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The Lynch Mob Mentality

Glenn Greenwald

 by Salon

If I had the power to have one statement of fact be universally recognized in our political discussions, it would be this one:

The fact that the Government labels Person X a "Terrorist" is not proof that Person X is, in fact, a Terrorist.

That
proposition should be intrinsically understood by any American who
completed sixth grade civics and was thus taught that a central prong
of our political system is that government officials often abuse their
power and/or err and therefore must prove accusations
to be true (with tested evidence) before they're assumed to be true and
the person punished accordingly.  In particular, the fact that the U.S.
Government, over and over, has falsely accused numerous people of being Terrorists -- only for it to turn out that they did nothing wrong -- by itself should compel a recognition of this truth.  But it doesn't.  

All
throughout the Bush years, no matter what one objected to -- illegal
eavesdropping, torture, rendition, indefinite detention, denial of
civilian trials -- the response from Bush followers was the same:  "But these are Terrorists, and Terrorists have no rights, so who cares what is done to them?"  What they actually meant was:  "the Government has claimed they are Terrorists," but in their minds, that was the same thing as:  "they are
Terrorists."  They recognized no distinction between "a government
accusation" and "unchallengeable truth"; in the authoritarian's mind,
by definition, those are synonymous.  The whole point of the Bush-era
controversies was that -- away from an actual battlefield and where the
Constitution applies (on U.S. soil and/or towards American citizens
wherever they are) -- the Government should have to demonstrate someone's guilt before it's assumed (e.g.,
they should have to show probable cause to a court and obtain warrants
before eavesdropping; they should have to offer evidence that a person
engaged in Terrorism before locking them in a cage, etc.).  But to
someone who equates unproven government accusations with proof, those
processes are entirely unnecessary.  Even in the absence of those
processes, they already know that these persons are
Terrorists.  How do they know that?  Because the Government said so. 
Even when it comes to their fellow citizens, that's all the "proof"
that is needed.

That authoritarian mentality is
stronger than ever now.  Why?  Because unlike during the Bush years,
when it was primarily Republicans willing to blindly trust Government
accusations, many Democrats are now willing to do so as well.  Just
look at the reaction to the Government's recent attempts to assassinate
the U.S.-born American citizen and Islamic cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.  Up
until last November, virtually no Americans had ever even heard of
al-Awlaki.  But in the past few months, beginning with the Fort Hood
shootings, government officials have repeatedly claimed that he's a
Terrorist:  usually anonymously, with virtually no evidence, and in the
face of al-Awlaki's vehement denials but without any opportunity for
him to defend himself (because he's in hiding out of fear of being
killed by his own Government).  The Government can literally just flash
someone's face on the TV screen with the word Terrorist over it (as was
done with al-Awlaki), and provided the face is nefarious and
Muslim-looking enough (basically the same thing), nothing else need be
offered.

That's enough for many people -- including many Democrats -- to march forward overnight and mindlessly proclaim that al-Awlaki is "a declared enemy of the United States working to kill Americans" (if you can stomach it, read some of these comments -- from Obama defenders at a liberal blog
-- with several sounding exactly like Dick Cheney, screeching:  "Of
course al-Awlaki should be killed without charges; he's a Terrorist who
is trying to kill Americans!!!").  Even now, beyond government
assertions about his associations, the public knows virtually nothing
about al-Awlaki other than the fact that he's a Muslim cleric with a Muslim name dressed in Muslim garb,
sitting in a Bad Arab Country expressing anger towards the actions of
the U.S. and Israel.  But no matter.  That's more than enough.  They're
willing not only to mindlessly embrace the Government's unproven
accusation that their fellow citizen is a TERRORIST ("a declared enemy of the United States working to kill Americans"), but even beyond that, to cheer for his due-process-free execution
like drunken fans at a football game.  And the same people declare:  no
civilian trials are necessary for Terrorists (meaning:  people accused
by the Government of being Terrorists).  Even more amazingly, the
identities of the other Americans on the hit list aren't even known, but that's OK:  they're Terrorists, because the Government said so.

A
very long time ago, I would be baffled when I'd read about things like
the Salem witch hunts.  How could so many people be collectively worked
up into that level of irrational frenzy, where they cheered for
people's torturous death as "witches" without any real due process or
meaningful evidence?  But all one has to do is look at our current
Terrorism debates and it's easy to see how things like that happen.
 It's just pure mob mentality:  an authority figure appears and affixes
a demonizing Other label to someone's forehead, and the adoring crowd
-- frothing-at-the-mouth and feeding on each other's hatred, fears and
desire to be lead -- demands "justice."  I imagine that if one could
travel back in time to the Salem era in order to speak with some of
those gathered outside an accused witch's home, screaming for her to be
burned, the conversation would go something like this:

Mob Participant:  Hang the Witch!!!  Kill her!!!

Far Left Civil Liberties Extremist-Purist ("FLCLE-P"):  How do you know she's a witch?

Mob Participant:  Didn't you just hear the government official say so?

FLCLE-P:  But don't you want to see real evidence before you assume that's true and call for her death?

Mob Participant:  You just heard the evidence!  The magistrate said she's a witch!

FLCLE-P:  But
shouldn't there be a real trial first, with tangible evidence and due
process protections, to see if the accusation is actually true?

Mob Participant
A "real" trial?  She's a witch!  She's trying to curse us and kill us
all.  She got more than what she deserved.  Witches don't have rights!!!

Return to Question 1.

That's
essentially how I hear our debates over Terrorism, and how I've heard
them for quite some time.  And it's how I hear them more loudly now
than ever before.  And with those deeply confused premises now locked
into place on a bipartisan basis ("no trials are needed to determine if
someone is a Terrorist because Terrorists don't have rights"), imagine
how much louder that will get if there is another successful terrorist
attack in the U.S.  But in fairness to the 17th Century Puritans, at
least the Salem witches received pretenses of due process and even trials (albeit
with coerced confessions and speculative hearsay).  Even when it comes
to our fellow citizens, we don't even bother with those.  For us, the
mere accusation by our leaders is sufficient:  Kill that American Terrorist with a drone!

 

UPDATE:  A long-time, regular commenter here, Jestaplero, is a state prosecutor in New York, and he explains -- in this comment -- how the mentality discussed here can and does easily expand beyond the realm of Terrorism.

Interestingly, even Allahpundit at Michelle Malkin's Hot Air recognizes the serious dangers
in allowing the Government to decree even U.S. citizens to be
"Terrorists" and then treat them accordingly, with no due process.  But
note how his right-wing commenters are almost exclusively of the
"just-kill-him" school of thought, and how identical they sound to that
minority of Daily Kos commenters I linked above who, in their blind
loyalty to Obama, also insist that there's nothing wrong with simply
snuffing out their lives of their fellow citizens who are "Terrorists"
(meaning:  anyone their Leader claims is a Terrorist)
with no due process or oversight whatsoever.  Ultimately,
authoritarians are authoritarians, regardless of whether they situate
themselves on the left or right.


Glenn Greenwald

Glenn Greenwald

Glenn Greenwald is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, constitutional lawyer, commentator, author of three New York Times best-selling books on politics and law, and a former staff writer and editor at First Look media. His fifth and latest book is, "No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State," about the U.S. surveillance state and his experiences reporting on the Snowden documents around the world. Glenn’s column was featured at Guardian US and Salon.  His previous books include: "With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful," "Great American Hypocrites: Toppling the Big Myths of Republican Politics," and "A Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency." He is the recipient of the first annual I.F. Stone Award for Independent Journalism, a George Polk Award, and was on The Guardian team that won the Pulitzer Prize for public interest journalism in 2014.

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