Glenn Greenwald on Secrecy, Wars and Civil Liberties Maher Arar
. Published on April 16, 2012
The influential Salon.com columnist Glenn Greenwald was in Ottawa on April 12. He spoke to an audience of over 200 people. I had the honor of introducing him (even though he did not need the introduction!).
Glenn started his speech by pointing out that countries like the United States, Britain, Australia and Canada, have all reacted in a similar way to the events of 9/11; they all imposed extreme restrictions on civil liberties in favor of ‘more security.’ In his own words, Glenn said “there really is an extreme similarity [between these Western countries] in the dynamic of how these issues express themselves.”
He went on to say that the concept of “terrorism,” generally defined by the West as violence committed by Muslims against the West, very much materialized after 9/11. According to Glenn, one would think that a decade after 9/11, and the fact that the threat had already subsided, the willingness of the population to vest these extraordinary powers in their governments would be reduced as well. Paradoxically, the exact opposite has happened. Examples include the emergence of new laws (or bills) that granted (or would grant) security agencies and police more Internet surveillance powers. He also mentioned targeted killing powers granted to President Obama and indefinite detention without any kind of due process.
Then Glenn asked the following question: Why is this similarity in how these Western governments reacted (despite their different political orientation)? He mentioned four different factors:
- It is all driven by a common mindset. In his own words “If you can be convinced that there is some threat that is being posed to your security and your safety it is [then] worthwhile to empower the government to take whatever steps it can take to minimize the risk that is being posed to your security and safety.”
- There is a powerful industry, which he named the “national security state and surveillance industry,” which benefits from the continued perception that the threat still exists. As an example, Glenn questioned why Canada needed “these extremely sophisticated fighter jets [i.e. the F-35's].” He pointed out that the debate in the mainstream media has wrongly focused on the tiny details while never asking, not even once, the most basic and fundamental question of why Canada needed these extremely expensive jets in the first place.
- According to Glenn “Power is extremely addictive. That’s just true as part of human nature.” And when the population is convinced that governments need more powers “political leaders become increasingly unconstrained in the powers they exercise” and they, as a result, become “more addictive to it [power]“.
- The population tends to be accepting of the idea of sacrificing some of their liberties especially so when the above abuses are targeted at a subset of the population (i.e. Muslims living in the West). It will only affect these “others,” the general attitude towards these government abuses has been. This behavior ensures the continuation of these unjust policies.
Up until this point in his speech Glenn focused on the challenges and on those powerful forces that seem to be insurmountable. His speech would not have been complete without warning the general population against the danger of being passive and indifferent towards these governments’ practices. That’s precisely what he did in the second half of his speech. He basically tells the audience why people should care about these issues. Among the reasons he cited are the following:
- “It is simply an invariable truth, in the history of politics and in the history of government, that whenever a new power is acquired in the name of some threat, it always, not sometimes, not often, no usually, it always extends beyond its original application, beyond its original justification.” He gives the examples of how the American government now uses the powers granted to it by the Patriot Act to spy on peace and dissident political groups, among others. Basically, “those [government] abuses become legitimized, they become institutionalized, and it then becomes impossible to argue against them any longer.”
- “The values that they [those abuses] destroy are incredibly significant, and once destroyed the destruction is really irreversible.” He points to the example of the loss of privacy on the Internet due to expanded government powers in this area. What makes this even worse is the fact that it is done without due process or court supervision (one can only think of the NSA’s warrantless electronic surveillance program.)
- The passiveness of the citizenry allows the relationship between the government and its citizenry to be altered. He gave the example of WikiLeaks, highlighting their important work in exposing governments’ secrecy, and how people were frightened to donate to this organization because they were afraid of being prosecuted for “materially supporting a terrorist group.” People were “petrified of exercising their own constitutional rights,” Glenn said.
It is simply an invariable truth, in the history of politics and in the history of government, that whenever a new power is acquired in the name of some threat, it always, not sometimes, not often, no usually, it always extends beyond its original application, beyond its original justification.
Glenn Greenwald, Columnist, Salon.com
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At the end of his speech Glenn gave a message of hope to people living in the West in that they can make a huge positive difference despite all the “gloominess” out there. He gave the example of the Arab Spring and how people were able to challenge the most powerful despots. Glenn concluded by saying “if those people [the Arabs], with those [limited] resources are capable of that level of political change, then people in the Western world, with our resources and our opportunities, are certainly capable of the same thing. And if we aren’t doing it, if we’re not succeeding in that effort, it’s not because it’s impossible; it’s simply because we just haven’t figured out the right way to do it.”
Fascinating and inspiring speech indeed. Enjoy watching!