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SOCIAL CONTROL OF DISSENT

A frequent governmental activity is the control of dissent (Lovell, 2009; Sarat, 2005). Political trials, surveillance, and suppression of information and free speech are common in many authoritarian countries (Sunstein, 2003; Hier and Greenberg, 2010). Some examples are: In Islamic countries, fundamentalists regularly ban books. The most blatant case is that of the writer Salman Rushdie, who was being threatened with death because of his book, The Satanic Verses. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini called it blasphemy against Islam and in 1989 offered a million-dollar reward for the writer’s execution (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 1998). In Islamic countries, the press is state controlled, and dissidents, at best, are jailed. In African and Asian countries, journalistic loyalty to the ruling dictatorship is demanded, and the abuse of psychiatry to intimidate and torture dissidents in the former Soviet Union was well documented and loudly deplored by the West. In Canada, from the 1950s to the late 1990s, state agents spied on, harassed, and interrogated gays and lesbians, who were considered threats to society and enemies of the state. National security was used as an excuse for regulation of same-sex behavior (Kinsman and Gentile, 2010).

China is another nation that suppresses democratic dissent (Diamant et al., 2005). Just a decade ago, the government there imprisoned many democratic activists in psychiatric hospitals, where they were drugged, physically restrained, isolated, and/or given electric shocks (New York Times, 2001b). This action was taken under the guise of a Chinese law that includes “political harm to society” as legally dangerous mentally ill behavior. Law enforcement agents are instructed to take into psychiatric custody “political maniacs,” defined as people who make antigovernment speeches, write reactionary letters, or otherwise express opinions in public on important domestic and international affairs contrary to the official government position.

Although the United States is a democracy, it still legally punishes dissent. The U.S. has a history of welcoming dissent in the abstract, but it also has a history of controlling and punishing it (Boykoff, 2012). For example, David Wise (1978:399-400) pointed out that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), although prohibited by law from doing so, has engaged in domestic operations to monitor and control the activities of Americans.

For 20 years, the CIA opened 215,000 first-class letters, screened 28 million letters, and photographed the outside of 2.7 million letters. During the Nixon era, in Operation Chaos, the CIA followed antiwar activists, infiltrated various antiwar groups, undertook illegal break-ins and wiretaps, indexed 300,000 names in its “Hydra” computer, and compiled separate files on 7,200 Americans.

From 1955 to 1975, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) investigated 740,000 “subversive” targets—including the renowned sociologist Talcott Parsons of Harvard University’s Social Relations Department (Diamond, 1992) and Senator John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee (Glionna, 2004). The FBI has also engaged in illegal break-ins, installed taps on telephones, falsified the credit ratings of some individuals on the subversive list, obtained their tax returns, staged arrests by local police on narcotic pretexts, made anonymous phone calls to friends or family members of some targets telling them of immoral or radical conduct, provided distorted information to civil rights and antiwar organizations in an attempt to create dissension and disruption within the group, and tried to disrupt marriages of suspected dissidents by sending anonymous letters to spouses or newspaper gossip columnists (Newsweek, 1979).

The congressional investigations that followed the Watergate scandal of the 1970s showed that one harassing tactic of the Nixon administration directed at its “enemies” was to subject them to frequent tax audits. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS), under pressure by the Nixon administration, established a secret section that eventually became known as the Special Services Staff (SSS). Operating under what was called “red seal” security, and situated in the basement of IRS headquarters in Washington, the SSS acted like a clandestine intelligence unit, in close liaison with the FBI, and compiled files on 8,585 persons and 2,873 organizations (Wise, 1978). The SSS was “given responsibility for investigating and collecting intelligence on ‘ideological, militant, subversive, radical and similar type organizations’ and individuals (and) . . . ‘non-violent’ groups and individuals, including draft-card burners, peace demonstrators and persons who ‘organize and attend rock festivals which attract youth and narcotics’ ” (Wise, 1978:327). The IRS, like the FBI, became an instrument for social control, making its own judgments about what political views and cultural preferences were acceptable.

The Army Intelligence unit and the highly secret National Security Agency (NSA) have also been actively involved in the surveillance of dissenters (Wise, 1978). The NSA for years was reading and listening in on international communications. In the 1960s, for example, Western Union, Winston International, and ITT Corporation made copies of international cables available to the NSA in “Operation Shamrock.” Later, when some of the communications companies switched to storing their cables on magnetic tape, the NSA transported the tapes daily to its headquarters in Maryland for copying and then back to New York the same day. When these round trips became too burdensome, the CIA, in the guise of a television tape-processing company, provided the NSA with office space to copy the tapes in New York.

As these examples indicate, the U.S. government has at times created a system of institutionalized social control of dissent by closely watching the activities of people who threaten it (Moynihan, 1998). Obviously, the government has to exert some control over its citizens, but in exerting control, care needs to be exercised to protect individuals’ rights as guaranteed by the Constitution. There is a thin line between governmental control of dissent and the creation of a police state.

This thin line manifested itself during the last decade, when it was revealed that the NSA had collected data from the phone records of millions of Americans, beginning in 2004 and ending in 2015, after Congressional legislation banned this practice. This surveillance was authorized under the Patriot Act by President George W. Bush and widely condemned when it became known in 2013 (Nakashima, 2015).

Perhaps it is time to start thinking about some effective controls and checks to be devised and imposed upon the users of modern technology so that they do not overstep the boundaries as has happened during and since the Nixon era. If not, as many social commentators suggest, privacy may just become extinct (Kerr, 2004), civil rights may be sacrificed for security (Welsh and Farrington, 2009), and there will be additional breakdowns of traditional boundaries between public and private space resulting in substantial reduction of autonomy and privacy (Suk, 2009).

 
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