Big Brother wants you to be afraid

It was a strange thing, I thought, as I saw reports of police brutality in response to the Occupy protests.[1] How, I wondered, did these police officers expect to return to these communities having committed not merely egregious crimes, but crimes of violence against people they are supposed to protect? What, I wondered, was their end-plan?

I got something of an answer during the manhunt for Christopher Dorner, when police simply opened fire on a truck that didn’t match the description of the truck Dorner was driving, the occupants of which were two Latina women delivering the Los Angeles Times who didn’t match Dorner’s description. Admittedly, this is an extreme case, with police emotions running high. Dorner, “a disgruntled ex-cop,” was “suspected of hunting down members of the LAPD and their families in a twisted campaign of revenge.”[2] But it exposes police not as professional, calm, and collected, but rather—well, “trigger-happy” seems the wrong word—trigger-frantic.

And, as was seen in the Occupy protests; has been seen with civil forfeiture, a form of legalized theft that benefits government agencies; and really even with the Trayvon Martin case, in which George Zimmerman was seen by many Blacks to have acted as something of a surrogate for police, police operate with a certain sense of impunity.[3]

In a particular twisted sense, it isn’t even so very different from when you look in your rear view mirror and see the red lights of a police car pulling you over. You are to be afraid. You are to comply. You are not to question. You are not even in the most paranoid sense to do anything that might even remotely be construed as resisting.

How, you might ask, have we come to this? The Occupy protesters were, with rare exceptions, non-violent. The Latina ladies were delivering newspapers. Blacks are criminalized for the very act of being in public. On a scale of illegal acts in this world, a traffic violator barely seems to register. These are, in overwhelming proportion, innocent people being intimidated, assaulted, and even murdered by the very people whom many of us trust with authority in order to protect them—and us.

Philip Zimbardo would point to the power of the situation, arguing that “good” people do “evil” things in some situations, particularly when their peers do these “evil” things. His Stanford Prison Experiment, which he had to shut down early, because the “normal” college students who were playing the role of “guards” were horrifically abusing the “normal” college students who were playing the role of “prisoners.” He reports that on both sides, anonymity played a part, with guards wearing uniforms and reflective sunglasses that made them all look alike, with prisoners answering not to their names but to their numbers and wearing the uniforms of prisoners. Extending his research to the abuses, many years later, committed by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, he notes that the power of the situation included complicity—and responsibility—from superiors all the way up to the Bush administration.[4]

The court heard from psychiatrists who had reported virtually every week that Manning was in good mental health and no risk to himself. Yet every week they were overruled by military officers at the brig.

Manning was made to strip naked at night and to stand to attention in the nude in front of his military superiors at morning call. For weeks he was held in his 8×6 ft cell for 23 hours and 40 minutes every day.[5]

But Zimbardo’s explanation only goes so far in explaining what we’re seeing with a frantic reaction, again by powerful people, to disclosures that challenge the conduct of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and that challenge the conduct of intelligence agencies. Bradley Manning, who passed secrets to the Wikileaks organization, has been found guilty of nearly all but the most serious charge against him, that of aiding the enemy,[6] after being held in “cruel, inhuman and degrading” conditions,[7] and for a length of time that seems at odds with the right to a speedy trial.[8] Edward Snowden, who has revealed evidence of a massive domestic spying operation, has accepted temporary asylum in Russia,[9] after a plane carrying Ecuador’s president, and suspected to be carrying Snowden, was forced to land in Vienna after being denied overflight permission by several European countries.[10] Ecuador had already granted asylum to Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, who remains holed up in Ecuador’s embassy in the United Kingdom where the government, in response, threatened to invade the embassy to retrieve Assange.[11]

Again, people in authority repeatedly display contempt for the law—in this case, international law. But rather than prosecute those who violate the law, they persecute those who expose wrongdoing. As it is for the police, so it is for the United States, United Kingdom, and other Western European governments.

Again, it seems beyond comprehension that these authorities expect to retain any legitimacy whatsoever after such brazen acts.

Max Weber argued that “the modern state [can be defined] sociologically only in terms of the specific means peculiar to it, as to every political association, namely, the use of physical force.”[12] Gerhard Lenski argued, however, that the elite, who indeed rule through coercion, sought to gain legitimacy through the use of propaganda.[13] We see the propaganda, most blatantly with a Time magazine reporter tweeting his enthusiasm for writing a story about a drone strike that hasn’t happened that takes out Julian Assange in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.[14] But more and more, it seems not to matter that the propaganda is simply not credible.[15] What matters, as we see with a nine-hour detention of Glenn Greenwald’s partner at a British airport, ostensibly but ridiculously for questioning about terrorism[16]—Greenwald has published many of Snowden’s revelations—is an authority that simply wants to be feared.

