I was setting out our trash when Ann Willard came up the street, walking their St. Bernard, Boris. “How’ya doing, Ann?” I said. “Have a good holiday?”
She looked a little red-faced, but that was probably the stiff, cold wind gusting up from the river. Or being a hundred pound woman being dragged by a two hundred pound dog. “I don’t want to sound like a complainer,” she said, “but we’ve had better.”
“Sorry to hear that,” I said. “It’s not Dean, is it? He hasn’t had a relapse with that ‘acceptance’ thing?”
“No, no,” she said. “It’s our daughter Jeannie.”
Jeannie is a few years older than Kevin. Nice girl, friendly, kind of the perky type. She’s off to college somewhere--should be a sophomore or maybe a junior now. “Is she okay?” I asked. “She hasn’t caught that flu that’s going around, has she?”
“Nothing like that,” said Ann, “although I thought she might be coming down sick at first. She was too quiet. Serious. Would go for walks by herself, and look up at the sky. And she had this... what’s the word I’m looking for?... this quizzical expression on her face. It looked unnatural on her. I said to Dean, ‘There’s something different about her, but I can’t put my finger on it.’ And he said, ‘It’s her cellphone. She’s not using her cellphone. And she hasn’t been driving; she walks everywhere’.”
“Not using her cellphone?” I said, baffled.
“Oh, you know how it is with these kids, Ace. Their cellphones are like another bodily organ for them. They can’t live without it. You’re sitting in church, praying, and glance up, and half the kids in the congregation are hunched over their cellphones, texting away. I’ve got to give Dean credit. He spotted it, and I’d missed it.”
“A drastic change in behavior like that.... You’re not thinking it’s drugs?” I asked hesitantly.
“Honestly, I didn’t know what to think,” she said. “So when we were cleaning up the kitchen after supper last night, just the two of us, I just came out and asked her about it.”
“What did she have to say, if it’s okay to talk about it?”
“She hemmed and hawed, but I finally got it out of her. She said that right before she left campus, they’d had a speaker in her political science class. Some newspaper man talking about government surveillance.”
“Huh,” I said, “what would be disturbing about that?”
“Apparently this guy was really far out.”
“Yeah? What kinds of things did he have to say?”
“That’s the funny part. Mostly he just asked questions.”
She paused, and I wasn’t sure she was going to go on. Boris was clearly getting restless, and his four feet determined to move on were gaining traction against her two feet trying to stay.
“Questions? Like what?”
“Well, the first one was ‘How many of you think our government is ideal--fair, honest, open, efficient, trustworthy, with liberty and justice for all--and always will be? That there isn’t, and never will be, a reason to complain or protest about anything it does or says?’”
I snorted. “That’s ridiculous! I love this country, but come on! No country is perfect. This isn’t utopia! There are plenty of things to complain about with our government, and always will be. We go through spells where we do some downright stupid and scary things. But that’s true of every other country too.”
“Sure,” she said. “I think that was his point. Then he asked them to raise their hands if they’d ever heard about the Palmer Raids, where the U.S. Attorney General organized raids on foreign-born workers, who were beaten, arrested, brutally interrogated, and then deported. All of that without trials, for nothing more than exercising their right to free speech. Nobody raised a hand, of course. I mean, who’s heard of the Palmer Raids?”
“Not me,” I said. “But then I’ve been kind of tied up the last month or so with the playoffs and the Super Bowl.”
“I googled it. They took place back in 1919-1920,” she said. “I believe that predates the NFL by two or three years.”
“Huh,” I said. “Predated the NFL? What did they manage to do with themselves?”
“I can’t imagine. Maybe they had families,” she said--somewhat tartly, I thought. “But back to this speaker. The next thing he asked was if they had heard about the FBI’s tapping Martin Luther King’s phones, spying on him, and--when they found out about some sexual escapades--trying to blackmail him into stopping his protests. Quite a few students raised their hands.”
“I seem to remember hearing about that somewhere,” I said.
“Then he asked them if they knew about the FBI’s COINTELPRO program to investigate and disrupt dissident political groups in the US--with the Southern Christian Leadership Council, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Nation of Islam among the targets. Did they know of the FBI’s role in the murder of Black Panther Party members and the ultimate destruction of the Party? They’d never heard any of that.”
“Me neither,” I said.
