Archive for September, 2013

Like clockwork, we’ve ticked back to the annual government shutdown scare that invariably dominates news headlines and sends stocks seesawing for a few scant weeks until, at the very last moment, the nation is miraculously pulled from the brink of disaster. It’s always an entertaining show, with both Republicans and Democrats doing their best to one-up each other with heartbreaking anecdotes about the millions who will suffer in the event of a government shutdown and showy bravado over the need for greater fiscal stewardship, while conveniently failing to rein in two of the biggest drains on our budget—namely, the military and surveillance industrial complexes.

Indeed, while a government shutdown will inevitably impact everything from Head Start, and key welfare services to national museums and IRS audits, the one area not impacted in the least will be the police/surveillance state and its various militarized agencies, spying programs and personnel. Incredibly, although more than 800,000 government workers could find themselves without paychecks or with reduced (or for members of the military, delayed) paychecks, President Obama and Congress will still get paid on time.

Take a look at the programs and policies that will not be affected by a government shutdown, and you’ll get a clearer sense of the government’s priorities—priorities which, as I point out in my new book, A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, have little to do with serving taxpayers and everything to do with maintaining power and control, while being sold to the public under the guise of national security.

Domestic surveillance. On any given day, whether you’re walking through a store, driving your car, checking email, or talking to friends and family on the phone, you can be sure that some government agency, whether the NSA or some other entity, is listening in and tracking your behavior. Police have been outfitted with a litany of surveillance gear, from license plate readers and cell phone tracking devices to biometric data recorders. Technology now makes it possible for the police to scan passersby in order to detect the contents of their pockets, purses, briefcases, etc. Full-body scanners, which perform virtual strip-searches of Americans traveling by plane, have gone mobile, with roving police vans that peer into vehicles and buildings alike—including homes. Coupled with the nation’s growing network of real-time surveillance cameras and facial recognition software, soon there really will be nowhere to run and nowhere to hide.

NSA domestic programs. Government shutdown or not, the National Security Agency (NSA), with its $10.8 billion black ops annual budget, will continue to spy on every person in the United States who uses a computer or phone using programs such as PRISM and XKEYSCORE. By cracking the security of all major smartphones, including iPhone, Android, and Blackberry devices, NSA agents harvest such information as contacts, text messages, and location data. And then there are the NSA agents who will continue to use and abuse their surveillance powers for personal means, to spy on girlfriends, lovers and first dates.

Global spying. The NSA’s massive surveillance network, what the Washington Post refers to as a $500 billion “espionage empire,” will continue to span the globe and target every single person on the planet who uses a phone or a computer. The NSA’s Echelon program intercepts and analyzes virtually every phone call, fax and email message sent anywhere in the world. In addition to carrying out domestic surveillance on peaceful political groups such as Amnesty International, Greenpeace and several religious groups, Echelon has also been a keystone to the government’s attempts at political and corporate espionage.

Roving TSA searches. If there is any absolute maxim by which the federal government seems to operate, it is that the American taxpayer always gets ripped off. Indeed, one of the greatest culprits when it comes to swindling taxpayers has been the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), with its questionable deployment of and complete mismanagement of millions of dollars’ worth of airport full-body, X-ray scanners, punitive patdowns by TSA agents and thefts of travelers’ valuables. Considered essential to national security, TSA programs will continue, not only in airports but at transportation hubs around the country.

VIPR Strikes. Under the pretext of protecting the nation’s infrastructure (roads, mass transit systems, water and power supplies, telecommunications systems and so on) against criminal or terrorist attacks, VIPR task forces (comprised of federal air marshals, surface transportation security inspectors, transportation security officers, behavior detection officers and explosive detection canine teams) will continue to do random security sweeps of nexuses of transportation, including ports, railway and bus stations, airports, ferries and subways. VIPR teams will also be deployed to elevate the security presence at certain special events such as political conventions, baseball games and music concerts. Sweep tactics include the use of x-ray technology, pat-downs and drug-sniffing dogs, among other things.

USA Patriot Act, NDAA. America’s so-called war on terror, which it has relentlessly pursued since 9/11, has chipped away at our freedoms, unraveled our Constitution and transformed our nation into a battlefield, thanks in large part to such subversive legislation as the USA Patriot Act and National Defense Authorization Act. These laws—which completely circumvent the rule of law and the constitutional rights of American citizens, re-orienting our legal landscape in such a way as to ensure that martial law, rather than the rule of law, our U.S. Constitution, becomes the map by which we navigate life in the United States—will continue to be enforced.

Militarized police state. Thanks to federal grant programs allowing the Pentagon to transfer surplus military supplies and weapons to local law enforcement agencies without charge, police forces will continue to be transformed from peace officers into heavily armed extensions of the military, complete with jackboots, helmets, shields, batons, pepper-spray, stun guns, assault rifles, body armor, miniature tanks and weaponized drones. Having been given the green light to probe, poke, pinch, taser, search, seize, strip and generally manhandle anyone they see fit in almost any circumstance, all with the general blessing of the courts, America’s law enforcement officials, no longer mere servants of the people entrusted with keeping the peace, will continue to keep the masses corralled, under control, and treated like suspects and enemies rather than citizens. Just recently, the Dept. of Justice—clearly not suffering from a shortage of funds—approved grants totaling $3.2 million to fund law enforcement jobs and expand community policy, and that’s just in Virginia.

