Our story so far

It’s been quite a week in the abuse-of-authority department. The NSA story has gotten most of the attention, of course, but let’s not overlook the other contenders.

We’ve learned that the Pentagon has been spying on Quakers and gay student groups. We’ve learned that federal agents may visit you if you read the wrong book. And today, we learn that New York City police have been covertly stirring up trouble at protest rallies.

Undercover New York City police officers have conducted covert surveillance in the last 16 months of people protesting the Iraq war, bicycle riders taking part in mass rallies and even mourners at a street vigil for a cyclist killed in an accident, a series of videotapes show.

In glimpses and in glaring detail, the videotape images reveal the robust presence of disguised officers or others working with them at seven public gatherings since August 2004.

The officers hoist protest signs. They hold flowers with mourners. They ride in bicycle events. At the vigil for the cyclist, an officer in biking gear wore a button that said, “I am a shameless agitator.” She also carried a camera and videotaped the roughly 15 people present.

Beyond collecting information, some of the undercover officers or their associates are seen on the tape having influence on events. At a demonstration last year during the Republican National Convention, the sham arrest of a man secretly working with the police led to a bruising confrontation between officers in riot gear and bystanders.

Until Sept. 11, the secret monitoring of events where people expressed their opinions was among the most tightly limited of police powers.

Berube has a good post on the supposed “libertarians” who support ever-increasing government intrusiveness at the expense of, you know, liberty. But there’s more to the problem than bloggers who continually harrumph that those of us angered by the mendacity of the Bush administration are “on the other side.” There’s more to the problem than bloggers who genuinely believe that those of us who fear for the very principles of liberty and freedom upon which this nation was founded actually want al Qaeda to win.

The real problem is that there are — and always have been — people in government and law enforcement, people with actual power, who believe this crap. Who can’t tell the difference between a Quaker’s friends meeting and an al Qaeda cell. Who believe — or conveniently pretend to believe — that gay student groups are a threat to national security. Who see a group of protesters and think to themselves, “you’re either with us or against us,” and consider it their duty to undermine the First Amendment by any means necessary.

The right wing bloggers are just on the sidelines, cheering these people on — because they figure their status as Right Thinking Citizens protects them from similar harassment and intimidation. In their fantasies, the big strong police officer will see the flag pin on their lapel and give them a knowing wink and move on down the line to bash some longhaired terrorist loving hippie freak.

History, of course, would tend to suggest that increasing authoritarianism often doesn’t work out that well, even for Right Thinking Citizens. But no one ever seems to remember that particular lesson until it’s far too late.

…meanwhile, the Pajamatarians are busy discussing traffic cameras in the U.K. I guess that one’s safely abstract enough to denounce. Just wait until it starts happening here, they’ll be stumbling over themselves to explain why it’s not a big deal at all.