I heard a new definition of fascism recently. A fascist government makes everything illegal and then decides what to prosecute and what to let slide. If you think about it, the beauty of this approach is it plays off the commonly held belief in our society if you haven't done anything wrong, you have nothing to fear from a diminution of your civil liberties. It's all being done on your behalf after all.
When the government controls sole discretion on what is or isn't a crime...when the government decides who to charge and who to let slide...when the government makes the rules about how and why you can challenge their decisions, it opens the door to abuses which render the Bill of Rights impotent and irrelevant to our daily lives.
British authorities have just announced a plan to catalog the details of every web visit, email, and phone call or text message anywhere in the U.K. The information will be archived for at least one year. It would be available for any government official seeking to browse through it, and the law would allow British authorities to monitor their citizens in real time. Some British citizens are raising alarms and concerns about the breadth and scope of such power and the decimation of privacy it represents. In a prominent editorial, a top British law enforcement official accused those worried about this expansion of power of being either criminals or conspiracy theorists. (If you haven't done anything wrong, why should you care if the government watches you or not?)
A British citizen does not enjoy the constitutional protections afforded to Americans. However, don't feel too comfortable about our protections since the Bush administration did exactly the same thing after September 11, 2001. Without probable cause...without a warrant...without any judicial oversight...all required by the 4th amendment...they secured the cooperation of telecom companies and data-mined every email, cell call, text message and web activity of every American citizen. They simply suspended the 4th amendment and, as in Britain, justified their actions by suggesting anyone uncomfortable with this electronic coup must be terrorists or someone with something to hide. Eventually, a feckless Congress, with the help of Nancy Pelosi, Barack Obama, Barbara Boxer et. al., gave the telecom companies, and by extension the Bush administration, immunity from a criminal act of extraordinary invasiveness.
Despite knowing all of this...despite the constant deification of the Bill of Rights by regressives and progressives alike...despite a history of English common law intended to rein in the power of the monarchy, both American and British citizens have passively accepted the diluting and weakening of individual protections to their liberty. Why? As the 4th amendment is sliced and diced into oblivion, why aren't Americans more agitated or concerned? Why would British citizens abandon a history of keeping the despot in restraints? Why would anyone surrender their privacy to the government under the guise, "...I haven't done anything wrong, so I have nothing to fear?"
USA Today, just released an investigative story about at least 60 people, and maybe many more, who are in federal prison on gun charges and yet they are innocent of all these charges. Innocent Americans are serving sentences up to 10 years, even though everyone admits they are innocent of what they are accused of doing. It gets worse. Federal criminal laws are written in such a way that even if you are actually innocent of a crime when you were convicted, it is almost impossible to get back into court to have this wrong righted. I'm not making this up. Once you have been "lawfully" convicted, a wall has been constructed by federal law to prevent you from appealing the conviction except on narrow grounds and being actually innocent is not one of those grounds.
It gets better...Even if a federal prosecutor knows you are actually innocent, he or she has no obligation to inform you. So, many of these Americans, who didn't do anything wrong, are sitting in federal prison without knowing they are innocent and the federal prosecutors aren't going to tell them. Can you imagine sitting in prison with the government knowing you are innocent and keeping it to themselves?
In the United States today, there are over 4,500 laws or regulations, which can send you to federal prison even if you had no idea you had done something illegal. These laws and regulations carry "strict liability" which means all the government has to prove is you did it. Any question or discussion of why you did it is irrelevant. These violations run the gamut from unknowingly trespassing on federal land to catching the wrong fish, to simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. These laws give total discretion to the government to decide whether to prosecute you or a family member. It is a recipe for unbelievable repression and political pay back. All of this, and we haven't even scratched the surface of the new government proposal to fly drones over the country to spy on you in your everyday activities without your knowledge.
I have no explanation why Americans would tolerate innocent citizens kept in federal prison or countenance laws designed to keep them there after their innocence is discovered. I can't explain why there was no outrage at what Bush did or at what British authorities are proposing. Since the passage of the Patriot Act, I suspect this kind of spying is already occurring in this nation.
American's sleep peacefully, secure in the knowledge if you haven't done anything wrong, you have nothing to fear nor any need for a 4th amendment. What do you do, however, when it's the government who gets to decide if what you do is illegal...convicts you...and makes it almost impossible to regain your freedom even if you are actually innocent?
When everything is illegal, and the government determines when to come after you and when to leave you alone...it's fascism. Can anyone say we aren't there already? Does anyone care?