Glenn Greenwald at ACLU of Oregon 2013 Liberty Dinner
Glenn Greenwald at ACLU of Oregon 2013 Liberty Dinner; 3/2/13
Good evening everyone, and thank you for coming tonight. And thank you as well to Staci [?] and Erin for that very creative introduction. Thank so much as well to the ACLU of Oregon for inviting me to speak here, this evening. I speak at a lot of events like this, for a lot of different groups, and there really is no organization with which I feel more at home than the ACLU.
One of the things I’ve discovered over the past seven or eight years of writing about and working on these issues is that it is extremely easy to find civil liberties allies, people who are very vocal in their opposition to government abuses of power when the other party, the party that they don’t support, is the one who’s hands are on the lever of power. But they sort of disappear, or fall mute or even become overtly adversarial when it’s there own political party or a political leader whom they admire who is responsible for those abuses. And one of the things that admire and value most about the ACLU is that its commitment to defending individual rights from majoritarian oppression and from abuses of the state is steadfast and unyielding regardless of which political faction is perpetrating those abuses, regardless of which group is being victimized by them. And it’s that principled commitment that makes the ACLU the most important and far and away the most effective civil liberties organization in America. So, thank you for inviting me. I’m genuinely honored to be part of this event.
When I speak about civil liberties, regardless of how I approach the topic, the thing that I always like to start off by doing is asking what it is that we even mean by this term civil liberties. It’s a term that gets tossed around a lot. And the reason I think it’s important to ask what it is that this term denotes, is because it almost has taken on this status of vapid, trite slogan. It’s something that politicians and all sorts of people invoke continuously to justify their political agenda. But it’s very rarely debated. You don’t usually hear people standing up in public and saying Hi, I’m just here to make clear that I’m opposed to civil liberties. It’s not really a concept that gets thought about much. And, so, I think it’s important if we’re going to talk about it tonight, as part of the ACLU event, as part of the work and the commitment that it does, that we take a second to ask what it is that it means.
And the really good thing about asking that question is that ultimately the term civil liberties is a very straight forward and relatively simple concept. All it really refers to, is the list of limitations that we have imposed on the government in terms of the power that it exercises and what it is that it can do to us. And, adherence to this list of limitations is the condition that we have imposed for recognizing the assertion of government power as valid and legitimate. We agree to recognize and accept the assertion of state power provided that it never crosses the lines that we’ve created, the limits that we’ve imposed, in how it can exercise that power. And, that list of limitations is what we refer to when we talk about civil liberties.
And the other good thing about asking that question is that this list of limitations, these limitations are not ambiguous. Nor are they circumstantial or conditional. They are definite and clear. And they apply to every person and every group of people equally, regardless of the situation. They do not yield to certain situations. They can not be diluted based upon the group to which they are being applied.
And all one needs to know, to do, to know how absolute these concepts are, how clear and definitive this list of limitations is, is to look at them and read them and see what they are. And we don’t need to go searching for them. They’re all assembled in one place, in one document called the Bill of Rights or The Constitution. And their clarity and their absoluteness is self-evident from listening to what it is that they say. So, you look at the First Amendment and it says Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech. You look at the Fourth Amendment and its prohibitions on unreasonable searches and seizures, or the issuance of search warrants, and the absence of probable cause. And you look at the Fifth Amendment which says no person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.
A few years ago, I had this fairly acrimonious exchange with Joe Klein of Time magazine. And, I’ve actually had many, many acrimonious exchanges with Joe Klein of Time magazine, but this one in particular I was thinking of was in 2008 or 2009. I don’t remember the specifics, but it was about civil liberties defenses. And we were going back and forth over the course of two weeks on our various columns exchanging all sorts of criticisms of one another, and insults of one another. It was fairly contentious. And I remember, in the middle of this exchange he wrote something in one of the leading paragraphs that he wrote and he said, "Well I think the thing that we have to realize here, which is really driving this conflict, is that Glenn Greenwald is a civil liberties extremist.". That’s what he wrote. And I remember when I read that I was actually really [applause] that was my reaction. I was actually bewildered, because, I was really confused because here we were in this vituperative exchange, hurling insults at one another in public, and I couldn't figure out why all of a sudden he decided to stop in the middle of this and lavish me with this praise. Civil Liberties Extremist. Is he trying to offer out a fig leaf or something? And I realized pretty quickly after that, that Oh, I understand, he actually means that as an insult, like that’s a bad thing. And that’s why I was confused. And the reason why, to me that is the greatest compliment that you can give somebody, I actually sort of fantasize about having that on my tombstone, Here Lies Glenn Greenwald, Civil Liberties Extremist, is because if you look at what these rights are, you really can’t believe in them without being extremist about them. The minute you start justifying waiving these rights based on certain conditions, or because of the group to which it’s applied, you immediately declare that you don’t actually believe in these rights at all.