  1. [1]Paul Harris, “Police brutality charges sweep across the US,” Guardian, October 22, 2011,; Ted Mann, “The Occupy Movement Adds Volume to Police Brutality Complaints,” Atlantic Wire, October 23, 2011,; Mary Slosson, “Oakland police may face sanctions over handling of Occupy protests,” Reuters, May 2, 2012,
  2. [2]Joel Rubin, Angel Jennings and Andrew Blankstein, “Details emerge in LAPD’s mistaken shooting of newspaper carriers,” Los Angeles Times, February 8, 2013,,0,4414028.story
  3. [3]David Benfell, “Open season,” July 16, 2013,; Chitrangada Choudhury, “NYPD ‘consistently violated basic rights’ during Occupy protests – study,” Guardian, July 25, 2012,; Sarah Stillman, “Taken,” New Yorker, August 12, 2013,
  4. [4]Philip Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil (New York: Random House, 2008).
  5. [5]Ed Pilkington, “Bradley Manning: pre-trial hearing ends as case goes to military judge,” Guardian, December 11, 2012,
  6. [6]Charlie Savage, “Manning Is Acquitted of Aiding the Enemy,” New York Times, July 30, 2013,
  7. [7]Ed Pilkington, “Bradley Manning’s treatment was cruel and inhuman, UN torture chief rules,” Guardian, March 12, 2012,
  8. [8]Jacob Chamberlain, “Manning’s Right to a Speedy Trial Not Violated After 1,000 Days, Judge Rules,” Common Dreams, February 26, 2013,
  9. [9]Steven Lee Myers and Andrew E. Kramer, “Russia Grants Snowden 1-Year Asylum,” New York Times, August 1, 2013,
  10. [10]Associated Press, “Bolivian plane suspected of carrying Snowden rerouted,” Salon, July 2, 2013,; Diana Cariboni and Jared Metzker, “Snowden Is No Trifling Matter,” InterPress Service, July 4, 2013,; Mercopress, “Evo Morales’ plane rerouted on suspicion Snowden on board,” July 3, 2013,; William Neuman, Rick Gladstone, and Melissa Eddy, “Diversion of Bolivian Plane Angers Latin American Leaders,” New York Times, July 3, 2013,; Shaun Walker and Heather Saul, “Edward Snowden saga: Bolivia accuses Europe of ‘kidnapping’ Bolivian president in forcing Evo Morales’ plane to land in Vienna,” Independent, July 3, 2013,
  11. [11]Juan Cole, “Ayatollah Cameron Threatens to invade Ecuador Embassy re: Assange (or, Whitewashing Iran for the US National Security State),” Informed Comment, August 16, 2013, Ayatollah Cameron Threatens to invade Ecuador Embassy re: Assange (or, Whitewashing Iran for the US National Security State); Eduardo Garcia and Alessandra Prentice, “Britain threatens to storm Ecuador embassy to get Assange,” Reuters, August 16, 2013,; Kevin Gosztola, “Ecuador Endorses Julian Assange’s Fears, Grants Asylum,” Firedoglake, August 16, 2012,; Press Association, “Ecuador grants WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange political asylum,” Guardian, August 16, 2012,; Rosa Prince, “FCO ‘risks breaching international law’ over Assange embassy crisis,” Telegraph, August 16, 2012,
  12. [12]Max Weber, “What is Politics?” in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, 4th ed., Charles Lemert, ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 114-116.
  13. [13]Gerhard Lenski, Power and Privilege: A Theory of Social Stratification (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966).
  14. [14]Kevin Gosztola, Untitled microblog post, Twitter, August 18, 2013,; Natasha Lennard, “Time’s Michael Grunwald tweets for Assange’s death,” Salon, August 18, 2013,; Darren Smith, “Time Magazine Reporter Tweets He Cannot Wait to Defend Drone Strike on Julian Assange,”, August 18, 2013,
  15. [15]David Benfell, “My Disillusionment,” August 16, 2013,; Juan Cole, “Top Ten Things that don’t Make Sense about NSA Surveillance, Drones and al-Qaeda,” Informed Comment, August 6, 2013,; David Drumm, “It Was Never About Terrorism,”, August 10, 2013,; Brian Fung, “The NSA is giving your phone records to the DEA. And the DEA is covering it up,” Washington Post, August 5, 2013,; Jeffrey Rosen, “The Lies Aren’t What Makes Obama’s NSA Stance So Awful,” New Republic, August 12, 2013,; Charlie Savage and Michael S. Schmidt, “The F.B.I. Deemed Agents Faultless in 150 Shootings,” New York Times, June 18, 2013,; David Sirota, “What if the president lied to us?” Salon, August 16, 2013,; Jonathan Turley, “Doublethinking Transparency: Obama Proclaims Secret NSA Program Entirely ‘Transparent’ To A Secret Court,” June 18, 2013,; Jonathan Turley, “Obama: “Unfortunately” Dying In Car Crash More Likely Than Dying In Terrorist Attack,” August 7, 2013,
  16. [16]Glenn Greenwald, “Detaining my partner: a failed attempt at intimidation,” Guardian, August 18, 2013,; Guardian, “Glenn Greenwald’s partner detained at Heathrow airport for nine hours,” August 18, 2013,; Natasha Lennard, “Greenwald’s partner detained for 9 hours at U.K. airport,” Salon, August 18, 2013,

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