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The Rise of the Police State and the Absence of Mass Opposition
One 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 police state.
In 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.
The police state incubated during the first years of the Cold War was challenged by mass movements pledged to retain or regain democratic freedoms and civil rights.
Key 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.
In 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.
The 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.
Yet 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.
To address this issue of mass inactivity before the rise of the police state, we will approach the topic from two angles.
We will describe how the organizers and operatives have structured the police state and how that has neutralized mass responses.
We 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
While 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.
Ethnic 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.