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Jane Ahlin, Published September 11 2011

Ahlin: Bureaucracy bred out of fear, hatred, greed must be exposed

As the nation ruminates on what America has gained or lost over the decade since Sept. 11, 2001, Brenda Leigh Johnson (Kyra Sedgwick) comes to mind. If you watch the crime drama “The Closer” on TNT, you know Johnson is a Georgia girl turned Californian as “deputy chief” for the major crimes division of the Los Angeles Police Department. In this seventh and last season for the show, Deputy Chief Johnson is named in a civil suit by the family of a gangbanger who – having been granted immunity for supplying information on other gang members – could not be prosecuted for admitting he killed a grocery storekeeper and the storekeeper’s 7-year-old grandson. (No reason to go into the whole storyline here.)

The point is that when the despicable guy is released, Deputy Chief Johnson – fully aware that the gang members he’s snitched on will do him ill – insists he be taken home to the very neighborhood that’s gang territory. Not surprisingly, the guy is murdered. Soon after, his family sues Brenda Leigh and LAPD.

Viewers are left with a moral dilemma to consider. Were Deputy Chief Johnson’s actions akin to putting a gun to the guy’s head and pulling the trigger, or was she justified in leaving him to his sure fate? After all, the guy was a vile human being likely to commit many more horrid crimes. And we viewers are on her side. She’s the one who stands for “truth, justice and the American way.” (OK, that’s the Superman description, but it fits.)

Not unlike viewers and Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson, liberals/progressives are experiencing a moral dilemma over President Barack Obama. More specifically, Obama’s extension of many Bush-era, war-on-terror overreaches have Obama supporters who want to be on the president’s side wondering what to think. The problem is that rendition, secret prisons and kill lists have not gone away during the current administration, and there’s no indication they will.

Predator drone strikes continue, often killing innocent people whether or not the intended “targets” also are killed. (Note how casual we’ve become about human targets, as if we know the decisive factors that place such assassinations in line with our national values.) Obama’s supporters thought that by now, he would have instituted greater transparency and dismantled the programs that undermine democracy.

Journalists Dana Priest and William Arkin of the Washington Post put years of investigation into a book, “Top Secret America: the Rise of the New American Security State.” In an interview, Priest said that more than “860,000” people working for the government have top secret clearance, “another 1,900 private companies also work at the top secret level, (a)nd 1,100 federal government organizations do work at the top secret level … in 17,000 locations around the country.”

It’s mind-boggling. Priest said that the worry President Dwight Eisenhower expressed in the late 1950s about the unchecked power of the “military industrial complex” now is unchecked power of a military-corporate intelligence collaboration featuring the same corporate players who build ships and planes, such as Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics. The difference is that dealing in intelligence is secret. We don’t know what they do or what it costs. (Note: Why isn’t the ever-ballooning cost of this secret world part of the deficit debate?)

Because of massive data mining, the term “right to privacy” has begun to sound quaint. The gathering of personal information on American citizens – without warrants – from telephone records, to financial statements, to Internet habits – goes on unabated under the reauthorized (but not reformed) “Patriot Act,” even though abuses of that information are well-documented and its worth remains dubious at best.

A decade of fear, darkness, and moral ambivalence is too long. Liberals/progressives want to see Obama shine the bright light of democracy on the bloated, ineffective and questionably legal “top secret world” created since 9/11, not normalize it. Anything less won’t do.


Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.