I greatly respect writers and analysts like Chris Hedges and Caitlin Johnstone. They have the courage and the savvy to speak truth to power. They outline in fine detail the encroachment of the oligarchs on the societies of the world, particularly in the United States. They rightly warn about the increasing disparity between the uber-wealthy — along with their government tools — and the struggling remainder of the population. Suffice it to say that I generally applaud and agree with their views. And as you might guess, there’s a “but,” coming here.
I count myself a Progressive in most areas, but very few sets of views are monolithic. As could be easily inferred from my latest posts, I’ve been deeply affected by the invasion of the Capitol last week. I objectively knew that various right-wing factions were becoming more strident and more militant. I was aware of the existence of white supremacist groups and several flavors of the Orange One’s disciples. I knew there were ripples of tough talk permeating the ether. But I never imagined I’d see people with Confederate flags and horned hats breaking into and defacing the halls of Congress. Never dreamed I’d see it in real time, in broad daylight, on live TV, in front of the entire world. It also never occurred to me that anyone heading our government would be egotistical enough, deranged enough, and….let’s face it: stupid enough to incite such a mob scene. Against all logic and sanity, however, it happened, and the demented perpetrators are bragging that it will happen again on Inauguration Day next week.
In response to the blatant violence of the mob, the calls to “Hang Pence!” (accompanied by the display of a gallows and noose), the stated aim of one invader to shoot Speaker Pelosi, and the threats to return to complete the process, the country and the government are shaken. Twitter and Facebook, as two examples, have at last blocked the official Orange accounts and are taking steps to delete the worst of the hate speech on their platforms. Also, President-elect Biden is talking about new anti-domestic-terrorist laws.
Mr. Hedges and Ms. Johnstone have come out with comments criticizing these measures (see above links) and warning of slippery slopes wending down into a police state, or at least a second Patriot Act. They fear extreme censorship of even left-leaning platforms, then much tighter regulation of protests, elimination of forums, and other strictures.
In broad terms, they may be correct. After all, almost two decades after 9/11, we still have to suffer the inconvenience and hassles of intense scrutiny at airports, for example, which arguably doesn’t do much to deter would-be attackers and hijackers. As with any precaution, a dedicated professional will find a way to circumvent it. And the Patriot Act has led to our surveillance state (see: George W. Bush and FISA). One could debate, though, whether the true purpose of whole-body scans at the airport and indiscriminate wire-tapping are genuinely results of 9/11, or whether they’re part of ginning up fear so as to justify the endless — and lucrative — Global War on Terror. Whether the TSA and wiretaps everywhere are logical consequences or pretexts, though, Hedges’ and Johnstone’s arguments against extreme reactions are well taken.
Where do these warnings against stepping on the public’s rights leave us? I would posit that anyone who wants this country to have a future would acknowledge that chaos can’t be the norm. Physically attacking our legislative bodies isn’t acceptable. The necessity for the deployment of 20,000 National Guardsmen at a “peaceful transfer of power” is not only an oxymoron, it’s an outrage. In short, we can’t give the actions of the mob last week a pass, and we can’t just talk nicely to the insurrectionists and hope they won’t do something worse next time. When there will be high alerts at all 50 state capitols, something is dreadfully wrong, and that state of affairs cannot stand.
To the question of censorship, Facebook and Twitter are individual companies that voluntarily acted. Their venues are not government controlled, nor did the government demand the closing of, for instance, QAnon accounts, along with the deletion of plans for attacks on institutions and individuals. Therefore, the First Amendment has not been violated. In fact, the FBI went so far last week as to not issue warning bulletins about certain online chatter because they anticipated repercussions by free speech advocates. I see that as a mistake, but many people do not, the theory being that protected speech is just that: no matter what is said, it’s not legally actionable. In my opinion, it’s entirely reasonable, even desirable, to elevate the dissemination of details about logistics, meeting places, weapons caches, and so on, in connection with assassinations or other attacks, to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.’s threshold of shouting, “Fire!” in a crowded theater. If an explicit threat is made, especially by a known extremist, not only should law enforcement be empowered to stop that person, but his access to any platform should be eliminated. There’s a big difference between disagreeing with this or that policy, and announcing plans to kill someone. Certainly, there would be instances of ambiguity, slivers of difference between one utterance and another, but I would maintain that a situation doesn’t devolve into fascistic overreach if the powers-that-be take commensurate precautions.
As for a second Patriot Act, I’m not necessarily in favor of some of the kinds of regulations that might be contained therein. Conversely, those who openly vow to overthrow the government, attack officials, disrupt peaceful assemblies, or otherwise cause mayhem don’t deserve the benefit of the doubt. Three months ago, I wondered why militias and other extremist groups get so much leeway. Military-type drilling and formations are illegal across the country. How can such groups, having openly announced their intent and beliefs, be issued permits to assemble at times when and places where they represent a direct, tangible danger to the public or to selected individuals or groups? For example, at the Michigan capitol, when known agitators marched in with assault weapons on full display, to protest pandemic lockdowns. Granted, the state has an open-carry law, but countenancing such a threat is tantamount to putting a target on every legislator’s back. In the aftermath of the revelation of the plot to kidnap and possibly assassinate Governor Whitmer, Michigan has banned guns in its capitol, which would seem to be a minimal commonsense response. Similar responses should be standard procedure when it comes to any armed civilian show of force. It’s long past time that domestic terrorists — individuals or small armies — are called out for what they are, and treated accordingly.
There have been some 16 permits granted for demonstrations in Washington, D.C. at or around the time of the inauguration. Mayor Muriel Bowser has asked that those permits be publicly revoked. Would that be an abridgment of the First Amendment? Perhaps, technically. Is it an abrogation of rights to try to stop anticipated violence or lawlessness? Have we entered Minority Report territory? Given the levels of the threats being starkly broadcast in online right-wing extremist venues, I don’t think Mayor Bowser is being paranoid OR overly restrictive. For the six people who died as a result of the Capitol invasion last week, it’s too late. Those who come down on the side of no restrictions on speech or on unapologetically aggressive behavior, who are afraid of slippery slopes, would likely cite Ben Franklin’s dictum: “Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety,” (the variant being, “…and will lose both.”). My answer would be, “Ben Franklin never met Timothy McVeigh.” No, we don’t want to crack down every time three people get together in the square and shout, “The government sucks!” But neither do we want to sit back and watch as armed thugs parade down Main Street with assault rifles amid their flags and threaten the populace, or anarchist plotters swap online tips about the best places to buy bomb materials.