SWAT team raids. With more than 80,000 SWAT team raids carried out every year on unsuspecting Americans for relatively routine police matters and federal agencies laying claim to their own law enforcement divisions, the incidence of botched raids and related casualties will continue to rise. Nationwide, SWAT teams will continue to be employed to address an astonishingly trivial array of criminal activity or mere community nuisances including angry dogs, domestic disputes, improper paperwork filed by an orchid farmer, and misdemeanor marijuana possession.

Domestic drones. The domestic use of drones will continue unabated. As mandated by Congress, there will be 30,000 drones crisscrossing the skies of America by 2020, all part of an industry that could be worth as much as $30 billion per year. These machines will be able to record all activities, using video feeds, heat sensors and radar. A recent Inspector General report revealed that the Dept. of Justice has already spent nearly $4 million on drones domestically, largely for use by the FBI, with grants for another $1.26 million so police departments and nonprofits can acquire their own drones.

Schoolhouse to jailhouse track. The paradigm of abject compliance to the state will continue to be taught by example in the schools, through school lockdowns where police and drug-sniffing dogs enter the classroom, and zero tolerance policies that punish all offenses equally and result in young people being expelled for childish behavior. School districts will continue to team up with law enforcement to create a “schoolhouse to jailhouse track” by imposing a “double dose” of punishment: suspension or expulsion from school, accompanied by an arrest by the police and a trip to juvenile court. Just recently, in Virginia, two seventh graders were suspended for the rest of the school year for playing with airsoft guns in their own yard before school.

Overcriminalization. The government bureaucracy will continue to churn out laws, statutes, codes and regulations that reinforce its powers and value systems and those of the police state and its corporate allies, rendering the rest of us petty criminals. The average American now unknowingly commits three felonies a day, thanks to this overabundance of vague laws that render otherwise innocent activity illegal. Consequently, small farmers who dare to make unpasteurized goat cheese and share it with members of their community will continue to have their farms raided.

Privatized Prisons. States will continue to outsource prisons to private corporations, resulting in a cash cow whereby mega-corporations imprison Americans in private prisons in order to make a profit. In exchange for corporations buying and managing public prisons across the country at a supposed savings to the states, the states have to agree to maintain a 90% occupancy rate in the privately run prisons for at least 20 years. Just recently, California entered into a 5-year contract to have Geo Group house their inmates to the tune of $30 million annually.

Endless wars. America’s expanding military empire will continue to bleed the country dry at a rate of more than $15 billion a month (or $20 million an hour). The Pentagon spends more on war than all 50 states combined spend on health, education, welfare, and safety. Yet what most Americans fail to recognize is that these ongoing wars have little to do with keeping the country safe and everything to do with enriching the military industrial complex at taxpayer expense. In fact, given that Al-Qaeda’s capability to penetrate the American homeland is nil, the chances of dying in a terrorist attack are miniscule.

Thus, when it comes right down to it, whether or not the shutdown takes place, it will remain business as usual in terms of the government’s unceasing pursuit of greater powers and control. These issues are not going away. They are the backbone of an increasingly aggressive authoritarian government, formed by an unholy alliance between the mega-corporations with little concern for the Constitution and elected officials and bureaucrats incapable or unwilling to represent the best interests of their constituents.

So where do we go from here? If public opposition, outright challenges, and a government shutdown don’t stop or even slow down the police state, what’s to be done?

Do what you must to survive. Go to work, take care of your family, pay off your debts. But when you’re not doing those things, which allow you to get by day-to-day, consider the future.

Pay attention to the political structure that is being created in the shadows, the economic system that is chaining us down with debt, and the feudal, fascist society borne out of the marriage of government and big business. Avoid the propaganda mills posing as news sources. Express your outrage, loudly and tirelessly, to the government’s incursions on our freedoms. Yet act locally—taking issue with any and every encroachment on your rights, no matter how minor, whether it’s a ban on goat cheese or installations of red light cameras at intersections and on school buses—because reclaiming our rights from the ground up, starting locally and trickling up, remains our only hope.

Resistance may seem futile, it will be hard, and there will inevitably be a price to pay for resisting the emerging tyranny, but to the extent that you are able, RESIST.

A fool with a tool is still a fool.  A fool with a powerful tool is a dangerous fool.”—Michael Fullan, international school reform authority, on the powerful “tool” that is Common Core

As I point out in my new book, A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, there are several methods for controlling a population. You can intimidate the citizenry into obedience through force, relying on military strength and weaponry such as SWAT team raids, militarized police, and a vast array of lethal and nonlethal weapons. You can manipulate them into marching in lockstep with your dictates through the use of propaganda and carefully timed fear tactics about threats to their safety, whether through the phantom menace of terrorist attacks or shooting sprees by solitary gunmen.  Or you can indoctrinate them into compliance from an early age through the schools, discouraging them from thinking for themselves while rewarding them for regurgitating whatever the government, through its so-called educational standards, dictates they should be taught.

Those who founded America believed that an educated citizenry knowledgeable about their rights was the surest means of preserving freedom. If so, then the inverse should also hold true: that the surest way for a government to maintain its power and keep the citizenry in line is by rendering them ignorant of their rights and unable to think for themselves.

When viewed in light of the government’s ongoing attempts to amass power at great cost to Americans—in terms of free speech rights, privacy, due process, etc.—the debate over Common Core State Standards, which would transform and nationalize school curriculum from kindergarten through 12th grade, becomes that much more critical.

