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Peter Van Buren: Thought Crime in Washington

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When I arrived at Zuccotti Prison one afternoon last week, the "park" was in its now-usual lockdown mode.  No more tents.  No library.  No kitchen.  No medical area.  Just about 30 leftover protesters and perhaps 100 of New York's finest as well as private-security types in neon-green vests in or around a dead space enclosed by more movable police fencing than you can imagine. To the once open plaza, there were now only two small entrances in the fencing on the side streets, and to pass through either you had to run a gauntlet of police and private security types.

The park itself was bare of anything whatsoever and, that day, parts of it had been cordoned off, theoretically for yet more cleaning, with the kind of yellow police tape that would normally surround a crime scene, which was exactly how it seemed.  In fact, as I walked in, a young protestor was being arrested, evidently for the crime of lying down on a bench.  (No sleeping, or even prospective sleeping, allowed -- except in jail!)

Thanks to Mayor Bloomberg's police assault on the park, OWS has largely decamped for spaces unknown and for the future.  Left behind was a grim tableau of our distinctly up-armored, post-9/11 American world.  To take an obvious example, the "police" who so notoriously pepper-sprayed non-violent, seated students at UC Davis were just campus cops, who in my college years, the 1960s, still generally wore civvies, carried no weapons, and were tasked with seeing whether students had broken curfew or locked themselves out of their rooms.  Now, around the country, they are armed with chemical weapons, Tasers, tear gas, side arms, you name it.  Meanwhile, some police departments, militarizing at a rapid rate, have tank-like vehicles, and the first police surveillance drones are taking to the air in field tests and capable of being weaponized.

And keep in mind, when it comes to that pepper-spraying incident, we're talking about sleepy Davis, California, and a campus once renowned for its agronomy school.  Al-Qaeda?  I don't think so.

Still, terror is what now makes our American world work, the trains run more or less on time, and the money flow in.  So why should we be surprised that, having ripped Zuccotti Park apart, destroyed books, gotten a rep for pepper-spraying and roughing up protesters (and reporters, too), the NYPD should propitiously announce the arrest of yet another "lone wolf" terrorist.  And can anyone be shocked that we're talking about a disturbed, moneyless individual -- he couldn't even pay his cell phone bill, no less rent a place to live -- under surveillance for two years, and palling around with an NYPD "informant" who smoked marijuana with him and may have given him not only a place to build a bomb but encouragement in doing so.

It was a police-developed terror case that evidently so reeked of coaching even the FBI refused to get involved.  And yet this was Mayor Bloomberg's shining moment of last week, as the NYPD declared his home a "frozen" zone, the equivalent of declaring martial law around his house.  And who was endangering him? An OWS "drum circle."  In the United States, increasingly, those in power no longer observe the law.  Instead, they make it up to suit their needs.  In the process, the streets where you demonstrate, as (New York's mayor keeps telling us) is our "right," are regularly transformed into yet more fenced-in, heavily surveilled Zuccotti Prisons.

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This may not be a traditional police state (yet), but it is an increasingly militarized policed state in which the blue coats, armed to the teeth, act with remarkable impunity -- and all in the name of our safety from a bunch of doofuses or unhinged individuals that its "informants" often seem to fund, put through basic terror courses, and encourage in every way until they are arrested as "terrorists."  This is essentially a scam on the basis of which rights are regularly abridged or tossed out the window.

In twenty-first-century America, "rights" are increasingly meant for those who behave themselves and don't exercise them.  And if you happen to be part of a government in which no criminal act of state -- torture, kidnapping, the assassination of U.S. citizens abroad, the launching of wars of aggression -- will ever bring a miscreant to court, only two crimes evidently exist: blowing a whistle or expressing your opinion.  State Department official Peter Van Buren, whose new book about a disastrous year he spent in Iraq, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, is a must read, learned that the hard way. So did Morris Davis. So may we all. Tom

No Free Speech at Mr. Jefferson's Library
George Orwell, Philip K. Dick, and Ray Bradbury Would Have Recognized Morris Davis's Problem

By Peter Van Buren

Here's the First Amendment, in full: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Those beautiful words, almost haiku-like, are the sparse poetry of the American democratic experiment.  The Founders purposely wrote the First Amendment to read broadly, and not like a snippet of tax code, in order to emphasize that it should encompass everything from shouted religious rantings to eloquent political criticism.  Go ahead, reread it aloud at this moment when the government seems to be carving out an exception to it large enough to drive a tank through.

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As the occupiers of Zuccotti Park, like those pepper-sprayed at UC Davis or the Marine veteran shot in Oakland, recently found out, the government's ability to limit free speech, to stopper the First Amendment, to undercut the right to peaceably assemble and petition for redress of grievances, is perhaps the most critical issue our republic can face. If you were to write the history of the last decade in Washington, it might well be a story of how, issue by issue, the government freed itself from legal and constitutional bounds when it came to torture, the assassination of U.S. citizens, the holding of prisoners without trial or access to a court of law, the illegal surveillance of American citizens, and so on.  In the process, it has entrenched itself in a comfortable shadowland of ever more impenetrable secrecy, while going after any whistleblower who might shine a light in.

Now, it also seems to be chipping away at the most basic American right of all, the right of free speech, starting with that of its own employees.  As is often said, the easiest book to stop is the one that is never written; the easiest voice to staunch is the one that is never raised.

It's true that, over the years, government in its many forms has tried to claim that you lose your free speech rights when you, for example, work for a public school, or join the military. In dealing with school administrators who sought to silence a teacher for complaining publicly that not enough money was being spent on academics versus athletics, or generals who wanted to stop enlisted men and women from blogging, the courts have found that any loss of rights must be limited and specific. As Jim Webb wrote when still Secretary of the Navy, "A citizen does not give up his First Amendment right to free speech when he puts on a military uniform, with small exceptions."

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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