Federal security officials monitor peaceful, law-abiding citizens. If they were white, Congress might care!
An Orwellian government program that monitors the private telecommunications of unsuspecting, law-abiding citizens. Travelers subjected to invasive pat-downs, simply because they’re trying to get from one place to another. Drones circling overhead, ready to rain death down on their target without due process.
And to make matters worse: now they’re doing it to white people!
Public outrage about the NSA’s data-collecting programs? Just the latest episode of one of the most odious, embarrassing spectacles in modern politics. White middle-class Americans are suddenly completely apoplectic…simply because the government is finally treating them exactly how it’s always treated everyone else.
Everyone else’s problem
“[T]here has always been…a preliminary process involving the capture, retention, and analysis of raw data,” author and producer David Simon said in a recent article on the NSA surveillance. “It has been so for decades in this country.”
But for decades, these technologies and tactics were mostly used in the war in drugs, or in our wars abroad – which meant that the collateral violations of civil liberties mostly affected the poor and people of color, or people living outside of the United States.
Among the American black community in particular, violations of the fourth amendment are such an inescapable fact of life that they even figure prominently in black culture. When Chuck D famously rapped “Tappin my phone, never leave me alone…’Cause I’m louder than a bomb,” he wasn’t floating a conspiracy theory – he was relating a common experience that his audience could identify with. When Jay-Z warns a cop “I know a little bit / Enough that you won’t illegally search my shit,” he’s not just posing tough – he’s giving his listeners practical advice.
Similarly, those tedious and invasive TSA pat-downs that have become such an enormous minor inconvenience for first class jetsetters across the country aren’t exactly unprecedented. They’re just a gentler, stationary version of the New York City Police Department’s draconian stop-and-frisk program, which has stopped “hundreds of thousands of law-abiding residents” every year, according to the New York Times. More than 85 percent of them are black or Hispanic.
And the Obama administration’s drone policy isn’t new either – it’s been implemented abroad for years, resulting in hundreds of civilian deaths. But as I noted in my last article, activists and opportunistic politicians like Rand Paul didn’t get truly outraged about any of this until they began to suspect that white middle-class Americans could be targeted, too.
Doing it to ourselves
Notice a pattern? Government officials – sometimes at the national level, sometimes locally – implement programs and policies that surveil, harass and even attack the powerless. No Congressional hearings, no scandalized tweets or press-releases from “principled” Libertarians, “independent” Democrats or “conservative” Republicans, no flurry of breathless wall-to-wall coverage on cable news.
Then – after a decade or so of field testing on the streets of Baltimore or Baghdad – government officials roll out the exact same policies across the board. Even the white and the middle-class get caught in the dragnet! And instantly there’s an explosive reaction of suburban dads in tricorn hats protesting on the courthouse lawn, and shady Super PACs with names like Patriots For Freeing Liberty and Americans For Liberating Freedom asking us for money.
If America’s privileged class really wants to protect its freedom, it should do just the opposite. When we wait years and decades to resist dangerous, constitutionally dubious government programs, we give them time to set legal precedents, to cultivate an entrenched market presence defended by powerful business interests, and to become normalized among the political and intellectual elite. If we protest these programs in their infancy – when they’re only strong enough to oppress the weakest members of our society – we stand a much better chance of actually stopping them.
But that means that we have to start paying more attention to the plight of the powerless and the poor. And we have to resist with some minimal semblance of proportion and priority – focusing more, for example, on the Americans who are already being unlawfully detained in New York City. And less, perhaps, on smaller problems.
Yes, the NSA might know that you’re reading this article. The government might be watching you quite a bit! Finally, you and Chuck D have something in common.
Carl Beijer is a writer who focuses on the Left, linguistics, and international affairs.