Written by John W. Whitehead
“Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.” ― George Orwell, Animal Farm
What was striking about this year’s State of the Union address was not the sheer arrogance of the president’s remarks, the staged nature of the proceedings and interactions, or the predictable posturing of the rebuttals, but the extent to which the members of the various branches of government—President Obama, Congress, the Supreme Court, and the assorted government agencies—are just one big, brawling, noisy, semi-incestuous clan.
Watching these bureaucrats, both elected and appointed, interact in the unguarded moments before the event, with their hugging and kissing and nudging and joking and hobnobbing and general high spirits, I was reminded anew that these people—Republicans and Democrats alike—are united in a common goal, and it is not to protect and defend the Constitution. No, as Orwell recognized in Animal Farm, their common goal is to maintain the status quo, a goal that is helped along by an unquestioning, easily mollified, corporate media. In this way, the carefully crafted spectacle that is the State of the Union address is just that: an exaggerated farce of political theater intended to dazzle, distract and divide us, all the while the police state marches steadily forward.
No matter what the president and his cohorts say or how convincingly they say it, the reality Americans must contend with is that the world is no better the day after President Obama’s State of the Union address than it was the day before. Indeed, if the following rundown on the actual state of our freedoms is anything to go by, the world is a far more dangerous place.
It is no longer unusual to hear about incidents in which police shoot unarmed individuals first and ask questions later, such as the 16-year-old teenager who skipped school only to be shot by police after they mistook him for a fleeing burglar. Then there was the unarmed black man in Texas “who was pursued and shot in the back of the neck by Austin Police… after failing to properly identify himself and leaving the scene of an unrelated incident.” And who could forget the 19-year-old Seattle woman who was accidentally shot in the leg by police after she refused to show her hands? What is increasingly common, however, is the news that the officers involved in these incidents get off with little more than a slap on the hands.
If there is any absolute maxim by which the federal government seems to operate, it is that the American taxpayer always gets ripped off. This is true, whether you’re talking about taxpayers being forced to fund high-priced weaponry that will be used against us, endless wars that do little for our safety or our freedoms, or bloated government agencies such as the National Security Agency with its secret budgets, covert agendas and clandestine activities. Rubbing salt in the wound, even monetary awards in lawsuits against government officials who are found guilty of wrongdoing are paid by the taxpayer.
We once operated under the assumption that you were innocent until proven guilty. Due in large part to rapid advances in technology and a heightened surveillance culture, the burden of proof has been shifted so that the right to be considered innocent until proven guilty has been usurped by a new norm in which all citizens are suspects. This is exemplified by police practices of stopping and frisking people who are merely walking down the street and where there is no evidence of wrongdoing. Likewise, by subjecting Americans to full-body scans and license-plate readers without their knowledge or compliance and then storing the scans for later use, the government—in cahoots with the corporate state—has erected the ultimate suspect society. In such an environment, we are all potentially guilty of some wrongdoing or other.
In the wake of various shootings in recent years, “gun control” has become a resounding theme for government officials, with President Obama even going so far as to pledge to reduce gun violence “with or without Congress.” Those advocating gun reform see the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms as applying only to government officials. As a result, even Americans who legally own firearms are being treated with suspicion and, in some cases, undue violence. In one case, a Texas man had his home subjected to a no-knock raid and was shot in his bed after police, attempting to deliver a routine search warrant, learned that he was in legal possession of a firearm. In another incident, a Florida man who was licensed to carry a concealed firearm found himself detained for two hours during a routine traffic stop in Maryland while the arresting officer searched his vehicle in vain for the man’s gun, which he had left at home.
If government agents can invade your home, break down your doors, kill your dog, damage your furnishings and terrorize your family, your property is no longer private and secure—it belongs to the government. Likewise, if government officials can fine and arrest you for growing vegetables in your front yard, praying with friends in your living room, installing solar panels on your roof, and raising chickens in your backyard, you’re no longer the owner of your property.
Incredibly, the government continues to insist that parents essentially forfeit their rights when they send their children to a public school. This growing tension over whether young people, especially those in the public schools, are essentially wards of the state, to do with as government officials deem appropriate, in defiance of the children's constitutional rights and those of their parents, is reflected in the debate over sex education programs that expose young people to all manner of sexual practices and terminology, zero tolerance policies that strip students of any due process rights, let alone parental involvement in school discipline, and Common Core programs that teach students to be test-takers rather than critical thinkers.
In early America, citizens were considered equals with law enforcement officials. Authorities were rarely permitted to enter one’s home without permission or in a deceitful manner. And it was not uncommon for police officers to be held personally liable for trespass when they wrongfully invaded a citizen’s home. Unlike today, early Americans could resist arrest when a police officer tried to restrain them without proper justification or a warrant—which the police had to allow citizens to read before arresting them. (Daring to dispute a warrant with a police official today who is armed with high-tech military weapons and tasers would be nothing short of suicidal.) As police forces across the country continue to be transformed into outposts of the military, with police agencies acquiring military-grade hardware in droves, Americans are finding their once-peaceful communities transformed into military outposts, complete with tanks, weaponry, and other equipment designed for the battlefield.
Court rulings undermining the Fourth Amendment and justifying invasive strip searches have left us powerless against police empowered to forcefully draw our blood, strip search us, and probe us intimately. Accounts are on the rise of individuals—men and women—being subjected to what is essentially government-sanctioned rape by police in the course of “routine” traffic stops. Most recently, a New Mexico man was subjected to a 12-hour ordeal of anal probes, X-rays, enemas, and finally a colonoscopy because he allegedly rolled through a stop sign.
Despite the staggering number of revelations about government spying on Americans’ phone calls, Facebook posts, Twitter tweets, Google searches, emails, bookstore and grocery purchases, bank statements, commuter toll records, etc., Congress, the president and the courts have done little to nothing to counteract these abuses. Instead, they seem determined to accustom us to life in this electronic concentration camp.
We have moved beyond the era of representative government and entered a new age, let’s call it the age of authoritarianism. History may show that from this point forward, we will have left behind any semblance of constitutional government and entered into a militaristic state where all citizens are suspects and security trumps freedom. Even with its constantly shifting terrain, this topsy-turvy travesty of law and government has become America’s new normal. It is not overstating matters to say that Congress, which has done its best to keep their unhappy constituents at a distance, may well be the most self-serving, semi-corrupt institution in America.
The U.S. Supreme Court was intended to be an institution established to intervene and protect the people against the government and its agents when they overstep their bounds. Yet through their deference to police power, preference for security over freedom, and evisceration of our most basic rights for the sake of order and expediency, the justices of the Supreme Court have become the architects of the American police state in which we now live, while the lower courts have appointed themselves courts of order, concerned primarily with advancing the government’s agenda, no matter how unjust or illegal.
Yes, the world is a far more dangerous place than it was a year ago. What the president failed to mention in his State of the Union address, however (and what I document in my book A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State), is the fact that it’s the government that poses the gravest threat to our freedoms and way of life, and no amount of politicking, parsing or pandering will change that.
John W. Whitehead is an attorney and author who has written, debated and practiced widely in the area of constitutional law and human rights. Whitehead's concern for the persecuted and oppressed led him, in 1982, to establish The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties and human rights organization whose international headquarters are located in Charlottesville, Virginia. Whitehead serves as the Institute's president and spokesperson, in addition to writing a weekly commentary that is posted on The Rutherford Institute's website (www.rutherford.org), as well being distributed to several hundred newspapers, and hosting a national public service radio campaign. Whitehead's aggressive, pioneering approach to civil liberties issues has earned him numerous accolades, including the Hungarian Medal of Freedom