What Constitutes a Police State?

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Driving civil libertarians crazy is probably not a goal of this month's town hall protesters, but it may be one of their signal achievements. Having openly applauded, tacitly supported, or simply ignored the Bush/Cheney national security state and the unprecedented expansion of unaccountable executive power, the right wing now defends freedom against the spectre (and it is only a spectre) of universal health care?

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If the fury directed at "Obamacare" is partly fueled by angst about cultural and demographic changes (from gay marriage to the emergence of a non-white majority,) it also reflects a very limited understanding of repression and the role of government in everyone's life. According to an indeterminate number of unhinged protesters enjoying inordinate amounts of airtime this month, the hallmarks of a police state include prohibitions on carrying assault weapons to public meetings and the provision of publicly supported health care  --  with the exception of medicare. Conservative Republican support for medicare spending indicates that it is not a form of left-wing repression, probably because so many voters rely on it: "Deep Medicare cuts are just one of the mounting reasons why Americans are losing faith in the Democrats' government takeover of health care," John Boehner's web page declares.  (Or, as one confused protester famously demanded, "keep your government hands off my Medicare.").  

How do the town hall protests define repression? Apparently it comprises any government regulation perceived as a threat to any constitutional right or federally mandated benefit that the protesters enjoy. Naturally this solipsistic approach to rights and liberties is deeply incoherent: effectively equating the right to bear arms with a social security check or medicare coverage, it combines a little libertarianism with a lot of socialism.

But the town hall protests do help explain why a conservative movement that has practically copyrighted the word "freedom" acquiesced in the establishment of the Bush/Cheney imperial presidency. Its effects on ordinary Americans were covert, sporadic, and unpredictable; you might never know that you were victimized by it -- if your emails were being intercepted by government agents or if you were denied a job or a mortgage because your name mistakenly appeared on a terrorist watch list. You might easily imagine that torture and detention without due process were calamities that only befell the terrorists who deserved them; in one popular view every terrorist suspect is an actual terrorist and there are no innocent or wrongly tortured and imprisoned Guantanamo detainees. (Nearly two-thirds -- 62% -- of evangelical Protestants and nearly half of all respondents to a 2009 Pew Forum survey opined that torture was sometimes or often justified.)

Of course, trust that the Bush Administration was using its virtually unlimited power to protect America and the fear that Obama is intent on destroying it is, in no small part, a function of partisanship. But conservative Republicans are not protesting Obama's continuation of Bush's national security policies (like his embrace of the state secrets doctrine or resistance to releasing torture photos.) Protests of the national security police state still emanate mainly from the left (as well as from free market libertarians.) "The Makings of a Police State: Aren't We There?" FBI whistleblower Sibel Edmonds asks, citing the creation of a perpetual state of war, ubiquitous surveillance, government secrecy, and summary search and seizures among other lamentable developments, like an executive branch contemptuous of the rule of law.  Somehow, health care reform doesn't seem so scary after all.

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Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional, and a past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. More

Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer and social critic who has been a contributing editor of The Atlantic since 1991. She writes about law, liberty, feminism, religion and popular culture and has written eight books, including Worst InstinctsFree for All; Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials; and I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional. Kaminer worked as a staff attorney in the New York Legal Aid Society and in the New York City Mayor's Office and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1993. She is a renowned contrarian who has tackled the issues of censorship and pornography, feminism, pop psychology, gender roles and identities, crime and the criminal-justice system, and gun control. Her articles and reviews have appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, The American Prospect, Dissent, The Nation, The Wilson Quarterly, Free Inquiry, and spiked-online.com. Her commentaries have aired on National Public Radio. She serves on the board of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the advisory boards of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the Secular Coalition for America, and is a member of the Massachusetts State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

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