As I set out to fly home from the UK on Monday following a short film project in Cambridge, I found my boarding pass, which I had been blocked from obtaining online the night before, carrying a bold-faced SSSS stamp in the lower right corner. Asking about it I was told by the British employee at the United check-in counter, “That is because you are on a US Department of Homeland Security list, sir.”
Later, after my son and I got the boarding gate, my name was called and I was ushered through a door in the wall behind the gate desk where two British security agents pawed through my bag and ran a cloth over computer, phone and all the zippers on my suitcase and computer bag looking for traces of explosives. After that I was politely told that I and my son (whose luggage was left uninspected) could board the plane. When I asked why I, a journalist with no criminal record, was being treated like a suspected terrorist, they laughed and said I would have to inquire of the DHS.
It’s not the first time this has happened to me. The same thing happened when my wife and I flew to Vienna in March where she was playing a concert on Vienna State Radio. That time at a checkpoint between Heathrow’s Terminal 5 and Terminal 2, my boarding pass was rejected, and when I got it reprinted a red stamp saying “ICE Security” was added. As on Monday, I was subjected to a special search in a separate location near the gate by an apologetic British security officer.
Today is July 4, and many American citizens will be bringing blankets and lawn chairs to local fireworks displays to celebrate American independence. Of course, those fireworks really hark back to the “rockets’ red glare” referred to in Francis Scott Key’s racist national anthem, which was largely a condemnation of the freed black slaves that the British employed in their effort to conquer Baltimore harbor during the War of 1812.
What, really, have we got to celebrate?
The US today is a global empire. Our country’s military, ballooning to some 2.1 million in uniform at a time that there is really no significant war underway. US military spending, greater in constant dollars than at any time since WWII, represents 34% of all global military spending, and the US military budget, depending on how one counts it, is larger than the next largest eight-to-ten countries’ military budgets combined. To show how ridiculously huge the US military is, consider that at $220 billion for fiscal year 2020, the US budget for Veterans Affairs alone (that’s the agency that provides assistance of all kinds, including medical, to those who served in the military, not counting career soldiers who receive a pension that is counted separately) this one military budget line item is larger than the entire military budget of China, and is more than three times as large as the entire military budget of Russia, considered by many to be our primary “adversary”!
And remember — US empire and militarism is and has always been supported by both political parties.
Here at home, our police are increasingly militarized to the point that most people now view the police as a potential threat, cowering politely in any interaction with cops, and fearing to assert their rights when they disagree with a stop for fear they will be cuffed, brutalized and arrested for speaking up. Our militarized, power-tripping law-enforcement officers insist on “respect,” are quick to make up reasons to take us down and take us in (like “resisting arrest” or “causing a disturbance”) if we don’t show it, and are quick to fire a taser or a gun if they “feel threatened,” knowing that prosecutors and the courts will almost always give them the benefit of the doubt even if video evidence shows them to have been in the wrong.
I’m 70, and the decline in freedom in this country has been a long but quite visible process back at least to when I was a young adult resisting the draft and the Vietnam War. Being on a “watch list” is nothing new for me. I learned from the FBI file I obtained back in the late ‘70s when the Freedom of Information Act was still actually working as originally intended, that I was on a list back during the war years and in fact was scheduled to be arrested by the US Attorney in Hartford, CT for draft resistance until the order, all unknown to me, was rescinded at the last minute. The FBI visited a colleague of my father’s at the UConn Engineering School in 1971 looking into an effort I and my wife made at the Chinese Embassy in Ottawa, Canada to obtain permission to visit China.
Is the US a police state? Yes, certainly it is for some people. It is certainly a police state for immigrants, legal and undocumented alike, for black people wherever they reside, for hispanics and Native Americans, and for those like myself who oppose the political policies and foreign policy of this country. And I guess that answers the question. One doesn’t define a police state as a place that represses everyone, since by definition those who keep their heads down, support the political status quo and those in power, are doing what the state wants them to do. There is no need to show the iron fist or the jackboot to them. A police state is a place that applies force and the tools of repression to those who challenge it. So even before we consider the concentration camps for immigrants along the border, the outrageous separation and imprisonment of babies, toddlers and children by Border Patrol thugs, and our latest president’s desire for military parades to honor himself on this day, the real answer is: Yes! the US must be considered, today, to be a police state.
So what’s to celebrate?
I read that a recent Gallup Organization poll shows a significant drop in the percentage of US Americans who are “extremely proud” of their country. True, 45% still say they are “proud” of America, but normally that is how many say they are “extremely proud” to be Americans. That’s a significant fall-off. Even among normally super-patriotic Republicans the percentage of those saying they are “extremely proud” this July 4 of this country was down to 76%, a 10% drop from 2003, and close to the 68% low point reached at one point during the Obama administration.
The main cause of the loss of patriotic ardor appears to be dismay or disgust with the US political system. According to the poll, only 32% of Americans say they are “proud” (forget “extremely proud”!) of America’s vaunted political system. In a close second for popular disgust, only 37% said they are “proud” of the US health care system.
So I guess I’m in pretty good company. I won’t be oohing and aaahing at the local fireworks display this year. It’s basically a glorification of US war-making anyhow, and there’s nothing at all to be proud of in that regard, particularly with the US in the midst of a $1.5-trillion upgrade of its nuclear arsenal, threatening war with Iran, pulling out of a Reagan-era treaty banning intermediate-range nuclear missiles, and embarking in a new arms race both in space and in virtually unstoppable hypersonic cruise missiles.
In my view, my country has become the world’s leading “rogue” nation, dismissive of all international laws and codes of conduct, actively attacking many countries on its own authority, without the support of UN Security Council resolutions, exonerating war crimes committed by its soldiers, and committed to the first use of nuclear weapons, both as a first strike against major power rivals like Russia and China, and against non-nuclear nations like Iran, and equally dismissive of all efforts, large and small, to respond to the crisis of catastrophic global heating. At home, the US legal system has become a supine supporter of virtually unlimited executive power, of unchecked police power, and of repressive actions against the supposedly constitutionally protected free press.
It’s tempting to hope that the decline noted by Gallup in the percent of Americans expressing “extreme pride” and even of “pride” in the US might mean people are getting fed up with the militarism and endless wars and the thoroughly corrupt political system, but support for the US among the country’s citizens still remains shamefully high in the face of all these negatives.
Anyhow, count me among those who won’t be celebrating today’s July 4 national holiday.