And, if you look at the state of civil liberties in the United States today, which is essentially what I’m here to talk about, and what the ACLU works on each and every day, what you find are [let’s look at those rights that I just talked about], if you look at the First Amendment what you see is a whole series of prosecutions, where people are sent to prison for many decades, almost always Muslim Americans, for material support of terrorism based not on anything that they've done, or plots in which they’ve been involved, but almost exclusively on statements that they’ve made in which they’ve expressed critical opinions of the United States, a pure breach of this guarantee against punishment based on speech. Or if you look at the massive surveillance state that the United States government has created in which our actions are monitored and stored, not by any allegation that we’ve done anything wrong, but simply as a matter of reflexive instinct. It is as profound a violation of the guarantees against unreasonable searches and seizures, or the guarantee that we will only be monitored if we’ve done something wrong as you can possibly imagine. Or if you look at the claimed assertion and power of the President to target people around the world, even American citizens, for execution without so much as charging them with any crime, that is as extreme and pure a repudiation of the Fifth Amendment guarantee against the deprivation of life without due process as one can possibly imagine.
So, I think that if you talk about the state of civil liberties in the United States, what you really have to conclude is that violations of these rights, repudiations of these principles, are not isolated or episodic. They’re really fundamental and systemic, especially over the last decade. And, so, about that fact, I think it’s worth asking a couple of questions, and I want to basically devote my time to exploring these two questions, the first of which is Why is it that we’ve allowed this to happen? Why collectively as a nation have we allowed these systemic abuses to take hold without much of a backlash? And, secondly to ask, what are the implications from allowing these abuses to have taken hold and to continue to become intensified and bolstered for as long as they have?
So, let me address that first question first, which is Why is it that we’ve allowed these sorts of abuses and violations to take place? I think the first answer is that it’s all happened within the context of war. We are a nation that has spent the last almost thirteen full years now, running around declaring ourselves to be a nation at war with almost no end in sight. It’s been twelve years, almost thirteen. It’s hard to imagine when that will end. And the nature of war is such that a leader’s powers are virtually limitless. This has always been true. Two thousand years ago, Cicero said When men take up arms, the Law falls mute. Leaders love war, because the Law ceases to constrain what it is that they can do. And what makes this war unique, is that it is not a war confined to any physical spaces on the earth, finite spaces. It is a war that has been declared by two successive governments to be one that is fought on the global battlefield, the entire globe being a battlefield. And once you accept that war paradigm, what it means is that it is almost impossible to constrain the power of leaders to surveil, or eavesdrop or detain or even kill because the nature of war is such that leaders’ powers are very difficult to constrain. That’s the reason why war is horrific not only because of the carnage that it produces, and the death that it results in, but because of the way in which it transforms and degrades a political culture and political institutions. And the acceptance of this war paradigm is a crucial factor in understanding why these trends have been so difficult to arrest.
The second factor that I think is crucial to note, is that there is a perception that has been cultivated, by design, very deliberate, that these abuses are applicable and are only targeting a very specific, discreet marginalized group, which happens to be Muslims and increasingly American Muslims. This is the way that civil liberties abuses always work, is that the government singles out, on purpose, the most marginalized group it can think of in order to target that group with these abuses with the knowledge that most people in the society will acquiesce to them or even support them, not because in theory they support the abuses, but because they think that particular group deserves it, or because they believe that as long as they’re immunized there’s no reason really to care.
