Glenn Greenwald on Civil Liberties and Their Willing Surrender

Today, at Brooklyn College, Glenn Greenwald delivered the 39th Samuel J. Konefsky Memorial Lecture. I was lucky enough to be in attendance and thoroughly enjoyed watching this top-notch muckraker and gadfly in action. I have often seen Greenwald speak on video but this was the first live presentation I have witnessed. It was everything it was promised to be: Greenwald was passionate, precise and polemical. The title of his talk was ‘Civil Liberties and Endless War in the Age of Obama’ and so, appropriately, Greenwald began by offering a definition of ‘civil liberties‘: a set of absolute, unconditional constraints on governmental and state power, ones defined and defended by the people. These should be so stark and clear that no abridgments should be possible or tolerated; those who suggest or support these show themselves to not possess a true understanding of the concept.

With this uncompromising bottom line clearly articulated, Greenwald then presented a tripartite analysis of why, despite the presence of the US Constitution and its Bill of Rights, the state of civil liberties in the US today appears to be quite as problematic as it is and why the US populace has so easily acquiesced to this denial of their constitutional privileges.

First, the US has been since 2001, in a state of ‘perpetual war’, against poorly defined enemies, with no geographic or temporal limitation. This war ensures the endless invocation of natural security as a reason for the attenuation and abuse of civil liberties, whether it be surveillance, indefinite detention without trial, or the assassination of American citizens without trial. The lessons of history have been learned well by the administrations that have held power in the US over the past dozen years: war provides refuge for roguish government behavior of all kinds, and nothing quite prepares a populace for the surrender of civil liberties like the threat of an enemy, one whose threat can only be repelled by increasing the powers a state commands.

Second, the surrender of civil liberties is made more palatable when their abuse by the state appears to be directed against a demonized minority. The gullible majority, convinced that these systematic corruptions of the Bill of Rights remain confined to just this hapless lot, and convinced that their liberties are being protected as a consequence, gladly sign on and form cheering squads, unaware that soon the baleful eye of the powers-that-be will be turned upon them. In the American context  Muslim-Americans have borne the brunt of the the post-911 ravishing of the Bill of Rights. There is little sympathy for them in most parts of the American polity, but the damage done to what is considered ‘normal’ is real enough. Our civil liberties were, and are, next.

Third, yesterday’s ‘extreme’ or ‘radical’ is today’s normal. When the Patriot Act was first passed, it provoked vigorous debate and contestation even in a country still traumatized by 9/11. Its renewals have provoked little debate and attention. We live in a post-Patriot Act US. Its draconian provisions are now the new normal. In this context, I’d like to note once again, the seemingly-useless but very-effective-in-getting-citizens-used-to-the-idea-of-random-searches subway searches in New York City.

Greenwald spoke on a great deal more, including, most importantly, how concerted, determined, political activism by the citizenry still remains, the only and best way to safeguard and preserve the Bill of Rights.

My brief notes above are merely a sampler; catch him at a speaking venue near you if you can.

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