While most of the country has been consumed with the George Zimmerman trial and other political distractions pushed on us by the mainstream media, the U.S. government's consistent and aggressive violations of civil liberties continue with minimal protest.
The PRISM surveillance program, the phony "due process" of the FISA courts, and the militarization of law enforcement are the most pervasive examples, but the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is perhaps the most authoritarian of them all and makes a mockery of American values.
Section 1021 of the 2011 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), passed right before New Year's Eve, gives the president the authority to arrest and detain American citizens without trial. The U.S. government has a long history of suspending habeus corpus, denying legal rights to detainees, and conducting mass arrests, and even without the NDAA it has bent the Fourth Amendment's protections into a legal system that hardly resembles the plain language of the Bill of Rights.
But what the NDAA has done is essentially codified the elimination of one of the most important restrictions on state power. These restraints — that the burden of proof is on the state, that nobody can be locked in a cage without due process, that only the civilian police force is allowed to make arrests — are some of the most revolutionary legacies of Western liberalism and represent one of the starting points of anything resembling a free society.
But thanks to the president's stroke of a pen and a Congress that resembles the rubber-stamping body of the Roman Empire, these constitutional restrictions, written by men who combed through history for the devices that were intended to keep state power in a box, have been legislated away.
Many Americans may excuse or rationalize this despotism by arguing that this provision, and the permanent War on Terror in general, is necessary to protect us, that foreign "enemy combatants" do not have rights, and that we should trust the state in its judiciousness and benevolence.
Leaving aside the morality of giving the U.S. government the power to violate the natural, inherent rights of individuals who by no fault of their own happen to be born outside of the U.S., there are many signs that the power contained in the NDAA is already being used here at home.
Just ask Adam Kokesh. After being illegally arrested and detained last May, Kokesh was arrested again just last week and had his home invaded by a gang of stormtroopers, armed with assault weapons and flash-bang grenades and the assistance of a light-armored vehicle and two low-flying helicopters. The amount of power that was flexed suggests that more than anything it was his very outspoken criticism of the warfare state he himself had once participated in that led him to be dragged away in handcuffs.
Or what about Brandon Raub, a former Marine who was arrested and detained at a psych ward? Or the tightening control over speech on the internet that has led to numerous arrests? Or the expanding war on whistleblowers?
The NDAA is also strangling the ability of journalists to do their job (or at least the real journalists without press passes and invitations to Beltway cocktail parties). It is entirely possible that those who criticize American foreign policy, or those who interview suspected terrorists for journalistic purposes, may have violated the NDAA. Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize winner and wartime journalist, explains why him, Daniel Ellsberg, Noam Chomsky, and other journalists sued the Obama administration. "I have interviewed members of Al-Qaeda as well as 16 other individuals or members of groups on the State Department’s terrorism list," Hedges says. "Could I be seen by the security and surveillance state, because I challenge the official narrative, as a collaborator with the enemy?"
The U.S. government now has the authority to make journalists who ask too many questions (or more importantly, the wrong questions) disappear. Hedges is right to fear for his life and safety. Thanks to the great work of Jeremy Scahill, we know that the Obama administration has very few reservations putting pesky journalists in prison. There are still many unanswered questions about the death of journalist Michael Hastings. Bradley Manning, who unintentionally committed the most heroic act of journalism in modern history, was tortured and denied his civil liberties for almost three years. Glenn Greenwald, perhaps the best journalist out there, is undoubtedly in the crosshairs for helping Edward Snowden.
U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest of the Southern District Court of New York ruled in favor of Hedges, but her decision was quickly overturned. As John W. Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute warns, “The appellate court is all that separates us and a state that is no different than any other military dictatorship.”
Hyperbole? Perhaps. This isn't Saudi Arabia or North Korea. But history has shown that free societies don't descend into authoritarian ones overnight. Liberties are encroached upon like a sculptor carving out the soul of an unfettered, free piece of stone until it resembles the command-and-control dreams of those that desire coercive power over others. Future administrations, long after President Obama has a library and the comfort of never having to answer for his crimes, also have the template to further chisel that stone until is ground to powder.
Thankfully, there is some healthy resistance at the state and grassroots level with movements to nullify the NDAA. But the NDAA, and the entire national-security-state apparatus that is used to justify permanent (and expensive!) war, torture, and surveillance, will never be overturned unless we have an intellectual revolution on what the proper role of government is in a free society.
Without this, no rogue judge, group of journalists, or piece of paper like the Constitution will stop the Bill of Rights from being entirely repealed.