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The Marathon Bombings, Privacy and the Question "Why?"

By       Message Alfredo Lopez     Permalink
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One thing is clear amidst the shower of confusion and contradiction that bathes the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing: the legal and technological structure of a police state is in place and can be quickly activated. As if on cue, while the hunt for the bombers was ongoing, the House of Representatives obligingly enhanced that police state capability by passing the draconian Cyber Intelligence and Protection Act (CIPA). If approved by the Senate and signed by the President, it will greatly expand the government's intrusion into all our lives.

It wasn't a good week for freedom.

The Watertown Seige in Progress
(Image by The Christian Post)
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The Watertown Seige in Progress by The Christian Post

Images are always important. They frame our memories and memory is the sketch artist of our consciousness. Here's an image. Boston -- an enduring symbol of this country's democracy, intellectual pursuit and progressive thinking -- is deserted because the government won't let people come out of their homes. Armoured vehicles cruise neighborhoods and people from at least four different agencies or mercenary companies walk the streets with military weapons stopping methodically to pull people from their houses at gunpoint and search them and sometimes their homes. All the while, broad sections of public street and gathering places are under camera surveillance and the government processes that footage and acts on it within hours.

We're not yet in a police state but we can be with a single command. Last week demonstrated that.

It's tough to think clearly when death and destruction hog our minds and when an attack seems so senseless. It's as if logic abandons us and even the attempts by our groping commercial media to attribute these actions to some logical thinking will fail. In the end, we'll probably find that Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev were no more logical in their vision and intent than Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook killer, or Wade Michael Page, the white supremacist who killed six Sikhs at a Wisconsin temple last year.

Yeah, there's always a "reason" but the reason never really tells us "why". That unanswerable "why" on our lips and in our minds unifies us with the world. It's the very same "why" people ask when a drone plane destroys their homes or when soldiers with guns like the ones carried on Boston's streets come into their houses, scream at them in a language they don't understand, violate their culture and then, in some cases, take them away or kill them on the spot.

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In Iraq, there are an estimated 120,000 "why's" that have been screamed and there is no reasonable answer to any of them. What do we tell them? That our government killed their relatives and neighbors and friends because their President, whom they probably hated, had weapons he didn't really have? How "logical" is that response?

Maybe what we need is a world-wide movement asking the question "why?" Maybe one is already forming. Maybe that's why our government responded as it did last week.

As my colleague Dave Lindorff points out, what lingers is that government officials set a precedent by closing a major American city. Boston, as a living center and municipality, was de-activated and this was accompanied by what can only be described as a military mobilization.

People cooperated with this seige probably partly out of a sense of duty and partly out of fear. But the people who declared the lock-down didn't know that would be the response and, based on how they acted, they didn't care. We can all question whether this show of force was actually necessary or even effective -- my answer is "no" to both (and it's instructive that the fleeing suspect was located by a citizen only after the lock-down was lifted) -- but it might be more important to pose our own "why?".

The speed of launch of this coordinated action ordering a million people to stay in their homes means that the plan and personnel were almost certainly already organized and in place. This was a test. And the government now knows it can quickly launch a shut-down and military occupation of a major city without being asked "embarassing questions": Who ordered it? Based on which laws? Was there any discussion about its implementation with someone representing the people of Boston? What are the criteria for completely suspending all our rights?

In the future, as Dave points out, the government will certainly use this tactic again and will probably cite "public safety" as the reason. But when is public safety threatened and who decides that? Is "public safety" threatened by, for example, a general strike or a huge demonstration? As far-fetched as that might seem even today, it's important to remember that public safety was also the reason cited for the simultaneous national actions dismantling the Occupied movement -- a demonstrably and avowedly peaceful protest that posed no threat to anyone.

The history of this country is littered with "expanded use" of repressive tactics. They do it once in a situation people can tolerate or even support and then they start doing it for all kinds of broader reasons, including quashing protest and opposition movements. This was the hallmark of the Bush Administration and the Obama Administration is, if anything, even more aggressively repressive than its predecessor.

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That's the context in which we have to view the issue of "privacy".

Debates are often won in the initial phase when we frame what we're debating and the enemies of constitutionally protected privacy have initially prevailed. They've managed to frame the discussion in such a highly individualized and limited way that arguing against the invasion of privacy can now seem frivolous. So the fact that everyone attending the Boston Marathon probably appears on some video or in some photo is viewed by many as a comforting indication that crime can no longer go un-recorded.

Actually, the democratic ubiquity of videography yields benefits greater than fighting crime; it is an important tool in the protection of our freedom. But the same technology can also be used by people who want to limit that freedom. In that sense, there are two facts worth remembering: one is that the government effectively deputized an entire generation of people, asking for and gathering their video and photos of the Marathon. The second is that the most important video of the two suspects didn't come from anybody's cell phone. It was video from a closed circuit camera. Long after the crowds are gone and their cell phones no longer recording a massive, festive event, those cameras are still watching and recording people's every action. (Makers of surveillance cameras expect to sell $3.2 billion worth of equipment this year.)

Nobody would argue that the government shouldn't ask people's cooperation in solving a crime, particularly one as hideous as this one. The problem is what "crime" will the government seek information about in the future? If it sticks to catching guys who want to blow people up, we're okay. But this is a government that has jailed activists, broken into people's homes, seized computers (including a server belonging to our web hosting service May First/People Link), intercepted email and bullied people into giving up their rights or, failing that, merely stepped all over their rights. We have scores of active cases that wreak of this repressive stench. In fact, the prosecutor in this Marathon case, U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, is the person who was mercilessly bullying Aaron Swartz when he committed suicide.

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Alfredo Lopez is a member of the This Can't Be Happening on-line publication collective where he covers technology and Co-Chair of the Leadership Committee of May First/People Link.

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