Bullied and herded by the leaders of both parties, our witless Solons in Washington passed the "USA PATRIOT Act" by a huge margin. Since the bill wasn't even printed before the vote, they couldn't possibly have read this 372-page document. But even if they had read it, it's doubtful they would have balked at passing the most draconian wartime measure since the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts. In the wake of 9/11, none but a few brave souls wanted to be seen as "soft on terrorism," and, in any case, the politicians' instinctive impulse to gather more power unto themselves was automatic, in this instance, as in any other. The big problem, however, is that a number of surprises are beginning to surface, as our congressional "patriots" realize that blindly playing follow-the-leader can often lead one over a cliff.
Much attention has been paid to the "civil libertarian" aspects of this hideous bill: it would permit indefinite detention of non-citizens; and give the authorities carte blanche to read email, open snail-mail, and eavesdrop on phone conversations all without a warrant, and without having to answer to anyone. The Orwellian possibilities of a national chip-implanted ID card, and a national database to match, are pretty obvious, and these, too, are promised in the bill. But one key yet so far overlooked aspect of the "Patriot" Act is the draconian controls it imposes on American business, both large transnational mega-corporations and local mom-and-pop stores. Mr. and Mrs. Bourgeoisie tend to be GOP types, but what will these stolid Republican burghers say when they realize that they, too, are being "pressed into service on the home front in the war on terrorism," as the Boston Globe put it?
In the name of "patriotism" and the "war on terrorism," retailers are being conscripted into an army of informants whose job it is to spy on their customers. Under the terms of this legislation, all businesses must report "suspicious transactions" to the Treasury Department. What makes a transaction "suspicious"? You can bet there will be a 500-page manual to answer all your questions, and if you want to stay in business you had better commit it to memory or find yourself accused of aiding and abetting terrorism.
According to the text of the Act, "any person engaged in trade or business" must report all transactions over $10,000 to Washington bureaucrats: failure to do so could result in punishment far worse than a mere fine. Here is a perfect example of how the principle of incrementalism works in favor of the expansion of state power.
Before the passage of the Bank Secrecy Act of 1970, this requirement previously applied only to pawnbrokers and car dealers, as a way to track down stolen goods. The Banking Secrecy Act, passed in the name of fighting the "war on drugs," extended the reporting system to banking institutions of one sort or another. The USA PATRIOT Act universalizes this surveillance, and, in the process, gives government officials a key weapon that may be utterly useless in fighting terrorism, but may prove invaluable in the government's perpetual battle to expropriate wealth and centralize power.
If I buy three $4,000 shipments of, say, tea imported from Japan, the fight against terrorism is not going to be helped one whit if I report it to the Economic Surveillance Unit of the Office of Homeland Security. Who may be helped, however, is my competitor in the tea trade who, perhaps, has a "friend" in the bureaucracy with access to this information. To know what the competition is buying, and how much they're paying what business rival wouldn't pay through the nose to obtain this vital information? If you think corruption is already endemic, wait until you see what life in wartime is like….
Aside from the corruption angle, this little-known aspect of the "Patriot" Act practically fulfills one of the key demands in the old Marxist program: back in the old days, the Commies would always demand of "big business" that they "open the books" that is, reveal the details of their business operations. The idea was that once the profit margins of the capitalists were exposed to public view, such a display of wealth and greed would seem so obviously obscene and exploitative that it would inevitably lead to a socialist revolution. What the Commies never managed to pull off, George W. Bush and his fellow Republicans have accomplished in a single day's session of Congress and the stroke of a presidential pen. The books of American business have been pried open, not by the proletariat, but by the leaders of the world's leading capitalist country.
Headlines proclaim the glorious "liberation" of Afghanistan, as the progress of our noble allies from one victory to another is breathlessly analyzed and celebrated. Has Kunduz fallen? Will the Northern Alliance keep Kabul? And what of Herat? The fate of cities half a world away is trumpeted from the rooftops, but news of another sort of sneak attack, this time against our free enterprise system, is barely heard above a whisper. "This is a big deal, and a big change, for the vast majority of American businesses," says Joe Rubin, chief lobbyist for the US Chamber of Commerce. "But I don't think anybody realizes it's happened."
Oh god, I can't wait until they find out! Let us anticipate the following scenario with unalloyed and unapologetic glee: pro-war blowhard Joe Everyman, who runs a small electronics business out of his home, is suddenly confronted with reams of paperwork before he can purchase or sell anything of consequence. As he encounters costly delays, and watches his small savings melt away against the backdrop of a general economic downturn, perhaps he'll stop railing against "ragheads" long enough to realize he's been had.
