“Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.... As we peer into society’s future, we-you and I, and our government-must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.”-Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1961
Fifty years ago, in his farewell address to the nation on January 17, 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower cautioned the American people that they must remain alert and knowledgeable and guard against an expansion of America’s military empire-a.k.a. the military industrial complex-if they were to have any hope of maintaining the balance between liberty and security. To our detriment, we failed to heed Eisenhower’s warning.
Indeed, the state of our nation is at an all-time low-morally, socially, economically and politically. And despite various and sundry protests, rallies, political upheavals, and wake-up calls of one kind or another, most Americans remain clueless, fixated on whatever fleeting news stories the talking heads on the 24-hour cable news channels spew forth and deem to be important. All the while, most are only vaguely cognizant that a sea change of events is transforming American culture and the freedoms we once cherished.
In fact, while our freedoms continue to be eroded on almost every front, the government has gone to incredible lengths to use its vast arsenal of technological tools and weapons against us. As Dana Priest and William Arkin, writing for the Washington Post, concluded after a months-long investigation, “Technologies and techniques honed for use on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan have migrated into the hands of law enforcement agencies in America.” Just consider some of what we’ve been subjected to in the past year alone:
Full-body scanners in airports that can “see” through clothing to produce images of an individual’s unclothed body, although they are unable to reveal material concealed in body cavities-a program with few guarantees of success and numerous pitfalls, not the least of which is the harrowing toll it is taking on our civil liberties and the risks it poses to our health.
Mobile versions of airport full-body scanners mounted in nondescript delivery vehicles enable police or other government agents to blend into urban and other landscapes, producing instantaneous photo-like images of whatever the van passes-whether it be cars, trucks, containers, homes or people. In other words, the government can now do drive-by strip searches of your person and your home, including monitoring what you are doing in the privacy of your home.
Iris scanners can capture scans on individuals in motion who are six feet away, laying the groundwork for iris scans to become de facto national ID cards, which can be implemented without our knowledge or consent.
“Smart” police cars come equipped with license plate cameras, computers, a GPS projectile launcher, and even a heat detector in the front grill to differentiate between people and animals, and police officers are equipped with “smart” phones containing the latest technologies for identifying and tracking so-called “suspects.” With such tools at its disposal, the government can retroactively pinpoint exactly where you were on any given day. And if you had the bad luck to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, the burden of proving your innocence will rest with you.
Drones-pilotless, remote controlled aircraft that have been used in Iraq and Afghanistan and are a $2 billion cornerstone of the Obama administration's war efforts-have increasingly found favor with both military and American law enforcement officials. The Federal Aviation Administration has faced mounting pressure from state governments and localities to issue flying rights for a range of unmanned aerial vehicles to carry out civilian and law-enforcement activities, not the least of which will be surveillance on American citizens.
Fusion centers-data collecting agencies spread throughout the country, aided by the National Security Agency-constantly monitor our communications, everything from our internet activity and web searches to text messages, phone calls and emails. This data is then fed to government agencies, which are now interconnected-the CIA to the FBI, the FBI to local police-a relationship which will make a transition to martial law that much easier.
Added to this arsenal of technology, we now have a shadow government fully staffed by unelected officials, ready to take over the running of the country at a moment’s notice; secret prisons where American citizens are being snatched up and made to disappear with no access to the legal system; massive and growing databases containing information on otherwise ordinary Americans reported for such suspicious behavior as gazing at a bridge or taking a picture of a tollbooth; wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that have cost taxpayers more than $1 trillion already; and American soldiers deployed on American soil in clear violation of longstanding laws against using military personnel for law enforcement purposes within the U.S.
We have evolved into a suspect society where privacy is extinct and we are no longer presumed innocent until proven guilty but rather everyone is a suspect. Moreover, as part of its “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign, the Department of Homeland Security is urging Americans to spy on one another, aided and abetted by the corporate elite. This merger of government and corporate America is a subtle move toward a total control society-one in which the government is able to track the movements of people in real time and control who does what, when and where. In exchange, the government promises to provide security and convenience, the two highly manipulative, siren-song catchwords of our modern age.