Aside from the extraordinarily grotesque morality of that form of thinking, as long as an injustice doesn’t affect me I won’t care about it, it’s an incredibly ill-advised thing to think for two reasons, one of which is that it is almost always the case that civil liberties abuses extend beyond the group originally targeted. And the second reason that it’s an misguided way to think is that once you’ve acquiesced in the first instance to an abuse of government power, because you’re happy with the individual or a group to which that abuse is applied, that abuse becomes institutionalized, it becomes legitimized, so that future applications beyond that which you may not be so comfortable with become almost impossible to confront.
And we see this in all sorts of ways over the last decade. The Patriot Act that was enacted in the name of terrorism that people assumed would be applied to Muslims has been applied overwhelmingly in cases having nothing having to do with terrorism. And we see all sorts of tactics that have defined war on terror excesses and radicalism now being applied not to foreign nationals on foreign soil, but increasingly being imported into the United States, whether it be statutes that are enacted authorizing the indefinite detention even of American citizens on US soil. Or, we’re increasingly seeing the tactic that the FBI has long used to imprison whatever Muslims they wanted, which is they invent, The FBI does, terrorist plots, and they then create and plan and fund them and then recruit people to join them. And then, at the last minute, they heroically jump in and save us from the plot that the FBI created. And then accuse the people they’ve recruited of being terrorists. This is a tactic now being used increasingly to domestic groups, whether it be the Occupy Movement, or people protesting NATO policies or a whole slew of others as well.
We see, as well, the importation of para-militarized police forces using tactics that were perfected in Baghdad now being used in American cities. And we of course see the inevitable implementation of a massive regime of drones that are being used increasingly by federal, state and local governments for surveillance purposes and increasingly as will happen, for weaponized purposes.
And, so what you see is the acquiescence to these abuses based on the expectation that they will be applied only to a small group of people that is now increasingly being applied to US politics and US political culture generally. But this perception, as wrong-headed as it is, that it’s only a certain group that needs to worry, has been a major factor, as well, in why this is so difficult to combat, and to why we’ve allowed this to happen.
And then, the final reason I would give as to explaining why we’ve allowed these abuses to take hold is the role that partisan loyalty plays in how these abuses are conceived of. I know this from my own experience. I’ve been talking about these policies, these civil liberties abuses for eight or nine years, now, and I know that five years ago or so, if I went and spoke to an audience of say five hundred randomly assembled people and I denounced the policies that I have spent the last ten minutes or so just denouncing, fifty percent of the room, roughly, would be incredibly hostile to the things that I was saying. Those were called Republicans. And, the other fifty percent of the room would be boisterously supportive. The would cheer and they would say You’re defending America and all of its core values from assault, and we support what you’re doing and we think these policies are threatening and menacing. And those were called Democrats. And now, here we are, four years later, and if I were to stand up in front of that same randomly assembled room and speak about the same policies and the same content of the message, probably eighty percent of the room would be at least somewhat hostile, and only twenty percent, or maybe even fifteen percent would be supportive. And that’s because lots of people who were willing to commit themselves in battling civil liberties abuses four years ago or five years ago, because they perceived that there was partisan advantage to doing so, or because they believed that the leader perpetrating those abuses was evil, are now very comfortable with those abuses, or even supportive of them because it’s their own side that is doing it.
And I think the real lesson from that is that the way in which civil liberties are protected, the way in which core rights are guaranteed is not by going to the ballot box once every four years and electing someone that we think is a better leader. That’s not how rights are secured. The way that rights are secured is by banding together as citizens and objecting to violations, no matter who is in charge of the government and no matter which group is being targeted.
So, I just want to spend the balance of the time that I have talking about what the implications are for being a country that for the last twelve years has proclaimed itself, quite belligerently and proudly to be a nation at war, and has ushered in all of these excessive powers and allowed and acquiesced to these violations. Because I think that, the implications, some of them are somewhat obvious, from a allowing the government to punish people based on their speech and their political ideas, or targeting marginalized minority groups for special persecution. Some of those harms are inherent in the act and are fairly obvious.
