Not mincing her words, or trying to justify the jackboot, Secretary of State and 2008 presidential aspirant Hillary Clinton roundly condemned government actions that she said are "closing in the walls" on unions, rights advocates and organizations that press for social change or that shine a light on government shortcomings.
"Democracies don't fear their own people," she declared in ringing tones. "They recognize that citizens must be free to come together to advocate and agitate."
Clinton even got the normally taciturn President Obama to join her, releasing a statement in which he said he was concerned about "the spread of restrictions on civil society, the growing use of law to curb rather than enhance freedom, and wide-spread corruption that is undermining the faith of citizens in their government."
Does this mean that the US government is finally going to reverse course? Will it now stop importing thousands of cops dressed in combat gear when there is a gathering of heads of state, as was done last September in Pittsburgh for the G-20 summit--where hundreds of peacefully assembled students were teargassed, clubbed and arrested in a scene that has now become all too familiar at legal protests? Does it mean a reversal of the latest Supreme Court decision making it a crime to give funds to a charity deemed by the government to be providing aid to "terrorism" even if the donor had no idea where the organization's funds were going? Will the Justice Department drop the prosecution of NSA, CIA, and military whistleblowers? Will the cynically named PATRIOT Act, with its provisions for arrest for thought crimes, for guilt by association, and for detention without charge, be annulled? Will police-backed union-busting be outlawed? Will the government stop sending undercover spies to monitor the activities of peace organizations and other activist groups? Will the Transportation Security Administration purge its no-fly list of non-violent political activists and focus just on known threats to the safety of planes? Will the National Security Agency finally stop its wireless monitoring of millions of law-abiding citizens' electronic communications? Will the US Coast Guard stop enforcing a corporate blackout by British Petroleum with threats to arrest on felony charges journalists and others who attempt to photograph, on public land, evidence of the destruction of the Gulf Coast by the BP blowout? Will the Obama Justice Department finally begin a serious campaign to root out the massive corruption in Washington that has caused most Americans to give up on their government as a lost cause?
You'd certainly think so to listen to the pronouncements of Clinton and Obama.
But no. The problem is that they weren't talking about the USA. They were talking about other countries--China, Venezuela, Cuba, Egypt, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and Iran, for example.
The truth is that as harsh as those countries may be on critics and activists in their own societies, the US, supposedly the "Land of the Free and Home of the Brave," is in sorry shape today in terms of its vaunted freedoms of speech, assembly and press. Police-state tactics are now the norm at peaceful demonstrations. People are being arrested and held without charge with increasing frequency. The president has authorized the extra-judicial state murder of American citizens overseas deemed by himself to be threats to the country. Most Americans simply assume today that their phones and internet use are being monitored by the NSA. And most Americans today clearly see Washington as a cesspool of corruption where money buys not just access but special laws designed to enrich the powerful and screw the "small people."
If Clinton and Obama were sincere in saying that democracy and political activism were under threat, they'd look to what is happening in their own country before criticizing other countries. This kettle here has gotten pretty black over the past decade and needs a good scouring, before we can go out and start pointing out threats to freedom abroad.
Clinton chose an apt metaphor in her misdirected warning about the threats to democracy and democratic activism. Noting that the Iron Curtain that Winston Churchill famously warned against 60 years ago had fallen, she cautioned that now, "we must be wary of the steel vice in which governments around the world are slowly crushing civil society and the human spirit."
It is absolutely true that governments the world over are turning the screw on that vise, making use of more advanced electronic surveillance capabilities, and of improved technologies for "non-lethal" force--everything from rubber bullets and tasers to sound "guns" and even microwave beams--for breaking up demonstrations. But this is happening in the US too, where laws and court decisions are also slowly squeezing the margins around what is considered permissible dissent.