Desensitizing the Tyranny Detector

The most effective hiding place is often in plain sight. The human mind is more attuned to detecting potential threats than recognizing ones openly presented. For instance, a woodsman tramping through brush is wary of snakes. But while walking a cleared path the woodsman may fail to notice a snake until the last moment. Like a snake, the State is striking openly at our liberties while we're focused on hypothetical threats among the briars and brambles.

Critics warned that Anwar al-Awlaki's death presented a threat to every American. Awlaki, you might recall, was an American citizen until killed in a targeted drone attack. His demise portended open season on typical American citizens who espouse ideas the State deems subversive. On the surface the argument appeared plausible.

Awlaki was an American citizen, but he was hardly typical. He wasn't targeted for opposing big government, occupying Wall Street, or criticizing U.S. policies. Awlaki dumped America for an area of Yemen known for hostility toward his homeland. Once there he allied with an organization that had declared and demonstrated its belligerence toward the United States. Awlaki willingly joined a foreign enemy on foreign soil, making himself a target in the process. That's quite different from killing American citizens on U.S. soil for alleged subversions. Anwar al-Awlaki's death established no precedent through which any governing body can legitimately execute an American citizen without due process.

Another example is the reaction to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012 (H.R. 1540). The law provides for indefinite detention of people engaged in terrorist activities, without trial, until such hostilities cease. Critics contend H.R.1540 authorizes military detention of any American citizen the State desires. Such warnings strike a chord with advocates of gun rights, pro-choice activists, and protesters of government from all political persuasions. But are the criticisms accurate? Maybe not.

Subtitle D, Section 1031(a)(d) of H.R.1540 authorizes the military to detain "covered persons" without trial until hostilities cease. So what constitutes a covered person? According to Sect. 1031(b)(1)(2), a covered person must have been involved in the 9/11 attacks, be a member or substantial supporter of al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or associated forces, and have committed hostile acts to aid those forces. Also, 1031(e) specifically states that no part of H.R.1540 can "affect existing law or authorities, relating to the detention of United States citizens," or "lawful resident aliens."

Section 1032(a)(2)(A)(B) further restricts military detentions only to persons authorized under Sect. 1031 and clearly identified as members or affiliates of al-Qaeda and their allies. Only if subsection (B) were misapplied to include citizens engaged in sedition or outright revolt could the perceived threat materialize. Even then the rules change little. Since its inception the central government has enjoyed the authority to suppress insurrection. Finally, Sect. 1032 (b)(1)(2) plainly declare that the military's detention authority under H.R.1540 does not extend to U.S. citizens or lawful resident aliens.

Of course, laws can be changed, meaning H.R.1540 could someday become an imminent threat to fundamental liberty. The same can be said of Awlaki's demise. However, neither example allows the State to kill Bill Jones for his limited government activism or indefinitely detain Joe Smith because he criticized the State. While slippery slopes are legitimate concerns, indiscriminately incarcerating or assassinating citizens isn't a slippery slope; it's a headlong leap over a cliff. Slippery slopes aren't so noticeable.

People will react when they perceive assaults on basic liberties. Wouldn't detaining or killing citizens without due process be an open invitation to rebellion? Therefore, it makes no sense for the State to employ such tactics. It's much easier to grow tyranny a bit at a time, in plain sight, until the public becomes accustomed to abuses and willingly accepts blatant despotisms.

Both Awlaki's killing and H.R.1540 are like snakes in the brush. Both examples may be dangerous, but the dangers are more perception than reality. Because the threats are perceived we are more suspicious and willing to consider their potential dangers. While our eyes are focused on detecting the large snakes in the brush, we're ignoring the smaller vipers on our daily path; vipers that are continually poisoning our liberties.

Not much is said these days about Transportation Security Administration procedures that border on sexual predation. Yet their invasive tactics continue to expand. TSA agents recently detained a teenage girl because her purse displayed a decorative depiction of a revolver on the outside and were accused of strip-searching an 85-year old woman. It doesn't stop there. The TSA is conducting random detentions and K-9 inspections of interstate tractor-trailer and bus traffic. We'll eventually become so accustomed to encountering uniformed federal agents that their presence will be routine.

Such occurrences aren't unique to federal authorities. A Michigan sheriff has conducted indiscriminate checkpoints on busy highways. An Ohio sheriff's office faces civil proceedings for strip-searching a woman. Now, strip-searches aren't new and are sometimes necessary. But male officers assisted in stripping this woman, who was then left naked in a cell for six hours. Even if a woman deserves arrest, are we comfortable with our wives and daughters being subject to strip-search at the hands of male officers?

The first known arrest of a U.S. citizen using a Predator drone aircraft recently became public. But both federal and local authorities have previously utilized Predator drones, equipped with technology capable of determining individual activity from 10,000 feet, inside U.S. airspace. Furthermore, cameras are nearly as common as traffic signals on metropolitan street corners. While only the naïve expect privacy in public places, the possibility of constant surveillance should give us pause.

There's no need to seek affronts to liberty in the death of one defector to Yemen, nor do we need find them in legislation where their existence is, at most, miniscule.

Assaults on our liberty are happening right before our eyes. Why scour the bushes to find a snake when there are vipers aplenty in our path? Freedom would be better served if we were more attentive to obvious threats than to those existing in perception. Threats to liberty aren't always found in targeted enemies or slippery slope legislation. Too often the greatest threats are encountered daily, hiding in plain sight.

Anthony W. Hager has authored more than 350 articles for various newspapers, periodicals and websites. Contact him via his website,