Anti-Terrorist Activity and the Suppression of Basic Human Rights

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Anti-terrorism measures in the United States have suppressed the basic human right to privacy for citizens of the nation to previously unforeseen and unimagined levels. Many rights of individuals in society have been repressed and violated in a number of dangerous ways in the effort to protect the nation from future terrorist attacks. This relates in a number of ways to the concepts of blind obedience to authority, nationalism, the surveillance state, and civil disobedience that have been discussed by a variety of authors and thinkers. An exploration of the connection between the recent stifling of human rights and these far-reaching philosophical and political concepts makes it possible to frame these current events within the paradigm of the age-old issue of the rights and limitations of the individual within society. Understanding this issue within that greater paradigm is essential to properly recognize the complexities of the contemporary political situation.

Before delving into the ideological conditions that have led to the emergence of the surveillance state and the resistance to this trend it is important to examine the legislation that has been passed in the effort to combat terrorism and the resulting implications for the privacy rights of the American people. One of the most important pieces of anti-terrorism legislation that has had a profound impact on the privacy rights of American citizens is the Patriot Act. As the American Civil Liberties Union states in its article “Surveillance Under the USA PATRIOT Act”—“Just six weeks after the September 11 attacks, a panicked Congress passed the ‘USA/Patriot Act,’ an overnight revision of the nation's surveillance laws that vastly expanded the government's authority to spy on its own citizens, while simultaneously reducing checks and balances on those powers like judicial oversight, public accountability, and the ability to challenge government searches in court.” This legislation clearly contributed to the rapid deterioration of the expectation of privacy that American citizens take for granted as part of the constitutional protections that protect the emphasis on freedom and liberty that defines our national outlook. These actions were a concrete effort designed to eradicate the basic level of privacy necessary in a free society. In addition, recent revelations have shown that these changes in policy have allowed for surveillance that has gone well beyond what the vast majority of Americans previously imagined or believed.

Edward Snowden, a former contractor for the National Security Agency, recently released a number of classified documents that show that the government not only has the ability and legal justification to spy on innocent citizens, but that they are doing so at shocking and unprecedented levels. As Barton Gellman states, Snowden’s “revelations have brought to light a global surveillance system that cast off many of its historical restraints after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Secret legal authorities empowered the NSA to sweep in the telephone, internet and location records of whole populations.” The fact that the telephone and internet data of millions of Americans are being indiscriminately collected by the government illustrates the colossal violations of privacy that have occurred as a result of legislation meant to combat terrorism. This clearly goes well beyond what would be necessary to effectively combat terrorism and goes into the realm of Orwellian observation of the entire American population. It is therefore vitally important to examine the ideological environment that has contributed to both the development of these policies and the viewpoint of those who seek to oppose them for a full portrait of the injustice of these laws.

One of the most relevant authors who has addressed the issues that directly led to the suppression of basic privacy rights within the United States is Stanley Milgram. As he states in his article “The Perils of Obedience,” in 1963 Milgram conducted an experiment where volunteers were asked to “shock” another person (who, unbeknownst to the participants, was really an actor not being mistreated in any way) with increasingly painful and dangerous electric current at the instruction of an authority figure running the experiment. Despite the pleas for help from the actor hired to pretend they were being shocked Milgram found that the vast majority of participants were willing to administer what would clearly be extremely dangerous shocks at the behest of an authority figure. The lesson of this experiment, as Milgram states, is that “ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects become perfectly clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority” (177). The blind obedience to authority demonstrated by the participants in Milgram’s study has a variety of implications for the political climate in the United States, particularly when viewed in the context of the sweeping reductions in privacy and basic liberties widely approved by many citizens following the September 11 attacks. The popularity of these actions clearly demonstrates the natural obedience to authority that Milgram demonstrated as it manifests itself in the political arena. The most illustrative example of this trend would be the Patriot Act and the support with which it was received by the American public.

The widespread support that the Patriot Act received from the American public upon first being passed demonstrates the manner in which the obedience that Milgram studied asserts itself in a sociopolitical context. The sweeping reductions in privacy and the right of the government to put any American under intensive surveillance without so much as a warrant were received by the American public with widespread support. As Christopher M. Finan states, in 2004 Americans “supported the Patriot Act by more than a two-to-one margin” (295). The willingness of much of the American population to give up their basic rights to privacy at the behest of the authority figures in the government illustrates the same ingrained submissiveness to authority that Milgram found in his groundbreaking study. Quite simply, many of the reductions in basic liberties that the American people have been subjected to in the years following September 11th are a result of the unquestioning obedience to authority that governs so much of human nature. This is a sentiment echoed by many observers of the political direction the American population has taken in the years following the September 11th terrorist attacks.

