Abusive domestic surveillance is nothing new. Today, it’s common (or, unfortunately, perhaps not so common) knowledge that many in the anti-war community of the 1960’s, not to mention prominent civil rights leaders such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., had their lives disrupted, and on occasion shattered, by programs such as COINTELPRO, which targeted them based not on what they’d done, but what they believed.
As the child of parents who escaped Eastern Bloc Poland, I knew these types of government activities were commonplace elsewhere. My parents told me many a story where figures in the resistance—and even some family friends—were monitored and “disciplined” by the regime.
Poland’s country-wide martial law of the 1980’s—in Polish, literally, the state of war—declared open surveillance season on every communication or activity. Any perceived deviation from the party line, be it breaking curfew or protesting the Communists, was grounds for the severest sanction. And it all started with unchecked surveillance.
In the United States, on April 5, 2005, I deviated from the party line when I joined my UC Santa Cruz classmates in a protest against military recruitment.
I didn’t protest with Students Against War to be threatening, or to be un-American, or to waste anyone’s time. I protested because it was a way I could stand up for what I believed was right. I knew that my actions were protected by the Constitution. Yet the government believes that the peaceful protest in which I took part is a “credible threat.” When lawfully standing up for my beliefs—standing up for what I think is right and just—is a “threat” to the government, something is wrong.
We’re not in a Cold War anymore. This isn’t martial law. We like to think that maybe we learned something from the past—that when governments spy on their own citizens without due cause, both our security and our civil liberties suffer. Obviously, we were wrong.
When I learned our constitutionally protected advocacy was included on a Pentagon list of monitored events, I was taken aback. I was disappointed that this country had strayed so far from its ideals, from the values of freedom, dissent and hearty public debate on which it was founded. I was saddened that the Constitution could be so easily ignored.
I’m not ashamed to say I was a little angry too. Our right to criticize what we believe are misguided government policies must always be protected, especially in a time of national crisis or war. And this fueled my determination to stay a lawful dissenter. Standing up for what is right can never be wrong.
Indeed, what could be more healthy for the “national security” than a nation of thinking, conscientious, engaged citizens?
But, I’m hopeful. If we’re being monitored, at least we’re being heard. In Poland, the gathering oppression that my parents left behind was the sign of a regime crumbling under widespread public disapproval and internal dissent. I am hopeful that today too, revelations of unlawful spying will prompt us to demand a government that once again values dissent and respects the Constitution as the defender of a secure nation that really lives its ideals.
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