Several days ago, the New York Times reported that German officials had found the guillotine that they believe was used to execute Hans and Sophie Scholl and other members of the White Rose organization. I wrote about the White Rose in my essay, “The White Rose: A Lesson in Dissent.”
Why did German officials execute the Scholl siblings? They executed them because they considered them to be bad people — i.e., traitors. Hans and Sophie, who were enrolled at the University of Munich, were secretly publishing and distributing pamphlets that called on the German people to oppose the wrongdoing of their own government, the Nazi government, during the middle of World War II.
For a while the White Rose students were able to circumvent the Gestapo, the Nazi organization charged with spying on and closely monitoring the activities of the German people. Ultimately, however, they were caught, rapidly put on trial before a special tribunal that Hitler had created for terrorism and treason cases, and quickly executed by guillotine.
The White Rose story is apropos today, the day that Americans have chosen to honor civil-rights leader Martin Luther King. After all, while he was alive U.S. officials considered King to be an enemy of the U.S. national security state, just as Nazi officials considered the Scholl siblings to be enemies of the Nazi state.
U.S. officials, especially J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI cohorts believed that King was a communist, one who was helping to spearhead a communist takeover of the United States. This was during the Cold War, when official paranoia about communists and communism exceeded all sense of rationality and reason. The FBI, the military establishment, and the CIA were convinced that the communists were coming to get us, infect our minds, and conquer America.
There has long been controversy over whether the national-security state was responsible for the assassination of Martin Luther King but one thing is indisputable: They did want him dead. They considered him one of gravest threats to national security in the history of the national security state.
The FBI embarked on a surveillance scheme designed to discover secrets about King’s personal life. They justified their surveillance on grounds of “national security.” When their surveillance uncovered some embarrassing aspects of King’s personal life, Hoover used the information to blackmail King into committing suicide. The implicit message was: Kill yourself or we’ll reveal what we have uncovered about you.
What they did to Martin Luther King, of course, provides an interesting lesson with respect to the NSA’s super-secret, massive surveillance scheme on the American people. The NSA, along with other national-security state officials, says, “Trust us. Just trust us. We’re here for you. We just want to keep you safe. The information we collect about you will be used only for honorable purposes. We promise! We have changed. None of us is like J. Edgar Hoover. We would never do what he did, not even if ‘national security’ depended on it.”
But even if all that were true, a free society doesn’t turn on trust of public officials. A free society turns on a governmental structure and well-defined laws that make people certain that the government isn’t spying on them and acquiring secret information about them unless officials have secured a judicially issued warrant based on probable cause that the targeted person has, in fact, engaged in criminal wrongdoing. When people are being asked to “trust” the people in power with the personal information that is being collected on the citizenry, that is about as far from a free society as one could get.
It’s time for Americans to do some serious soul-searching by asking themselves some important questions:
1. What does it truly mean to live in a free country?
2. Can a country truly be considered free when its officials wield powers that are traditionally wielded by totalitarian dictators, including the power to spy on the citizenry and secretly collect information about their personal lives, not to mention the powers to incarcerate them indefinitely in military installations, to torture them, and even to assassinate them?
3. What would life be like without the Cold War-era national-security state apparatus — i.e., the military-industrial complex, the CIA, and the NSA — that was grafted onto our constitutional system and which has vested U.S. officials with totalitarian powers?
4. Would the American people be safer — and freer — without the national security branch of the government?
5. Given the fiascoes in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan and the massive infringements on civil liberties and privacy in the names of “national security,” the “war on communism,” and the “war on terrorism,” has the time come to restore a limited-government, constitutional republic to our land?
What better time to begin such soul-searching than on a day we recall people who have paid enormous prices for having the courage to challenge and oppose the wrongdoing of their own government, a day that we honor a man who was spied on and blackmailed by U.S. officials, on grounds of “national security,” and who nonetheless persisted in challenging the wrongdoing of his own government?
Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation.
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