As we’ve been told since 9/11, the government needs certain special powers in order to keep us safe from terrorism. The PATRIOT Act, FISA Courts, telecom immunity, the NSA looking at your naked pictures – all of this is made or enhanced in the name of fighting the type of monsters who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks. Certainly the Fourth Amendment can be weakened in the name of that most noble of goals.
And man, has it! But as I have previously mentioned in this space, the convenient thing for the security state fanatics is that so much of the anti-terrorism work has been done for them already in the name of another cause all together. Frequently, that would be the war on drugs.
Earlier this month, the Administrative Office of the US Courts released their report on 2013 state and federal wiretaps. A great deal of ventures were excluded from the report, most prominently ones which go through the FISA Court. So, this isn’t a terrorism report. But at the same time, it confirms the fact that government powers – assuming they were well used, effective, reasonable, moral, etc., etc. until the end of time – are not for worst case scenarios. They are not for would-be murderers or terrorists. They are for the current panic of the moment. And the panic that has had legs for decades is the one over narcotics. Eighty-seven percent of the 3,115 wiretaps that took place last year were over drugs. Homicide came in at number three at "less than 4 percent of applications."
This is not new. And it’s not isolated to law enforcement unrelated to terrorism. PATRIOT made so-called "sneak and peek" warrants easier. What does the government use the power to paw through your belongings without informing you for? Narcotics investigations, again. Between 2006 and 2009, that was the catalyst for 1600 uses (to be fair, there were 15 terror investigations in that time, which probably saved trillions of lives).
Since the war on drugs was officially declared by Nixon, then militarized by Reagan, there have been shockingly literal versions of its name put into practice both here and abroad. There are truly too many examples to mention. The black helicopter, U-2 spy planes, dystopian nightmare that was California’s ‘80s CAMP raids, put together to take out Humboldt County’s massive weed growing enterprises, defy description. (And defy any attempt to argue that the war was not really a war.) And the normalization of daily US police raids which violate the sanctity of the home mostly over reports of a substance should be fought against. Yet, it’s hard not to become cynical after news of yet another SWAT action, yet another reckless police discharge of a firearm, and yet another dead dog.
The Fourth Amendment was on life support even before the PATRIOT Act and mass NSA spying. And that’s where the national security hawks get truly cynical, and conveniently right about everything. If the war on drugs – which can be blamed on both parties, perhaps a little more on Republicans – was worth the violation of myriad rights, how could stopping terrorism not be worth even more freedom-for-security? This is for stopping another 9/11! Sure, we’ll grant you that maybe we went crazy over stopping pot, but this is peoples’ LIVES!
When the pesky constitutional brush was already cleared by a lesser enemy, how can we hope to make it grow again when security state aficionados can just point to the big bad, terrorist-filled world and say it’s not safe?
The NSA swear it’s essential for American safety, but they are wiretapping entire countries, including the terrorism-free Bahamas. They write on their documents that the war on drugs "has all the risks, excitement, and dangers of conventional warfare, and the stakes are equally high." If everything is the same as war, why complain about war? Everything short of a boots on the ground invasion of a country has already been done in the name of the war on drugs. So what’s a little metadata, anyway?
And what rights the war on drugs starts to unscrew, the war on terror loosens even more, and then once you have that sneak and peek power thanks to PATRIOT, well, might as well use it in drug investigations since they are more common than terrorism ones. The state always wins this way. It’s brilliant.
There are politicians who might be willing to dial down the war on drugs, Sen. Rand Paul being one such example with his sentencing reform efforts. There are politicians like Sen. Mark Udall and Rep. Justin Amash who have admirably gone after the NSA. All of this is good, but none of it is enough. Mission creep is the nature of the state. The war on terror has caused hundreds of thousands of deaths. It has given us a spying dragnet that extends God only knows how far. But back when most people assumed that plane hijackers intended to live through the experience, the war on drugs was killing, kidnapping, and destroying individual rights, and almost nobody gave a damn.
It’s not about the dangers of one agency, department, or endless abstraction of a cause so much as it’s about the fact that there is so much fine print on our rights. The rights of Palestinians, Iraqis, drug users, immigrants, gun owners, suspicious lefties, and crazy right-wingers, and other lesser people are subject to the "your life doesn’t matter as much" clause the state may put into effect at any time. The war on terror has confirmed what the war on drugs already showed us – we need to refuse to fight the next abstract, endless campaign against some elusive bad. (Next up might be piracy and cyber attacks!) Because there is almost no chance that that bad could ever be as damaging as the war against it is sure to be.
Leaders are bunk. Their own power is what these people are fighting for, nothing else. It doesn’t matter if they believe their cause is good, or if they are movie villains chewing scenery and scheming about their jackboots. The end result is still the same, and the casualties are all around us.
Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and a columnist for VICE.com. She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at www.thestagblog.com.