But others are somewhat elusive, and I think probably ultimately more consequential. And I want to focus on a couple of the ones I think are a bit more subtle and yet probably a bit more insidious, the consequences of allowing this to take hold.
The first one that I want to highlight is how quickly extremism and radicalism become normalized. If you go back and read American political debates in late 2001 and 2002, when the citizenry was incredibly willing to acquiesce to what the government was doing, the Patriot Act even in the wake of the 9-11 attack was a fairly controversial measure. It was debated very vociferously. It was depicted as a threat to our core liberties. So much so, that when Congress enacted it, they put in a provision saying it has to be renewed in four years because we don’t want this to become a permanent part of our political framework.
And yet, in 2005 under a Republican President and a Republican Congress, and then again in 2010 under a Democratic President and a Democratic Congress the Patriot Act got renewed overwhelmingly with almost no debate or attention paid and almost no reforms, because what was once a radical concept, this legislative statutory framework, became an embedded part of our political framework. We barely notice the Patriot Act anymore. We don’t talk about it. We don’t even think about it. That’s not what is considered radical any longer. It’s become completely normalized.
And this process of how extremism becomes normalized was really conveyed to me viscerally by this one personal anecdote that I just want to share with you. It was, last year I was speaking at a college in Indiana, Perdue, and three high school juniors, who were fifteen or sixteen years old, all drove up to hear me speak, and they were journalists who write for their high school news paper and afterwards they wanted to interview me. And I actually found that the things they had to say were much more interesting than the things that I ended up saying to them. In particular, one of the girls, a high school sophomore who spoke to me said, you know one of the things that you kept talking about in your speech and that you write about a lot, is how we’ve lost so many of our freedoms and how we’ve so radically changed as a society in the wake of 9-11. But, she said, I think one thing you need to understand is that for people my age, I’m fifteen, she said, I was four years old at the time that 9-11 happened. There really is no such thing as a pre 9-11 and a post 9-11 world for people my age. The post 9-11 world is the totality of their political consciousness which seems extreme and radical to those of us old enough to remember what things were like prior to then is the only thing that people her age and increasingly more and more people even know. And every year that goes by these radical policies become part of the woodwork, barely even noticed any longer, without a citizenry even aware that there are other alternatives. And this is a major implication from allowing these policies to endure as long as they have.
And then, the second implication that I think is even more important, and is a little harder to describe, but I think is really worth thinking about, is the way in which the relationship of the citizenry to the government changes dramatically when it knows that they have a government that no longer adheres to those lines I talked about earlier. Because I think in an ideal free society, the way things work is that people who wield power have a healthy fear of the people over whom they wield power. They fear the consequences of what will happen if they abuse their power. But in a tyrannical state, by definition, that gets reversed, and the citizenry fears the government because they know there’s nothing constraining it from doing whatever it wants, that these lines that we’ve imposed are simply being disregarded without consequence.
This really got viscerally conveyed to me by another personal anecdote that I just want to share with you, because it really has stuck with me as a critical part of how I see all theses civil liberties issues. This took place in January of 2010. I’ve spent the last several years writing many times about the organization Wikileaks. And I’ve written in defense of them and about the promise that their model of transparency holds. In 2010, January 2010 that was the first time I ever wrote about Wikileaks. Almost nobody had even heard of the group at the time. Nobody had known about them. It was before they did most of their significant leaks. The way that I learned about Wikileaks at the time was that there was a top secret Pentagon report in 2008 that had declared Wikileaks to be an enemy of the state. They talked about how Wikileaks posed a profound threat to national security and plotted ways to destroy the organization. And, ironically enough, this top secret report got leaked to Wikileaks, which then published it on line. And, you could go and read it and the New York Times wrote a very short article about this report, and it talked about how this obscure Australian and his weird organization had been declared an enemy of the state by the United States. And I read this article, and I remember thinking that any group that has been declared to be an enemy of the state by the Pentagon is one that merits a lot more attention and probably a lot more support.
