I am thinking of a country – one familiar to most of us. In this country, a state of open-ended war exists. It is a war against a nebulous and hard-to-define enemy, but an evil enemy to be sure. It is not a traditional war, but a battle against ideologies that threaten this country’s way of life. It is a fight for all that is good, against a powerful and wicked foe. In this war, the enemy could be a country, but it could also be your neighbor, a fellow student, or the person sitting with you in a stadium, or next to you on the plane.
For the prosecution of this war, the government has expanded its powers to clandestinely surveil the populace. Cameras observe the public unseen, and modern technology has created a virtual panopticon. Libraries and bookstores are required to report the reading habits of suspected enemies of the state, and secret courts may even rule and sentence without official charge or public trial. Detainees may be held without the protection of
international conventions, and without their identities released to a free press. These measures have been deemed necessary to protect national security.
In this war-torn country, a mass media campaign extols the virtues of patriotism and support for the government. Television screens throughout the land hammer home the leadership’s message of the need for paternalistic protection and oversight. Those who protest against the government’s stern measures have their very patriotism questioned by the executive authorities, and can be investigated without serving a warrant to justify the search of their homes or their financial records. National security demands these exigencies as well.
The economy of this country depends largely on a military-industrial complex that profits from the campaign against the enemy, but is nonetheless the only hope for victory. The army is funded beyond other priorities, and soldiers are sent to give their lives for the nation in far-off lands. Only through the prosecution of this war can true peace be realized in the end.
The workers of this country are at the mercy of government and corporate interests which operate in a realm so far removed from the common person that everyday people can barely even fathom the workings of the system itself, much less the motivations of those who control it. Livelihoods depend on decisions made by a
rich, powerful few, cloistered and guarded from pedestrian society. Most people live day-to-day, trying to pay rent and keep food on the table, and trying not to make waves – avoiding “radical” opinions that might attract attention. The public is encouraged to report any “suspicious behavior” to the police, and the police have substantial powers to investigate and arrest these “suspicious characters.”
The executive leaders of this country came to power by, at best, dubious means – and it is clear that it was not by the majority vote in a democratic process. It is probably fair to say that they attained their office with the aid of a small group of elite powerbrokers who maintain a system of nepotism and corruption to ensure their status. They are not leaders elected by the fully-counted will of the people.
In this country, the leadership speaks in simplistic phrases, designed to evoke a polar emotional response, rather than inspire reasoned criticism. Soundbites aired on screens nationwide exhort the populace to fear and hatred of the evil enemy, and praise the virtue of loyalty to the government, despite the erosion of civil liberty in the face of war. Nationalism is upheld at the expense of any semblance of global cooperation.
Have you guessed the name of this country? Do you recognize the state of affairs I have described? I have described, in some detail, a fictional nation known as Oceania, from that most important of novels, 1984, by George Orwell. If, even for a moment, from any perspective, you thought that my description might apply to the United States of America in 2002, I hope it gives you pause.
Perhaps I am an alarmist. Perhaps I am a radical. Perhaps I am a troublemaker. I, however, prefer to think of myself as a patriot, exercising the eternal vigilance that is the price of liberty. Despite the horrors visited upon us by extremists on September 11, 2001, let us not sacrifice the freedoms that make this country great. Let us rather accept the risks that are assumed by a free society, and not flinch from resisting those who – even with the best intentions – would drive us into the dark shadow of demagoguery and authoritarianism.