Essentially, these standards, which were developed through a partnership between big government and corporations, in the absence of any real input from parents or educators with practical, hands-on classroom experience, and are being rolled out in 45 states and the District of Columbia, will create a generation of test-takers capable of little else, molded and shaped by the federal government and its corporate allies into what it considers to be ideal citizens.

Moreover, as Valerie Strauss reports for the Washington Post: “The costs of the tests, which have multiple pieces throughout the year plus the computer platforms needed to administer and score them, will be enormous and will come at the expense of more important things. The plunging scores will be used as an excuse to close more public schools and open more privatized charters and voucher schools, especially in poor communities of color. If, as proposed, the Common Core’s ‘college and career ready’ performance level becomes the standard for high school graduation, it will push more kids out of high school than it will prepare for college.”

With so much money to be made and so many questionable agendas at work, it is little wonder, then, that attempts are being made to squelch any and all opposition to these standards. For example, at a recent public forum to discuss the implementation of these standards in Baltimore County public schools, one parent, 46-year-old Robert Small, found himself “pulled out of the meeting, arrested and charged with second-degree assault of a police officer” simply for daring to voice his discontent with the standards during a Q&A session with the superintendent.

Even calling this event a forum is disingenuous, given that attendees were not allowed to stand and ask questions. Instead, attendees were instructed to write their questions on a piece of paper, which the superintendent would then read and members of a panel would answer. In other words, there would be no time or room for debate, just a one-sided discussion. And this is what life in our so-called republic of the United States has been reduced to, a one-sided monologue by government officials who neither care about what “we the people” have to say, nor are they inclined to hear us out, just so long as we pay their taxes and abide by their laws.

“Don’t stand for this. You are sitting here like cattle,” shouted Robert Small to his fellow attendees as he was being dragged out of the “forum” on the Common Core standards. “Is this America?”

No, Mr. Small, this is no longer America. This is, instead, fascism with a smile, sold to us by our so-called representatives, calculating corporations, and an educational system that is marching in lockstep with the government’s agenda.

In this way, we are being conditioned to be slaves without knowing it. That way, we are easier to control. “A really efficient totalitarian state would be one in which the all-powerful executive of political bosses and their army of managers control a population of slaves who do not have to be coerced, because they love their servitude,” writes Aldous Huxley. “To make them love it is the task assigned, in present-day totalitarian states, to ministries of propaganda, newspaper editors and schoolteachers.”

The purpose of a pre-university education in early America was not to prepare young people to be doctors or lawyers but, as Thomas Jefferson believed, to make citizens knowledgeable about “their rights, interests, and duties as men and citizens.” As Jefferson observed, “I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society, but the people themselves: and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is, not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.”

Yet that’s where the problem arises for us today. Most citizens have little, if any, knowledge about their basic rights, largely due to an educational system that does a poor job of teaching the basic freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Many studies confirm this. For instance, when Newsweek asked 1,000 adult U.S. citizens to take America’s official citizenship test, 29% of respondents couldn’t name the current vice president of the United States. Seventy-three percent couldn’t correctly say why America fought the Cold War. More critically, 44% were unable to define the Bill of Rights. And 6% couldn’t even circle Independence Day (the Fourth of July) on a calendar.

A survey of American adults by the American Civic Literacy Program resulted in some equally disheartening findings. Seventy-one percent failed the test. Moreover, having a college education does very little to increase civic knowledge, as demonstrated by the abysmal 32% pass rate of people holding not just a bachelor’s degree but some sort of graduate-level degree.

That Americans are constitutionally illiterate is not a mere oversight on the part of government educators. And things will only get worse under Common Core, which as the Washington Post reports, is a not-so-subtle attempt “to circumvent federal restrictions on the adoption of a national curriculum.” One principal, a former proponent who is now leading the charge against Common Core, quickly realized that Common Core was not about educational reform as President Obama would have us believe. Rather, it’s about pushing a curriculum wrapped around incessant pre-testing, testing and test prep that teaches students how to take tests but not how to think, analyze or learn.

As with most “bright ideas” coming out of the federal government, once you follow the money trail, it all makes sense. And those who stand to profit are the companies creating both the tests that will drive the school curriculum, as well as the preparatory test materials, the computer and software industries, and the states, which will receive federal funds in exchange for their cooperation.

Putting aside the profit-driven motives of the corporations and the power-driven motives of the government, there is also an inherent arrogance in the implementation of these Common Core standards that speaks to the government’s view that parents essentially forfeit their rights when they send their children to a public school, and should have little to no say in what their kids are taught and how they are treated by school officials. This is evident in the transformation of the schools into quasi-prisons, complete with metal detectors, drug-sniffing dogs, and surveillance cameras. Equally arrogant are school zero tolerance policies that punish serious offenders of a school weapons policy the same as a child who draws a picture of a gun, no matter what the parents or students have to say about the matter. The result is a generation of young people browbeaten into believing that they have no true rights, while government authorities have total power and can violate constitutional rights whenever they see fit.

