A C-Net news item, with the ominous title of "FBI digs deeper into the Web," details how the feds will be tracing the digital trails people leave as they surf the internet, and reports the outrage of civil libertarians. The new guidelines giving the Justice Department the formal authority to monitor the online activities of Americans will provide "stunning insight into their beliefs and habits." Blackmail, provocations, the political uses of leaking a certain politician’s online "habits" these are the least objectionable possibilities that come to mind.
This latest power grab, if it is not repulsed, will Sovietize American life. "I hate to be in a position of telling people ‘don’t go online and speak’ or ‘watch what you say,’" says Jim Dempsey, deputy director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, "but you have to take from this that on an arbitrary basis, the FBI is going to be tagging people as terrorists based on what they say online."
JUST LIKE IN THE MOVIES
Reading that brought to mind a movie I just happened to have watched over the weekend: the film version of Ayn Rand’s We the Living, a 1943 Italian production of Rand’s first novel, starring Alida Valli and Rossano Brazzi. We the Living tells the story of Kira Argounova, an 18-year-old aspiring engineer in Soviet Petrograd whose love for the aristocratic Leo sets her in a life-and-death struggle with the Soviet regime. The story, set in the early 1920s, when the Soviets are still consolidating their rule, is truly brought to life by Ms. Valli, who suffuses the role of Kira with an almost supernatural quality, as if the character created by Rand had leapt right off the pages of the novel.
One of the opening scenes take place at the Technological Institute, where Kira is enrolled, at a student meeting which shows the struggle of the "red" students against the openly anti-communist Cadets. Kira is sitting with the Cadets, talking with a friend, who warns her to be careful of what she says: "Their spies are everywhere." The Communist students harangue them from the platform, roaring their intention to create a "proletarian university," one that serves the purposes of the new Soviet order.
The meeting ends with the singing of the Communist anthem, the "Internationale." In the novel, Rand describes the scene as follows:
"Everyone had to rise when the ‘Internationale’ was played.
"Kira stood smiling at the music. ‘This is the first beautiful thing I’ve noticed about the revolution,’ she said to her neighbor.
"’Be careful,’ the freckled girl whispered, glancing around nervously, ‘someone will hear you.’
"When all this is over,’ said Kira, ‘when the traces of their republic are disinfected from history what a glorious funeral march this will make!’
"’You little fool! What are you talking about?’
"A man’s hand grasped Kira’s wrist and wheeled her around.
"She stared up into two gray eyes that looked like the eyes of a tamed tiger; but she was not quite sure whether it was tamed or not."
As this sinister looking thug stares at her coldly, like a snake that’s spied its dinner, Kira faces him down with perfect Randian disdain, demanding to know "How much are you paid for snooping around?" He threatens her, and she laughs in his face: "Our stairs are slippery, and there are four floors to climb, so be careful when you come to arrest me."
"Are you exceedingly brave," the Commie Snake-in-the-grass wants to know, "or just stupid?"
"I’ll let you find that out," says Kira.
LIFE OUTSIDE THE MOVIE THEATER
Every time I see this scene in the film, I am moved to applaud but in the (sur)real life movie of post-9/11 America, I don’t expect to be moved to do that very often. Not everyone is as brave as Kira. Indeed, hardly anyone is, and so we have no right to expect that the Sovietization of America will produce many like her. Most will be cowed by the new regulations, content to look over their shoulders in silent resentment, hoping to be protected by their own insignificance. Some will resist, but these will be drowned out by opportunists and the court intellectuals — even a few tame "libertarians," who would gladly sell the last remnants of their integrity for an invitation to a White House dinner.
OUR OLD FRIEND
Reading further on in the C-Net piece, past the horrified objections of the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Library Association, and Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., we come, finally, to Ashcroft’s chief apologist, the main defender of this draconian legislation none other than our old friend, Roger Pilon, of the Cato Institute, who has the gall to couch his apologia in the rhetoric of "limited" government. "The first business of government is to protect its citizens from the kind of threats we saw on Sept. 11," he avers as if spying on American citizens, infiltrating political meetings, and trailing me as I surf the internet would’ve somehow prevented 9/11.