So, I went and researched the group and I found that they had done these incredible projects of transparency and exposed all kinds of damaging secrets around the world to the most powerful factions. And I wrote long article about the promise the group held. And I interviewed Julian Assange. At the end of the article, I encouraged people to go and donate money to the organization, because they were having budgetary constraints. They were sitting on lots of secrets they weren’t able to process because they didn’t have enough staff. And I posted links to how people could go and donate money to Wikileaks, through Electronic Wire, through Pay Pal and the like. In response to that column that I wrote, I had dozens and dozens of people in all kinds of different venues, in events like this, by e-mail, in the comment sections, wherever I would go, say to me essentially along the lines something like I completely understand why you support Wikileaks. I want to support Wikileaks myself. I want to donate money to Wikileaks as well. The only reason that I don’t is because I have a fear that if I donate money to Wikileaks, I’m going to end up on a government list somewhere. Or, I could even be subjected to criminal liability for aiding and abetting a terrorist organization or materially supporting a terrorist group if they are declared to be such. And these were not bizarre, conspiracy ridden kinds of people, prone to paranoia. Trust me, I recognize those people from extensive interaction. These were very sober, rational people, readers and other kinds of American citizens. The reason that was so striking to me was because these were people who had voluntarily relinquished their own Constitutional rights, which is what donating money to a political organization whose cause you support is. It’s pure free speech and free associational rights because they had come to fear the United States government. They came to believe that the US government could punish them or otherwise take action against them regardless of the fact that those rights that they were exercising were guaranteed, because those rights no longer had meaning.
And that was what was so incredible to me, was that you could offer all the rights you want on a piece of paper or a piece of parchment, but if you intimidate the citizenry out of exercising them because they know the government can cross whatever lines it wants to cross, those rights become completely worthless. People become so afraid of the government, reasonably and rightfully so, that they will simply oppress themselves. And that’s why that was such a profound situation and profound episode for me, underscoring the significant implication of what happens when we allow the government to ignore civil liberties. It’s not abstract or intellectual as an issue. It’s very visceral and profound.
So, the last point I just want to make in the minute or two that I have, is that it’s often the case that if you gather at events like this, and talk about these systemic problems, that I just talked about, this sort of really dark, like gloominess can set in. Like, oh my god I just listened to this person talk about all these formidable rights abuses and I think I want to go, you know, shut all my windows and hide under the bed or jump off a bridge or something.
And it can kind of [unclear] as defeatism. The reason I think that’s not a rational response, as tempting as it might be, is because the clear lesson of all eras of history, including recent history, is that any human structure that is built by human beings can always be modified or torn down and replaced by other human beings if the right commitment and the right passion and the right will is devoted to it.
And you see that in the Arab Spring, where some of the most oppressed populations subverted some of the most entrenched tyrannies. You see it over and over in the history of the United States, extraordinary social progress being made by citizens banding together who are stripped of power and influence, because they find ways to do it. And it’s that possibility that I think history has proven over and over exists in a very real and animated way that makes organizations like the ACLU so critically important to support, because they’re the ones on the front lines leading that fight. And that’s really the reason that I’m so honored to be part of a group like the ACLU that does lead this fight. It’s the reason why I’m so happy to be here tonight and I thank you very much for listening.
The ACLU of Oregon is an advocacy organization dedicated to preserving and advancing civil liberties and civil rights. Our annual Liberty Dinner, held on Saturday, March 2, 2013, was a benefit for the ACLU Foundation of Oregon and featured guest speaker Glenn Greenwald.
Glenn Greenwald worked as a constitutional and civil rights litigator before becoming a columnist and blogger to Salon.com and then The Guardian, where he focuses on political and legal topics. He has written three New York Times bestsellers: How Would a Patriot Act? (2006); A Tragic Legacy (2007); and With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful (2011). He also wrote Great American Hypocrites (2008).
More about the ACLU of Oregon: The Oregon Affiliate of the ACLU is a non-partisan organization dedicated to the preservation and enhancement of civil liberties and civil rights. We believe that the freedoms of press, speech, assembly, and religion, and the rights to due process, equal protection and privacy, are fundamental to a free people. We advance civil liberties and civil rights by activities that include litigation, education, and lobbying.
*With much thanks to "EvenHarpier" for this transcription!