Yet as Richard Dreyfuss, Oscar-winning actor and civics education activist, warns: “Unless we teach the ideas that make America a miracle of government, it will go away in your kids’ lifetimes, and we will be a fable. You have to find the time and creativity to teach it in schools, and if you don’t, you will lose it. You will lose it to the darkness, and what this country represents is a tiny twinkle of light in a history of oppression and darkness and cruelty. If it lasts for more than our lifetime, for more than our kids’ lifetime, it is only because we put some effort into teaching what it is, the ideas of America: the idea of opportunity, mobility, freedom of thought, freedom of assembly.” — John W. Whitehead

Here’s a recipe for disaster: Take a young man (or woman), raise him on a diet of violence, hype him up on the power of the gun in his holster and the superiority of his uniform, render him woefully ignorant of how to handle a situation without resorting to violence, train him well in military tactics but allow him to be illiterate about the Constitution, and never stress to him that he is to be a peacemaker and a peacekeeper, respectful of and subservient to the taxpayers, who are in fact his masters and employers.

Once you have fully indoctrinated this young man (or woman) on the idea that the police belong to a brotherhood of sorts, with its own honor code and rule of law, then place this person in situations where he will encounter individuals who knowingly or unknowingly challenge his authority, where he may, justifiably or not, feel threatened, and where he will have to decide between firing a weapon or, the more difficult option, adequately investigating a situation in order to better assess the danger and risk posed to himself and others, and then act on it by defusing the tension or de-escalating the violence.

I’m not talking about a situation so obviously fraught with risk that there is no other option but to shoot, although I am hard pressed to consider what that might be outside of the sensationalized Hollywood hostage crisis scenario. I’m talking about the run-of-the mill encounters between police and citizens that occur daily. In an age when police are increasingly militarized, weaponized and protected by the courts, these once-routine encounters are now inherently dangerous for any civilian unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I’m not the only one concerned, either. Indeed, I’ve been contacted by many older cops equally alarmed by the attitudes and behaviors of younger police today, the foot soldiers in the emerging police state. Yet as I point out in my new book, A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, this is what happens when you go from a representative democracy in which all members are subject to the rule of law to a hierarchical one in which there is one set of laws for the rulers and another, far more stringent set, for the ruled.

Hence, it is no longer unusual to hear about an incident in which police shoot unarmed individuals first and ask questions later. This is becoming all too common. For example, on September 14th alone, there were two separate police shootings of unarmed individuals, resulting in death and/or injury to innocent individuals—and those are just the shootings that happened to make national headlines.

The first shooting incident took place in Charlotte, N.C., when three police officers responded to a 911 “breaking and entering” call in which a homeowner reported that a man she didn’t know or recognize had been knocking at her door repeatedly. Upon arriving on scene, the police saw a man matching the caller’s description running towards them. One officer fired a stun gun, after which the second officer opened fire on the unarmed 24-year-old, who died on the scene. Only afterwards did police realize the dead man, a former football player, had been in a car accident and was likely approaching them for help.

Later that same day, in New York’s Times Square, police officers shot into a crowd of tourists, aiming for a 35-year-old man who had been reportedly weaving among cars and loosely gesturing with his hands in his pockets. The cops missed the man, who was unarmed, and shot a 54-year-old woman in the knee and another woman in the buttock. The man was eventually subdued with a Taser.

Just a few weeks earlier, in Florida, 60-year-old Roy Middleton was shot in the leg by police when he wandered out to his Lincoln Town car, which was parked in his mother’s driveway, in search of cigarettes in the wee hours of the morning. A neighbor, seeing Middleton, reported him to 911 as a possible robber. Police, after ordering the unarmed black man out of the car, began firing on Middleton, who likened the experience to a “firing squad. Bullets were flying everywhere.” The car was reportedly riddled with bullets and 17 shell casings were on scene. Defending their actions, the two police officers claim that Middleton, who had a metallic object in his hand, “made a lunging motion” out of the car causing them to “fear for their safety.” That metallic object was a key chain with a flashlight attached.

These are not isolated incidents. Law enforcement officials are increasingly responding to unsubstantiated fears for their safety and perceived challenges to their “authority” by drawing and using their weapons.

For example, Miami-Dade police slammed a 14-year-old boy to the ground, putting him in a chokehold and handcuffing him after he allegedly gave them “dehumanizing stares” and walked away from them, which the officers found unacceptable. According to Miami-Dade Police Detective Alvaro Zabaleta, “His body language was that he was stiffening up and pulling away… When you have somebody resistant to them and pulling away and somebody clenching their fists and flailing their arms, that’s a threat. Of course we have to neutralize the threat.”

Unfortunately, this mindset that any challenge to police authority is a threat that needs to be “neutralized” is a dangerous one that is part of a greater nationwide trend that sets law enforcement officers beyond the reach of the Fourth Amendment. Equally problematic is the trend in the courts that acquits officers involved in such shootings, letting them off with barely a slap to the wrists.

This begs the question: what exactly are we teaching these young officers in the police academy when the slightest thing, whether it be a hand in a pocket, a man running towards them, a flashlight on a keychain, or a dehumanizing stare can ignite a strong enough “fear for their safety” to justify doing whatever is deemed necessary to neutralize the threat, even if it means firing on an unarmed person?

The problem, notes Jerome Skolnick and former New York City police officer/Temple University criminal justice professor James Fyfe in their book Above the Law: Police and the Excessive Use of Force, is that

police work is often viewed by those in the force as an us-versus-them war rather than a chance for community-oriented engagement and problem solving. The authors also point to a lack of accountability as one of the reasons why police violence persists. They acknowledge that, yes, police officers are placed in dangerous situations that at times require immediate responses. But they maintain that that doesn’t excuse using more force than is needed to subdue someone, the lack of professional training that leads to such fear-based responses, or treating citizens as enemy combatants.