“It’s hard for me to remember everything Jeannie said he asked, but I think the next thing was if they knew about President Nixon’s using the IRS to target political enemies, and CIA people to burgle Democratic headquarters. But apparently Nixon is as remote as James Madison as far as these kids are concerned. Only two students raised their hands.”
“You can’t blame the kids,” I said. “Who’s interested in ancient history?”
“Then he asked them if they knew that the government orchestrated the destruction of the Occupy protests that were spreading across the country back in the winter of 2011-2012. That it conducted surveillance of protestors, shared information with banks and universities and local police, and provided strategies for dismantling local encampments. Nobody raised a hand. They’d all heard of the Occupy Movement, but none of them knew about the coordinated effort to destroy it.”
“What was his point?”
“He didn’t say, but it seems obvious, doesn’t it?”
“Uhh...,” I began, but Boris evidently thought I was growling, and turned toward me, his body stiffening.
Ann ignored him. “Oh, for Pete’s sake, Ace! He was just showing that governments, definitely including ours, are as fallible as anything else people lay their hands to. Sooner or later, some leader with access to information about people’s private lives will use that information to go after organizations critical of government policies or supporters of causes the leader doesn’t like. The government will try to stamp out legitimate protests and to crush opposition. His questions were meant to show that that kind of thing has already happened here not once but many times.”
I was getting interested. “This guy must have been a real trip,” I mused. “What did he say next?”
“The next part was kind of scary for Jeannie. He asked, ‘How many of you have led blameless, guilt-free lives? Have never said or done anything you would be ashamed or embarrassed for the world to know? Have nothing you would mind your parents, your friends, and everybody in this room hearing about you?’”
“Wow! What kind of question is that to ask?” I said.
“Apparently it made kids in the class kind of nervous too,” said Ann. “They were all looking sideways at each other. Jeannie said you could almost see them thinking. About that fake ID, about cheating on their girlfriend or boyfriend, about plagiarizing on a paper, getting treated for an STD, some shoplifting, bouncing a few checks, spending time on porn sites, lying to a friend or a professor, being sexually assaulted, having an abortion, getting mad and threatening to kill somebody, smoking pot and trying some of the harder stuff, visiting a counselor because you’re depressed or having panic attacks....”
“I get it,” I said. “Life.”
Ann sighed. “Exactly. We like to put a pretty face on it, but underneath the makeup, we all have complexion problems.”
I was really curious now. “And then?”
“The next question was similar. ‘How about your family and friends? Are they all exemplary in every way? Nothing in their lives they wouldn’t want in a headline in the morning paper?’”
“And you were thinking Jeannie might have started thinking about Dean and some of his mental health issues?”
“Well, that, but... you know, I’m not perfect either. And some of Jeannie’s friends have gone through some pretty rough times.”
“I guess we all have,” I admitted.
“Then he asked people to raise their hands if they already knew that the government has secret backdoor entrances to all databases, which it then searches for information, and that the NSA sifts through records of internet activity to show nearly everything a person does online. A few raised their hands.”
“Is that some of the material Snowden leaked?” I asked.
“Just a tiny fraction,” said Ann. “Then he talked about the way our cellphone calls are not only monitored, but the cellphones themselves are used to track our movements, every minute, where we go and who we meet with. And about new technology being adopted that reads our license plates whenever we’re on the road, showing where we’re going and where we stop.”
“What!?” I said, startled. “That’s bad stuff! I mean, if you start to put those things together, and think of all the power information like that gives the government to intimidate and blackmail, and then factor in the temptation to use all that information once you have it.... it makes it a near-certainty that sooner or later the government will use that power to monitor and destroy opposition, it ....” I was fumbling around, having trouble finishing my sentences.
“It doesn’t look like the freedom we brag about?” said Ann. “It sounds like 1984, The Sequel? Like the machinery is being put in place for government control to become almost absolute?”
“That’s it,” I said. “But that’s a terrible thing to tell college kids who just want to flirt and go to football games and keggers and get an education on the side.”
“Not to mention the effect on their parents when they go home,” Ann sighed. At that moment, when she was momentarily off guard, Boris gave a lunge, nearly bowling her over, and I watched as he tore off down the street, Ann hanging on for dear life, screeching futilely for him to stop as he lumbered after our cat. I wasn’t worried; the cat can take care of itself.
© Tony Russell, 2014