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The Corrosive Effects of the National-Security State

Bashar al-AssadLast Sunday besieged Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad delivered a public speech at which he condemned the Syrians who are trying to oust him from power as “murderous criminals” and “terrorists.” According to a Syrian shopkeeper quoted in a New York Times article about the speech, Assad “divided Syrians in two camps, one with him who are patriots and one against him who are criminals, terrorists and radicals.”

If Assad were to take a lie-detector test in which he was asked whether he really, truly believes these allegations, I have no doubt that he would pass the test with flying colors. In his mind, he is defending the nation and national security from the likes of criminals and terrorists.

Yesterday, I wrote about the fascinating case of Lynne Stewart, the New York City lawyer who was convicted of supporting terrorists by reading a note from her client that supposedly exhorted Egyptians to violently overthrow their government.

If the federal prosecutors and federal judges, both trial and appellate, in Stewart’s case were to be given a lie-detector test in which they were asked whether they really, truly believed that 73-year-old Stewart was, in fact, a supporter of terrorism, I have no doubt they too would pass the test with flying colors. In their minds, by prosecuting, convicting, and sentencing Stewart to serve 10 years in jail, they too consider themselves patriots who are defending the nation and national security from the likes of criminals and terrorists.

Yet, what was the difference between the Egyptian regime that Stewart was convicted of trying to forcibly overthrow and the Syrian regime that the Syrian people are trying to overthrow?

No difference at all.

For one thing, both Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian dictator, and Assad, the Syrian dictator, refused to stand for election. But that’s not what made them so tyrannical and oppressive. After all, it is entirely possible for an unelected dictator to be benign and to treat his citizenry nicely.

What characterized both the Egyptian and Syrian dictatorships was their extreme brutality and ruthlessness, enforced, of course, by their respective militaries, police forces, and intelligence agencies. It was primarily that brutality that ultimately drove Egyptians and Syrians to oppose their respective regimes.

It’s not surprising that both dictatorships looked upon their opponents as criminals and terrorists. In the minds of the dictators and their minions, the brutality did not constitute tyranny and oppression. It was instead considered to be a necessary measure to protect national security, to keep the nation safe and secure, and to maintain order and stability.

Unfortunately, what is also not surprising is that U.S. officials would adopt the same mindset as the Egyptian and Syrian dictatorships. It’s just another horrible example of what the embrace of the national-security state has done to the American people.

I have previously written about how the national-security state has stultified the consciences of the American people, including American Christians. For more than 20 years, the military and the CIA have been killing hundreds of thousands of people, including children, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, and elsewhere, with sanctions, embargoes, undeclared wars, invasions, and occupations, and, most recently, through a program of systematic extra-judicial assassination.

With the exception of libertarians and a few liberals, no one cares. Nary a thought or a prayer has ever been offered for any of those victims, much less any call for inquiries into why they were killed. It’s just naturally assumed that the national-security state knows what it’s doing. The American people have rendered their consciences to Caesar. If the national-security state feels that people need to be killed, so be it. Conscience is abandoned in favor of meek submission to the omnipotent authority of the national-security state.

As the Stewart case shows, the national-security state has also had a horrible corrosive effect on federal prosecutors and the federal judiciary. It’s clear that the prosecutors and the judges in the Stewart case really do believe that this 73-year-old woman, who had a brilliant career as a criminal-defense lawyer, is a super-bad, unpatriotic American, who betrayed her country by supporting overseas terrorists. The thought that she, at worst, was guilty of reading a note that supposedly exhorted foreign people suffering under tyranny to violently overthrow their brutal military dictatorship, something that the American Declaration of Independence says that everyone in the world has the right to do, obviously doesn’t even enter the minds of the prosecutors and the federal judges. All that matters to them is that she was supposedly exhorting people to take up arms against a loyal friend and ally of the U.S. government.

What if Stewart had exhorted Syrians, rather than Egyptians, to overthrow their dictatorship? Would federal prosecutors and federal judges still consider her a bad, unpatriotic American?

The answer would depend on exactly when she did the exhorting. If she did it today, no problem. That’s what U.S. officials are doing right now — exhorting the Syrian people to violently overthrow their government, the same thing that they say that Stewart did with respect to the Egyptian dictatorship.

But what if Stewart had exhorted Syrians to violently overthrow their government back in 2002 — that is, around the time she was supposedly exhorting Egyptians to violently overthrow their government?

The answer would then be completely different. In that case, federal prosecutors and federal judges would view her in the same way they view her today — as an anti-American supporter of terrorists.

Why the difference?

In 2002, the U.S. national-security state entered into its rendition-torture partnership with the Assad dictatorship to take custody of Canadian citizen Maher Arar and torture him on behalf of the U.S. government. Of course, we still don’t know all the details of how that partnership came into existence or what the terms of it were, given that the U.S. mainstream press has never pressed the U.S. government to disclose them. What we do know, of course, is that Arar was tortured for a year notwithstanding the fact that he turned out to be innocent.

But what we do know is that there was, in fact, a rendition-torture partnership between the U.S. national-security state and the Syrian national-security state that was no different in principle from the rendition-torture partnership that was entered into between the U.S. government and the Egyptian dictatorship.

Such being the case, there is no way that U.S. officials would have countenanced any American citizen’s exhorting citizens of Syria to overthrow one of the U.S. government’s torture partners any more than it countenanced Stewart for supposedly exhorting Egyptians to overthrow the Egyptian dictatorship.

Of course, it’s not the only example of the corrosive effects of the national-security state on the American people. Consider Iran, where the U.S. government installed the shah of Iran into power, trained his secret police force in the art of torture and oppression, and helped the Iranian dictatorship brutally tyrannize the Iranian people for some 25 years, until they finally revolted against the U.S.-supported tyranny in 1979.

But U.S. officials didn’t get it. They didn’t see the shah’s regime as tyrannical, any more than they saw the Mubarak regime as tyrannical. It was instead a pro-U.S. regime, one that was just maintaining protecting national security, keeping the nation safe, and maintaining order and stability. In the minds of U.S. officials, it was the Iranian revolutionaries who were criminals and terrorists — precisely the way that Assad views the revolutionaries in Syria.

In 1947 the national-security state was formally brought into existence in the United States, in order to face the supposed threat from the U.S. government’s World War II partner, friend, and ally, the Soviet Union. In 1989, the Soviet Union collapsed. Given the end of the Cold War and the horrible, corrosive damage to moral principles and American values that the national-security state has done to our nation, it’s long past time to dismantle it and toss it into the dustbin of history.

Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation.

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