of the most significant political developments in recent US history
has been the virtually unchallenged rise of the police state.
Despite the vast expansion of the police powers of the Executive Branch
of government, the extraordinary growth of an entire panoply of repressive
agencies, with hundreds of thousands of personnel, and enormous public
and secret budgets and the vast scope of police state surveillance,
including the acknowledged monitoring of over 40 million US citizens
and residents, no mass pro-democracy movement has emerged to confront
the powers and prerogatives or even protest the investigations of the
the early fifties, when the McCarthyite purges were accompanied by restrictions
on free speech, compulsory loyalty oaths and congressional ‘witch hunt’
investigations of public officials, cultural figures , intellectuals,
academics and trade unionists, such police state measures provoked
widespread public debate and protests and even institutional resistance.
By the end of the 1950’s mass demonstrations were held at the sites
of the public hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee
(HUAC) in San Francisco (1960) and elsewhere and major civil rights
movements arose to challenge the racially segregated South, the compliant
Federal government and the terrorist racist death squads of the Ku Klux
Klan (KKK). The Free Speech Movement in Berkeley (1964) ignited nationwide
mass demonstrations against the authoritarian-style university governance.
police state incubated during the first years of the Cold War was challenged
by mass movements pledged to retain or regain democratic freedoms and
to understanding the rise of mass movements for democratic freedoms
was their fusion with broader social and cultural movements: democratic
freedoms were linked to the struggle for racial equality; free speech
was necessary in order to organize a mass movement against the imperial
US Indo-Chinese wars and widespread racial segregation; the shutting
down of Congressional ‘witch hunts’ and purges opened up the cultural
sphere to new and critical voices and revitalized the trade unions and
professional associations. All were seen as critical to protecting
hard-won workers’ rights and social advances.
the face of mass opposition, many of the overt police state tactics
of the 1950’s went ‘underground’ and were replaced by covert operations;
selective state violence against individuals replaced mass purges.
The popular pro-democracy movements strengthened civil society and public
hearings exposed and weakened the police state apparatus, but it did
not go away. However, from the early 1980’s to the present, especially
over the past 20 years, the police state has expanded dramatically,
penetrating all aspects of civil society while arousing no sustained
or even sporadic mass opposition.
question is why has the police state grown and even exceeded the
boundaries of previous periods of repression and yet not provoked any
sustained mass opposition? This is in contrast to the broad-based pro-democracy
movements of the mid to late 20th century. That a massive and
growing police state apparatus exists is beyond doubt: one simply
has to look up the published records of personnel (both public agents
and private contractors), the huge budgets and scores of agencies involved
in internal spying on tens of millions of American citizens and residents.
The scope and depth of arbitrary police state measures taken include
arbitrary detention and interrogations, entrapment and the blacklisting
of hundreds of thousands of US citizens. Presidential fiats have
established the framework for the assassination of US citizens and residents,
military tribunals, detention camps and the seizure of private property.
as these gross violations of the constitutional order have taken place
and as each police state agency has further eroded our democratic freedoms,
there have been no massive “anti-Homeland Security” movements, no campus
‘Free Speech movements'. There are only the isolated and courageous
voices of specialized ‘civil liberties’ and constitutional freedoms
activists and organizations, which speak out and raise legal challenges
to the abuse, but have virtually no mass base and no objective coverage
in the mass media.
address this issue of mass inactivity before the rise of the police
state, we will approach the topic from two angles.
will describe how the organizers and operatives have structured the
police state and how that has neutralized mass responses.
will then discuss the ‘meaning’ of non-activity, setting out several
hypotheses about the underlying motives and behavior of the ‘passive
mass’ of citizens.
The Concentric Circles of the Police State
the potential reach of the police state agencies covers the entire US
population, in fact, it operates on the basis of ‘concentric circles’.
The police state is perceived and experienced by the US population according
to the degree of their involvement in critical opposition to state policies.