But the problem, as we have seen in the recent revelations, isn’t that the authorities failed to collect enough information but that they failed to act on the information they already had. The point, however, is not to protect us from terrorists, but to establish a legal and political precedent:
"’Nothing in these new guidelines in any way is in violation of constitutional protections. There’s nothing illegal about compiling a dossier.’ Pilon compares the FBI’s plan for more patrolling of public Web spaces to a beat cop walking the neighborhood. ‘It has been objected that this will allow agents to monitor perfectly legal behavior — that’s true,’ he said. ‘The cop working the beat observes legal behavior. The reason for walking the beat is to engage in a more proactive effort to prevent crime.’"
To begin with, the Constitution nowhere authorizes the federal government to maintain "dossiers" on American citizens, and therefore it is forbidden. Furthermore, even if we don’t adhere to this strict constructionist theory of the Constitution, the alleged "right" of government to spy on a "public" meeting is prohibited by the First Amendment, which specifically forbids "abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble." But surely monitoring those peaceable assemblies, compiling dossiers on the attendees, and implicitly threatening them with legal consequences, represents a major abridgement of these rights guaranteed by the Constitution. In addition, the blanket surveillance non-guidelines issued by Ashcroft are a grievous violation of the Fourth Amendment, which guarantees "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." The post-9/11 powers seized by the feds throw out the need for "probable cause," in the language of the Amendment, and override the need for specificity:
"[N]o Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."
A movement to grant to the federal government the power to spy on American citizens, at any time and place, for any or no particular reason, violates the letter and the spirit of the Constitution. It represents nothing less than an attempt to overthrow the rule of law, and replace it with the edicts of nameless, faceless bureaucrats and spies. It is the regime of Commie-snakes-in-the-grass, of the sinister thug who asked Kira:
"Are you exceedingly brave or just stupid?"
Perhaps bravery is too much to expect, these days, but the Cato crowd doesn’t even have the decency to keep quiet about their cowardice. Oh, no, they have to advertise it by becoming the most obsequious apologists for the new anti-constitutional order. It’s disgusting, frankly, to have to "refute" such non-arguments as the comparison of Ashcroft’s spies, monitoring our digital trails, to a cop on the beat. For this is no ordinary American policeman who wouldn’t come barging into anyone’s home willy nilly but a Soviet version of the cop on the beat.
To evoke the benevolent image of the beat cop in the service of an openly totalitarian scheme to spy on the American people really is a new low for the War Party: it would be hysterically funny if it wasn’t so damned serious. For if online activities are within the legitimate purview of the authorities, then why shouldn’t the Thought Police on the beat be monitoring all means of communication, including the books we read, the periodicals we subscribe to, the conversations we have in the street? Where will this end?
I’ll tell you where: with the overthrow of our old Republic. If this bloodless coup succeeds, the republican forms will remain: the Constitution will be preserved under glass, the crumbling curio of a bygone era, but the imperial power of the Presidency, and the independent power of the bureaucracy, will have usurped the old constitutional order. A republic in form: an Empire in all but name. That is how the American experiment will end: the American Revolution, once an inspiration to free men the world over, will have been betrayed and reversed.
FOR THE RECORD
Let it be recorded: when the final assault on our old Republic was launched, some stood by their posts, defending the heritage of the Founders until the last man went down fighting while others gave the enemy the keys to the fortress, in hopes of currying favor with the regime. As to what the reward for their treason will be, we can only imagine. Maybe Dubya will create a new position in the "Homeland Security" apparatus, the post of Chief Apologist, and give it to Pilon, or perhaps Ed Crane himself. Just think of the intellectual challenge: how to come up with a "libertarian" rationale for an all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful State. Pilon has already shown himself up to the task by arguing from a "minimal statist" position, dressing up a demand for a fantastically intrusive State as if it were "the first business of government." Yeah, right the first business of a totalitarian government, the sort of government that never has fully sprouted on American soil until now.
It’s weird how hypocrisy can be almost comical. The Cato Institute honored Ayn Rand a couple of years ago at a special event celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the publication of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged: "Atlas and the World." Now they side with Kira’s interlocutor, and lead the charge for a Soviet America.