NEW YORK--When the jury I was on got stumped, the foreman had us reenact the defendant's version of events. It made no sense, so presto! We sent the miscreant, a serial purse snatcher, off to prison. Now I'm using the same method to process the news that the government illegally targeted me for domestic surveillance after 9/11.
Asking yourself what you would have done in a person's place is a great way to judge someone's actions. Let's say, for example, that you were placed in charge of security for a city preparing to host a political convention. What steps would you take to ensure the safety of visiting conventioneers and city residents?
The Republican Party held its 2004 convention at Madison Square Garden in midtown Manhattan, a few miles north of Ground Zero. The 9/11 attacks had occurred less than three years earlier. If you'd been running the New York Police Department, what would have been your top concern? Terrorism. Mine, too. Obviously.
The NYPD, however, wasn't worried about al Qaida. For them, the real threat to law and order were anti-Bush protesters. Of course, it's a given that demonstrations occur at every party convention. After 9/11, however, First Amendment-protected activism was anathema to our government. Officials sought to suppress all dissent, no matter how peaceful or innocuous. So they spied on celebs scheduled to participate in anti-RNC protests, including the rappers Jay-Z and Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, and on R&B singer Alicia Keys.
And Ted Rall.
According to The New York Times, "hundreds of pages of documents relating to [the NYPD's] security preparations" released in response to a federal judge's order show that "undercover officers attended meetings of political groups, posing as sympathizers or fellow activists, and infiltrated chat rooms. Although they identified a few people who talked about disrupting the convention, they also monitored many more people who showed no intention of breaking the law." The Times identifies me as one of the three "highlights from the police intelligence digests:"
"A November 13, 2003, digest noting the Web site of the editorial cartoonist and activist Ted Rall. 'Activists are talking, some with barely hidden glee, about the possibility of violence,' an officer wrote, describing the postings on Mr. Rall's site."
Banned Magazine, Joshua Good's online "Journal of Censorship and Secrecy," printed my reaction upon hearing about the Times piece: "They're not intelligent," I said of the cop spooks. "First, they misidentified my syndicated column as a Web site (presumably blog). Then they misquoted the content. Finally they identified me as something I'm not: an activist. I'm a cartoonist and a columnist and occasional author and freelance journalist. If these are the guys charged with keeping New York safe from another 9/11, we should be worried."
More baffling, the security "experts" totally missed the point. I didn't call for violence; I suggested avoiding the possibility of mayhem at a time that politics had turned poisonous, by moving the Republican National Convention to another, less liberal city. (The NYPD dossier repeatedly attributes quotes to me that are actually me quoting others, a glaring error that the Times repeats, presumably because the paper doesn't have access to Google.)
My original October 28, 2003, column couldn't have been more clearly opposed to violence. "As a Manhattanite," I wrote, "I hope that the Republicans will seriously consider moving their convention somewhere else...The risk of convention-related terrorist attacks should be reason enough to not hold it in a city that paid the highest price on 9/11. A revival of 1968, with cops fouling their batons with the blood of young people, wouldn't do anyone--left or right--any good. Riots would make everyone look bad--New York, the GOP and the demonstrators. The resulting property damage could exceed the cost that would be involved in moving the convention to another city--a price that the well-funded Bush campaign can easily afford."
Ignoring the substance of my piece, the NYPD cherry-picked out-of-context bits and phrases and spun them into a smash-the-state manifesto.
Government agencies began spying on me shortly after 9/11. I have repeatedly suffered service interruptions--loud static, whispered voices, even outages--at the hands of a government whose laughably inept phone-tapping skills match its inability to respond to a hurricane or tornado. Finally, a security official at Verizon confirmed that my telephone had been tapped. "That's already more than I should have told you," he explained, requesting anonymity. "Under the Patriot Act, we're not allowed to inform our customers about intercepts."
Eventually I was seeing my local Verizon repair guy, who was repeatedly being summoned to my home to restore service, more often than my best friend. So I was naturally suspicious when I caught an unfamiliar man, no uniform or badge, fiddling with the posts in my building's phone box. "Who are you and what are you doing?" I demanded. The dude knocked me down and bolted out a door into an alley. Giving chase, I watched him drive off in an unmarked white van with U.S. government plates.
What did I do to justify these invasions of privacy? The declassified police dossiers actually made me feel ashamed. "Ted Rall is a nationally-known activist figure," some anonymous policeman wrote, but I don't deserve the compliment. The only "activist" action in which I've taken part in 20 years was holding a sign in the big march down Fifth Avenue a few weeks before the invasion of Iraq. Surely more is called for when thugs steal the presidency, murder hundreds of thousands of people and legalize torture.
All I did was produce books, columns and editorial cartoons that criticized government policies. I sat at my computer and drawing table. Activist, indeed. Ass-tivist is more like it.
Why, at a time that the threat of terrorism seems so real, does the government investigate people like me? Perhaps because it's easier. We live here. We speak English. Or maybe the NSA and the FBI and the CIA and the NYPD are yielding to the ancient tendency of people to turn against one another when faced with a fearsome, seemingly invincible foe. Hitler rose to prominence during the 1920s by claiming that Germany's loss in World War I had been caused by a "stab in the back" delivered by disloyal Germans, socialists and Jews. The truth, that France and its allies won militarily, was too hard to face.
The U.S. government refused to face difficult truths about 9/11: Our history of siding with despotism over democracy had come home to roost, and our offensive military posture was placed so aggressively forward that we'd neglected the defense of our home territory. The ruling Republicans couldn't acknowledge these truths without undermining their self-positioning as the party of a strong defense. So they invented their own "stab in the back" myth, that of a Fifth Column determined to side with "the terrorists."
"After 9/11, I was roundly criticized for daring to suggest that there were some people in America who wanted the terrorists to win," wrote Andrew Sullivan, who has since morphed from self-hating gay neo-con to shocked-shocked-shocked self-loving gay Clinton Democrat. "But if you read Ted Rall and others, there can be no mistake." Conservatives asked liberals why they hated America "so much" so often that it joined "What about the children?" in the pantheon of ridiculous cliches.
The domestic surveillance campaign--against comedy troupes like Billionaires for Bush and bicycling evangelists Critical Mass and a certain editorial cartoonist--should prompt revulsion among anyone who cherishes free speech. And it should worry every American. While the government wastes its time and resources spying on demonstrators and journalists, after all, it's ignoring our real enemies--those who are planning the next big attack.
Ted Rall is the author of the new book "Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?," an in-depth prose and graphic novel analysis of America's next big foreign policy challenge.