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Government Surveillance and Selective Outrage

Since the NSA spying story broke last week, I’ve been thinking a lot about this Martin Niemöller saying:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.

Unless you live under a rock, you’ve heard about the NSA collecting phone records and tapping into the central servers of nine internet giants to extract massive amounts of data on Americans.

We know this thanks to the courageous efforts of whistleblower Edward Snowden, Guardian reporters Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill and documentary filmaker Laura Poitras, who deserve our support for shedding light on what can only be described as  unprecedented government spying.

Still, there is a part of me that resents the magnitude of outrage this story has elicited, not because the anger isn’t appropriate but because it was completely missing when the targets of government surveillance were thought to be isolated to certain communities: Muslims and protesters.

For example, there was very little concern about the NYPD’s decade-long secret spying operation on American Muslim communities, which was brought to light in a series of investigative articles by the Associated Press in 2011. The Atlantic‘s Conor Friedersdorf  summarizes:

Starting shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks, officers infiltrated Muslim communities and spied on hundreds or perhaps thousands of totally innocent Americans at mosques, colleges, and elsewhere. These officers “put American citizens under surveillance and scrutinized where they ate, prayed and worked, not because of charges of wrongdoing but because of their ethnicity,” the news agency reported, citing NYPD documents. Informants were paid to bait Muslims into making inflammatory statements. The NYPD even conducted surveillance on Muslim Americans outside its jurisdiction, drawing a rebuke from an FBI field office, where a top official charged that “the department’s surveillance of Muslims in the state has hindered investigations and created ‘additional risks’ in counterterrorism.”

Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo—the investigative reporters who broke the story and have since won a Pulitzer for their work and published a book on the subject— found that, “In more than six years of spying on Muslim neighborhoods, eavesdropping on conversations and cataloguing mosques, the New York Police Department’s secret Demographics Unit never generated a lead or triggered a terrorism investigation.” The program’s devastating impact on Muslim communities can be seen here.

Yet no one seemed to care aside from the impacted communities and staunch civil liberties advocates, probably because the targets were Muslim, a group that has been so otherized  since 9/11 that Americans have no qualm with their government spying on, indefinitely detaining, entrapping or extrajudicially assassinating Muslims all in the name of “national security”.

This same indifference was on display when it was revealed that the San Francisco branch of the FBI was using “community outreach” programs to spy on Muslim communities across Northern California, meticulously documenting and disseminating their First-Ammendment protected activities to other intelligence organizations.

Those involved in Occupy Wall Street (OWS) should be able to relate after learning that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and FBI teamed up with local police departments and big banks to monitor and crush the various branches of Occupy encampments that had popped up around the country.

Government surveillance of this magnitude harkens back to COINTELPRO in the 1950s and 60s, when the FBI illegally surveilled and infiltrated groups involved in political dissent, particularly black leaders and organizations in the civil rights movement, in an effort to discredit and disrupt their activities. COINTELPRO hasn’t disappeared, it’s simply evolved with the times and encompasses more than just the FBI.

My point is that the NSA spying programs (that we know about) weren’t created in a vacuum. American citizens collectively allowed the government to claim sweeping surveillance powers out of fear provoked/exploited by 9/11 with the assumption that Muslims, both foreign and American, would remain the target. But that’s not how things work as demonstrated by these latest revelations. Now, we’re all being spied on, Muslims and non-muslims, activists and non-activists.

So, for those of you who approve of such tactics because of a false belief that you’ll never be the target, let the NSA’s PRISM program be a lesson to you about the importance of speaking out when marginalized communities are subject to government abuse, a piece of advice that extends far beyond the realm of spying (i.e. indefinite detention, due-process free executions). Otherwise, you’ll find yourself saying something along the lines of:

First they came for the Muslims, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Muslim.

Then they came for the activists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not an activist.

Then they came for the journalists and whistleblowers, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a journalist or a whistleblower.

Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.

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  1. Powerful post and dead on. Once civil liberties are denied for one group they can be denied for everyone. Sticking up for minority groups isn’t an act of altruism –it’s self-interest.

    In fact, most Democrats aren’t outraged at all. In a recent Gallup poll on whether one approved or disapproved of the government surveillance program, Democrats responded as follows:
    Approve: 49%
    Disapprove: 40%
    No opinion: 11%


    If we had Republican president the figures would probably be reversed. So now the far left is aligned with the likes of Rand Paul and Glenn Beck on this issue. It’s messed up.

    June 13, 2013
  2. I completely agree with this stance. I guess I fit into the activist section, and I have been screaming this for years. I keep hoping that the blood lust of 9/11 will wear off so more of us will see this spying for what it is. I am baffled by the passivity of Americans. I use the philosophy that if I am going to be stripped of my privacy, I might as well give them something to listen to. I’m glad to know that I am not alone. Keep it up!

    June 13, 2013
  3. This is a good reminder. Thanks.

    June 14, 2013
  4. mayiyyaa #

    Reblogged this on Everything is Illuminated.

    June 14, 2013

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