Our representative government has been hijacked by a wealthy elite whose pockets are lined by corporate America and who have minimal comprehension of what the average American must endure just to get by. Despite occasional populist outpourings of discontent, the Washington elite-that is, the President and Congress-have steadily advanced their agenda, paying little heed to the will of the people.
We’re experiencing the pain of a military empire that is beginning to collapse inwards. Overextended through our military spending and overridden with debt, we are teetering on the edge of financial ruin. Our national debt (the total amount of money owed by the government) is more than $13 trillion and has increased by $4.1 billion per day since September 28, 2007, while our national budget deficit (the amount of spending that is greater than revenue) clocked in at a record $1.4 trillion this year.
In short, “we the people” have become enslaved by the very institution-the U.S. government in an unholy alliance with corporate America-that was entrusted with guarding our liberties. As the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass fittingly remarked, “I didn’t know I was a slave until I found out I couldn’t do the things I wanted.”
Yet we all have a part to play in laying the foundations for this frightening state of affairs-the American people due to our inaction and gullibility; the corporations, who long ago sold us out for the profit they could make on us; the federal government, for using our tax dollars to fund technologies aimed at entrapping us; lobbyists who have greased the wheels of politics in order to ensure that their clients’ interests are prioritized over our own; the courts, for failing to guard our liberties more vigilantly; our so-called representatives for doing little to protect us from the encroaching police state.
As for whether there is anything that can be done to restore our freedoms, we have travelled a long way down this road-too far, I fear, for anything to really be accomplished by turning back. Once power has been handed over to an authoritarian state, it is virtually impossible to restore the balance. Nevertheless, we must try. We are not the first to suffer under the indignities of oppression, nor will we be the last to attempt to break those chains when they become too onerous. So what can we do?
First, we need to recognize that the enemy is us. You’re either a protector of freedom or its enemy. Easily distracted, consumed with our own wants and needs, unwilling to do the hard work of maintaining our individual and collective freedoms, we have become the greatest threat to our freedoms. We’ve become willing victims of entertainment and rampant materialism. It’s the old magician’s sleight of hand: the corporations are entertaining and distracting us, all the while we’re being taken for a ride. We are, so to speak, being entertained while Rome burns.
Second, we need to stop looking to elections as our ultimate hope. Despite what we saw with the Democratic electoral wins in 2008 and the Tea Party backlash in 2010, nothing has really changed. It remains business as usual in the halls of Congress. As Dan Eggen, writing for the Washington Post, reports: “After winning election with an anti-Washington battle cry...incoming Republican freshmen have rapidly embraced the capital's culture of big-money fundraisers, according to new campaign-finance reports and other records. Dozens of freshmen lawmakers have held receptions at Capitol Hill bistros and corporate townhouses in recent weeks, taking money from K Street lobbyists and other powerbrokers within days of their victories.”
Third, if our freedoms are to be maintained, we must become actively involved in local community affairs, politics and legal battles. As the adage goes, “Think globally, act locally.” America was meant to be primarily a system of local governments, which is a far cry from the colossal federal bureaucracy we have today. Understanding what is transpiring practically in your own backyard-in one’s home, neighborhood, school district, town council-and taking direct action at the local level must be the starting point.
Finally, we need to focus on the very real, pressing human needs in our communities and stop funding the war machine, which is not making America safer. These endless wars have succeeded in deepening the hatred of America among our foreign enemies, enriching the corporations who have a vested interest in seeing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq continue, and impoverishing the lower and middle classes. All the while, 45 million Americans lived in poverty in 2009, with one out of every five children living in poverty; household participation in the food stamp program has increased 20% since last year, with a record 41 million Americans on food stamps; one out of every seven mortgages in the United States was either delinquent or in foreclosure during the first quarter of 2010; 28% of all U.S. households have at least one member that is looking for a full-time job; and the number of Americans receiving long-term unemployment benefits has risen over 60 percent in just the past year.
As Martin Luther King Jr. declared in 1967, one year before being assassinated: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”