Sunday, May 25, 2008

Us Versus Them, You Versus Me

In this article in The New York Review of Books (subscription required), David Cole points out a curious fact about public reaction in the U.S. to the "war on terror":
One of the striking features of the American politics of security since September 11 is that invasions of privacy have prompted more public resistance than intrusions on liberty. The Patriot Act provisions that aroused the most public concern were search provisions--such as those authorizing roving wiretaps, "sneak-and-peek" searches, national security letters, and demands for records from third parties, including libraries--demands that librarians and other employees are not allowed to reveal to others. Other Patriot Act provisions were far more egregious, but received little attention, including one that permitted preventive detention of foreign nationals without charges, and another that authorized the Treasury Department to freeze an organization's assets and effectively shut it down on the basis of secret evidence without finding any violation of law.
This anomaly goes beyond the Patriot Act. Revelations from Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and word about "secret renditions" of terror suspects to countries where they will almost certainly be tortured produce initial outrage that soon peters out; but when public officials float privacy-challenging ideas like a national ID card, websites by the thousand light up with denunciations of Big Brotherism and creeping totalitarianism. WTF?

As Cole goes on to say, the most likely explanation for this weird discrepancy is that most Americans assume that the wholesale, often violent deprivations of human rights now being committed by the government against terror suspects will never affect them or their families or their friends, but only anonymous dark-skinned "others"--whereas having the whereabouts of their car or their library card traced by the feds could cause them some personal inconvenience.

In short, the attitude most of us fall into all too easily is one of "To hell with them--I'm just worried about me and mine."

It's a distressing side-effect of the readiness of Americans to let themselves be divided into mutually antagonistic groups along ethnic, social, politicial, religious, geographic, class, gender, and racial lines. It's a problem that causes huge damage to our country not only when it comes to the "war on terror" and other issues of crime and security, but also in relation to health care, taxes, education, labor rights, immigration, and practically every other issue you can name. Rather than pulling together to support, defend, and uplift one another, we allow ourselves to be sliced into demographic tribes who then battle for access to money, power, and even human rights--while those in control laugh and count their profits.

One of the most important resolutions all of us should make is to absolutely withhold our votes and support from any politician who plays up our social divisions as a means of enhancing his own power. This syndrome is so pernicious and so far-reaching in its effects that catering to it should be considered the equivalent, in political terms, of the "sin against the Holy Ghost"--the nearest thing we have to an unforgiveable offense.

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