The first time I realized that the state –as in the government of the United States of America—considers each and every one of its citizens a potential criminal was when my wife, who is originally from Colombia, was seeking to change her immigration status and become an American citizen. As a first step in that process, she had to fill out Form I-485. This is the form that innocently asks such pieties as: Are you a prostitute? Are you, or have you ever been, a member of a totalitarian movement? Have you ever been, or do you intend to become, a terrorist, a torturer? Have you entered the United States of America with the intent to overthrow the government? As I mentioned already, my wife is originally from Colombia, which is not exactly a bastion of civic virtue; but all the same, did the state really have to ask her if she ever had been or ever intended to become an out-and-out criminal? Of course, my wife answered No to all the questions asked on Form I-485. And of course the state expected her to answer No to all those incriminating questions. So why the show? To what end this silly willy-nilly game of cat and mouse?
The answer, at first, eluded me. After all, I am a native son; a natural citizen who --unlike Arnold Schwarzenegger-- could become President, if I were half the criminal he is. Yep. As a native son, I had grown accustomed to thinking of my government as the people’s government, as a republic dedicated to democratic self-governance and to the equality of all before the law. So I had a hard time figuring out why the state was asking my wife such dastardly questions. Then it dawned on me that the reason the state asked her these incriminating questions, knowing full well that she would answer No to them all, was that, if in fact she was lying when she answered No, they could legally criminalize her.
Legally criminalize: this is what the state does with each and every person who seeks to become a naturalized citizen of the United States. Legally criminalized: this is the state in which all natural citizens have always and already existed vis-à-vis the state. The state legally criminalizes us all, whether naturalized or natural citizens, whether explicitly or implicitly, as potential criminals.
This is not as bad a deal as it sounds. Far be it from me to be an alarmist. Consider, for instance, that there are those among us who are criminals. Whitey Bulger, the nefarious Irish mob boss of Boston (and no, I am not talking about the Boston Police Department), was convicted this past Monday for committing a series of 11 murders and other gang-related crimes. If the state did not consider him a potential criminal, if there were no code of law in place that anticipated his potential crimes and set forth appropriate punishments, Whitey would still be living it up with his girlfriend on the beaches of southern California. As Americans, as a people dedicated to an ongoing experiment in democratic self-government, we submit ourselves, our lives, to the rule of law. We agree that there should be fundamental limits placed on our right to exercise freedom and pursue happiness: that limit is the right of every other American to exercise their own freedom and pursue their own happiness. So in essence, we are all also in agreement with the basic impulse that informs the rule of law: that is, we all more or less agree to treat each other as potential criminals. Don’t tread on me and I won’t tread on you: this is the basic underlying logic of our experiment in self-governance.
But not all criminals are of the Whitey Bulger sort, and not all crimes tread on other people’s liberty. Two cases, which are deserving of our on-going attention and concern, are those involving Misters Manning and Snowden. Both of these young men are accused of crimes against the state. They are not criminals of the Whitey Bulger sort, but an altogether different breed of would-be criminal. They are public servants who the government accuses of being disloyal to the state. In the case of Manning, the accusation stems from the fact that he disclosed a trove of not-too-secret U.S. government files and made them available, through wikileaks, to a global reading public interested in America’s failing human rights record. In the case of Snowden, because he released into the hands of the United States’s Cold War enemies –notably China and Russia—secret documents detailing the NSA’s global and domestic surveillance procedures.
Both of these young men claim to have released these secret documents out of their love for the American way of life. Each claims, in his own way, to be a whistle blower whose main motivation has been to unmask the state’s overbearing abuse of human and political rights both abroad and at home. The government views their actions as proof of their potential criminality. In Manning’s case, he has in fact already been found guilty of crimes, for which he is likely to spend the remainder of his life, locked up in federal prison. In Snowden’s case, the judge and jury are still out, since he is quite literally still out of the country.
But the issue here, the real issue, is not whether or not or to what extent their actions constitute crimes against the state. To the contrary, what is at issue is that their actions and the state’s response to these actions reveal that it is the state itself that we must now also regard as a potential criminal. Its crime is the crime that, according to our own Declaration of Independence, would justify our rising up against it in protest. It is a common enough crime, committed over the centuries by any number of rulers drunk on the hubris of their power. We call it tyranny. The real surprise in all this is therefore not that our government considers us all potential criminals, but that in the face of our own government’s growing tyranny, we choose the option, not of freedom-loving republicans dedicated to democracy, but that of voluntary servants the world over: that option has a name: meek subservience.