself: Are you mature enough for freedom or not? If so, keep the Fourth security as is. If not, cancel the $85,000 extravaganza and use the money to buy more Kevlar and assault canons for the police department.
The Rise of the Police State
That is the critical question. Can we handle freedom?
When THE PLANET thinks of a police state, we think of such regimes as Pinochet‘s Chile or Sandinistan Nicaragua. Goose-stepping North Korean soldiers marching before their hole-in-one leader also fits the bill. Dramatic usurpation of liberty — people whisked out of their homes in the middle of the night, protesters detained without being charged with a crime, seizure of property — certainly applies. These are easy calls for the political scientists and history buffs.
We tend not to think of what’s happened to America post 9/11, and thus we do not see how “the state” (that is, the federal government and its 50 state capitals) has “imposed its comprehensive vision of economic welfare and correct behavior upon the citizens.” That is the definition of “police state” used by lawyer Richard Stevens, who has studied extensively about national security, terrorism, and justice. That describes the prevailing drift of the American experience since 9/11, a movement toward “economic welfare” based 100% on debt, worthless currency, and the imposition upon We The People of the erosion of liberty.
As in a police state, in America today, the police and security apparatus “takes upon itself to actively enforce the will of the state,” using criminal activity as its pretext. That’s what we witnessed in the actions of police following the Boston Marathon bombings.
Finally, the prime driver of citizen behavior is not altruism but a “pervasive fear of punishment” (Stevens). People are more apt to see moral good in terms of the threat of sanction rather than the efficacious sense of doing the right thing for its own sake. Such a system will keep people perpetually on edge, and as this system introduces more and more laws to circumscribe more and more restrictions on personal liberty, people will see themselves bound by laws that are or will become nearly impossible to fully obey.
‘Police State’: A New Definition, A New Manifestation
Of course, America is not Robespierre‘s France or Hitler‘s Germany. Keep in mind, though, that as society changes, so does the nature of the police state. Neither Robespierre nor Hitler, neither Pinochet nor Stalin, had the greatest tool of all in the establishment, securing, and preservation of a police state: Massive electronic surveillance. Yesterday’s police state is today’s “public safety.”
The phrase “police state” is misleading. When we hear the word “police” we think of the local police officer. The word, however, when used as an adjective modifying the noun “state,” refers much more broadly to “security” (the word comes from the Greek politeia, which includes every aspect of public life that would affect the survival and welfare of a citizen). Thus, the major objective of the police state is control of public space, which creepily will come to include one’s very thoughts via censorship. The major tool (and characteristic) of a police state is surveillance. The major justification for surveillance is, ostensibly, public safety. War is the guarantor of a police state.
From the book, The State Vs. The People: The Rise of the American Police State by Claire Wolfe and Aaron Zelman:
War, social upheaval, or fear or revolution gave them their raison d’etre. Here we discover another key characteristic of police states: They grow on crisis. Crises and wars justify their existence and crises and wars keep them in power. As long as their leaders can point to a credible threat – enemies on the border, enemies within, criminals, monopolists, saboteurs, plotters, moral decadence, foreigners. Selfishness, poverty, inflation, unemployment, falling education standards, almost any problem will suffice – the populace is likely to accept the loss of its liberties in the name of public safety, national security, humanitarianism, or law and order.What happens when the crisis ends? It never does. There is no “final solution” to every human problem. When one war ends, or when the public becomes weary of one crusade, another always awaits.
A police state can invariably find a crisis around which to rally. However, the very structure of a police state also carries a kind of built-in “crisis generator,” a self-perpetuating mechanism. It works like this:
The human race is too fractious, too individualized for total mass cooperation. No “experts” have yet mastered the art of perfectly overseeing all citizens and all institutions. Despite the most diligent attempts at social micromanagement, someone, somewhere, will always “misbehave.” So everyone, everywhere, must be watched – and punished as necessary. This requires an ever-escalating force of spies, spy agencies, and informers.
A heavily watch and regulated people tends to become discontent and even more fractious. The ever- greater number of watchers inevitably observes more “unacceptable” behavior – behavior that violates the ever-greater number of laws and regulations. Continued “misbehavior” necessitates more spies and regulators, which fosters more rebellion, or uncovers more infractions, which necessitates more efforts by the government to gain control, ad infinitum. Distrust increases, as does the brutality of the states attempts to exert total authority.
It is a familiar process that we have seen in our own lifetimes. A police state is a self-perpetuating system that will grow until it collapses under its own weight, or until people have reached the limits of their endurance.
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What? You say that in our so-called democratic system, a “police state” cannot happen? Again, from the book:
The modern authoritarian police state may appear to be democratic in form – holding elections and having a legislature. But within the traditional forms its nature and power have shifted. Typically:
The executive branch gradually comes to dominate the nation. The legislature and judiciary become rubber stamps on increasingly harsh, dictatorial power. Enforcement and rule-making agencies proliferate, independent of any elected body. At the same time, the government as a whole (including the relatively weakened legislative and judicial branches) grows in power and authority relative to the citizens. It is only the authority and freedom of the individual that diminishes in real terms.
A tamed electorate lets the government have its way – perhaps under the ancient narcotics of “bread and circuses,” perhaps under terror. Opposition is allowed, but is controlled by being channeled through organized mainstream institutions such as labor unions, industry lobbies and other quasi-official interest groups.
Individual or small-group opposition is crushed through mockery and demonization, studious non-coverage by the media, infiltration and arrest, or outright brutality. Public opinion is molded via mass education, mass media, and propaganda. Public policy, though it may be voted on in the legislature, is largely made by bureaucrats or other “insiders” – careerists who are not answerable either to public opinion or to votes.
America, we are there. In the aftermath of the Boston bombings, we now have a way to “take the temperature” of democracy since Sept. 11, 2001. We are running a high fever.
America, we are there. The authoritarian state grew to its present size with all of us lovers of liberty watching, helplessly and silently. As citizens dropped out of public participation and politics, the entire premise of America — governance by We The People — became untenable.
America, we are there, off balance and lurching sadly in the opposite direction.
Some folks like to cry. Some folks do, some folks do. Others like to sigh, but that’s not me or you. Long live the merry, merry hearts that laugh by night and day, like the Queen of Myrrh — no matter what some folks say. — From a song we learned and used to sing in grammar school.
“OPEN THE WINDOW, AUNT MILLIE.”
LOVE TO ALL.