As Titania Kumeh reports in Mother Jones, this has been coming on for a long time. Remember back in 1999, when four plainclothes New York police officers shot and killed a 22-year-old unarmed immigrant who was standing in the doorway of his apartment? The cops thought the young man was reaching for his gun—it turned out to be his wallet—and fired 41 shots at him, landing 19 on his body. The cops were acquitted of all charges.

In 2003, an unarmed man, kneeling before four Las Vegas police officers, was shot with an assault rifle because one of the officers “feared” the unarmed man was feigning surrender and about to grab a gun. A jury ruled the shooting excusable.

In 2006, plainclothes police officers, again in New York, fired 50 shots into a car after it reportedly rammed into their unmarked van, killing the 23-year-old driver who had just left his bachelor party and wounding his two friends. Police claimed they had been following the men, suspecting one of them had a gun. Again, the cops were cleared of all charges.

In 2010, in California, police shot and killed a young man who had allegedly committed some sort of traffic violation while riding his bicycle. After an altercation in which the young man resisted police and fled to his mother’s house, police officers pursued him, kicked down his mother’s door and opened fire.

That same year, in Long Beach, California, police responded with heavy firepower to a perceived threat by a man holding a water hose. The 35-year-old man had reportedly been watering his neighbor’s lawn when police, interpreting his “grip” on the water hose to be consistent with that of someone discharging a firearm, opened fire. The father of two was pronounced dead at the scene.

Skip ahead to 2013 and you have the 16-year-old teenager who skipped school only to be shot by police after they mistook him for a fleeing burglar. Not to mention the July 26 shooting of an unarmed black man in Austin “who was pursued and shot in the back of the neck by Austin Police… after failing to properly identify himself and leaving the scene of an unrelated incident.” And don’t forget the 19-year-old Seattle woman who was accidentally shot in the leg by police after she refused to show her hands.

Make no mistake, whereas these shootings of unarmed individuals by what Slate terms “trigger happy” cops used to take place primarily in big cities, that militarized, urban warfare mindset among police has spread to small-town America. No longer is this just a problem for immigrants, or people of color, or lower income communities, or young people who look like hooligans, out for trouble. We’re all in this together, black and white, rich and poor, urban and suburban, guilty and innocent alike. We’re all viewed the same by the powers that be: as potential lawbreakers to be viewed with suspicion and treated like criminals.

Whether you’re talking about police shootings of unarmed individuals, NSA surveillance, drones taking to the skies domestically, SWAT team raids, or roadside strip searches, they’re all part of a totalitarian continuum, mile markers on this common road we’re traveling towards the police state. The sign before us reads “Danger Ahead.” What remains to be seen is whether we can put the brakes on and safely reverse direction before it’s too late to turn back. — John W. Whitehead

As Jewish Americans prepare to celebrate Yom Kippur, one of the holiest days in the Jewish calendar, we would do well to remember that in many parts of this country, the right to freely practice one’s religious beliefs remains an uphill battle, and that’s true no matter what your religious beliefs, whether you’re a Jew, a Christian, a Muslim, a Hindu, or an atheist. State law and the First Amendment clearly prohibit the government and its agents from impeding the free exercise of religion. For Stephen Orr, that means wearing a hat into the courtroom. For someone else, it might be the right to mention God in a graduation speech, or avoid eating particular foods. It’s not up to the government to decide whether one’s religious beliefs are credible so long as they are sincere.

These are  the issues at the heart of a case being litigated by The Rutherford Institute, in which a Virginia resident, Stephen Orr, was barred from participating in his own trial after a circuit court judge removed him from the courtroom for insisting on wearing a head covering in keeping with his Jewish beliefs.  Orr, a resident of Chesapeake, Va., was tried in absentia and found guilty, after a Circuit Court judge denied his request to wear a hat, or “kippah,” into the courtroom in keeping with a Jewish mandate that persons wear a head covering at all times. The judge allegedly based his denial on the fact that other Jewish litigants appear in court without a head covering.

The case began when Orr was summoned to appear in Chesapeake General District Court on the charge of failing to obey a traffic signal. Orr informed courtroom deputies that he is Jewish and adheres to a mandate that persons wear a head covering, or “kippah,” all the time. Although the court forbids the wearing of hats in the courtroom, Orr was permitted to wear a plain black baseball cap during his hearing. Orr was found guilty of failing to obey a traffic signal and appealed his case to the circuit court, which also has a rule forbidding the wearing of hats in the courtroom. Upon reporting for his hearing in February 2013, Orr once again advised the court deputies about his religious beliefs regarding a head covering. However, presiding Circuit Court Judge Randall D. Smith ordered Orr to remove his hat or be removed from the courtroom. Orr stood by his beliefs, was removed from the courtroom, and was subsequently tried and convicted without the opportunity to confront the witness against him or to offer evidence on his behalf. Later that day, Orr was allowed to appear before Judge Smith and explained that Jewish law required that he cover his head at all times. Judge Smith allegedly responded that other Jewish litigants appear before the court without a head covering and that he did not find Orr’s explanation credible.

