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Landmarks on the Road to Covid Tyranny


Many Americans were appalled at the oppressive decrees issued by politicians and government officials during the Covid pandemic. But there were plenty of post-9/11 precedents that paved the way for recent abuses. Authoritarian Covid policies were shocking but not surprising. 

In March and April 2020, politicians justified shutting down schools, businesses, houses of worship and practically everything else in pursuit of Zero Covid. Nineteen years earlier, President George W. Bush promised to “rid the world of evil” after the 9/11 attacks. But it was impossible to rid the world of evil – which has always been the mother’s milk for ambitious demagogues.

Bush also promised to “rid the world of terror” so children can “grow up in a free society, a society without fear.” And until that nirvana was reached, the Bush administration sought to maximize fear in order to minimize opposition to suspending habeas corpus, illegally vacuuming up Americans’ phone and email records, suppressing protests, and unleashing federal agents on domestic dissent. 

Promising absolute protection entitled the Bush administration to all the power that it claimed to need. Frightened Americans were convinced that vesting arbitrary authority in federal officials would keep people safe. One of the first fruits of that folly was the Transportation Security Administration, which adapted the motto of “Dominate. Intimidate. Control.” The TSA erected checkpoints at hundreds of airports staffed with tens of thousands of federal agents.

From the start, the TSA was utterly inept, continually failing up to 95 percent of undercover tests to detect mock bombs and weapons. In order to make flying safe, the TSA claims the right to take menstruating women into private rooms to force them to disrobe to show blood. But the TSA’s promise of security absolves its perennial failures – in the same way that Covid mask mandates have been vindicated by vapid appeals about saving children and Ruth Bader Ginsburg

After 9/11, fretful Americans and a docile media defaulted to “Washington logic” on one issue after another. Bush took the nation to war against Iraq based on a childlike syllogism:

  1. Terrorists who attacked America on 9/11 were bad people.
  2. Saddam Hussein is a bad person.
  3. Therefore, Saddam Hussein was guilty of the 9/11 attacks.

The Bush administration pushed the Saddam-9/11 connection on every possible occasion – though Bush admitted in 2006 that Saddam was not responsible for the attacks. In the same way that Covid policymakers sanctified their decrees with ludicrous forecasts of potential deaths, the Bush administration consecrated its authority by continually issuing terrorist attack alerts that had not even a whiff of credibility. For both Bush and Covid policymakers, fear-mongering razed limits to their sway. As long as enough people can be frightened, then almost everyone can be subjugated.

Similarly, after the start of the Covid lockdowns, policymakers entitled themselves to all the power they claimed to need to compel compliance. In Newark, New Jersey, thousands of people were ticketed, facing six months in prison and a $1,000 fine, for crimes such as “hanging out,” “sitting on milk crate,” “sitting on bench smoking,” “standing outside enjoying the weather,” and “standing without a mask,” as journalist Michael Tracey reported.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti “ordered all residents living in the city ‘to remain in their homes’” and banned all unnecessary “travel, including, without limitation, travel on foot, bicycle, scooter, motorcycle, automobile, or public transit.” Once vaccines became available, politicians justified lockdowns and mandates to persuade people to get injected so that they could have their freedom again. 

Many people have been appalled that few medical experts spoke out to condemn Covid policies that inflicted vast collateral damage on Americans’ lives for no real benefit. But it is naïve to expect courage or wisdom from doctors involved in federal policymaking.

During the Bush administration, medical doctors helped unleash some of the worst human rights abuses committed by the US government in the modern era. Beginning in 2002, the CIA unleashed a torture regime that included waterboarding (simulated drowning), hypothermia, sleep deprivation for up to 7 days and nights, and other brutal methods. The program was designed by psychologists who pocketed millions of dollars for making up a list of techniques designed to shatter the will of detainees. Abusive interrogations were supervised by doctors to protect the government, not the victims. A 2014 Senate Intelligence Committee report revealed how far the Hippocratic Oath had fallen. “After a doctor X-rayed one prisoner’s feet and determined they were badly broken, another physician recommended that he could be made to stand for 52 hours,” Business Insider summarized one case. 

And it wasn’t just a few wild-eyed medical misfits who propelled the abuses. A 2015 internal investigation of the American Psychological Association concluded “senior officials of the association had ‘colluded’ with senior Defense Department officials to make certain that the association’s ethics rules did not hinder the ability of psychologists to remain involved with the interrogation program… while several prominent outside psychologists took actions that aided the C.I.A.’s interrogation program and helped protect it from growing dissent inside the agency,” the New York Times reported. Numerous detainees were killed during interrogations and many were permanently injured. 

“Truth will out” is Washington’s favorite fairy tale. Eight leading critics of Covid policies recently called for a commission to expose the abuses of federal agencies and policies during the pandemic. Other activists have demanded prosecution of federal officials who deceived the American public. But the torture scandal is a reminder that accountability in Washington is rarer than an honest congressman. None of the torture policymakers were prosecuted, and the only CIA official to be jailed was a whistleblower who exposed waterboarding. The Justice Department has successfully torpedoed every lawsuit from a torture victim. Good luck to the victims of federally-mandated Covid-19 vaccines. 

Perilous precedents continued piling up after Bush left the White House. Many Americans expected Barack Obama to set a higher tone and show far more respect for the Constitution. But Obama quickly proclaimed a presidential prerogative to assassinate Americans who he labeled as terrorist suspects. Obama’s lawyers insisted that the president need disclose zero evidence before executing officially-designated bad guys. A Justice Department lawyer declared in court that no federal judge had authority to be “looking over the shoulder” of Obama’s targeted-killing program because it involved “the very core powers of the president as commander-in-chief.”

When Obama campaigned for the presidency in 2008, entitling the president to kill Americans without trial wasn’t one of the reforms he promised. The Obama administration promised to be very careful about who it killed. But Daniel Hale, a former Air Force intelligence analyst, leaked information revealing that nearly 90 percent of people killed in drone strikes were not the intended targets. Biden’s Justice Department is rewarding Hale with a long prison sentence. 

Covid policymakers didn’t claim a right to “terminate with extreme prejudice” troublesome Americans – only to destroy their First Amendment freedom of speech. The Biden White House browbeat Twitter into canceling the accounts of Alex Berenson and many other Covid critics. We are still learning how far Team Biden extended its unconstitutional censorship decrees. 

The fact that the US government had a bevy of pre-Covid dictatorial policies is no reason not to continue resisting and exposing Covid-19 absurdities. But the problem didn’t begin with Covid and it won’t end even if Biden proclaims an end to the Covid emergency. 

 Brownstone Institute aims to “enlighten and mobilize public life to defend and promote the liberty that is critical for an enlightened society from which everyone benefits,” according to its mission statement. One key to defending liberty is to recognize how much was lost even before Fauci became a bobblehead superstar. Americans’ rights and liberties will not be safe until politicians and their henchmen are forced to submit to the law and the Constitution.

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  • James Bovard

    James Bovard, 2023 Brownstone Fellow, is author and lecturer whose commentary targets examples of waste, failures, corruption, cronyism and abuses of power in government. He is a USA Today columnist and is a frequent contributor to The Hill. He is the author of ten books, including Last Rights: The Death of American Liberty.

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