by Tim Kelly
“There are those who still think they are holding the pass against a revolution that may be
coming up the road. But they are gazing in the wrong direction. The revolution is behind them. It
went by in the Night of Depression, singing songs to freedom.”
Those are the words of Garet Garrett, the 20th-century journalist and writer, who lamented
the collapse of the old Republic and the rise of the American managerial/administrative state —
the consummation of which he had witnessed in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Garrett’s observation came to mind the other day as I was contemplating the current state
of civil liberties and privacy in 21st-century America. Could it be that rather than fending off the
possibility of a police state arising in the future, we are already confronted with the grim reality of
one in the present?
The country’s degeneration into a police state has been observable for decades, but it
accelerated after 9/11 when the George W. Bush administration exploited the crisis atmosphere to
ram through a series of unconstitutional and tyrannical measures. Fear became the coin of the
realm as the American people traded away their liberties for the empty promise of security.
That such a deal would turn sour was foreseeable. Benjamin Franklin told his fellow
countrymen 250 years ago, “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little
temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
His admonition, of course, hasn’t always been heeded. The country’s history is replete
with examples of the American people succumbing to paroxysms of fear and hysteria, often
resulting in gross violations of civil liberties. But these episodes, however terrible, were short-
lived because they were reactions to temporary crises. Today Americans are confronted with
something entirely different — we are told this crisis is permanent.
The federal government now boasts 16 national intelligence agencies, spending an
estimated $100 billion per year and employing an army of staffers and contractors who routinely
(and illegally) spy domestically. Investigative journalist James Bamford recently wrote in Wired
magazine that the National Security Agency is putting finishing touches on a massive data storage
center in Utah as part of its “Stellar Wind” program, a massive surveillance and data-mining
operation that involves collecting, storing, and examining billions of domestic phone calls and
This project is a culmination of a decade-long effort by the nation’s spy agencies to create a
panoptic society, in which the entire population is brought under round-the-clock government
surveillance. This is no longer the stuff of dystopian futuristic novels and is now a grim reality,
largely because of the stupendous increases in computing power and storage capacity achieved in
recent years. “Total information awareness” is now feasible thanks to the geniuses in Silicon
Valley — and it is now considered permissible by the psychopaths and control freaks running the
John Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute provided an excellent summation of the
problem in a piece he wrote late last year:
The U.S. government now has at its disposal a technological arsenal so
sophisticated and invasive as to render any constitutional protections null and
void. And these technologies are being used by the government to invade the
privacy of the American people. Several years ago, government officials
acknowledged that the nefarious intelligence gathering entity known as the
National Security Agency (NSA) had exceeded its legal authority by eavesdropping
on Americans’ private email messages and phone calls. However, these reports
barely scratch the surface of what we are coming to recognize as a
“security/industrial complex” — a marriage of government, military and corporate
interests aimed at keeping Americans under constant surveillance. The increasingly
complex security needs of our massive federal government, especially in the areas
of defense, surveillance and data management, have been met within the corporate
sector, which has shown itself to be a powerful ally that both depends on and feeds
the growth of governmental bureaucracy.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recently made headlines when it purchased
450 million rounds of .40-caliber ammunition. Why is DHS hoarding that much ammo? What
kind of trouble are they expecting?
The Transportation Security Agency has extended its jurisdiction beyond airports and now
is groping and irradiating Americans at train stations, bus depots, and the nation’s highways.
So-called fusion centers have popped up in 49 states, amassing files on ordinary
Americans for doing the most ordinary of things.
State and local police departments have been gradually assimilated into what journalist
William Norman Grigg calls the “vertically integrated Homeland Security State.” This integration
has largely been a function of the federal government’s so-called wars on drugs and terrorism.
In this process, police departments have been transmogrified into virtual standing armies,
endowed with an array of military-grade weapons and equipment. SWAT teams, once a rarity,
have proliferated throughout the country and are increasingly used in routine police work. And
this militarization of the police has been coupled with the use of actual military personnel
The emergence of the police state has predictably resulted in the swelling of the nation’s
prison population, which is now the largest in the world. Police are now jailing people for the
“crimes” of selling raw milk or buying too much Sudafed. A massive snarl of regulatory red tape
dangles above the head of every American, threatening to impose crushing fines and even
imprisonment. As former assistant Treasury Secretary Paul Craig Roberts says, “long before 9/11
US law had ceased to be a shield of the people and had been turned into a weapon in the hands of
The nation’s courts, rather than checking the police state’s relentless expansion, have
become its enabler. The Indiana Supreme Court ruled in Barnes v. State that citizens do not have
the right to resist police officers who enter their homes illegally. The U.S. Supreme Court
delivered a severe blow to the Fourth Amendment when it ruled in Kentucky v. King that police
could break into a home without a warrant so long as they suspected that those inside were in
possession of illegal drugs. And just a few weeks ago, the court ruled that law-enforcement
officials, whether local, state, or federal, have the authority to strip-search anyone they arrest for
What recourse do the people have when police forces violate the very law they are sworn
to uphold and the courts become complicit in their abuse? As disturbing as that question is, it is
one that American people must ask themselves if the country’s descent into tyranny is to be
The recently passed Federal Aviation Administration Air Transportation Modernization
and Safety Act includes an amendment authorizing the use of spy drones in American airspace.
The bill’s passage was apparently anticipated by law-enforcement agencies across the nation, as
many of them had already deployed spy drones as part of their domestic police work. U.S.
Customs and Border Protection, the FBI, and the DEA are also using spy drones in their
The Patriot Act, the Military Commissions Act, the Protect America Act, and the more
recent National Defense Authorization Act of 2012 (NDAA) are all grossly unconstitutional, yet
they passed through Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support. The NDAA is particularly
egregious, for it not only explicitly authorizes indefinite detentions of U.S. citizens on American
soil but also requires that detainees be held in military custody.
The Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act codifies the federal
government’s practice of intimidating and silencing protestors. The ostensible purpose of the law
is to prevent the unlawful disruption of government business or “official functions,” but what is
“unlawful” is left to the discretion of federal agents. Indeed, the language of the law is so vague
that it arguably constitutes a suspension of the First Amendment right to free speech and peaceful
And then there is the National Defense Resources Preparedness executive order, which
authorizes a federal-government takeover of the entire economy during a declared “national
emergency.” President Obama claims this authority under the Constitution, of course, and the
Defense Production Act of 1950, a law that historian Robert Higgs says gives the president “lawful
authority to control virtually the whole of the U.S. economy whenever he chooses to do so and
states that the national defense requires such a government takeover.”
So all the president has to do is to declare a nebulous “national emergency,” and his
agents can seize control of every factory, farm, and business in the country and lay claim to all its
resources, including labor.
The intent of this short essay is not to provide a “list of horribles” committed by the
government (although such an accounting is useful) but to point out that the much-feared police
state has come into being. Its growth had been gradual, which contributed to the public’s
indifference, but it metastasized after 9/11, when the remaining legal barriers to the state’s
expansion were taken down in the name of “national security.” A large portion of the public
appears to be appropriately alarmed, but it remains to be seen whether this will reach a critical
mass in time to reverse the country’s destructive course.
Tim Kelly is a columnist and policy advisor at the Future of Freedom Foundation in Fairfax,
Virginia, a correspondent for Radio America’s Special Investigator, and a political cartoonist.
This article was originally published in May 2012.