A National Terrorism Advisory Service bulletin released last week identified the number one terroristic threat to Americans as “the proliferation of false or misleading narratives, which sow discord or undermine public trust in U.S. Government institutions.”
Free speech, and specifically the right to criticize our government, is being reframed, in real time, as a threat to public health and safety. You are being primed to fear thought crimes, in which criticizing the US government is equal to a violent act. The federal government is creating a public health pretense for silencing those who tell the truth about the US government’s very real history of victimizing its own citizens.
To take away your most basic civil liberties, overzealous governments rely on your fear. They cultivate, stoke, and stimulate it. Then they demand new powers to fight it.
H.L. Mencken aptly observed in 1918, “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.”
A population clamoring to be led to safety can easily be persuaded that some of its freedoms – even the most cherished ones – must be suspended until the danger has passed. A laundry list of supposedly civilization-shaking specters (the threat of Communists, of crack cocaine, of crime, of Islamic extremism, of Covid-19) has thus been presented to the public, to inspire their fear and ensure their continued willingness to cede Constitutionally guaranteed natural rights.
Each of the worst authoritarian abuses of the state can be traced to a particular enemy, conjured by fear in the public imagination. When we allow ourselves to be led in fear of such an enemy, we invite the full repeal of the Bill of Rights.
The hyper-militarized police now commonplace on American streets is a legacy of the War on Drugs. Media fear-mongering is driven as much by ratings as by political agenda, and Americans tuned in to see inner-city war zones ravaged by prohibition-related violence. Anchors and analysts reminded us to be afraid of what the crack epidemic might do to more American communities. We were encouraged to conflate drug use with violence, and live in fear of what some local “crackhead” would do to get his next fix.
No-knock raids, like the one that recently killed Amir Locke, and Breonna Taylor in 2020 and thousands more whose names we never learned, were justified as a response to drug fear. Home invasion by armed men in the middle of the night is exactly the horror our Fourth Amendment was designed to prevent. But police told us they needed to do it this way, to prevent drug dealers from flushing evidence, to protect police who might be at risk during a daylight raid. We allowed unthinkable violence to be waged in our communities and in our names, to soothe the carefully cultivated fear of illicit drugs and their users.
Civil asset forfeiture, another Fourth Amendment shredding travesty, was codified by a 1970 “drug abuse prevention” law promising to target drug kingpins and smugglers. Once the precedent was established, government expanded to stealing money, cars, homes, and property without ever even alleging the owner committed a crime. The whiff of “drug money” was enough to toss basic American protections out the window. By 1990, the US Attorney General openly told his agents “…to reach our budget target…every effort must be made to increase forfeiture income.” As of 2014, police steal more from Americans than burglars.
By stoking fear and then launching a War on Drugs, the federal government created a “public health” and “safety” pretense for superseding civil liberties. Sure, the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, Ninth, and Tenth Amendments were eviscerated in the process but… we had to get the drugs off the streets.
Extremism and Terrorism
The 2000s brought the War on Terror, with its color alerts and 24/7 news chyrons choked with exclamation points. Xenophobia and anti-Islamic prejudice were stirred liberally into the stream of new reasons to panic, to keep your kids home, to keep supplies in your car. Congress could easily justify the PATRIOT Act as necessary to keep Americans safe.
From the fear-driven PATRIOT Act came surveillance and spying powers, and government knowledge of the private lives of citizens that would have been unthinkable in previous decades. The kind of sinister entrapment and harassment the FBI once reserved only for civil rights leaders could now be turned on any American. Our “papers and effects,” in which we have a Fourth Amendment right to be secure from search, could now be endlessly searched and even preemptively compiled, on the off chance we might one day become a suspect of a crime.
The Department of Homeland Security – which issued this week’s shameful memo alleging that ‘undermining public trust’ in a government instution is an act of terrorism – is itself an institution born of fear: a nation captivated by the horrorific violence of the 9/11 terrorist attacks was well-primed to accept an unprecedented expansion of federal power, enshrined in a cabinet-level position. All born of fear.
The First Amendment was suspended in 2020. I never would have believed Americans would stand for it: The right of the people peaceably to assemble, including for religious worship and to petition legislators, was put on indefinite hold by bureaucrats trying to “slow the spread” of the Covid-19 virus. In our fear, we acquiesced.
Every branch and level of government embraced the fear. Sophisticated but fallible “risk prediction models” foretold total human disaster. The population was paralyzed.
The price – and this headed into a hotly contested presidential election year of 2020 – would be to sacrifice peaceable assembly. We wouldn’t be allowed to meet in workplaces, or courthouses, or restaurants, or public squares. Commerce ground to a halt, highways were empty. An unelected government agency was allowed to classify us into “critical infrastructure” and “nonessential,” and confine many of us to our homes. We were implored to accept two weeks of disruption to our lives, because if we’d known it would be two years, we would have refused. But the slow drip of poisonous fear continued. It was a year of dystopian language like “social distancing” and contactless everything. We were taught to see each other as potential contagions, not potential collaborators. And with only the barest fabric of functioning community or commerce left to us, people clamor for the federal government to “do something,” to make choices, to protect them from the fear.
We fall into the same traps over and over again, easily manipulated into surrendering the very foundations of free citizenship. We insist in our fear that government control others, and we never, ever seem to realize that the “emergency powers” we grant in the heat of fear will haunt us for cold decades to come.
