"If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all." ~ Virginia Woolf
9/11 and the Prospects for Liberty
Column by R.K. Blacksher
Exclusive to STR
State propagandists are predictably marking the 10th anniversary of 9/11 with vulgar displays of collectivist self-pity and celebrations of the power and glory of the state and its uniformed agents. The evildoers hate us because we are so good and so free, we are told. There are terrorists hiding around every corner, inside every closet and under every bed. We all need to give thanks to the brave and benevolent agents of the state who keep us safe from the evildoers. We all know the drill.
Many civil libertarians are marking the occasion by justifiably lamenting the loss of liberty, the growth of the police state, the wars of aggression, and all of the other statist abuses that have occurred since The Day That Changed Everything. While I share these concerns, I also think that there have been several positive developments over the last decade. Lest we become too pessimistic about the prospects for liberty, I would like to mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11 by reviewing a few of those positive developments.
The Power of Networks
The end of the 20th Century saw the rise of Napster as a P2P file-sharing network. After a couple of years of being harassed by the RIAA and various musicians and record companies, Napster was shut down in June of 2001 for copyright infringement. Napster has since made peace with the IP regime and is now a pay service owned by Best Buy. A victory for the recording industry and the state‘s intellectual property laws!
That victory was, as we all know, very short-lived. After Napster’s demise, many other services arose that proved to be much more adept at evading intellectual property laws. While Napster made the mistake of connecting users through a centralized server, thus rendering it liable for copyright infringement, these new services took a more decentralized approach of connecting users directly to each other. These new services also expanded in scope to allow users to download movies and games in addition to music. The recording and film industries have continued to make feeble attempts to control music and movie downloading, but the technology is not going to go away.
The struggle between the RIAA/MPAA and P2P file-sharing networks is emblematic of a much wider trend that has been taking shape over the last decade. Largely because of the Internet, networked organizations are rapidly growing in number and in influence. And like the original Napster and other P2P file-sharing networks, many of these new networks are posing a direct and serious challenge to the hierarchical, authoritarian organizations that have traditionally dominated our society.
One of the best examples of this phenomenon has been WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks has few full-time employees, and a lot of the work is done by a network of volunteers. It is available on multiple servers and has several domain names. By allowing users to anonymously leak classified information without a significant risk of reprisal, WikiLeaks has greatly facilitated the exposure of government secrets.
In the face of massive assaults by the state, WikiLeaks has proven to be remarkably resilient. After EveryDNS and Amazon severed their ties with WikiLeaks, thousands of mirror sites appeared and Anonymous began to orchestrate retaliatory strikes against the organizations that opposed WikiLeaks. There are now a number of other organizations operating on the WikiLeaks model, including OpenLeaks, Brussels Leaks, Trade Leaks, Balkan Leaks, and several others. Even if the state eventually succeeds at shutting down WikiLeaks like they did with Napster, the WikiLeaks model will live on.
Another promising example is Bitcoin. By challenging the state’s money monopoly, Bitcoin is truly striking at the root of statism. Although Bitcoin has not yet had as much of an impact as Napster and WikiLeaks, it has begun to seep into the mainstream. It has even earned a denunciation from one of the state’s chief economic propagandists, Paul Krugman. As Bitcoin and other similar projects continue to pick up steam, we can expect the state to crack down hard. Bitcoin may or may not survive, but the concept is here to stay.
We are only beginning to see the potential of Internet-enabled networking to disrupt and challenge the power of hierarchical, authoritarian organizations. If the ideological struggle of the 20th Century was between Soviet-style communism and American-style corporatism (two forms of authoritarian collectivism), the ideological struggle of the 21st Century may be between individuals who voluntarily organize via horizontal networks and the large, hierarchical, authoritarian organizations that still dominate society. I certainly view that as an improvement.
