Who Will Watch the Watchers?
Editors' Note: This article is part of a Public Square conversation on the Security State. Read other perspectives here.
In Juvenal's Satires a jealous husband was advised to hire a guard to watch his cheating wife. The jealous husband shot back, "But who will guard the guards?
That famous line has been quoted many times through history when overweening governments have offered to adopt an all-seeing oversight of the people. Wise people have always been known to ask, "Who will watch the watchers?"
That same question occurs now in relation to the massive surveillance state under construction today. Our leaders have built a secret bunker from which they may spy on anyone, while they themselves will be unaccountable to the people they claim to be protecting. In what sense would such an arrangement deserve to be called a democracy?
The implications of domestic spying on social justice movements have already been profound. When the Select Committee on Assassinations of the U.S. House of Representatives published its analysis of the FBI's treatment of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. they painted a disturbing picture. Their report stated:
The department of justice failed to supervise adequately the domestic intelligence division of the federal bureau of investigation; in addition, the federal bureau of investigation, in the domestic intelligence division's COINTELPRO campaign against Dr. King, grossly abused and exceeded its legal authority and failed to consider the possibility that actions threatening bodily harm to Dr. King might be encouraged by the program.
A prophetic religion is inherently revolutionary. It seeks to protect the weak and to dismantle systems that oppress the weak and poor. To the rich and powerful, prophetic religion will always sound like sedition. Certainly, that is how Dr. King's ministry was perceived by many at the FBI. A memo was uncovered expressing then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover's reaction to Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" address:
... Personally, I believe in the light of King's powerful demagogic speech yesterday he stands head and shoulders over all other Negro leaders put together when it comes to influencing great masses of Negroes. We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation from the standpoint of communist, the Negro, and national security.
We do not need much imagination to realize just how a surveillance state puts social justice movements at risk. Our intelligence community has already been caught sabotaging peace, labor, and civil rights movements, as well as lying directly to the American people. To trust them with oversight of our private lives would mean surrendering a very important part of our own humanity.
The Congressional study cited above concluded that the FBI had been guilty of manipulating the media by planting false stories about Dr. King, taping his phone calls, and bugging rooms where they knew he would be. In 1976, the Church Committee released its report on Intelligence Activities and the Rights of Americans. They found that between 1960 and 1974, the FBI kept files on one million Americans, investigated 500,000 people deemed "subversives." All of that spying did not result in a single conviction. Furthermore, the Church Committee warned that once agencies have collected information on a "target" there is increasing pressure to use that information for political purposes.
Whatever one thinks of Edgar Snowden or Chelsea Manning, they have given us what may be our last glimpse of what is happening behind the closed doors of our intelligence community.
There does not seem to be any level to which that unaccountable power will not sink. We should recall that FBI operatives even tried to push Dr. King to commit suicide by sending him an anonymous letter detailing his personal sexual life. In part, that letter said:
King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. You have just 34 days in which to do (this exact number has been selected for a specific reason, it, has definite practical significance). You are done. There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the Nation.
Communities of faith were made to stand over and against systems of domination and injustice. As such, they are fair game for the kind of tactics that were used on Dr. King. What kind of a nation would punish whistleblowers but never punish those responsible for the war crimes revealed by the whistleblowers?
To claim that the threat of terrorism makes our times unique is to make ourselves impervious to the lessons of history. One of those lessons is that whenever a government makes itself unaccountable under the guise of protecting the people, we need to shout from the mountaintops, "Who is watching the watchers?"
Jim Rigby is a Presbyterian minister in Austin Texas. He has worked at the state and national levels on reproductive rights, workers’ rights and GLBT rights. A “Rev. Jim Rigby Award” was established in 1991 by NARAL Texas to honor religious or theological contributions in the field of women’s reproductive rights. Jim was named a “Champion of Social Change” by the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, received the Lone Star Leadership Award for work on hate crimes, as well as the “Bettie Naylor Equality Award” by the Human Rights Campaign and was named “Texas Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers.” Jim has written for Huffington Post, Alternet, Common Dreams and writes a daily blog on jimrigby.org.