American Gestapo

My favorite radio news show is called Background Briefing. I usually listen on the drive home from work. Yesterday’s episode (August 19, 2019) included host Ian Masters interviewing Mike German, a former agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation and a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program. According to his bio on the Brennan Center website, German’s “work focuses on law enforcement and intelligence oversight and reform.”

Masters discussed German’s book Disrupt, Discredit, and Divide: How the New FBI Damages Democracy along with his recent opinion piece for the Guardian The FBI could fight far-right violence if they wanted to – but they don’t. To get things started, I have transcribed some of the opening minutes of the conversation between Masters and German:

Masters: … you’re making the case here, that there’s a transformation that took place in the FBI after the 9/11 attacks, when it sort of segued from being a law enforcement agency into, arguably, the most secretive domestic intelligence agency America has ever seen. So, I know when Harry, when the CIA was formed, Harry Truman was concerned, you know, he said I don’t want an American gestapo. How far are we from that kind of a nightmare?

German: Ah, well, we’re closer than we should be.

The pair go on to discuss what German labels as the excesses of the J. Edgar Hoover administration, including COINTELPRO and the concept of radicalization, which German defines as the focus by the FBI not on criminal acts of violence but on the spread of bad ideas and extremist thought. The conversation was notable for a number of things; I will single out the discussion about the difference between labeling a criminal act a hate crime rather than an act of domestic terrorism.

However, I want to focus on the idea of the American gestapo. COINTELPRO began as a countermeasure against Communism but was later expanded, in the 1960s, to include civil rights and anti-war activists. German states that “J. Edgar Hoover and his agents, ah, targeted groups for political purposes based on their own biases rather than because of any threat that they posed.” As a consequence of this the COINTELPRO can be seen to have acted as a form of thought police.

Regarding the activities of COINTELPRO it is important to note that FBI chose its targets unilaterally, without any external oversight. Seemingly, these activities included the infiltration and disruption of completely legal and law-abiding civil rights and political organizations. Pedro Cabral writes “COINTELPRO employed illegal and legal covert measures to ‘neutralize’ and destroy organizations that the FBI identified as a threat to national security.” Dr. Huey P. Newton, in his doctoral dissertation War against the panthers: A study of repression in Americasuggests that the FBI orchestrated the deaths of Black Panther Party figures like Fred Hampton and Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter.

I am not convinced the FBI ever stopped using the tactics and practices developed by COINTELPRO. As a member of political and social minority groups within the United States, and as a student of structural violence, I will state that the FBI has de facto acted, through its COINTELPRO activities, as a counterpart, or perhaps a descendant, of Nazi Germany’s gestapo. As a white male, and therefore a member of the generalized moral community within the United States, I can understand why German would want to hedge his bets and say we are closer than we should be to having a gestapo. He likely lacks the perspective that people of color have regarding the FBI.

Legible States and moral community

I found the article The Grim Worldview Behind Trump’s Anti-Immigrant Push, the Hong Kong Protests, and the Kashmir Crisis by Joshua Keating on Slate.com today. To summarize, the article is about the current worldwide political frenzy against ambiguity, which the author defines as “a condition where political sovereignty and citizenship status are ill-defined or even contradictory.” The author uses China’s current issues in Hong Kong and the “one country, two systems” status of Hong Kong, India’s recent moves with Jammu and Kashmir, and trump’s immigration policies, among others, as examples of these countries working to build “legible states.”

Keating points to the work of anthropologist James Scott, whose book Seeing Like a State, described the phenomenon of modern governments striving to ‘arrange the population in ways that simplified the classic state functions of taxation, conscription, and prevention of rebellion.’ As a consequence of this desire for legibility, groups that do not fit squarely within the confines of that legible society “pose a threat to the legibility of a state’s population.” As we are currently witnessing, the actions chosen by governments to improve the legibility of their societies can profoundly affect the people whose existence muddies those visions of legibility.

As I read this article I thought about the idea of moral community. Morton Deutsch wrote in his article Justice and Conflict (in The Handbook of Conflict Resolution, 3rd Ed.) about the moral community being made up of those groups and individuals entitled to justice and fair treatment in a society. Conversely, those outside of the specific groups and individuals making up the moral community are not entitled to justice or fair treatment. As a consequence, those outside the moral community are subject to violence and mistreatment from the members of the moral community. These distinctions are not always official; that is, formally sanctioned by government. Government entities, however, often turn a blind eye to mistreatment and violence against those outside the moral community.

Keating underscored the idea of moral community when he quoted Hannah Arendt’s idea about the ‘right to have rights.’ In the context of my thinking, the right to have rights is tantamount to existing within the moral community. Having never read Arendt myself, I did some quick research that led me to an essay by Stephanie Degooyer and Alastair Hunt. Their essay describes Arendt’s years as a stateless refugee from Germany. Arendt fled from Germany to Paris in 1933. The Nuremburg Laws of 1935 officially rescinded her German citizenship.

After the Nazi invasion of France in 1940, Arendt applied in desperation for asylum at the US embassy in Marseilles. But the US State Department discouraged the issuance of visas to any of the thousands of people fleeing the Nazis, even directly targeted Jews such as Arendt. If it were not for an American diplomat who defied his government’s directives and helped Arendt secure illegal travel documents to the US, Arendt might not have survived the war.

Degooyer and Hunt write about The Origins of Totalitarianism wherein Arendt wrote about the weakness of her inherent human rights. They write, “far from finding any relief in their human rights, the minorities and stateless people in Europe who lacked citizenship, and thus appeared to others to be purely human, were exposed to extreme forms of violence.” Quoting Arendt, “The world found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human.” Degooyer and Hunt write, “In order to have rights, Arendt reasoned, individuals must be more than mere human beings. They must be members of a political community.”

Existing within a group that has the right to have rights is tantamount to being a member of the moral community. Though we may possess rights intrinsic to our existence as a human, history and current events remind us that without the support of the state we have no rights that any citizen is bound to respect. The allusion to Dred Scott v. Sanford is intended. Today citizens are forced to consider who is worthy to reside in our country with any assurance of justice. We are being asked whether we want to expand the moral community to include the tired and poor, the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” or if we want to allow racism and resentment to rule the day.