The Commonwealth Blog

Dancing on the edge of tyranny

Jul 3, 2013 @ 1:40 PM by mbaig with [0] comments

By Mehroz Baig

As we approach the celebration of the 237th year since the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, it seems timely to look at how far the United States has come. With recent news about the National Security Administration’s intelligence programs and the general shift toward anti-terrorism activity since 9/11, how has the United States positioned itself for its citizens and as a global player? Brian Michael Jenkins, Director of the Mineta Transportation Institute’s Transportation Safety and Security Center and author of When Armies Divide: The Security of Nuclear Arsenals During Revolts, Coups, and Civil Wars, spoke at The Commonwealth Club on June 24 about America’s safety. Here’s what he had to say:

  • On post-9/11 programs and policies:

“We’re not driven by what terrorists have done. We are driven by our apprehension of what they might do. And that’s a difference. And that’s an effect of 9/11. It had an insidious effect. It fundamentally altered our perceptions of plausibility. That is, far-fetched scenarios that were dismissed as the stuff of Hollywood scripts the day before 9/11, the day after became operative assumptions. We worry not only about another possible 9/11 scale attack, but about terrorist use of weapons of mass destruction, chemical, biological, even nuclear weapons. And it’s still a concern. I’m not saying it’s not a legitimate one. But that is what drives us. And that — that apprehension, that fear — is really the push behind a continuing accumulation of programs.”

  • Jenkins believes that the concern is not simply one policy or one program:

“It’s not PRISM or this other particular program that causes me concern. The real thing that is a cause of concern is the accumulation of secret programs, the accumulation of extraordinary measures, the assertions validated by Congress of extraordinary executive authority. It is the cumulative effect of those that causes the greatest concern. Not a new concern: In the 1970s, looking ahead at this phenomenon of terrorism, I simply observed that because of technological developments, because of political developments, power — power defined crudely as the capacity to kill, to destroy, to disrupt, to create alarm, to oblige us to divert vast resources to security — that was coming into the hands of smaller and smaller groups, gangs whose grievances, real or imaginary, it was not going to always be possible to satisfy. And how we were going to deal with that within the context of a democracy, and remain a democracy, I thought was one of the major challenges we faced and still face. This is tough; there are not easy answers here.”

  • On the consequences of our current programs and policies:

“It would be incorrect to say that we have savaged civil liberties since 9/11. But we have laid the foundations for a security state, for a very oppressive situation in all these measures. Now, it’s not extraordinary historically during times of war, during times of national power, for power to shift to the executive, for a nation to adopt emergency measures. But at the end of the emergency, then the other branches of government and the people call back [the] extraordinary authority and things are restored. But we face an open-ended contest. … there’s no point at which we can breathe a sigh of relief and say, ‘OK, emergency over, take it back.’ So what we’re putting in place now becomes a permanent part of the landscape, the baseline for yet further measures to be piled on top of that. We are dancing on the edge of tyranny and a major terrorist event, that sufficiently frightens the population, or a less benign government, has in place the institutions, the machinery, the legislation to move us into an entirely new domain. … I’m not making an argument against any particular program; I’m saying really what we do need, however, is a serious, national discussion, about where we are going with this.”

  • On fugitive NSA contractor Edward Snowden, Jenkins says that while he does not condone Snowden’s actions, they have opened the door for a national debate about legislation being passed that gives the executive branch extraordinary authority:

“Mr. Snowden’s fate is not the issue facing this country. The issue facing this country is: This is an opportunity to explore these broader issues, not just one set of NSA programs, but I mean, things that have remarkably not been debated because of a society that is either frightened or apathetic.

“And we’ve had a problem here. I mean, look, we have had, in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012, legislation reinforcing a claim by the executive, that the President as Commander-in-Chief, has unlimited authority to detain, without habeas corpus, in military custody, terrorist suspects — suspects, not bad guys that we know of, but suspects. That was passed in legislation [and] prompted very little public debate.

“Part of the problem is, like legislation, it was buried in the National Defense Authorization Act, which is about 800 pages and in the middle of it we find these troublesome paragraphs. That merited debate. I think we have to have a discussion across the board…we really need to put pressure on our elected representatives. … We’re not asking if you are opposed to this program. What we’re really asking for is a broad, seriously informed debate on where we think we’re going in this society.”

  • On how the United States can retain its values and protect itself:

“It is my own belief, by the way, that the ultimate security of this country against terrorism is not going to be found in government computer files; it’s not going to be in concrete bollards that we put in front of buildings; it’s not going to be in walls we build along our frontier. It is rather going to be in the courage of our citizens, the commitment of our citizens to the values for which this country stands and which have taken us through far darker moments in our history than we confront today.”


You can listen to Brian Jenkins’ entire program here