THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 512, March 29, 2009
"Maybe it's not such a bad thing to be thought a barbarian.
People usually don't mess with barbarians, after all."
Peaceful Dissent and Government Witch Hunts
Special to The Libertarian Enterprise
As most readers of this are probably aware, the Campaign for Liberty has been singled out, along with a few other political groups, in a leaked Missouri state government report, "The Modern Militia Movement." The document tells state officials to be on the lookout for violent extremists while conflating them with pretty much anyone who criticizes the government. Perhaps most troubling, the information apparently comes from the Department of Homeland Security, meaning that similar documents could be circulating in states other than Missouri.
The brush with which this report paints critics of the federal government is so absurdly broad that it should not have to be taken seriously. The report lumps together violent white supremacists with the diverse and broad coalition behind Ron Paul, a man who has called racism "simply an ugly form of collectivism, the mindset that views humans only as members of groups and never as individuals." People who favor peace and cooperation among nations are thrown together with belligerent nationalists. Militants who saw George W. Bush as their savior and loved the war on terror are associated with those of us who saw Bush's reign as a long period of attacks on social peace, international harmony and freedom. We who criticize the Federal Reserve, fiat money, and inflationmany of whom were inspired by great Jewish economists like Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbardare conflated with peddlers of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Promoters of social harmony and cooperation are branded as antisocial promoters of conflict. The wide net cast catches both domestic terrorists and anyone who happens to favor constitutional government, oppose international bureaucracies, question the IRS, CIA, FBI or United Nations, subscribe to libertarian politics or oppose the military draft.
This should all be too ridiculous to address, but police carrying out nationally directed profiling have not been known to be the most nuanced in their investigations. So there is some legitimate concern for freedom activists of all stripes.
The report's categorization of so many different types of people as potential threats to domestic peace takes on a distinct flavor in these Obama years, targeting tens of millions of conservative-leaning Americans who wish to peacefully live their lives in freedompeople who take their Second Amendment rights seriously, people who oppose the staggering growth of government in modern times, people who do not fit into a politically correct mold of good citizenship. It is thus a dangerous report, but it is not anything qualitatively new in the history of the American Republic. Sometimes the fear-mongering was simply stupid and counterproductive; but many times it meant severe attacks on the civil liberties of peaceful Americans.
During the American Revolution, peaceful colonial skeptics of the war had their property confiscated. President John Adams targeted the Jeffersonians with the unconstitutional Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. During the War on 1812, Louis Louaillier, a Louisiana journalist, was jailed by General Andrew Jackson merely for protesting martial lawand then the judge who issued him a habeas corpus writ was also jailed. Many critics during the Civil War were jailed without due process simply for expressing their opposition to Abraham Lincoln's power grabs. Critics of Reconstruction were also thrown in prison for their opinions.
With the advent of the national leviathan and technological modernity, oppression of peaceful dissenters hit new heights. Much of this was rooted in the Red Scare. Those thought to be socialist sympathizers were harassed. Labor agitators were brutalized, hundreds of thousands of Americans ended up on government lists, and hundreds of suspected communists were deported to Bolshevik Russia.
The whole time, government used fear of activist violence to chip away the freedom of all Americans. Labor organizers were hardly all angels. Many violently lashed out at scabs and their activism sometimes degenerated into riots and crimes against the innocent. Communist ideology is certainly one of the more dangerous belief systems. Yet the government lumped all these people together, effectively criminalizing free speech, opinions and associations, and persecuting people simply for disagreeing with the establishment view.
War hysteria brought on the worst abuses. During World War I, those who were German, spoke German, taught German or patronized German art and music were targeted by lynch mobs and government crackdowns. Under the Espionage and Sedition Acts, critics of the war, conscription, the American flag, Constitution or U.S. military were thrown in prison. Woodrow Wilson put Eugene Debs, his socialist presidential opponent, in prison for giving a speech that correctly said the draft was a form of compulsory service illegal under the Constitution. Apparently, either being too pro-Constitution or too anti-Constitution was enough to find oneself in a cage.
