Sunday, September 23, 2012

"Strange Culture"

     "Strange Culture" is a film that depicts the way government agents take advantage of their power to deprive us of our civil rights.  It is one example of how FBI agents and federal prosecutors misuse the expansion of power granted to them in the name of the "war on terrorism."  You can watch this eerie 75-minute chronicle of one man's tragic run-in with puffed-up government officials who are protected from all penalties for the misuse of power, on YouTube.  Here is the link: 
      "Strange Culture" has relevance to my quandary, because it describes an FBI blunder not unlike the one at my clinic, followed by a scramble on the part of government agents to rationalize the time and money they wasted.  It conveys the turmoil caused in the life of an ordinary, productive citizen by uncalled-for government intrusion.
     The government, apparently, is incapable of saying, "I'm sorry."  The government never admits, "We made a mistake."  As far as I'm concerned, this is a pathological problem that exposes the core of the American psyche.  We are a culture full of destructive ego, bloated with power, overbearing, bulldozing, narcissistic, self-aggrandizing, and lacking in empathy.  These are personality traits one observes in dictators, and in people with psychopathy, and in brittle, self-serving authorities who always have to be right.  There is something psychologically wrong with our government--and our government is a mirror of our citizenry, and the showpiece for the world.
     Many of my blog readers are, strangely, from Russia, China, and South America.  Why do I have readers who herald from places where political dishonesty and debasement of human rights have been the rule, or where the government is in flux, and ideas about what it means to be free are of vital importance?  I am embarrassed for them to see that here, too, it's possible for ordinary people to be harassed, accused, and arrested by government agents, with little or no cause, or a "cause" based in prejudice and fear.
     Steve Kurtz is an artist and was the subject of "Strange Culture."  He and his wife were in the midst of preparing for a show featuring art-political works about genetically modified foods.  The components of their pieces included Petri dishes in which were growing colonies of a harmless bacteria, serratia.  On the day of the opening, Steve woke to find that his wife had died unexpectedly, of heart failure.  He called for emergency help.  When the police arrived, they made fear-based assumptions about the Petri dishes, and took Kurtz into custody on charges of terrorist activity.
     How could the police justify such a drastic reaction?  In the wake of September 11, 2011 many statutes were passed to "protect America"--statutes that continue to grant federal agents wide-ranging powers over American citizens.  Because of the omnipotence we have accorded our government agents, they were able to bar Kurtz from his house, to seize his belongings, and to accuse him of terrorist activity.  The same statutes also allowed government agents to invade my clinic, take vital documents including patients' medical charts, and confiscate all the money in my clinic and personal bank accounts.  No explanations are required from the government.  Their documents can remain sealed, it seems, forever.
     These statutes also give FBI agents the right, with meager suspicions (based, it seems, on individual agents' embarrassingly poor intuition) to raid your home or office, to haul away your electronics and other personal belongings, to cordon off your property with yellow "Do Not Cross This Line" tape, and to make you an object of suspicion in your community.
     How much protection do Americans really need?  So much that we are willing to give up our civil rights for the fantasy of safety?  So much that we are willing to live in a police state?
     What the government's agents did to Steve Kurtz, and to me, is not protection--it's a waste of time and money.  As far as I'm concerned, the powers accorded to government officials--like Special Agents Robert Murphy and Carissa Bowling, and U.S. Attorneys Corey Smith and Bobby Stinson, in my case, and like the prosecuting attorneys in Steve Kurtz's case--are opportunities for power-bloated agents to exercise their particular prejudices, their greed and envy, their sublimated drives toward violence, their unwillingness to do the painstaking research that should be required for ground their suspicions--before they wreck people's lives--and their confidence that being employees of the government grants them immunity from punishment.
     Government officials tried to pin on Steve Kurtz charges of terrorism, wire fraud, and mail fraud, based on his having used the U.S. mail for obtaining a benign bacterial specimen for his art, the film explained. "He was charged with possessing weapons of mass destruction," a friend reported "for which he faced twenty years in prison."  The odd thing about the fraud charges was that no one--not the seller, nor the postal system, nor the police, nor the public--felt "defrauded."
     "The government has an overwhelming amount of force in such cases," said the film's commentators.  "The FBI was interested in Steve's politics.  They wanted to frighten anyone who questions what is going on in this country."  The atmosphere of fear created in the aftermath of 911 allowed for passage of the Patriot Act with overwhelming support.  People consented to give up their rights, at that time--and those rights have not since been restored.  A decade later, we still don't have all the facts about the events of September 11, 2001.  But we've lost a lot of our liberty.
      "Civil liberties only flourish in times of peace," said Kurtz.  "The execution of the law is at the discretion of government officials."  If government officials were questioning Kurtz's source for the Petri dish specimens, their charges would have amounted to a civil--not a federal--crime.  Instead, the prosecutor in Kurtz's case enlarged the minor infringement that he suspected into a federal crime, punishable in a stricter federal court,  "When a civil dispute is turned into a federal crime, it expands the government's power hugely," explained a law expert.
     In cases like Kurtz's, and mine, the government colludes against the public good.  "Federal prosecutors care only about getting convictions--that's how they gets promotions and raises," said Kurtz.  "There are no guarantees, no safeguards, for the individual citizen."  These cases are not about finding out the truth.  They are about the prosecutor winning a case.  When the truth is subservient to gross power, or when it becomes completely irrelevant, there is no ethical basis for society.  "Might makes right," then becomes the only law that really matters.  

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