In coming to Orr’s defense, Rutherford Institute attorneys point out that under Virginia’s Religious Freedom statute and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, any requirement that Orr remove his hat in violation of his religious beliefs is enforceable only if the court’s no-hat rule serves a compelling state interest, and no such interest justified the demand that Orr violate his beliefs. Institute attorneys also assert that Orr’s Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment rights to confront witnesses and present evidence on his behalf were violated by his trial in absentia because Orr’s wearing of a hat would not have significantly disrupted his trial.

— John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State

We owe it to those who lost their lives on 9/11 and in the war-filled years since to do more than offer up amorphous patriotic tributes to their courage. Rather, let this anniversary be a wake-up call to a sleeping nation to rouse ourselves from a spirit of complacency and take our government leaders to task for eschewing the core values contained within the Bill of Rights.

Twelve years after the world as we knew it came to a sudden end, we find ourselves charting hostile territory. While we were distracted by military carnage overseas and color-coded terror alert systems here at home, the economy has crumbled at the hands of corporate oligarchs, reckless bankers and a national debt escalating due to the costs of endless wars, pork-barrel spending and a lack of fiscal restraint. Corporations continue to rake in profits and benefit from taxpayer-funded bailouts, while middle- and working-class Americans struggle to make ends meet. Our government leaders, gridlocked by partisan politics and the endless quest to get re-elected, have altogether failed in their duty to represent us and our vital interests. Our military, tasked with policing America’s global military empire, has been stretched to the breaking point. The police presence in America has exploded, with unconstitutional and brutal police tactics increasingly condoned by the courts. The right to be considered innocent until proven guilty has been usurped by a new norm in which all citizens are suspects in a surveillance state. And the right to travel has been subjected to draconian security measures that fail to make us safer.

Sadly, whatever success America has had in routing out terrorists over the past 12 years has been overshadowed by a society in which suspicion, fear and ignorance are the new norms. We have made enemies of one another. We allow government agents to pat-down our children when we want to ride in an airplane. We stand by when transit authorities shut off cell phone service in order to disrupt protests. We shrug our shoulders over the thousands of SWAT team raids that take place every year, comforted in the fact that it’s not happening in “our” community.

Enough is enough. We owe it to those who lost their lives on 9/11 to stand strong for freedom, today and everyday, and the place to start is by taking taking back control of our government and reclaiming our lost liberties. — John W. Whitehead, author of A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State

News headlines to the contrary, there is actually more taking place right now than just the Obama administration’s conveniently distracting push for military action against Syria.

We’re still having our privacy rights ravaged by the surveillance state. The latest revelations confirm long-standing fears that there is nothing private from the government, which has used a variety of covert, unconstitutional tactics to gain access to Americans’ personal data, online purchases and banking, medical records, and online communications.[1] The government’s methods include the use of supercomputers to hack through privacy settings, collaborations with corporations to create “back doors” for NSA access into encrypted files, and the use of strong-arm tactics against those technology and internet companies who refuse to cooperate.[2]

We’re still being taken to the cleaners by a fiscally irresponsible and semi-corrupt government. Not only does Congress continue to spend money we don’t have on pork-barrel projects, but we’re writing welfare checks to regimes in the Middle East, sending billions of dollars in “foreign aid” to Israel, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Egypt, among others.[3] That aid usually takes the form of military aid (money for weapons, aircraft, and other military hardware from U.S. companies, as well as training at U.S. military schools) and economic aid.[4] Earlier this year, President Obama approved a foreign aid package that translates to more than $11 million per day in military aid for Israel.[5] As if that didn’t burden taxpayers enough, you can add a $4 million and counting printing error to the tab as a result of problems with the new $100 bill (the first batch had blank spots, the second batch was stolen by thieves, and this latest batch had too much ink).[6]

And we’re still being terrorized by an out-of-control police state. Daily, there are new headlines about SWAT teams breaking down doors and militarized police shooting unarmed citizens. A 107-year-old Arkansas man is dead after a “shootout” with a SWAT team.[7] Then there was the 16-year-old teenager who skipped school only to be shot by police after they mistook him for a fleeing burglar.[8] Or the July 26 shooting of an unarmed black man in Austin “who was pursued and shot in the back of the neck by Austin Police… after failing to properly identify himself and leaving the scene of an unrelated incident.”[9] Or the 19-year-old Seattle woman who was accidentally shot in the leg by police after she refused to show her hands.[10]

And then there’s the news about Friday, September 6, 2013, being Janet Napolitano’s last day as head of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) before she starts her new job as head of the University of California school system. The student government of UC Berkley is actually considering a “no confidence” vote in Napolitano’s role as president. As one of the student representatives behind the “no confidence” vote effort noted, Napolitano “comes from a background of surveillance and apprehension and security.”[11]

Indeed, under Napolitano’s leadership, the DHS managed to entrench the federal government’s power in an increasingly Orwellian America at great cost to Americans’ civil liberties. Her replacement has yet to be named, although it has been suggested that New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, an even more egregious offender of civil liberties, could be tapped to replace her.[12]

Lest we forget, the following are some of Napolitano’s “greatest hits” when it comes to civil liberties violations. They are explored in greater depth in my new book, A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State.

