Tuesday, May 11, 2010

In The Footsteps Of Tyrants

Another one of our freedom-loving allies in the Middle East continues to show us the way:
CAIRO—Egypt's government on Tuesday extended the country's controversial emergency law for another two years, saying it would limit its use—a promise dismissed by human-rights activists who warned the law would continue to be used to suppress dissent.
The emergency law, in place since the 1981 assassination of then-President Anwar Sadat by Islamic militants, gives police broad powers of arrest and allows indefinite detention without charge. Democracy advocates and human rights groups have long said the law is used to silence critics and ensure the ruling party's lock on power in this top Mideast ally of the U.S., pointing to the arrest of bloggers, political activists and others.
Does this sound familiar?
After an attack by Islamic militants, a government uses the incident to take a hard turn to the right and gives its law enforcement agencies broad powers to arrest people suspected of being terrorists, or of providing support for suspected terrorists, or really of doing anything that the government doesn't like. The people arrested under these new powers can be held in indefinite detention, without any charges, and without any trial. This government has also used the incident to rationalize the torture of its prisoners.
The United States has done all of these things, and the only thing that seems to separate it from Egypt, at this point, is the government's reluctance to use violence to stifle free speech.
But at this rate, how long will it take them to cross this line? They are already up against it; their prosecutions of whistleblowers and their attempts to silence Wikileaks are but two disturbing examples.
An overt campaign to keep real journalists from reporting on the actions of government may seem far-fetched, but we must remember that both the current and previous administration have been among the most non-transparent in history, and already tightly control the flow of information to the select group of friendly lap-dog media elites it knows it can control. 
And consider that, 10 years ago, the idea of the United States openly torturing prisoners, spying on its own citizens, locking people in solitary confinement without trial at their pleasure and claiming the power of its president to assassinate its own citizens at will would have seemed equally far-fetched. And yet, to a large percentage of the population, this seems perfectly acceptable today. 
Freedom of the press won't be destroyed overnight, of course. The government isn't going to just take over TV stations and newspapers. It might start by employing  (as Glenn Greenwald reports) Obama confidant Cass Sunstein's proposal to infiltrate organizations who promote "false conspiracy theories" about the government, which, of course, would include any theory that does not agree with the government's official claims.
Next might come a few arrests of bloggers who are sympathetic to the grievances of Islamic terrorists. They could be charged with "providing material support to terrorism," a law so broad that the Humanitarian Law Project fears is could be used against them for promoting peace talks with groups like the Tamil Tigers. Those arrests will have the effect of silencing much of that sort of criticism.
And the more critics are silenced, the easier it will get for the government to restrict the press even further. Many Americans won't even notice it happening; the mainstream media, run by members of the same elite class of people who run the government and corporate America, will continue to serve up the same official party line, and to distract us with their endless tales of meaningless Washington intrigue and political horse races. Their willingness to create their own version of the truth will become less and less constrained as competing journalists are either frightened into silence or marginalized by being denied access to information.
And this is how democracies die. When the voters are denied the information that they need in order to make  informed decisions, the whole system becomes a sham. Even worse, they are often unaware that they are not getting the truth, and are even more unlikely to ever remedy the situation. We can only hope that Americans start taking an interest in their democracy before it's too late to save it.

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