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America’s slippery slope

By Andrew Mwenda

How the US war on terror threatens to undermine the cause of individual liberty

In 1948, George Orwell published his novel, 1984, a classic statement of the danger to individual liberty paused by increasing technological sophistication, especially in the hands of the state. The novel is set in a country with an all-powerful state, Big Brother, characterised by a state-controlled economy with few monopolistic producers and controlled labor. Yet this is not what made Big Brother all-powerful. Two factors did.

The first was technology’s perfection of state-power. According to Orwell, the growth and spread of television would make it easy for self-perpetuating elite to manipulate, condition, and monitor the masses without explicit resort to using terror. So, every citizen (or at least every citizen important enough to be worth watching) could be kept for 24 hours a day under the watchful eye of the police and being indoctrinated by official propaganda. This created a real possibility of enforcing complete uniformity of opinion on almost every subject. Anyone viewing cable TV in America today can see many elements of this.

The second factor supporting the rule of Big Brother was the threat of perpetual war. Orwell’s book is about a world of three giant powers with unstable frontiers – Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia. The possession of nuclear weapons made it impossible for any of these powers to be attacked and defeated by another. However, for purposes of domestic control, each one of these powers needed to create the illusion that they were permanently at war with one another.

This assumed threat to national security is the crux of Orwell’s message in the novel: the danger of slipping into totalitarianism did not simply arise from new technologies of manipulation, control and surveillance. Rather it arose from these technologies being pressed into the service of “national security”. Using the power of television, for example, people would be conditioned to believe that their nation is at war on a large number of fronts – wars without any apparent end. America’s “war on terror” could turn out to be the true realization of what Orwell predicted 65 years ago.

These thoughts were brought back to me vividly during the last one month when I began following the story of Edward Snowden, the 29-year American intelligence analyst who has revealed that the United States government conducts a secret surveillance program of its citizens by hacking into their phone records, emails and social media. This program, even if it were legal (its legality is contested by many lawyers), is arbitrary and conducted secretly without any credible oversight.

Since Snowden exposed these programs of surveillance, individual journalists and media organisations in America have been outdoing each other condemning him as a traitor. Most media commentary in seems to side with the government. There is little criticism of the NSA’s actions and even this is often couched in euphemisms that take away the real danger to our right to privacy. This is especially so given that American media and human rights organisations use much stronger language when such violations are revealed to have been done by such countries as China, Russia or Cuba.

Thus, American media has been denouncing Snowden for preferring to go to countries like China and Russia or planning to go to Cuba which America accuses of being hostile to free speech. Never mind that when Nelson Mandela was fighting for democracy and human dignity in South Africa, it is Cuba, Russia and China that stood by him and defended the cause of liberty. America, on the other hand, declared him a terrorist alongside his political party, the ANC. Mandela was only removed from the US list of terrorists in September 2007.

One only needs to watch and read mainstream American media to see how Orwell’s predictions could turn to be deadly accurate. An almost complete uniformity of opinion on critical matters has been achieved. One can switch channels from Fox to CNN, NBC to MSNBC and ABC or turn to Time, Newsweek, The New York Times or Washington Post and the message would be similar. This is largely due to the concentration of wealth and the control of mass media in a few large corporations, a factor that has stifled diversity. When alternative views are brought in, it is not even for pretence of balance, but to show that there is a lunatic fringe within American society that holds crazy opinions.

But Snowden’s point of view needs to be debated as well i.e. should the state conduct such comprehensive surveillance of its citizens in secret – without their knowledge or consent? Snowden faced a moral choice between serving the cause of liberty by exposing what he considered a threat to it (and therefore committing a crime) or adhering to his oath of secrecy and thereby not violating the law (so as to remain free and earning US$200,000 per year). If I were in his shoes I would have done exactly what he did but with one difference – do it in America and accepted to go to jail for it. This is because I believe the defense of liberty is more sacred than respect for the law, especially when it is bad law. However, the one violating the law via civil disobedience must be willing to face the consequences of such action.

As Orwell predicted, the “war on terror” has furnished the US government an opportunity to pass draconian laws that directly threaten civil liberties – like the Patriot Act, in the name of national security. It has come in the context where police and other security agencies have ever more sophisticated technological capabilities at their disposal to conduct comprehensive surveillance of all citizens of America and other people around the world. This is America’s slippery slope to totalitarian control and the true expression of a police state.

The “war on terror” has also allowed the US government to develop a preemptive theory of justice. This is the view that law should not only be used to convict the guilty but also to prevent the potentially guilty from staying free to commit crimes. The essence of surveillance is to develop huge quantities of data on citizens that are put in a computer program that has the capacity to “predict” future behavior and intentions of an individual. Then such an individual is put on a security watch list.

Furthermore, the “war on terror” has led to Guantanamo prison, Abu Ghraib and many other illegal detention facilities used by the US and her allies around the one. There, many suspected terrorists are jailed without charge for months and sometimes years on end. Often they are tortured. One such detention facility is in Uganda on Summit View in Kololo. The Uganda government arrests young Somali men and gives their name to the US embassy. When their name corresponds with that in their computer system, Uganda hands them over to America and they are taken – God-knows-where. Given the similarity in Muslim names, one can imagine the amount of abuse orchestrated by America.

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