Many people think that the road to totalitarianism is going to be a swift seemingly overnight change, but the reality is that in today’s world, the best way it can occur is little by little over a long period of time. Most people would be aghast of thinking that they could support such a horrific form of government, but as it is introduced in small chunks, over time, abuses that we once thought were egregious are accepted into our everyday lives and we fold them into our new normal.
Unfortunately, this is exactly what has been happening for decades in the United States. A good example are the RICO statues that allowed for law enforcement to seize assets from SUSPECTED crime organizations. The notion that a person was innocent until proven guilty was thrown out in order to give the government more power to prosecute drug offenses, blocking the defendant’s ability to use their assets to defend themselves. They have had the support of both parties in power so there is little to stop the encroachment. Under the current administration, they have become even more commonplace, giving billions to the federal and state governments.
The Justice Department’s asset forfeiture fund under President Obama is the largest it’s ever been, having grown from $500 million in 2003, to $1.8 billion in 2011, according to a new report from the GAO.
In addition to the fund’s size, payments from the fund to local law enforcement agencies totalled $445 million in 2011, another all-time high. These payouts are part of the DOJ’s “equitable sharing agreement,” which incentivizes local cops to conduct federal raids. They then get a portion of the assets seized during the raid (more money if they contribute more resources). That money is then used to finance SWAT and paramilitary training, as well as the acquisition of military grade weapons and equipment.
Originally enacted in 1970, the power assumed by the government to do this was debated heavily with civil libertarians fighting against it, suggesting a ‘slippery slope’. Once enacted, it because the new normal and the criticisms died down except for staunch civil libertarians who were then seen as ‘fringe’.
Of course, it was eventually expanded to include drug lords, securities fraud and yes, the holy grail, terrorism. In fact, many people don’t realize it but it was the power taken by the government for the RICO statutes that allowed for much of the Patriot Act to be seen by its proponents as somehow legal. Had the government not taken that initial power, that we eventually accepted as ‘the way things are’, the Patriot Act would have had a much harder time passing.
Of course, this is just an example. Let’s start with the Patriot Act now and see where that has gotten us.
When initially proposed, civil libertarians again decried it. Some Democrats and some Republicans were also against it, but the established senators and congressmen voted for it. But to get it passed they had to attach expiration clauses to the law so that in the future it could be done away with, at such a time when people realized that the fear they were living in because of 9/11 was temporary and would go away.
But what has happened since? The law has been renewed and renewed, time and time again. First with a Republican congress and president, then with a Democratic congress and Republican president, then a Democratic congress and president. Now it is likely to be passed again. And why? Well, we’ve come to accept that it is normal.
As Glen Greenwald writes:
Remember when, in the wake of the 9/11 attack, the Patriot Act was controversial, held up as the symbolic face of Bush/Cheney radicalism and widely lamented as a threat to core American liberties and restraints on federal surveillance and detention powers? Yet now, the Patriot Act is quietly renewed every four years by overwhelming majorities in both parties (despite substantial evidence of serious abuse), and almost nobody is bothered by it any longer. That’s how extremist powers become normalized: they just become such a fixture in our political culture that we are trained to take them for granted, to view the warped as normal.
His article then expands on several more examples. From the initial screams about torture that faded into acceptance as this administration has been torturing US citizens to President Obama now acting on the claim that he has the right to act as judge, jury and executioner, for suspected terrorists, including US Citizens, on the basis of secret evidence.
Isn’t it amazing that a newspaper editorial even has to say: you know, the President isn’t really supposed to have the power to act as judge, jury and executioner and order American citizens assassinated with no transparency or due process? And isn’t it even more amazing that the current President has actually seized and exercised this power with very little controversy? Recall that when The New York Times first confirmed Obama’s targeting of citizens for assassinations in 2010, it noted, citing “officials,” that “it is extremely rare, if not unprecedented, for an American to be approved for targeted killing.” No longer. That presidential power — literally the most tyrannical power a political leader can seize — is also now a barely noticed fixture of our political culture.
Don’t forget the expansion of the wiretapping powers of the president that this administration has put into place after excoriating the previous administration for first implementing it.
Or the new ‘all seeing’ surveillance systems being implemented.
Or the TSA violations of search and seizure protections without reasonable suspicion.
Or the new cybersecurity law that will incentivize private businesses to spy on you and turn that information into the government.
Or the unmanned drones that are used to spy and carry out executions from the air.
There is zero question that this drone surveillance is coming to American soil. It already has spawned a vast industry that is quickly securing formal approval for the proliferation of these surveillance weapons. There’s some growing though still marginal oppositionamong both the independent left and the more libertarian-leaning precincts on the right, but at the moment, that trans-ideological coalition is easily outgunned by the combination of drone industry lobbyists and Surveillance State fanatics. The idea of flying robots hovering over American soil monitoring what citizens do en masse is yet another one of those ideas that, in the very recent past, seemed too radical and dystopian to entertain, yet is on the road to being quickly mainstreamed. When that happens, it is no longer deemed radical to advocate such things; radicalism is evinced by opposition to them.
No, this is how totalitarianism comes to be, little by little, like the frogs in the boiling pot of water. For those that are unfamiliar with that anecdote:
The premise is that if a frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out, but if it is placed in cold water that is slowly heated, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. The story is often used as a metaphor for the inability of people to react to significant changes that occur gradually.
Here we are, in the boiling pot of water, and the ‘left’ and ‘right’ are too busy shouting insults at each other to realize that by remaining quiet to the abuses of their own party in order to attack the other they are allowing the heat to be turned up, little by little.
The sad fact is that by the time enough people realize what is going on, it will be far to late to turn back the wheels of oppression.