If You See Something, Say Something: In December 2010, Napolitano created a partnership between DHS and America’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart, in order to encourage shoppers to report “suspicious” activity to store management. Likening the initiative to “the Cold War fight against communists,”[13] Napolitano recorded a video message[14] to be played at hundreds of Wal-Mart locations across the country, telling shoppers “if you see something, say something.” This blatantly Orwellian citizen spying program also spread to other outlets including “Mall of America, the American Hotel & Lodging Association, Amtrak, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, [and] sports and general aviation industries.”[15]

Constitution-Free Border Control: Arguments aside over the need to control illegal immigration, the American border has become a model for the emerging American police state due in large part to the DHS. Under Napolitano’s direction, the government’s efforts along the border have become little more than an exercise in police state power, ranging from aggressive checkpoints to the widespread use of drone technology, often used against American citizens traveling within the country. Border patrol operations occur within 100 miles of an international crossing, putting some 200 million Americans[16] within the bounds of aggressive border patrol searches and seizures, as well as increasingly expansive drone surveillance.

With 71 checkpoints found along the southwest border of the United States alone,[17] suspicionless search and seizures on the border are rampant. According to the ACLU: “Between October 1, 2008 and June 2, 2010, over 6,500 people — nearly 3,000 of them U.S. citizens — were subjected to a search of their electronic devices as they crossed U.S. borders. DHS claims it has the right to conduct these invasive searches whenever it likes, to whomever it likes, and without having any individualized suspicion.”[18]

Drones: Napolitano has already pushed for the expansion of drone surveillance from border zones to the interior of the United States.[19] Drone surveillance has expanded on the American-Canadian border in recent years, including drones patrolling the 950 miles of Washington state’s north border.[20] A 2010 document signed by Napolitano and obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation via a Freedom of Information Act request shows that DHS has begun developing plans to mount so-called “non-lethal weapons” on drones operated by Customs and Border Protection.[21] According to the document, the weapons would be used against “targets of interest,” described as people or vehicles carrying smugglers or undocumented immigrants.[22]

Fusion Centers: While fusion centers—data collecting agencies spread throughout the country, aided by the National Security Agency (NSA)—were in operation prior to Napolitano’s ascension to the head of DHS, she doubled down on the program early on in her tenure, insisting “that Fusion Centers will be the centerpiece of state, local, federal intelligence-sharing for the future and that the Department of Homeland Security will be working and aiming its programs to underlie Fusion Centers.”[23] These fusion centers constantly monitor our communications, everything from our internet activity and web searches to text messages, phone calls and emails. This data is then fed to government agencies, which are now interconnected—the CIA to the FBI, the FBI to local police—a relationship which will make a transition to martial law that much easier. As of 2009, the government admitted to having at least 72 fusion centers.[24] A map released by the ACLU indicates that every state except Idaho has a fusion center in operation or formation.[25]

Spying on Activists, Dissidents and Veterans: In 2009, DHS released three infamous reports on Rightwing and Leftwing “Extremism,” and another entitled Operation Vigilant Eagle, outling a surveillance program targeting veterans. The reports collectively and broadly define extremists as individuals and groups “that are mainly antigovernment, rejecting federal authority in favor of state or local authority, or rejecting government authority entirely.” Napolitano curtly dismissed concerns by activists, journalists and veterans groups that the DHS was targeting people based upon their ideological beliefs.[26] Fast forward to 2013, when it was revealed that DHS, the FBI, state and local law enforcement agencies, and the private sector were working together to conduct nationwide surveillance on protesters’ First Amendment activities.[27]

Stockpiling Ammunition: To add fuel to the fire, DHS has been stockpiling an alarming amount of ammunition in recent years, which only adds to the discomfort of those already leery of the government. According to Rep. Jason Chaffetz, DHS currently has 260 million rounds of ammo in stock, which averages out to between 1,300 to 1,600 rounds per officer. The US Army, meanwhile, has roughly 350 rounds per soldier.[28]

TSA: Under the direction of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) which falls under DHS authority, American travelers have been subjected to all manner of searches ranging from whole-body scanners and enhanced patdowns at airports to bag searches in train stations.[29] Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response (VIPR) task forces, comprised of federal air marshals, surface transportation security inspectors, transportation security officers, behavior detection officers and explosive detection canine teams laid the groundwork for the government’s effort to secure so-called “soft” targets such as malls, stadiums, bridges, etc. Some security experts predict that checkpoints and screening stations will eventually be established at all soft targets, such as department stores, restaurants, and schools. Given the virtually limitless number of potential soft targets vulnerable to terrorist attack, subjection to intrusive pat-downs and full-body imaging will become an integral component of everyday life in the United States.

Defending the NSA: In the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the immensity of the NSA’s spying programs, Napolitano has defended the NSA’s actions. Insisting that there are “lots of protections built into the system,” Napolitano remarked, “I think people have gotten the idea that there’s an Orwellian state out there that somehow we’re operating in. That’s far from the case… No one should believe that we are simply going willy-nilly and using any kind of data that we can gather.”[30]

The reality, of course, is that we are indeed living in an Orwellian state engineered in no small part by Big Sister herself. — John W. Whitehead


[1] J.D. Tuccille, “Spy Agencies Work To Weaken Privacy, Buy Back Doors Into Commercial Encryption,” Reason (Sept. 5, 2013), http://reason.com/blog/2013/09/05/spy-agencies-work-to-weaken-privacy-buy.

[2] James Ball, Julian Borger and Glenn Greenwald, “Revealed: how US and UK spy agencies defeat internet privacy and security,” The Guardian, (September 5, 2013), http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/sep/05/nsa-gchq-encryption-codes-security.

[3] “U.S. Foreign Aid By Country,” Huffington Post (Aug. 30, 2012), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/30/us-foreign-aid-by-country_n_1837824.html.

