“There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part… And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it — that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!” – Mario Savio
The evidence is piling up, and the verdict is becoming clearer by the day: The United States of America is turning into a police state. Who is the culprit? While it’s tempting to blame the president, congress or other employees of the government machine, the problem lies not in any nefarious dictator but in the millions of individual gears mindlessly turning to perform the hard work of destroying freedom. Unless we resist the police state, we are contributing to the culture that created it.
Consider Debra Harrell of South Carolina, whose 9-year-old daughter was taken into state custody after allowing her child to play unsupervised at a nearby park. Though Harrell provided her daughter with a cell phone for emergencies, a concerned neighbor felt the need to report Harrell to police for child abandonment, and the police decided to arrest the mother and place the child in foster care. A mother in Connecticut met a similar fate when she let her 11-year-old daughter stay in her car while she made a quick stop at a store, as did a man in New Jersey who let his children sit in his car at a police station while he was inside paying a ticket.
The police are also targeting our youth. Virginian police charged a 17-year-old boy who exchanged nude pictures with his 15-year-old girlfriend with manufacturing and distributing child pornography. A local judge issued a warrant allowing police to photograph the boy’s penis with the authority to “medically induce an erection” so they could compare the pictures with the evidence. Ironically, a person who engaged in a consensual sexual act with a peer was forced to perform the same act against his will by state authorities.
Even the most innocent among us are falling victim to the increasingly out of control police state. In Georgia, a SWAT team recently attempted to raid a suspected drug dealer’s home without a warrant. As part of the siege, an officer tossed a flash grenade through a window, which landed in a toddler’s crib. A police officer in the same state shot and killed a teenage boy who answered the door holding what the officer believed to be a weapon; the boy was holding a video game controller. The officer had previously killed an unarmed man and faced no consequences for either offense.
America’s family pets also aren’t free from the oppressive police state. According to some estimates, a family pet dies every 98 minutes from wanton police gunfire. While law enforcement agents rarely receive punishment for murdering harmless animals, a 16-year-old boy in Florida is serving 23 years for killing a retired police dog.
Guns are not the only weapons state authorities use to oppress innocent Americans. Robin Speronis of Florida dared to power his home using solar panels and a special water system that utilizes rainwater. For his efforts at sustainable living, Speronis was threatened with eviction for violating a maintenance code mandating that city residence rely on public utilities.
When people fail to call out abuses of power, power becomes easier to abuse. We’ve known for over a year that the National Security Agency has the ability to comb through American citizens’ emails and text messages, but just how the NSA decides who to target is a mystery to most Americans. A German publication recently published documents suggesting that merely searching for information about how to protect private electronic communications from hackers is enough to end up on an NSA watch list. Former NSA employee Edward Snowden told news outlets that many of his coworkers obtained and passed around nude photos found when raiding suspects’ data. The TSA, another organization designed to keep us safe, has been routinely strip searching Americans despite not having caught a single terrorist in over a decade of operation.
The Intercept, a web publication, recently leaked documents provided by a government official outlining the National Counter Terrorism Center’s rules for identifying terrorist suspects. The documents reveal a much lower bar than that set for standard law enforcement regarding how someone is deemed a potential threat. The National Counter Terrorism Center claims the right to detain anyone they have “reasonable suspicion” might commit “any act that is ‘dangerous’ to property and intended to influence government policy through intimidation.” The broadly defined criteria for determining what constitutes a threat include suspicious Facebook or Twitter posts. How is targeting people for expressing opinions online not a violation of free speech?
Perhaps even more disturbing is the Human Right Watch’s recent claim that the majority of domestic terrorist plots directly involved government officials who encouraged unstable people to carry out their attacks. Then again, maybe this news shouldn’t be a surprise given the reports of entrapment schemes in which law enforcement officers encourage drug use or illegal firearm sales just so they can make arrests.
Don’t think you’re safe if you don’t do drugs or buy guns on the street. Asset forfeiture laws allow enforcement officers to seize cash, vehicles and homes without a warrant for mere suspicion of wrongdoing. In 2007, a woman in Texas who was on her way to purchase a new car was stopped by police. Because the police officer saw large amounts of cash in her purse, the officer took the money and accused her of being a drug dealer although no drugs were found in the car. In Monroe, North Carolina, local law enforcement is hoping to use seized asset funds to buy an unmanned surveillance drone to patrol the skies and seek out new revenue for the police.
Most police officers, social workers and government spies are good, hardworking citizens, but their work sometimes requires them to infringe on rights established by our founders. We must remember that the U.S. Constitution doesn’t limit the rights of individual citizens; it limits what the government can do to citizens. Until our culture returns to this original paradigm, resistance against the machine will become increasingly difficult.
Democracies do not turn totalitarian overnight. The path to despotism is often a slow progression of seemingly minor incidents that compound until all of society loses sight of where they started out. The endless list of frivolous laws, unchecked government surveillance, increasing suspicion among neighbors and prisons where inmates are forced into labor all mirror the oppressive cultures of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Meanwhile, too many Americans follow the government’s line without question, failing to research undeniable abuses of power. We are all part of the machine, and we collectively decide how it operates. We must stop and move in a different direction, or we let the machine continue controlling us.