It is often said that those who do not know the past are condemned to repeat it. Two recent events in the United States – the killings of Michael Brown/Earl Garner and the revelations of torture techniques by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) have shocked the world. But should we really be surprised?
Following the grave violations of civil rights following peaceful marches in the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson formed an 11-member National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. The Commission’s 1968 report, informally known as the Kerner Report, concluded that the nation was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white - separate and unequal.” Unless conditions changed, the Commission warned, the country faced a “system of apartheid” in its major cities.
Today, African-Americans make up 12% of the American population and 40% of the prison population. One out of three male black babies born today is predicted to spend time in prison. A recent report by the Pew Research Center says the median net worth of white households in 2013 was $141,900, about 13 times that of black households at $11,000. An author of the report said that “The gaps are big and they are also persistent.”
Following revelations about grave violations of civil rights and assassinations by the CIA, the Church Committee was established in the 1970s as the United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities. A precursor to the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence which just released its report on torture, the committee investigated intelligence gathering by the CIA, National Security Agency (NSA) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) after certain activities had been revealed by the Watergate affair.
Additionally, the investigative reporter Seymour Hersh revealed operations engaged in by the CIA over the years such as covert action programs involving assassination attempts against foreign leaders and attempts to subvert foreign governments. He also revealed efforts by the intelligence agencies to collect information about US citizens.
In a world of accelerated time where history is the last fifteen seconds on a Reuters screen, the similarities between what the two reports presented and recent revelations may seem irrelevant in terms of historical lessons. Does it really matter? In my sense it does. Every since the Enlightenment, we have believed in progress. Most people believe that things will get better. Electricity, cars, the Internet have all been signs of technological progress. But a review of the findings of the two reports and recent events show that racial equality is still far from a reality and that the intelligence community is still far from functioning within the values of a democratic society.
Has there been progress? Yes Barack Obama was elected president and there is a small but developing black middle class. Yes there is a Senate Committee which is supposed to verify that the intelligence services are not out of control. Is the glass half empty or half full? Should we be optimistic or pessimistic about progress?
In this season of good will and best wishes for the New Year, I want to be optimistic. But, given the acceleration of time, it does seem to me that we should be seeing more progress. Instead of spending billions (trillions?) on senseless wars, money could be earmarked for restoring domestic infrastructure and moving towards realistic equality instead of two unequal societies. And, instead of establishing committees to investigate intelligence service wrongdoings, strict enforcement should take place, including firing and/or prosecuting those responsible. There is a level of impunity and self-righteousness in the defense of the CIA by its director that mirrors Secretary of State John Kerry’s attempt in a call to the Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein to keep the revelations secret.
For both racial inequality and the out-of-control intelligence community are indications of a profound crisis of democracy in the United States. While commentators have bemoaned the killings and the torture revelations, very few have connected the two. If there is to be a radical change, the two must be connected. Enough committee reports, enough brow beating. We have been there before. It is time to make serious efforts to restore the fundamentals of democracy. That is my New Year’s wish.