(Editor's note: A response essay to this commentary can be found here.)
"Of all the tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive." - C.S. Lewis
Caught up in the televised drama of a military-style manhunt for the suspects in the Boston Marathon explosion, most Americans fail to realize that the world around them has been suddenly and jarringly shifted off its axis, that axis being the U.S. Constitution.
For those such as myself who have studied emerging police states, the sight of a city placed under martial law leaves us in a growing state of unease. Its citizens were under house arrest (officials used the Orwellian phrase "shelter in place" to describe the mandatory lockdown), military-style helicopters equipped with thermal-imaging devices buzzed the skies, tanks and armored vehicles were on the streets, and snipers perched on rooftops, while thousands of black-garbed police swarmed the streets and SWAT teams carried out house-to-house searches in search of two young and seemingly unlikely bombing suspects.
Mind you, these are no longer warning signs of a steadily encroaching police state. The police state has arrived.
Equally unnerving is the ease with which Americans welcomed the city-wide lockdown, the routine invasion of their privacy, and the dismantling of every constitutionally protected right intended to serve as a bulwark against government abuses. Watching it unfold, I couldn't help but think of Nazi Field Marshal Hermann Goering's remarks during the Nuremberg trials. As Goering noted: "It is always a simple matter to drag people along whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. This is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country."
As the events in Boston have made clear, it does indeed work the same in every country. The same propaganda and police-state tactics that worked for Adolf Hitler 80 years ago continue to be employed with great success in a post-9/11 America.
Whatever the threat to so-called security - whether it's rumored weapons of mass destruction, school shootings, or alleged acts of terrorism - it doesn't take much for the American people to march in lockstep with the government's dictates, even if it means submitting to martial law, having their homes searched, and being stripped of one's constitutionally protected rights at a moment's notice.
As journalist Andrew O'Hehir observes on Salon.com: "In America after 9/11, we made a deal with the devil, or with Dick Cheney, which is much the same thing. We agreed to give up most of our enumerated rights and civil liberties (except for the sacrosanct Second Amendment, of course) in exchange for a lot of hyper-patriotic tough talk, the promise of 'security,' and the freedom to go on sitting on our asses and consuming whatever the hell we wanted to. Don't look the other way and tell me that you signed a petition or voted for John Kerry or whatever. The fact is that whatever dignified private opinions you and I may hold, we did not do enough to stop it, and our constitutional rights are now deemed to be partial or provisional rather than absolute, do not necessarily apply to everyone, and can be revoked by the government at any time."
Particularly disheartening is the fact that Americans, consumed with the need for vengeance, seem even less concerned about protecting the rights of others, especially if those "others" happen to be of a different skin color or national origin. The public response to the manhunt, capture, and subsequent treatment of brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is merely the latest example of America's xenophobic mindset, which was also a driving force behind the roundup and detention of hundreds of Arab, South Asian, and Muslim men following 9/11, internment camps that housed more than 18,000 people of Japanese ancestry during World War II, and the arrest and deportation of thousands of "radical" noncitizens during America's first Red Scare.
Moreover, there has been little outcry over the Obama administration's decision to deny 19-year-old U.S. citizen Dzhokhar Tsarnaev his due process, interrogating him without reading him his Miranda rights ("You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law ... ").
Presently, under the public-safety exception to the Miranda rule, if law-enforcement agents believe a suspect has information that might reduce a substantial threat, they can wait to give the Miranda warning. For years now, however, the Obama administration has been lobbying to see this exception extended to all cases involving so-called terror suspects, including American citizens. Tsarnaev's case may prove to be the game-changer. Yet as journalist Emily Bazelon points out for Slate.com: "Why should I care that no one's reading Dzhokhar Tsarnaev his Miranda rights? [Because] when the law gets bent out of shape for him, it's easier to bend out of shape for the rest of us."
The U.S. Supreme Court rightly recognized in its 1966 ruling in Miranda V. Arizona that police officers must advise a suspect of his/her civil rights once the suspect has been taken into custody, because the police can and often do take advantage of the fact that most Americans don't know their rights. There have been few exceptions to the Miranda rule over the past 40 years or so, and with good reason. However, if the Obama administration is allowed to scale back the Miranda rule, especially as it applies to U.S. citizens, it would be yet another dangerous expansion of government power at the expense of citizens' civil rights.
This continual undermining of the rules that protect civil liberties, not to mention the incessant rush to judgment by politicians, members of the media, and the public, will inevitably have far-reaching consequences on a populace that not only remains ignorant about its rights but is inclined to sacrifice its liberties for phantom promises of safety.
Moments after taking Tsarnaev into custody, the Boston Police Department tweeted: "CAPTURED!!! The hunt is over. The search is done. The terror is over. And justice has won." Yet with Tsarnaev and his brother having been charged, tried, and convicted by the government, the media, and the police - all without ever having stepped foot inside a courtroom - it remains to be seen whether justice has indeed won.
The lesson for the rest of us is this: Once a free people allows the government to make inroads into their freedoms or uses those same freedoms as bargaining chips for security, it quickly becomes a slippery slope to outright tyranny. And it doesn't really matter whether it's a Democrat or a Republican at the helm, because the bureaucratic mindset on both sides of the aisle now seems to embody the same philosophy of authoritarian government. Increasingly, those on the left who once hailed Barack Obama as the antidote for restoring the numerous civil liberties that were lost or undermined as a result of Bush-era policies are finding themselves forced to acknowledge that threats to civil liberties are worse under Obama.
Clearly, the outlook for civil liberties under Obama grows bleaker by the day, from his embrace of indefinite detention for U.S. citizens and drone kill lists to warrant-less surveillance of phone, e-mail, and Internet communications and prosecutions of government whistle-blowers. Most recently, capitalizing on the nation's heightened emotions, confusion, and fear, government officials used the Boston Marathon tragedy as a means of extending the reach of the police state, starting with the House of Representatives' overwhelming passage of the controversial Cyber Intelligence Sharing & Protection Act, which opens the door to greater Internet surveillance by the government.
These troubling developments are the outward manifestations of an inner, philosophical shift underway in how the government views not only the Constitution and the Bill of Rights but "we the people," as well. What this reflects is a move away from a government bound by the rule of law to one that seeks total control through the imposition of its own self-serving laws on the populace.
All the while, the American people remain largely oblivious to the looming threats to their freedoms, eager to be persuaded that the government can solve the problems that plague us - whether it be terrorism, an economic depression, an environmental disaster, or even a flu epidemic. Yet having bought into the false notion that the government can ensure not only our safety but our happiness and will take care of us from cradle to grave - that is, from day-care centers to nursing homes - we have in actuality allowed ourselves to be bridled and turned into slaves at the bidding of a government that cares little for our freedoms or our happiness.
Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute (Rutherford.org). His newest book, The Freedom Wars, is available at Amazon.com, and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.