The widespread support, at least initially, on the part of the American people for the unprecedented crackdown on civil liberties advocated by the Bush administration unquestionably illustrates the natural human tendency towards deference to authority exhibited in Milgram’s work. As Dianna Taylor states, “within the post-11 September United States, both the Department of Defense and the media have invoked prevailing ethical and political concepts and categories in ways that promote conformity with the status quo and inhibit the kind of critical reflection upon and engagement with the present that might facilitate a productive negotiation of the current crisis” (47). This staunch advocacy of conformism and deference to authority manifested itself in widespread public support for the destruction of certain fundamental rights to retain a level of privacy and dignity. Once again, we see the vital importance of the natural inclination toward obedience to authority described by Milgram to the establishment of the modern surveillance state. However, this is far from the only contributing factor to the breakdown of privacy rights in recent times.

Another element of the environment that has allowed for the breakdown of personal liberties is widespread nationalism and desire for cultural homogeneity. Gwen Wilder hints at this in her discussion of the Pledge of Allegiance, where she states that “Very simply put, the Pledge in its latest form requires all Americans to say something that some Americans do not believe. I say ‘requires’ because although the courts have ruled that students may not be compelled to recite the Pledge, in effect peer pressure does compel all but the bravest to join in.” The Pledge of Allegiance represents the strain of American thought that desires complete cultural and religious uniformity amongst the citizens of this nation. In times of chaos or perceived attack, such as following the terrorist attacks of September 11th or the Cold War years where the phrase “under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance, the American public desperately clings to the idea of a culturally homogenous America where the dominant beliefs and cultural mores go unchallenged. This can directly lead to the persecution and mistreatment of minorities, which is another aspect of anti-terrorism privacy crackdowns that has become increasingly apparent in recent years.

The violations of privacy that have marked the enactment of anti-terrorism legislation in recent years have been even more pronounced for minority groups. As Ashley Moore states, “The combined implementation of the Patriot Act and the CLEAR Act resulted in increased surveillance of Muslims... Surveillance of Muslims is ongoing in mosques, on the Internet, and through library records, bank accounts, and places of employment” (92). The increased scrutiny of religious minorities justified by recent anti-terrorist legislation is undeniably related to the American desire for religious homogeneity exemplified in WIlder’s discussion of the Pledge of Allegiance. The same inclination towards a society unified in Christian beliefs is apparent in both trends, but the breakdown of privacy rights in recent years illustrates the potentially devastating results of this strain of thought within American politics much more clearly. Furthermore, it is apparent that the surveillance of these minority groups has gone above and beyond electronic level monitoring into full-blown infiltration of groups of religious minorities in an attempt to subvert the religious pluralism this country was founded upon.

The obsession with religious uniformity characterized by Wider’s piece has manifested itself in the complete suppression and infiltration of minority religious groups by government operatives. As Eileen Sullivan states, “Based on internal NYPD reports and interviews with officials involved in the programs, the AP reported that the NYPD conducted wholesale surveillance of entire Muslim neighborhoods, chronicling daily life including where people ate, prayed and got their hair cut. Police infiltrated dozens of mosques and Muslim student groups and investigated hundreds more.” The surveillance of American citizens based solely on their religious beliefs is an unconscionable development that clearly demonstrates the horrific effects of the complete breakdown in the right to privacy that has stemmed from legislation designed to combat terrorism. The government crackdown on the rights of Americans to freely exercise their religion demonstrates both the trend towards religious homogeneity embodied by American traditions like the Pledge of Allegiance and how this manifests itself in the violation of personal liberties. This breakdown of privacy rights is also linked to the ideas of other authors and thinkers whose ideas have been studied within the course.

The concerns regarding the surveillance state that Nadine Strossen voiced in her essay “Everyone is Watching You” have grown only more prescient as anti-terrorism legislation has increasingly chipped away at what little privacy citizens still currently enjoy. As Strossen states, “Why the mania for surveillance? Many claim that we need to trade privacy for safety. But even many law-enforcement officials believe, based on their actual experience, that video surveillance does not effectively detect or deter crime.” Not only does this illustrate the logical fallacy of trading away personal liberties for the hope of safety, but it also demonstrates the inefficiency of such policies in reality. Increased surveillance, whether on video, the internet, or the phone rarely contributes to concrete upticks in safety and security. Such policies only serve to strike a blow and freedom and political discourse while causing citizens to live in fear of both the initial problem and the newfound surveillance. This trend is exemplified by the recent anti-terrorist legislation in the United States.