[4] Tom Curry, “’Traditional cooperation’ between U.S. and Egypt based on geopolitics and money,” NBC Politics (Aug. 15, 2013), http://nbcpolitics.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/08/15/20039005-traditional-cooperation-between-us-and-egypt-based-on-geopolitics-and-money?lite.

[5] “US Aid to Israel Jumps to $11 Million Dollars Per Day,” The New Observer (April 2, 2013), http://newobserveronline.com/us-aid-to-israel-jumps-to-11-million-dollars-per-day/.

[6] “Mishap At The Money Factory Delays $100 Bill Release,” CBS Miami (Sept. 6, 2013), http://miami.cbslocal.com/2013/09/06/mishap-at-the-money-factory-delays-100-bill-release/.

[7] “107-year-old Arkansas man, Monroe Isadore, killed in shootout with S.W.A.T.,” THV11 (Sept. 8, 2013), http://www.thv11.com/news/article/278849/2/107-year-old-Arkansas-man-dies-in-shootout-with-SWAT.

[8] Marcus K. Garner and Ben Gray, “Police: DeKalb officer shot teen skipping school,” Atlanta Journal Constitution (Sept. 4,2 013), http://www.ajc.com/news/news/crime-law/police-dekalb-officer-shot-teen-skipping-school/nZmr6/.

[9] Hojun Choi, “DOJ denies City of Austin request to review police policies following unarmed shooting,” The Horn (Sept. 6, 2013), http://www.readthehorn.com/news/83051/doj_denies_city_of_austin_request_to_review_police_policies_following_unarmed_shooting.

[10] “Police: Seattle officer accidentally shot unarmed woman,” KOMO News (Sept. 5, 2013), http://www.komonews.com/news/local/Police-Seattle-officer-accidentally-shot-unarmed-woman-222608561.html.

[11] Jessica Chasmar, “Berkeley student government considers ‘no confidence’ vote on Janet Napolitano,” The Washington Times, (September 8, 2013), http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2013/sep/8/berkeley-student-government-considers-no-confidenc/.

[12] Jordy Yager, “Ray Kelly staying mum on Homeland Security post,” The Hill, (August 18, 2013), http://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/317561-ray-kelly-staying-mum-on-homeland-security-post.

[13] Dana Priest and William M. Arkin, “U.S. ups scrutiny of public,” The Dallas Morning News, (January 5, 2011), http://www.dallasnews.com/news/washington/20101220-u.s.-ups-scrutiny-of-public.ece.

[15] “Homeland Security teams up with Wal-Mart for safety,” CNN, (December 6, 2010), http://www.cnn.com/2010/US/12/06/washington.dhs.walmart/index.html.

[16] “Are You Living in a Constitution Free Zone?” ACLU, (December 15, 2006), http://www.aclu.org/national-security_technology-and-liberty/are-you-living-constitution-free-zone.

[17] Cindy Casares, “Border Patrol Takes ‘No’ for an Answer at Internal Checkpoints,” Texas Observer, (March 7, 2013), http://www.texasobserver.org/border-patrol-takes-no-for-an-answer-at-internal-checkpoints/.

[18] “Abidor v. Napolitano: ACLU Challenges Suspicionless Laptop Border Search Policy,” ACLU, http://www.aclu.org/free-speech-technology-and-liberty/abidor-v-napolitano.

[19] “DHS wants to use spy drones domestically for ‘public safety,’” RT, (July 26, 2012), http://rt.com/usa/dhs-drone-surveillance-napolitano-156/.

[20] “DHS wants to use spy drones domestically for ‘public safety,’” RT, (July 26, 2012), http://rt.com/usa/dhs-drone-surveillance-napolitano-156/.

[21] Philip Bump, “The Border Patrol Wants to Arm Drones,” The Atlantic Wire, (July 2, 2013), http://www.theatlanticwire.com/national/2013/07/border-patrol-arm-drones/66793/.

[23] “Remarks by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to the National Fusion Center Conference in Kansas City, Mo. on March 11, 2009,” Department of Homeland Security, (March 13, 2009), http://www.dhs.gov/news/2009/03/13/napolitanos-remarks-national-fusion-center-conference.

[24] “Declassified Docs Reveal Military Operative Spied on WA Peace Groups, Activist Friends Stunned.” July 28, 2009.http://www.democracynow.org/2009/7/28/broadcast_exclusive_declassified_docs_reveal_military (accessed July 8, 2011).

[25] “Who’s Spying in Your Neighborhood?” http://www.aclu.org/whos-spying-your-neighborhood-map (accessed July 8, 2011).

[26] “Napolitano defends report on right-wing extremist groups,” CNN, (April 15, 2009), http://www.cnn.com/2009/POLITICS/04/15/extremism.report/.

[27] Natasha Lennard, “DHS had policy of daily spying on activists,” Salon, (April 3, 2013), http://www.salon.com/2013/04/03/dhs_had_policy_of_daily_spying_on_activists/.

[28] “Homeland Security agents use 1,000 more bullets each than Army soldiers,” RT, (April 26, 2013), http://rt.com/usa/army-million-rounds-dhs-472/.

[30] Jill Colvin, “Janet Napolitano Denies Existence of ‘Orwellian State,’” Politicker, (June 14, 2013), http://politicker.com/2013/06/janet-napolitano-denies-existence-of-orwellian-state/.