Friday, October 4, 2013

The Weight

Trey Smith

I no longer recognize my country.

Back in 1997, after two years living in China, and five more living in Hong Kong, during which time, as a correspondent for Business Week magazine, I slipped in and out of China regularly as a journalist to report on developments there, I got a good dose of life in a totalitarian society. When I alit from the plane in Philadelphia where my family and I were about to start a new chapter of our lives, I remember feeling like a big weight had been lifted off my chest.

The sense of freedom was palpable.

Almost immediately, though I got an inkling that something was amiss. An art teacher in Upper Dublin, the suburban town where we had bought a house, had just been arrested, charged with theft of $400 in school art supplies. Of course, my initial reaction was, “Great school district we’re in, if the teachers are stealing from the school!”

The teacher, Lou Ann Merkle, who had been arrested and finger-printed pending arraignment, was fired and was facing trial on a felony charge of stealing public property. But in a few weeks, as I followed the story in the local weekly paper, it became clear that there had really been no theft (she was taking old supplies which were being replaced with new ones, intending to bring them to a local community center used by low-income children who went there for day care and after-school care. Moreover, when stopped by the principal and told to return the supplies, she grudgingly complied. She was arrested anyway later). I learned over subsequent weeks of news reports that Merkle actually was being hounded by an obsessive power-tripping school administration simply for being an “activist” and outspoken teacher. A school board hearing I attended was packed in December of that year with over a hundred angry parents and former students of Merkle’s demanding that the board drop its case against her. It did not, but a county judge had the good sense to do exactly that, ruling that “no crime occurred here.” (Merkle, who got her job back with back pay, later sued the school district and won a significant judgment against it.)

This was one small example of government tyranny run amok but since then I have seen it become the norm in a United States where people are now being arrested for almost everything -- kids jailed without trial for shoplifting, hitchhikers jailed for arguing, correctly, with cops that it is not illegal for them to thumb for a ride, non-white youths in many cities stopped and frisked for “walking while black or Hispanic” and then getting busted on trumped up charges (resisting arrest, assaulting an officer, disturbing the peace, etc.) when the cops find no guns or drugs on them, protesters beaten and gassed and jailed for simply trying to exercise their First Amendment rights.

But that is just the surface.
~ from The Police State of America by Dave Lindorff ~
Americans are now shouldering a tremendous weight. Not only are far too many of us struggling to get by from month-to-month, but all of us now carry the weight of knowing we are being watched, listened too, scrutinized, analyzed and targeted. While we cannot know for certain if each of us is being spied on constantly, we know enough now to be sure that we are being spied on frequently.

One of the grave problems with persistent surveillance is that it overburdens the collective consciousness of a society. Energy that might have been used for innovation and creativity is lost to worry and anxiety. This is as true for those who act as if government spying is no big deal as it is for those civil libertarians who are consumed by the topic. If a person assumes that they are being watched most of the time, then they will think and behave differently than they would otherwise.

Mass domestic surveillance is like a cancer. It grows insidiously and, if not kept in check, it will overwhelm ANY society. In time, people will take it for granted and, if this comes to be, the fabric of the American ideal may be forever lost.

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