The Great Civil Liberties Swindle: An anarchist response to the government’s attacks on our freedoms

By Active Transformation

“So long as the people do not care to exercise their freedom, those who wish to tyrannize will do so.”

– Voltairine de Cleyre “Anarchism and American Traditions”


People like George W. Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft have decided to use the current climate of anxiety and fear as an opportunity to make off with people’s civil liberties.

Talking heads on television frame the debate as a tradeoff between freedom and security, but in reality it’s more of a something-for-nothing deal. Politicians and federal agencies want us to fork over hard-won freedoms in the name of something they can’t possibly provide – safety.

Government can’t make us safe. This was quite evident on Sept. 11 as the President ran for cover and the government’s best and brightest watched dumbfounded with the rest of us as disaster struck. It was evident again a few weeks later when a wave of anthrax attacks carried out through the U.S. postal service left several people dead and closed down the halls of Congress.

At best, the so-called leadership of the country can insulate themselves by hiding underground and hiring people like us to handle their mail. At best, they can beef up security at the airports and irradiate the mail after the fact. At best, they can catch the problems that don’t slip through the cracks and clean up after them when they do.

What the government can’t do is guarantee our safety. Indeed, it’s impossible to protect the public from an unexpected crisis, especially a crisis planned out long in advance by people with such deep grievances against the United States they are willing to kill themselves and thousands of others to make their point.

Those who claim otherwise, who say all we need to do is give the government more power and people will be safe, need only to look at Israel, a tiny sliver of a country in the Middle East. It is more or less a militarized zone. It has sacrificed the freedoms of those who live there in the name of security and order. It has a recent history of censorship and torture. It has security checkpoints and soldiers on every corner.

Yet Israel is not safe. Every few months we hear the reports on the news of innocent bystanders being blown to bits by suicide bombers, not to mention atrocities committed by Israeli soldiers. Israel’s repressive measures have not protected the people who live there from violence. Even in this tiny country totally dedicated to maintaining security, there is no safety to be found. The lesson is hard to miss. If a country like Israel can’t protect civilians in this way, what chance does a country as large as the United States have?

Especially when – like Israel with its brutal occupation of Palestinian communities and support of land-hungry settlers – the United States seems to continually provoke so many other parts of the world with its military and economic policies.

And yet the U.S. government’s experts continue to spit out their nonsense. They promise they can keep us safe at night. They promise they can keep things under control, if we just hand over basic freedoms. Comforting as this thought may be, it is an illusion.

In order to explain away their inability to deal with these situations effectively, politicians are calling for draconian measures, claiming that our liberties are liabilities. But their cheap talk does little more than mask their unspoken agenda – to increase government control over our lives.


The government is trying to capitalize on the current atmosphere of confusion and uncertainty to create a new system of laws, practices and institutions that massively increase the abilities of police and federal agents to meddle with our lives.

Many of the most troubling new developments are already in action, packed into a recently passed piece of legislation called the USA Patriot act. The law contains a laundry list of police powers law enforcement agencies have long hungered for, but couldn’t justify before the events of Sept. 11. Among other things, the Patriot act contains provisions that:

  • Allow the Attorney General to detain immigrants and other non-citizens for long periods of time without evidence or even the suspicion of a crime.
  • Permit government agents to perform wiretaps and computer surveillance with almost no court supervision.
  • Give these agents the ability to conduct unannounced secret searches of people’s homes and to confiscate property while they are away.
  • Allow the FBI to access records like medical and financial documents without a court order or evidence of a crime.
  • Create a new broad definition of domestic terrorism that can be applied based solely on people’s political beliefs or participation in public protests.
  • Allow for large-scale investigations of people based on this definition.
  • Eliminate barriers put in place to prevent the CIA to spy on Americans and allow the CIA to share intelligence with other federal agencies.

The amount of discretion the new law gives government and law enforcement personnel reveals a lot about its sponsors’ motives. Ultimately the act is more about justifying sloppy police work and big brother tactics by the government than protecting people from harm. For example, in the case of secret searches and expanded surveillance, the new powers apply not only to investigations of alleged terrorists, but also to investigations of suspects in completely unrelated crimes.

The law’s vague language allows the government to target people who haven’t done anything. For example, immigrants and all people of color for their race, ethnicity and/or religion and have committed no crimes; activists who seek to effect social change outside permitted channels like voting; bystanders who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time – even someone who happens just to be on a plane with a suspected terrorist.

In 1996, the U.S. Congress passed a similar bill, the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act in response to the Oklahoma City bombing and the first attack on the World Trade Center. Obviously it didn’t stop deliberate acts of violence against civilians; it destroyed the federal appeals process for people on death row. This made it even more difficult for innocent people to get justice. It also enhanced the government’s ability to execute disproportionate amounts of people of color – already more likely to be on death row because of the uneven application of the death penalty and the racist nature of the justice system.

With the 1996 legislation as its model, the Patriot act – with its provisions on immigration and its applications for the war on drugs – will also have serious implications for Black and Brown people.

The Bush Administration’s creation of a new state department, the Office of Homeland Security, goes hand in hand with legislation like the Patriot Act. The name is straight out of Nazi Germany and Hitler’s Fatherland. It is a conscious attempt to intimidate people whose efforts and ideas stray too far from the kind of world government bureaucrats fantasize about.

The new department will coordinate over 40 federal agencies including the CIA, the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Services) and the FBI. Headed by the former governor of Pennsylvania Tom Ridge, a hard-line politician responsible for two death warrants against journalist and political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, the new department will:

  • Allow for greater sharing of intelligence between federal agencies, making it possible for someone to be spied on by the CIA on one hand and then prosecuted by the FBI on the other.
  • Transform the National Guard into an “anti-terrorist task force,” using an extremely loose definition of “terrorist.”
  • Pursue a hugely enhanced role for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, an agency the government has authorized to assume quasi-dictatorial powers during times of emergency.