Criticism of American allies, including Britain, could also land one in jail. Robert Goldstein was sentenced to prison for making a patriotic movie, The Spirit of '76, which was about the American Revolution and appropriately portrayed the British as the antagonists. After the war, abuses continued. In the late 1920s, the Bureau of Investigation, today called the FBI, spied on Albert Einstein.
Franklin Roosevelt spied on his political opponents, including Republican presidential candidate Wendell Wilkie, and had lists compiled of both rightwing opponents of his New Deal regime and leftwing radicals. The government was poised to round them all up. This did not end up happening, although FDR did force more than 100,000 peaceful Americans of Japanese descent into internment camps, depriving them of their liberty and property in the name of a war for freedom.
As the Cold War commenced, government monitoring and persecution of peaceful dissenters resumed. Many Americans mostly remember Senator Joe McCarthy, who focused on officials in power above him, but far worse abuses occurred against peaceful and powerless Americans. The Hollywood blacklist is the most well known example.
But the government witch hunts and agitation got worse than even this. The FBI infiltrated both rightwing critics of Civil Rights legislation and leftwing activists. In 1956 the agency launched COINTELPRO (Counter Intellgience Program). The purpose, according to one internal document, was to "track, expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities" of certain activist groups. In one San Diego operation, COINTELPRO used forged letters to incite violence between the Black Panthers and its rival, the United Slaves. The FBI celebrated the "shootings, beatings, and a high degree of unrest," and gloated in a memo, "Although no specific counterintelligence action can be credited with contributing to this overall situation, it is felt that a substantial amount of the unrest is directly attributable to this program." This was revealed in the famous U.S. Senate Church Committee reports in 1976. Far from making us safer, the government, looking for trouble, was proudly provoking civil unrest.
Throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, the FBI spied on radicals, Civil Rights advocates, opponents of mandatory busing, and opponents of the Vietnam War. Victims of this surveillance included Martin Luther King and John Lennonnot exactly serious threats to national security.
After the Cold War, the emphasis was shifted toward rightwing extremists. Under the first Bush administration, Randy Weaver, a white separatist, was goaded into breaking the law by informants. This entrapment resulted in federal raids that killed Weaver's son and wife. Early in the Clinton administration, from February to April 1993, federal hysteria directed at the separatist Branch Davidian group outside Waco, Texasthis group distinctively not white separatist (nearly half of the Davidians were people of color)culminated in a military operation on American soil that cost the lives of about 80 American civilians, about a fourth of them children, and four federal officials. Much of what was said about the group was propaganda to save the face of the administration and exempt it from blame for this unspeakable and completely avoidable tragedy.
Many Americans, including conservatives jealous of their rights to live as free people, began criticizing the government for going way too far in its national police powers. Much of the dissent was chilled when the mass murder of innocents at Oklahoma City unfolded on April 19, 1995, precisely two years after the Waco siege ended.
Gulf War veteran Timothy McVeigh was implicated in the Oklahoma City atrocity, but the government and the liberal establishment pinned blame on an entire subculture, and even on mainstream conservatives. Rush Limbaugh was blamed for voicing anti-government opinions that supposedly contributed to domestic terrorism. For the rest of the 1990s, the rightwing was demonized, lumped together with the militia movement, and the threat of both were wildly exaggerated, even as the Clinton government used the IRS and other means to intimidate its peaceful critics. Prolife groups were harassed through RICO statutes. Gunowners were accused of being unpatriotic and un-American, and any talk of U.S. tyranny was seen as suspect.
With George W. Bush and the war on terror, the face of the targeted group changed, but the basic pattern continued. Muslims and Arabs were suspected as enemies of America, and hundreds were rounded up without due process. Bush thundered that "you are either with us or with the terrorists." In December, 2001, Attorney General John Ashcroft lashed out at Americans concerned about civil liberties:
"To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this. Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America's enemies, and pause to America's friends. They encourage people of good will to remain silent in the face of evil."