Recent anti-terrorism legislation has gone above and beyond simple surveillance cameras into a full-blown collection of the online and telephone-related activity of all Americans. As Ateqah Khaki states, “current cybersecurity proposals threaten to expand the government's ability to collect personal information — simultaneously violating privacy rights and overwhelming the government's counterterrorism efforts with too much data. Over the past decade, we have learned that such policies fail on two fronts: they are largely ineffective and they violate civil liberties.” This not only illustrates the expansion of the surveillance discussed by Stodden into new and distressing fronts but further illustrates her argument that beyond being horrendous violations of personal liberty, such policies fail to have any meaningful effect on the promotion of safety. When an absolute deluge of information is collected it becomes nearly impossible to sort out meaningful threats from white noise, compromising public safety while violating the principles of freedom and personal liberty. The moral quandaries created by such intensive surveillance have triggered action from dissenting individuals that is based on the principles espoused by several prominent thinkers.

One of the authors whose work has contributed most significantly to actions taken against the surveillance state is Henry David Thoreau. As Thoreau stated, “The slight reproach to which the virtue of patriotism is commonly liable, the noble are most likely to incur. Those who, while they disapprove of the character and measures of a government, yield to it their allegiance and support are undoubtedly its most conscientious supporters, and so frequently the most serious obstacles to reform.” We see the influence of Thoreau’s advocacy for the disobeyal of unjust laws and refusal to yield blindly to the authority of the state in the actions of many who have challenged the increasing surveillance of the government, even breaking the law to do so in their attempt to preserve the values of liberty and freedom which rest on a degree of privacy and autonomy from the state. No one embodies the influence of the ideals of civil disobedience on the actions of the anti-surveillance movement more than Edward Snowden.

Edward Snowden’s actions represent one of the most dramatic and memorable examples of civil disobedience in American politics in recent years. As Judy Woodruff states, “The former-NSA-contract-employee-turned-fugitive unleashed a flood of leaked material, documenting surveillance of everything from phone calls to Web searches to e-mail.” The fact that Snowden risked his freedom to expose the scope of the surveillance on American citizens that has been justified in the name of fighting terrorism, and is now a fugitive from the most powerful government on Earth as a result of his conscientious violation of the law, makes him a sterling example of the ideals of civil disobedience espoused by Thoreau taken to their most logical extreme in this age of tyrannical government oversight. Snowden embodies Thoreau’s advocacy of the refusal to support the actions of a government with which one does not agree in principle. This connection has been pointed out by many astute observers of the situation.

Many important figures, even within the government, have pointed out and lauded the connection between Snowden’s actions and the time-honored American ideal of civil disobedience. As Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis stated in an interview with The Guardian when asked about his opinion of Snowden’s actions, “In keeping with the philosophy and the discipline of non-violence, in keeping with the teaching of Henry David Thoreau and people like Gandhi and others, if you believe something that is not right, something is unjust, and you are willing to defy customs, traditions, bad laws, then you have a conscience. You have a right to defy those laws and be willing to pay the price.” Snowden’s decisions are undoubtedly a natural outgrowth of the belief in the importance of civil disobedience and refusal to support the erosion of civil liberties that has been justified in the name of fighting terrorism. Not only do they exemplify the overreach of government observation of the lives of private citizens, but also the heavy influence of Thoreau on so much of the political dissent that has fought against this and other government abuses throughout the course of American history. To understand how this intervention in the private affairs of American citizens came to the point where actions that would officially constitute treason are being lauded by members of congress it is important to examine the arguments made in favor of such intensive surveillance, the ideals to which they have contributed, and why they are ultimately misguided.

There are a number of arguments that have been put forth asserting that the legal changes made in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11th were essential to the protection of the American people and way of life. As the Department of Justice has stated, the Patriot Act “revised counterproductive legal restraints that impaired law enforcement’s ability to gather, analyze, and share critical terrorism-related intelligence information. The Act also updated decades-old federal laws to account for the technological breakthroughs seen in recent years” (1). What is notable regarding these arguments is that they gloss over the degree to which the government's ability to collect information has been enhanced by the Patriot Act, in favor of a discussion of the enhanced cooperation between law enforcement agencies allowed by the new legislation. It also, of course, fails to acknowledge the large scale collection of data regarding law-abiding Americans that has been justified through the usage of this legislation. These logical fallacies are also only the beginning of the errors in this justification of mass surveillance.