While the police state theoretically affects ‘everyone’, in practice
it operates through a series of concentric circles. The ‘inner core’,
of approximately several million citizens, is the sector of the population
experiencing the brunt of the police state persecution. They include
the most critical, active citizens, especially those identified by the
police state as sharing religious and ethnic identities with declared
foreign enemies, critics or alleged ‘terrorists’. These include
immigrants and citizens of Arab, Persian, Pakistani, Afghan and Somali
descent, as well as American converts to Islam.
and religious “profiling” is rife in all transport centers (airports,
bus and train stations and on the highways). Mosques, Islamic
charities and foundations are under constant surveillance and subject
to raids, entrapment, arrests, and even Israeli-style ‘targeted’ assassinations.
second core group, targeted by the police state, includes African
Americans, Hispanics and immigration rights activists (numbering in
the millions). They are subject to massive arbitrary sweeps, round-ups
and unlimited detention without trial as well as mass indiscriminate
the ‘core groups’ is the ‘inner circle’ which includes millions of US
citizens and residents, who have written or spoken critically of US
and Israeli policy in the Middle East, expressed solidarity with the
suffering of the Palestinian people, opposed US invasions of Iraq and
Afghanistan or have visited countries or regions opposed to US empire
building (Venezuela, Iran, South Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza,
etc.). Hundreds of thousands of these citizens have their telephone,
e-mail and internet communications under surveillance; they have been
targeted in airports, denied passports, subject to ‘visits’ and to covert
and overt blacklisting at their schools and workplaces.
engaged in civil liberties groups, lawyers, and professionals, leftists
engaged in anti-Imperialist, pro-democracy and anti-police state activities
and their publications are on ‘file’ in the massive police state labyrinth
of data collecting on ‘political terrorists’. Environmental movements
and their activists have been treated as potential terrorists with
their own family members subjected to police harassment and ominous
‘outer circle’ includes, community, civic, religious and trade
union leaders and activists who, in the course of their activity interact
with or even express support for core and inner circle critics and victims
of police state violations of due process . The ‘outer circle’ numbering
a few million citizens are ‘on file’ as ‘persons of interest’, which
may involve monitoring their e-mail and periodic ‘checks’ on their petition
signing and defense appeals.
These ‘three circles’ are the central targets of the police state, numbering
upward of 40 million US citizens and immigrants - who have not committed
any crime. For having exercised their constitutional rights, they
have been subjected to various degrees of police state repression and
The police state, however, has ‘fluid boundaries’ about whom to spy
on, whom to arrest and when - depending on whatever arouses the apparatchiks
‘suspicion’ or desire to exercise power or please their superiors at
any given moment.
The key to the police state operations of the US in the 21st century
is to repress pro-democracy citizens and pre-empt any mass movement
without undermining the electoral system, which provides political theater
and legitimacy. A police state ‘boundary’ is constructed to ensure
that citizens will have little option but to vote for the two pro-police
state parties, legislatures and executives without reference to the
conduct, conditions and demands of the core, inner and outer circle
of victims, critics and activists. Frequent raids, harsh public
‘exemplary’ punishment and mass media stigmatization transmit a message
to the passive mass of voters and non-voters that the victims of repression
‘must have been doing something wrong’ or else they would not be under
police state repression.
The key to the police state strategy is to not allow its critics to
gain a mass base, popular legitimacy or public acceptance. The
state and the media constantly drum the message that the activists’
‘causes’ are not our (American, patriotic) ‘causes’; that ‘their’ pro-democracy
activities impede ‘our’ electoral activities; their lives, wisdom and
experiences do not touch our workplaces, neighborhoods, sports, religious
and civic associations. To the degree that the police-state has
‘fenced in’ the inner circles of the pro-democracy activists, they have
attained a free hand and uncontested reach in deepening and extending
the boundaries of the authoritarian state. To the degree that
the police state rationale or presence has penetrated the consciousness
of the mass of the US population, it has created a mighty barrier to
the linking of private discontent with public action.