Thus were peaceful critics of the war on terror targeted. Iraq war protesters were spied on and assaulted by police. In October 2003, the FBI oversaw surveillance of protesters, infiltrated their groups, monitored their "training grounds" and kept an eye out for "protest activity and potentially illegal acts," as one formal memo put it. One FBI official was quoted in the New York Times saying, "it's obvious that there are individuals capable of violence at these events. We know that they are anarchists." It was a throwback to the Red Scare.
In the summer of 2005, the FBI admitted to collecting thousands of documents on non-violent activists, the ACLU, Greenpeace, and antiwar organizations. By using "National Security Letters," the government could force citizens to relinquish personal and financial information while forbidding them from informing anyone, including their lawyer. By 2005, about 30,000 such letters were issued annually. The FBI spied on the Catholic Worker Movement, noting its "semi-communistic ideology."
The same year, NBC News obtained a secret 400-page Pentagon document that tracked such "extremists" as anti-war Quakers in Florida, whose meeting was officially described as a "suspicious incident" and a "threat." All the while, peaceful activists were denied their right to travel by being inexplicably put on federal No-Fly lists.
Now the flavor of government has changed from the Republican leviathan of George W. Bush to the Democratic leviathan of Barack Hussein Obama. A different group is vulnerable to being marginalizedin many ways a revitalization of the Clinton era atmosphere, although now with the post-9/11 concern about peace activists and all the surveillance powers inaugurated by Bush still in place.
But the general substance behind government fear-mongering and witch-hunts, and the attempts to chill dissent and silence peaceful political critics, have continued and have a long history. For the last century especially, we have seen the government lump together violent and in many cases unsavory agitators on both the left and right with Americans who simply question unlimited government, nationalist police powers and disastrous foreign wars. While there are indeed some violent and crazed elements on the fringes of the right and leftwhile there are likewise some extremist characters and frightening viewpoints in the mainstream of American politics, toothe result of such government persecution of dissenters is always to marginalize everyday citizens with unpopular views, conflate thoughtful and principled criticism of the government with agitation for social unrest and violence, and jeopardize the civil liberties of all Americans.
When the target is leftists, antiwar activists, or "un-American" radicals, statist conservatives have tended to look the other way. When the target is cultural conservatives, gunowners and American patriots who love the Constitution, it is statist liberals who tend to downplay the danger.
In truth, all such fear-mongering, when capitalized upon by unchecked national police powers in an atmosphere of hysteria, poses a severe threat to American liberty, and must be taken very seriously by any culture that respects freedom and the very foundations of civilization. The right to peacefully dissent and oppose government deprivations of life, liberty and property, is an inalienable right as fundamental as any other.
The right to question the government, even from a mistaken point of view, is at the heart of America's proud heritage. When America relinquishes this understanding, it comes to adopt the features of the supposed enemy. In the name of rooting out Communists, America became just a bit more communistic. In an effort to keep an eye on violent extremists, the government resorts to violence and extremism. All the labor agitators, Muslim sympathizers and militia groups put together can never threaten American freedom and security as much as an unleashed police state in a climate of fear.
So it is that much more important to speak up; to tell the truth; to defend the freedoms of all people to speak, live in peace, pursue happiness in a world of liberty, so long as they do not commit aggression against their fellow man. For defending this vision of a free and peaceful world, for sticking up for the rights of others no matter who they are or what they believe, we at the Campaign for Liberty and those of like mind have been wrongly targeted by an overbearing government. But we who love liberty have the right ideas and the passion to stand by our principles. In the end, the national police, state governments, Homeland Security and all the SWAT Teams and spying powers in the world cannot defeat a idea that is true and whose time has come. And it is this ideathis idea at root of Ron Paul's Love Revolutionthe dream of peace and freedom for all Americansthat truly frightens those who favor the total state, intimidation and fear directed abroad and toward peaceful dissent at home. It is the idea of liberty, not militias or terrorists, that most threatens the establishment, even as it offers nothing but hope and promise for the American people and the people of the world.