The Double-Edged Sword of Surveillance
Government surveillance has increased drastically over the last decade. Surveillance cameras are becoming much more ubiquitous. The city of Chicago, for example, now has over 10,000 surveillance cameras. Legislation like the PATRIOT Act and the Protect America Act have given the government unprecedented powers to listen to people’s phone calls, read people’s e-mails and search people’s property with very limited due process. In 2010, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit “unanimously ruled that DEA agents did not violate the Fourth Amendment rights of a suspected marijuana grower by electronically tracking his Jeep, even when they snuck onto his property in the middle of the night to plant a GPS device on the bottom of the car.” These are just a few examples of the surveillance state that has arisen because of the War on Terror and the War on Drugs.
From the perspective of the state, however, surveillance is a double-edged sword. The last decade has also seen an improvement in the ability of private individuals to monitor the activity of the government and its agents. New technologies such as cell phones and miniature cameras have made it very easy for individuals to film the police and other government officials and upload their videos on the Internet. Although police abuse has always existed, today it gets much more exposure and criticism.
In addition, online blogs and services like Twitter and Facebook have given previously voiceless people a way to share information with the world. If a government in the Middle East starts cracking down on protestors, the entire world will instantly know about it because of tools like Twitter. Private individuals now have a way to bypass government censorship and expose the state’s dirty secrets to the entire world.
Although new technology is being utilized by the state to undertake unprecedented levels of surveillance, it is also being used by individuals to monitor and resist the state’s incursions into their lives. The latter trend is a very positive development, and I suspect that we have only begun to see the potential of this technology as a tool of resistance.
Growing Public Distrust of Government
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, George Bush’s approval rating soared to around 90%. In spite of the occurrence of a tragedy that was, at the very least, a massive failure of government, people rallied around their leaders and demanded decisive government action. New York Times columnist R.W. Apple declared that “big government is back in style.” Al Hunt of the Wall Street Journal stated that it was “time to declare a moratorium on government-bashing.” It was a pretty depressing time for those who want to reduce the power of the state.
Since that time, we have seen growing public distrust of politicians and the government. George Bush ended his presidency with an approval rating in the 20’s. Barack Obama enjoyed fairly widespread support immediately after his election, but it was very short-lived. Today, his approval rating is hovering around 40%. Congressional approval ratings remain at an all time low, and an overwhelming majority of people claim to be dissatisfied with and angry at the government.
Even more significantly, people’s attitudes about specific government actions, policies and propaganda have changed for the better. Immediately after 9/11, 55% of people believed that it was “necessary to give up civil liberties in order to curb terrorism.” Today, only 40% believe that. Six in ten Americans now believe “that the United States weakened its economy by overspending in its responses to the 9/11 attacks” and 73% want “the United States to reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan.”
A growing number of people doubt the government’s official explanation for the 9/11 attacks. Regardless of what one believes about the specifics of what occurred on that day, there can be little doubt that the government’s explanation is false and misleading. Furthermore, 43% of Americans are now willing to admit that the attacks might have been motivated by wrongdoing on the part of the U.S. government.
To be sure, these developments should be viewed with at least a degree of cynicism. Many of those who now claim to be angry at the government are partisan Republicans who will quickly learn to love Big Brother again if Rick Perry is elected. In addition, some people’s attitudes about foreign interventionism and the domestic police state would probably change in the wake of another incident on the scale of 9/11.
Nonetheless, the climate is clearly much more favorable to libertarians now than it was shortly after 9/11. These developments should be cautiously embraced and encouraged.
The Prospects for Liberty
Does any of this suggest that the state is teetering on the brink of collapse and that the birth of a voluntaryist society is nigh? No. I fully expect that the state will continue to grow and liberty will continue to contract for many years to come. Nonetheless, there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the long-term. A few of these reasons were laid out above. The reader will undoubtedly be able to list several others.
On the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the prospects for liberty seem bleak. But we should not allow ourselves to become hopelessly pessimistic. Cracks have already begun to show in the state’s respectability and in its ability to control individuals. In the years to come, the cracks are likely to grow and multiply. I hope that I will be around to make an assessment of the situation on the 50th anniversary of 9/11.