Hypothesis on Mass Complicity and Acquiescence with the Police State
the police-state is now the dominant reality of US political life, why
isn’t it at the center of citizen concern? Why are there no pro-democracy
popular movements? How has the police state been so successful
in ‘fencing off’ the activists from the vast majority of US citizens?
After all, other countries at other times have faced even more repressive
regimes and yet the citizens rebelled. In the past, despite the
so-called ‘Soviet threat’, pro-democracy movements emerged in the US
and even rolled back a burgeoning police state. Why does the evocation
of an outside ‘Islamic terrorist threat’ seem to incapacitate our citizens
today? Or does it?
is no simple, single explanation for the passivity of the US citizens
faced with a rising omnipotent police state. Their motives are
complex and changing and it is best to examine them in some detail.
explanation for passivity is that precisely the power and pervasiveness
of the police state has created deep fear, especially among people with
family obligations, vulnerable employment and with moderate commitments
to democratic freedoms. This group of citizens is aware of cases
where police powers have affected other citizens who were involved in
critical activities, causing job loss and broad suffering and are not
willing to sacrifice their security and the welfare of their families
for what they believe is a ‘losing cause’ a movement lacking a strong
popular base and with little institutional support. Only when
the protest against the Wall Street bailout and the ‘Occupy Wall Street’
movements against the ‘1%’ gained momentum, did this sector express
transitory support. But as the Office of the President consummated
the bailout and the police-state crushed the ‘Occupy’ encampments, fear
and caution led many sympathizers to withdraw timidly back into passivity.
second motive for ‘acquiescence’ among a substantial public is because
they tend to support the police state, based on their acceptance of
the anti-terror ideology and its virulent anti-Muslim-anti-Arab racism,
driven in large part by influential sectors of pro-Israel opinion makers.
The fear and loathing of Muslims, cultivated by the police state and
mass media, was central to the post-9/11 build-up of Homeland Security
and the serial wars against Israel’s adversaries, including Iraq, Lebanon,
Libya and now Syria with plans for Iran.
support for the police state peaked during the first 5 years post- 9/11
and subsequently ebbed as the Wall Street-induced economic crisis, loss
of employment and the failures of government policy propelled concerns
about the economy far ahead of support for the police state. Nevertheless,
at least one-third of the electorate still supports the police state,
‘right or wrong’. They firmly believe that the police state protects
their ‘security’; that suspects, arrestees, and others under watch ‘must
have been doing something illegal’. The most ardent backers of
the police state are found among the rabid anti-immigrant groups who
support arbitrary round-ups, mass deportations and the expansion of
police powers at the expense of constitutional guarantees.
third possible motive for acquiescence in the police state is ignorance:
those millions of US citizens who are not aware of the size, scope and
activities of the police state. Their practical behavior speaks
to the notion that ‘since I am not directly affected it must not exist’.
Embedded in everyday life, making a living, enjoying leisure time,
entertainment, sports, family, neighborhoods and concerned only about
household budgets … This mass is so embedded in their personal ‘micro-world’
that it considers the macro-economic and political issues raised by
the police state as ‘distant’, outside of their experience or interest:
‘I don’t have time’, ‘I don’t know enough’, ‘It’s all ‘politics’ … The
widespread apoliticism of the US public plays into its ignoring the
monster that has grown in its midst.
as some peoples’ concerns and passive discontent over the economy has
grown, it has lessened support for the police state as well as having
lessened opposition to it. In other words the police state flourishes
while public discontent is focused more on the economic institutions
of the state and society. Few, if any, contemporary political
leaders educate their constituency by connecting the rise of the police
state, imperial wars and Wall Street to the everyday economic issues
concerning most US citizens. The fragmentation of issues, the
separation of the economic from the political and the divorce of political
concerns from individual ones, allow the police state to stand ‘above
and outside’ of the popular consciousness , concerns and activities.