Or, then again, if he's a real dumbo, maybe he'll just scream all the louder that we have to start bombing Iraq, and perhaps Syria, funneling his inchoate anger at an acceptably "patriotic" target. This, at any rate, is what the War Party is hoping for, as they gear up for "phase two" of Operation Enduring Freedom not to mention phases three through three-hundred-and-ten.
This war is oh so convenient for so many people that it is no wonder they're telling us it could last a whole generation. If we ask the key question "Who benefits?" the results are like doing a Google-search on the phrase "grassy knoll" the results are too numerous to even list, let alone describe. One overlooked political benefit to the current administration is that the war is an excellent diversion from the bad economic news on the home front. An economic downturn that can always be blamed on Osama Bin Laden would have come, anyway: the "almost official" declaration that we are in a recession hardly comes as news to the markets, which have been in a radical downswing that shows no signs of abating anytime soon. And here we come to the economic uses of this war, as the real meaning of what our rulers have in store for us becomes all too apparent.
The War Party is fond of referring to what is essentially a police action against a ragtag band of fanatics as the moral and military equivalent of World War II: the propaganda purposes of this sort of hyperbole are manifold. Not only does it demonize the other side as the modern-day equivalent of Hitler and the Nazis "Islamic fascism," you'll recall, is the source of the New Popular Front's ire but it also gives a sense of scale to the struggle.
Clearly, in their minds, this is a gigantic battle that must not be confined to the wilds of Afghanistan, or Somalia, or wherever they decide to go next. It must permeate every aspect of American life: we must be perpetually "on alert," and not only against young Middle Eastern-looking men and their ubiquitous box-cutters. We must also be on guard against "suspicious transactions" and those who fail to report them. Oh, what a field day politically-connected business interests are going to have against their less influential competitors! In addition to the toll-free "Report-a-Raghead" hotlines opened up by the FBI and Homeland Security, we'll have an economic saboteur hotline, where stool pigeons can rat on their rivals and the whole system of bribery and outright thievery that characterized the Clinton era can metastasize into a permanent condition.
The economic regulations enshrined in the "Patriot" Act have more to do with the government's war on American business than with any "war on terrorism." The war spirit, transferred to the economy, gives us socialism, or something damn near it. Who can doubt that this information encoded, of course, in a national database will be put to other uses, such as "economic planning"? That the Sovietization of the American economy was accomplished, not by a Leninist vanguard party, but by two ostensibly capitalist parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, is an irony that few will note until it is too late.
Oh, and don't let them tell you that these are only "emergency" measures, and will be repealed once the war is over. To begin with, if we take the overblown rhetoric of the War Party at face value, we may not live to see the end of this war. Secondly, since when has any government ever surrendered power voluntarily?: a government prerogative, once granted during wartime, tends to stay encoded in law. Look at New York City's rent control laws, enacted as an emergency wartime measure, still in force after all these years. No, the longer the "Patriot" Act is allowed to subvert the Constitution, and trample on our liberty, the more likely it is to become a permanent feature of American life. Congress must be forced forced by a popular outcry to take a second look. This onerous legislation, which lays the foundations for a Soviet socialist America, must be repealed.
As the first phase of a campaign to get rid of this Orwellian monstrosity, and warn our rulers that we won't put up with it, it is high time to turn the propaganda of the War Party on its head: that is, to use their own tactics against them. Our ruling elites are overjoyed, of course, that patriotism is "in," and do their best to ensure that any expression of dissent is angrily dismissed as disloyalty or worse. The popularity of displaying the American flag is being touted as proof of the blind loyalty of the masses to anything the government says or does, when, of course, it is nothing of the kind.
The red-white-and-blue hangs outside my door, and I am certainly not giving the US government a blank check to go on a rampage, either at home or abroad. People are literally waving the flag out of sheer defiance, and legitimate anger at the sheer unspeakable horror of the 9/11 attack, not out of knee-jerk support for any particular government policies. One way to visibly register dissent from the all-out assault on our civil liberties is to bring out another, older flag, the one that preceded Old Glory. A banner showing a coiled snake the Gadsden flag was popular during the American Revolution, because it was emblazoned with a message to King George and any potential oppressor or attacker: "Don't Tread on Me"!
This raises exactly the right slogan at exactly the right moment, to whomever may care to take heed. There's a shortage of American flags, due to the flag craze, and you can be the first on your block to show your colors by displaying the revolutionary flag right next to Old Glory. "Don't Tread on Me" and that goes for you, too, John Ashcroft.
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