Many were hopeful that a vaccine, widely administered, could deliver us from lockdowns. Rhetoric about “the unvaccinated” was designed to both excuse the ineffectiveness of containment strategies (by assigning blame), and to direct our fear of the virus toward people. The dehumanization and othering, as with ‘drug users’ was a necessary and telling step. I am amazed at how so much fear has raised our tolerance for the abuse of our fellow citizens. Mass firings, travel bans, and house arrest have been justified and defended, to protect us from the virus, or more accurately, to assuage our fear.
So fearful of the virus were we, so insistent on deliverance, that people surrendered the hard-won maxim of “My body, my choice.” The power of a government entity to demand someone undergo a certain medical treatment is a power that will make no-knock warrants and asset forfeiture look miniscule.
In the 1927 case Buck v Bell, the Supreme Court pointed to previous smallpox vaccine mandates as having created a right of the state to enforce certain procedures on people against their will, “for the protection and health of the state.” The legal precedent, SCOTUS said, also allowed the state to forcibly sterilize women with intellectual disabilities. Then Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes.”
On the heels of Covid “safety” as a reason to “fact check” and censor information traded between individuals, a new and terrifying bogeyman is now being stirred up in the cauldron. You are being primed to accept that government must dictate what is acceptable speech – for your safety, of course – and that people and platforms who fail to toe the line should be removed from public discourse.
The article you are now reading, challenging as it does the trustworthiness of government institutions and actions, is now classified by the Department of Homeland Security as “mis-, dis-, and mal-information.” Further surveillance of my activities and opinions is not only warranted — legal pun intended — but in fact, tracking government critics is the top priority of a whole government agency this year. This, in America, where the right to be free from intrusive government is our elaborately inscribed reason for founding, and individual liberties the pulse of our continued relevance. The Bill of Rights enshrines not only my right to write what may be deemed counter to the government narrative, but your right to read it if you wish.
The coordinated clamor of critics of Facebook’s staged “whistleblower” begging to be more heavily regulated repeats an old story of regulatory capture and boxing out competition. Congress increases its demands to regulate, shape, and limit the connective power of the internet. Alex Jones, then 9/11 truthers, then Holocaust deniers, then antivaxxers, must have their voices silenced, for the good of the herd.
If the media points to the least sympathetic victims of these abuses, remember their distorted portrayal of the traitorous Japanese in California; the violent, predatory crackheads; the bloodthirsty, bomb-throwing Muslim teen over in Apartment 9 who brings your trash can in sometimes.
According to the Department of Homeland Security’s definition, terrorism consists of undermining public trust of US government institutions. But government institutions are not trustworthy, and never have been. Instead of aspiring to public trust, they wish to criminalize discussing their failures. Given that a quick word or two is all that’s required to ignite such legitimate doubts, which of these words should be banned?
But wait! An earnest defender might say: DHS’s memo only makes those statements terroristic if the narrative is “false or misleading.” But as embattled podcaster Joe Rogan pointed out in a recent statement, many of his pronouncements labeled “false or misleading” a few months ago are now well accepted to be true even by the CDC, including that people who were vaccinated or masked could still spread Covid, or that the virus may have been intentionally created and then released from a lab in Wuhan.
The orthodoxy of Covid response was used to ramp up this policing of “mis- and dis-information,” even when precious little real knowledge existed about such a novel threat. There is no individual, nor group, so powerful and infallible that they can separate truth from speculation, online or elsewhere. Knowledge is ever-evolving. So truth will not be the arbiter of what is allowable – instead, conformity with a popular or political narrative will be enforced.
Freedom from Fear
Note that the most aggressive new calls for gutting the First Amendment (so far) come from Homeland Security and Biden’s Surgeon General. We are being set up to see free speech as a public health threat (like drugs and terrorism) so as to justify a coming “war,” and new government power to fight it. The Surgeon General said, “the only way we get past misinformation is if we are careful about what we say to use the power that we have to limit the spread of misinformation” (emphasis added). The health threat must be avoided, and that will require government force. The War on Misinformation is coming.
Framing knowledge like an illicit substance (like cigarettes, or cocaine, where government maintains it can tell you what to consume) equates other people’s free speech with a threat to your health or safety, turning podcasters into drug dealers or suicide bombers. If we fear “those people” enough we’ll happily sell away freedoms for a shred of security. We will still, apparently, fail to anticipate how those powers will inevitably be abused and aimed at us.
In our fear, we are poorly equipped to envision how the unprecedented government power will haunt people you never envisioned haunting. If small business owners being robbed of their life savings in a traffic stop angers you, understand that the people who wanted to stop the drug trade didn’t imagine those abuses, either. Well-intentioned crusaders for mandatory smallpox vaccination didn’t dream that power would be used to force sterilization on poor women. At some point, though, we must see the clear pattern of history — we should anticipate the inevitable abuse, before allowing fear to create such an unaccountable authority.
Government endangers us, and does not deserve our trust. But now, just pointing out that danger…makes us terrorists. This is only possible because of the decades-long sacrifice of liberty to fear.
The hobgoblins that alarm us are cultivated, so our fear can be exploited for power, money, and control. Government will never address the true threats, nor stop encouraging you to live in fear, because your fear will never cease to be useful.