fear mongering on behalf of the police state is amplified and popularized
by the mass media on a daily basis via propagandistic-‘news’, ‘anti-terrorist’
detective programs, Hollywood’s decades of crass anti-Arab, Islamophobic
films. The mass media portrayal of the police state’s naked violations
of democratic rights as normal and necessary in a milieu infiltrated
by ‘Muslim terrorists’, where feckless ‘liberals’(defenders of due process
and the Bill of Rights) threaten national security, has been effective.
the police state depends on identifying the expansion of police powers
with ‘national security’ of the passive ‘silent’ majority, even as it
creates profound insecurity for an active, critical minority.
The self-serving identification of the ‘nation’ and the ‘flag’ with
the police state apparatus is especially prominent during ‘mass spectacles’
where ‘rock’, schlock and ‘sports’ infuse mass entertainment with
solemn Pledges of Allegiance to uphold and respect the police
state and busty be-wigged young women wail nasally versions of the national
anthem to thunderous applause. Wounded ‘warriors’ are trotted out and
soldiers rigid in their dress uniforms salute enormous flags, while
the message transmitted is that police state at home works hand
in hand with our ‘men and women in uniform’ abroad. The police
state is presented as a patriotic extension of the wars abroad and as
such both impose ‘necessary’ constraints on citizen opposition, public
criticism and any real forthright defense of freedom.
Conclusion: What is to be done?
ascendancy of the police state has benefited enormously from the phony
bi-partisan de-politicization of repressive legislation, and the fragmentation
of socio-economic struggles from democratic dissent. The mass anti-war
movements of the early 1990’s and 2001-2003 were undermined (sold-out)
by the defection of its leaders to the Democratic Party machine and
its electoral agenda. The massive popular immigration movement
was taken over by Mexican-American political opportunists from the Democratic
Party and decimated while the same Democratic Party, under President
Barack Obama, has escalated police state repression against immigrants,
expelling millions of Latino immigrant workers and their families.
experience teaches us that a successful struggle against an emerging
police state depends on the linking of the socio-economic struggles
that engage the attention of the masses of citizens with the pro-democracy,
pro-civil liberty, ‘free speech’ movements of the middle classes. The
deepening economic crisis, the savage cuts in living standards and working
conditions and the fight to save ‘sacred’ social programs (like Social
Security and Medicare) have to be tied in with the expansion of the
social justice movement, which brings together thousands of anti-Wall
Streeters, millions of pro-Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid recipients
with hundreds of thousands of immigrant workers will inevitably clash
with the bloated police-state apparatus. Freedom is essential
to the struggle for social justice and the mass struggle for social
justice is the only basis for rolling back the police state. The
hope is that mass economic pain will ignite mass activity, which, in
turn, will make people aware of the dangerous growth of the police state.
A mass understanding of this link will be essential to any advance in
the movement for democracy and people’s welfare at home and peace abroad.
Likud, Kadima, Labor, or new centrist party leadership hardly matters.
Israel remains hardline, belligerent, and repressive. Arab citizens
have no rights.
They and most Jews chafe under neoliberal harshness. Instead of improving
conditions, they're worsening.
Malcolm X once said "I see America through the eyes of the victim. I
don't see any American dream - I see an American nightmare."
Israelis face similar harshness. Remaining rights are eroding en route
to being lost altogether. Populist change demands sustained public rage.
Nothing else can work.
Stephen Lendman lives in Chicago and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
His new book is titled "How Wall Street Fleeces America: Privatized
Banking, Government Collusion and Class War"
Visit his blog site at sjlendman.blogspot.com and listen to cutting-edge
discussions with distinguished guests on the Progressive Radio News
Hour on the Progressive Radio Network Thursdays at 10AM US Central time
and Saturdays and Sundays at noon. All programs are archived for easy