by Jim Caton
Predictably, the U.S. security state has begun to exploit the recent terrorist attacks in Paris in order to tighten its grip on the public. Using the Sunday talk shows, the New York Times and other social media accounts, government officials and mouthpiece pundits have fired their first salvo of cynical alarm over the human loss caused by the attacks. U.S. Representative Peter King of New York said on Fox News Sunday, referring to proposals of sweeping surveillance of Muslim Americans, that “we have to put political correctness aside.” And former Bush White House press secretary Dana Perino tweeted, “F. Snowden.”
Conducting this chorus of propaganda is the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, John Brennan. In a talk delivered to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Brennan decried as “handwringing” the timid and toothless Congressional opposition raised in response to the National Security Agency’s universal electronic surveillance operations. He has also bemoaned electronic encryption that is closed to NSA snooping. And Brennan lamented once again the 2013 disclosures about those operations by whistle-blower Edward Snowden, implying that the leaked information has harmed U.S. efforts to track and thwart ISIS.
It is Brennan’s function to maximize the security state’s surveillance powers worldwide, to achieve what the Bush administration wistfully referred to as “total information awareness.” As we have learned, courtesy of Snowden, electronic eavesdropping begins at home. To the public it distrusts, the security state must proclaim consistently both the necessity of its means in a battle against terrorism and the necessity of removing intolerable obstacles, legal and technological, to those means. This totalitarian appetite for the full surveillance and control of the public will never be sated, of course, because it is a quest for purity, a quest that, however obsessively pursued, must go unfulfilled.
History has something to say about power’s desire to become absolute. Inquisitions in Spain were begun in the thirteenth century as an attempt to ensure the orthodoxy of conversos, Jewish and Muslim converts to Catholicism. By the late fifteenth century, and under Tomas de Torquemada’s direction, the Inquisition had taken as its objective the eradication of all heresy from Spain, which meant purging the country of Judaism, Islam and Protestantism. Through torture (including the toca, which we now call waterboarding), execution, confiscation of property and deportation, Torquemada and the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella terrorized hundreds of thousands in the desire for religious purity and political control. The “war on terror” is our Inquisition, and John Brennan is its grand inquisitor, our Torquemada. As the head of the state’s surveillance apparatus, Brennan even more directly and more nakedly than Congress or the president reveals the interests of our financial and corporate masters, so his words must be taken especially seriously. When he calls for a back door into all encrypted data, for instance, we should anticipate that he will get what he asks for.
Brennan’s inquisition, while not religious in name, is no less a weapon of orthodoxy. Terrorists, Muslim or otherwise, have never presented a threat to the power structure of the United States. Widespread challenges to power that stray outside the safe, passive channels of the Republican-Democratic electoral paradigm, on the other hand, have always drawn the oppressive interest of the government. From the Palmer Raids under Wilson to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., under Johnson, from the death of organized labor under Reagan to the carefully orchestrated raids on Occupy encampments under Obama, it is constitutionally protected dissent and organization that have proven time and again to be seen by the state as heresy and that have been the primary objects of surveillance, harassment, infiltration and suppression. Deadly terrorist attacks such as the one last week in Paris horrify ordinary people, but to the inquisition they are nothing more than opportunities to be exploited. The more frightened the public is, the easier it is to impose yet more totalitarian measures, and the Hollande government has lost no time in instituting laws that revoke civil liberties in France. Here in the U.S., we should prepare to watch more words erased from the Bill of Rights in the name of security and in the quest for orthodoxy.