One of the cornerstones of the illogical paranoia that has justified the intensity of the attacks against the privacy of American citizens on behalf of the government is that terrorism is an enormous and serious threat to the safety and security if the American people and nation. In reality, as Bruce Schneier states, “Terrorism causes fear, and we overreact to that fear. Our brains aren't very good at probability and risk analysis. We tend to exaggerate spectacular, strange and rare events, and downplay ordinary, familiar and common ones. We think rare risks are more common than they are, and we fear them more than probability indicates we should.” The reality is that in the grand scheme of threats to the safety of the American people terrorism is virtually negligible. There are a wide variety of elements of life and society that are far more dangerous than the threat of terrorism, and yet we refuse to give of our basic rights to privacy in an attempt to subvert them. This point becomes even more clear when a statistical analysis of the threat of terrorism is attempted.

Given the unprecedented levels of government surveillance of American citizens that have been justified by the effort to fight terrorism, one would assume that terrorist activity is one of the gravest threats facing the American people. In reality, as Ronald Bailey states, “in the last five years, your chances of being killed by a terrorist are about one in 20 million. This compares to the annual risk of dying in a car accident of 1 in 19,000; drowning in a bathtub at 1 in 800,000; dying in a building fire at 1 in 99,000; or being struck by lightning at 1 in 5,500,000. In other words, in the last five years, you were four times more likely to be struck by lightning than killed by a terrorist.” Of course, it is impossible to verify how much of this relative lack of occurrence of terrorist activity is related to the increase in surveillance on the American people, but even if one accepts that the massive level of government observation of private citizens has caused a concrete and verifiable decrease in terrorism, and there is no evidence that this is the case, it is remarkable to note that even a fourfold increase in terrorism-related deaths would put the threat of terrorism on a par with the threat of being struck by lightning. The potential safety gained by the boundless observation of the private lives of American citizens seems wildly disproportionate to the level of violation of individual rights at stake. This point again becomes particularly striking when government action against far more demonstrably serious threats is viewed in this context.

The fact that Americans are willing to accept violations of personal liberty and privacy to prevent terrorism is particularly baffling when contrasted with the level of government intervention permitted to combat much more objectively serious threats to the safety of American citizens. As Conor Friedersdorf states, “Americans would never welcome a secret surveillance state to reduce diabetes deaths, or gun deaths, or drunk-driving deaths by 3,000 per year. Indeed, Congress regularly votes down far less invasive policies meant to address those problems because they offend our notions of liberty.” The level of compromise that has been made to the right to individual privacy in the attempt to subvert terrorism goes far beyond the realistic threat of terrorist activity. This is not to say that certain actions should not be taken to curb terrorism, but that they must be viewed within the context of the actual threat presented and the level of liberty that must be sacrificed. Fortunately, many serious scholars have examined this dilemma and advocated realistic means of balancing these important issues and concerns.

While terrorism is undeniably a virtually negligible threat in terms of its impact on the daily lives of American citizens it is also true that it deserves slightly elevated importance due to its nature as an attack on the sovereignty of the American state, unlike more pedestrian threats to the health of the American people. As Amitai Etzioni states, “the starting point of any reasonable deliberation about our national security is the recognition that we face two profound commitments: protecting our homeland and safeguarding our rights.” Terrorism is a particularly notable and important threat because it presents a concrete attack on the very independence and functionality of the American state. However, it must also be acknowledged that terrorism is a rare and statistically unlikely occurrence that does not present a serious threat to the safety of the American people. Only by weighing these two important elements of information against one another can the United States develop a rational approach to terrorism that leans toward safeguarding the rights of the American people while still defending the sovereignty of the state.

Laws meant to combat the actions of terrorists have eroded fundamental human rights within the United States in a variety of ways. These laws have allowed for the indiscriminate observation of the American population by government authorities regardless of any involvement in activities that could be construed as illegal or immoral. These laws have their basis in the basic human deference to authority and desire for religious homogeneity within the country that have been illustrated throughout history and have resulted in an Orwellian surveillance state beyond the worst imaginings of most observers. However, there remain strong objectors to this system who have dealt numerous blows to the unreasonable surveillance of American citizens by the government using the philosophy of civil disobedience. While terrorism must be combated as an affront to the sovereignty of the American state, it is not a serious threat to the safety of everyday Americans and must be treated by the government as such. Only by acknowledging the disproportionate scope of anti-terrorism legislation to the threat at hand can the American government begin to once again protect the values of freedom and liberty that we hold most dear.

Works Cited

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