The potential for abuse by this new department is very great, especially because the agency is so new and its agenda is so undefined. It is unclear exactly how it will operate, but the agency will more than likely act behind the scenes to harass and disrupt groups pushing for greater democracy and equality in the United States.

This is a role once (and currently) filled by the FBI. The organization has a dark seldom-mentioned history of racism, spying and provocation against domestic liberation movements. The notorious bigot J. Edgar Hoover founded the FBI to act as the role of the nation’s domestic political police. Under its infamous COINTELPRO program, the FBI sent tapes to Martin Luther King urging him to commit suicide, stood by as Klansman conspired to murder Southern Blacks, and infiltrated the 1960’s anti-war movement with provocateurs who encouraged violence. All of these incidents are well-documented in FBI files available to the general public. The FBI’s current secret detentions of thousands of people of Middle Eastern descent is a clear sign that such activities are still OK with the government’s top brass.

There is little question that the FBI, in cooperation with the Office of Homeland Security, will use the current situation in the country to escalate COINTELPRO-type operations. United States history shows that government officials use wars and other crises to crack down on different groups of people – usually specific ethnic groups or organizations working for greater economic and social freedom. From the internment of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor to the harassment of U.S. Central American solidarity groups in the 1980’s, the government has opportunistically used these sorts of situations to wreak havoc on individuals and populations it deems undesirable.

Unfortunately, the Patriot act and the Office of Homeland Security are far from the only efforts now being pushed by the government to undermine people’s rights. A combination of technology and a minimal amount of public resistance have opened the door to a whole new world of repressive measures that threaten the public’s privacy and safety.

For example, Silicon Valley mogul and former friend of the CIA Larry Ellison has proposed National ID cards, allowing law enforcement agencies to access a large database of personal information. Cards would be used to keep tabs on people’s movements and activities. Under Ellison’s plan, cards would be mandatory for immigrants and implemented for everyone else shortly thereafter. Like any technology the cards would be open to electronic tampering and wouldn’t guarantee anyone’s safety. Ellison has already met with Ashcroft and other high government officials to discuss the possibility of a 90-day contingency plan for putting the cards into use.

In addition to National ID’s, there are a variety of depressing measures already in effect or on the horizon: government surveillance of conversations between attorney’s and their clients, secret military tribunals replacing civilian courts, the proposed elimination of the posse comitatus act which prevent military policing of the nation’s streets.

Who really knows how far things will go? The current efforts by the government to crackdown on the public suggest that the government officials would be quite happy to put into place the framework for a police state, even though, as Ashcroft has admitted, such measures won’t mean “that we won’t have terrorist acts in the future.”

The future is uncertain, but what is clear is that the government can’t be trusted to protect our freedoms. If there is to be true safety and freedom, it is the responsibility of the for us, the people to organize collectively toward these ends.


Generally, the idea of ‘civil liberties’ has meant little to anarchists because we know they cannot protect nor guarantee freedom. They are manufactured by a government that rules on people’s lack of freedom, so we do not value civil liberties because they are written on a piece of paper or given the blessing of some legislative body. Instead we see civil liberties as the practical form of freedoms won through past struggles. They are boundaries accepted by the government itself when it recognizes it can push people no further. To further entrench their power, politicians often write these boundaries into law and claim credit for them, falsely proclaiming that the government is a protector of the people. Nothing could be further from the truth. Determined people -who faced jail or even death at the hands of the government – won the freedoms we now enjoy, not benevolent government officials.

Civil liberties are really boundaries, and as anarchists, we desire to push these boundaries as far as they can go in the interests of fundamentally altering society to maximize individual and social freedom. We want total freedom and are working as best we can with other people to create a world where “civil liberties” are not necessary at all. Still, in the face of current threats to freedom, we will not accept efforts by the government to roll back these boundaries the smallest bit.

The creation of the Office of Homeland Security and the passage of repressive laws like the Patriot Act are just overt manifestations of deeper problems. When we look beyond the erosion of civil liberties and the consolidation of state power, it becomes clear that the problem is one of hierarchy, of people being dominated by others and not having the ability to decide for themselves.

This does not mean we should ignore the government. We must actively challenge its efforts to crack down on regular people, but in doing so we must go further than merely holding back the government’s intrusions. We must challenge its very existence and work to establish a different way of organizing our lives where such intrusions are impossible. We must work toward a society based on face-to-face, directly democratic decision making where the power is truly in the hands of the people.

How do we do this? We can talk about these issues among our friends and families. We can raise them at our workplaces, where we hang out, in the newspapers and on the radio. We can demand the resignation of people like John Ashcroft and more importantly the scrapping of institutions like the Office of Homeland Security. Better yet, we can refuse to comply with repressive measures and support others who resist them. Best of all, we can work with other people, friends, colleagues, acquaintances and others to deal with the challenges ahead. Together we need to build a movement and develop strategies that challenge the government’s legitimacy and set the groundwork for a different society.

We can and must refuse to be swindled by those who would rule us with their lies. It is up to us to protect ourselves both from murderers who kill indiscriminately and from thieves who wish to steal our freedoms from us and move toward a just society. We cannot expect the state to give us freedom when their power rests on our oppression. It has always been our challenge as human beings to free ourselves by taking our liberties into our hands. We must live up to that challenge.

Resources on the Internet that offer more information on government attacks on civil liberties:

Electronic Privacy Information Center:

National Lawyers Guild:

American Civil Liberties Union:

Info about COINTELPRO:


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