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COLUMN

A Dangerously Slippery Slope

Ken Nesmith

Back in the days of single-digit ages, in randomly grabbing books from the shelves of a small library, I came upon a few panicky writings detailing alien abductions and cover-ups thereof. From there, I read a bit of propaganda about the evils of Russia (not that the U.S.S.R. wasn’t evil and all, but this was certainly propaganda), and a few things about the United Nations and their plans to take over the world with bar codes on stop signs, or something along those lines.

It was about this time that my fear of the dark peaked. I was incredibly anxious about the potential evils and predators that lurked just beyond my short sight in the inky blackness. Of course, this fear eventually dissolved to a comfort with and even desire for the peace of darkness, but even long before then I moved away from the conspiracy tales. Only a week ago, however, walking in the perfect blackness of the Vermont woods on one eerily cool summer night, I remembered how it feels to be afraid of the dark, after some animal scurried across the road in front of me and enough trees and bushes rustled mysteriously and invisibly. (Walking in those woods, it’s easy to understand some of Stephen King’s inspiration.) I thought it was fitting that just as I briefly rekindled my fear of darkness, totalitarian conspiracies began to materialize once again.

Since the days of those cheaply printed books, I have never given much heed to conspiracy theorists. Speak we of aliens, assassinations, plans for world domination, or any other common treading ground of the paranoid and imaginative, the mystery and magic of the faceless evil forces plotting to hide truth and horde power never again managed to sweep me into their dramatic clutches. Theories about our own government seemed the most absurd.

It was an odd feeling, then, to wake up one day and realize that we are slipping very rapidly down a slippery slope with a quite unpleasant reality at the bottom. We have cameras at our intersections snapping pictures of license plates should a red light be run. Cameras in public places employ face recognition technology to identify citizens and help to keep tabs on things, i.e. observe every move. The Washington D.C. Metro transport services feature posters that brag of anonymous, plainclothes agents who ride alongside regular customers to watch out for bad deeds. Employees of the new Homeland Security Department, if created as Bush would like, will not be protected by the whistle-blower act, rendering them less able to report on government evils.

We’re detaining Middle-Easterners left and right for no good reason, and reports of their severe abuse in prison surface occasionally; violations of their rights to see a lawyer and so forth are standard operating practice at this point. Every once in a while, we ship a load of them back to the homeland if their presence is not convenient -- witness most recently a Washington Post story detailing a plane full of Pakistanis, some convicted criminals, some everyday citizens, uprooted from their lives here and tossed back to Pakistan.

On July 1, U.S. forces mistakenly bombed a wedding ceremony in Afghanistan. Much more disturbing than this mistake are indications that evidence of antiaircraft fire that might have lent the most minimal justification for the attack was fabricated, and that after the bombing, special forces were dispatched to clean the area, remove shrapnel and bullets, wipe up some blood, and bind the hands of women at the site. Plans are in development to give soldiers the power to arrest citizens at will. For the final blow, John Ashcroft is prepared to enlist a civil army of casual spies to watch us in our homes and keep us in line. Publicly warning vocal dissenters to silence themselves lest they give aid and comfort to the enemy was clearly not enough.

Do these developments, considered in sum, not astound everyone? We have a government unjustly imprisoning our citizens, monitoring us in public, spying on us in our homes, covering up bombings and tying up women in the way. Some respond that all of this is justifiable -- in order to preserve our rights to freedom, justice, wealth, etc., it is occasionally necessary to curtail them a bit, as did Abe Lincoln during the civil war. Furthermore, if we’re not committing any crimes, it is inquired, what have we to fear?

Invocations of Big Brother, evil communist Russia, secret police, and any number of other appropriate images are too easy and simply invite dismissive accusations of paranoia, so I’ll avoid them. If we accept the justifications noted, though, I simply do not understand why we should not just slide but leap further down this slippery slope.

The summer movie Minority Report details a society in which the eyes, unique to each person, are scanned at every turn to keep track of people and, of course, grab wanted criminals. As it is portrayed, this represents a fairly pervasive, efficient, and comprehensive monitoring system. It’s quite disturbing. But what should stop us from embracing it? It’s not too far removed from what we have now, and any law-abiding citizen shouldn’t be bothered in the least by a brief, convenient scan of the eyes. What would be the problem with the most pervasive monitoring system imaginable? Once again, those with nothing to hide should have nothing to fear. Why should law enforcement agents have to deal with the a cumbersome warrant process when they need to make a simple search? These questions, sadly, are not rhetorical in the least. I don’t understand why those who promote the development of the invasions of privacy we’re seeing now would have any problem with the monitoring of thought itself, if it was possible. They seem to place no value on the sacredness of privacy when some risk to the national interest is perceived.

This administration, led by individuals suspected of business abuses of the type that have ravaged the markets, having lost any remnant of coherence by abandoning free trade principles at huge human cost, and discriminately pursuing a war on terror with our friends Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Egypt, is foolhardily tossing aside sacred notions of and rights to privacy. This is not the way to protect our society, and no one can honestly pretend that it is -- the most concise and devastating objection to that idea lies in the huge budgetary cuts to weapons buyback programs, whereby Russian nuclear weapons are purchased for safekeeping so that they’re not obtainable by terrorists for use on us. Times are tight, of course, and spending cuts have to be made somewhere.

Meanwhile, that pricey tax cut is having a bit of trouble working its economic magic. I imagine that even the wealthiest one percent would prefer the safety of having Russia’s arsenal secured to their Bush-sponsored windfall.

Our safety is clearly not best protected by the policies of this administration. According to the principles they and their defenders have set forth, thought-monitoring appears perfectly justifiable. Some are perfectly content with sliding down the slope like this. I find it frightening.