The Language of Tyrants

If there was ever any doubt that the formerly "Great" Britain of today has devolved into a stinkhole of authoritarianism – a proposition I advanced in a recent column – it has been dispelled by the news that the British authorities justified the detainment of David Miranda by claiming that, in transporting materials released by Edward Snowden through Heathrow airport, he was engaged in a "terrorist" act.

Miranda, the partner of journalist Glenn Greenwald – who broke the story of the Snowden revelations – was passing through Heathrow on his way back to Brazil, where the two of them currently reside. Police detained him, seized his electronics, and held him for nine hours – the maximum allowed without charging him. He was then released and sent on his way, minus his belongings. Upon his return to Rio De Janeiro, Miranda filed a lawsuit demanding the return of materials seized and judicial review of the government’s actions. In a court hearing on the suit last week, according to Reuters, "a document called a ‘Ports Circulation Sheet’ was read into the record. It was prepared by Scotland Yard – in consultation with the MI5 counterintelligence agency – and circulated to British border posts before Miranda’s arrival." The document said:

"Intelligence indicates that Miranda is likely to be involved in espionage activity which has the potential to act against the interests of UK national security. We assess that Miranda is knowingly carrying material the release of which would endanger people’s lives. …Additionally the disclosure, or threat of disclosure, is designed to influence a government and is made for the purpose of promoting a political or ideological cause. This therefore falls within the definition of terrorism…"

Notice how the Official Definition of "terrorism" has been altered: it used to be that violence engaged in for the purpose of promoting a political or ideological cause was – properly – deemed terrorism. Now "terrorism" has magically morphed into journalism – or, in Miranda’s case, facilitating journalism – in pursuit of a cause that exposes government abuses. Snowden’s exposure of the US/British effort to violate the privacy of everyone on earth strikes terror in the hearts of government officials on both sides of the Atlantic – ergo, it’s "terrorism." As George Orwell put it in his classic "Politics and the English Language":

"In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness."

The "Ports Circulation Sheet" which alerted airport officials to Miranda’s presence is a projection of the language tired hacks in the UK and America are using in the debate over the NSA’s surveillance and the function of journalism in a free society: Snowden, in the words of hacks Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Mike Rogers, is a "traitor," and the journalists who assisted him are asked, as David Gregory demanded of Greenwald, "Why shouldn’t you be charged with a crime?" Apologists for the Surveillance State engage in all kinds of verbal somersaults in order to justify this massive invasion of privacy, hiding the true meaning of what they’re advocating in a word-cloud of ready-made phrases, but in the "Ports Circulation Sheet" the brutal brevity of bureaucratese reduces the usual hogwash to its essential meaning: the stark accusation that Miranda is a "terrorist" – "terrorism" being the all-purpose word now being utilized to define practically anything politicians don’t like.

Orwell warned that after years of living under a dictatorship language itself becomes corrupted – and nothing dramatizes this more vividly than the language of the "Ports Circulation Sheet," which one should read as an obituary for British liberties.

Here in America, where we have a written Constitution that protects the rights of journalists, the new authoritarians can’t afford to be quite as forthcoming, at least not yet, but they are getting there. The legal "theory" invoked by the Obama regime in pursuit of New York Times reporter James Risen, not to mention seizing the phone records of Fox News reporter James Rosen and those of dozens of Associated Press reporters covering the White House, is a such a broad interpretation of the Espionage Act that it could cover any reporting that government officials find displeasing on "national security" grounds, however tenuous. That this is being done by an administration whose Dear Leader campaigned for office on a platform of governmental "transparency" adds an extra Orwellian touch to an increasingly grim scenario.

There is a campaign afoot in this country to equate journalism – the real thing, that is, not the bootlicking regularly engaged in by practitioners of the David Gregory school – with espionage. In an authoritarian state, to be sure, everything to do with the internal machinations of the government is a State Secret. And if one lives in a country rapidly falling into some form of authoritarianism, the degeneration of the language ensures it’s but a short jump from espionage to "terrorism": after all, they’re both crimes regularly engaged in by "traitors." Right?

What happened to Miranda – and is happening in this country to journalists – is the beginning of an effort to normalize that kind of thinking. This is readily apparent when one looks at the NSA’s "talking points" in defense of the indefensible: the 9/11 terrorist attacks are referred to over thirty times. Under the heading "Sounds Bites That Resonate," NSA apologists are urged to say: "I much prefer to be here today explaining these programs, than explaining another 9/11 event that we were not able to prevent." Another gem:

"Every tool is essential and vital. These have been valuable to stopping some of those plots. You ask, how can you put the value on an American life. And I can tell you, it’s priceless."

Every tool – even if it involves systematically violating the rights of all Americans – is "essential and vital." And if you don’t believe us, you’re going to die.

What’s "priceless" is the chutzpah it takes to make such a statement with a straight face. Aside from the fact that the alleged "terrorist plots" unveiled by NSA snoopers have been shown to be nonexistent, even if it were true that all-pervasive surveillance had enabled the authorities to nip real terrorist plots in the bud it still wouldn’t justify invading the privacy of everyone on God’s green earth. To take this point further: if only we could round up all the Muslims and put them in concentration camps – or, better yet, kill them all – then Al Qaeda’s terrorist campaign would be effectively neutralized. Well, yes, perhaps that’s true – but is that an alternative anyone wants to even consider?

Yet logic, reason, or indeed any kind of thinking has nothing to do with the cerebral activity taking place within the brains of our political leaders and their journalistic camarilla. I can’t do any better than Orwell in describing the epistemological degeneration of this crowd:

"When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases – bestial atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder – one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity."

The reduced state of consciousness the Dianne Feinsteins and David Camerons of this world seek to impose on us is regularly reinforced by the "mainstream" media, which frames the issues in terms set by the reductionists – and vigorously polices the national discourse to make sure no one steps out of line. An institution that is supposed to have an adversarial relationship with government has become, instead, the regime’s Praetorian Guards, ever ready to move in for the kill at the command of their masters – and sources – in Washington and London.

Thus we have David Gregory calling for Greenwald’s arrest, Alan Sorkin of CNBC saying he’d "almost arrest" him, and MSNBC’s professional Obama-worshipper Melissa Harris-Perry pontificating on why Edward Snowden should allow himself to be imprisoned while noting "how much of a jerk Glenn Greenwald is." To top it off, here’s Bill Keller claiming that the New York Times sitting on the NSA eavesdropping story (under the Bush administration) for a year is an example of their pristine "impartiality." And then there’s this fool.

In Britain, the media and the political class is silent – when they aren’t demanding the Guardian’s head.

The authoritarians who have seized the reins of power in Washington and London are increasingly brazen in their methods. While they haven’t come right out and said they mean to extinguish press freedom, and set up a police state, their agenda is implicit in their actions and public statements – and frighteningly explicit in the rhetoric of their supporters in the Fourth Estate. In order to bring this about, however, and overcome whatever atavistic attachments to liberty still remain, they must establish the right mental atmosphere, one that discourages independent thought and promotes fealty to government as the norm. Language plays an important role in establishing this atmosphere, as Orwell pointed out, and, with that in mind, the Regimists are energetically deploying the lexicon of tyrants.

In these dark times, the Snowdens, the Greenwalds, the Mirandas, as well as independent journalists such as Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill – who are working with Greenwald in a new journalistic venture designed to reestablish the adversarial role of the press – are our only hope. The authoritarians know this all too well and will do everything in their power to destroy them: which means that the first task of libertarians and all people of good will is to defend them with all our might.


You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.

I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).

You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].