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Putin's Triumph, Our Shame?

Smoke and Mirrors in Sochi

by WILLIAM A. COHN

Prague.

The Olympic Games are a spectacle, which now begin anew. Like the Super Bowl, it is corporate branded entertainment. Nothing wrong with fun and games, but the Sochi Games are smoke and mirrors, diverting our focus from the corruption and injustice which underlie these games. The lack of an effective protest of the Sochi spectacle reveals how much the world has changed since the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

More than 60 countries boycotted the Moscow Games, yet world leaders remain relatively mute about human rights violations in Russia today, choosing to attend the Sochi Games and send their athletes to compete. What does this say about the world today? Perhaps that those who live in glass houses do not throw stones. Indeed, it speaks to the decline of the rule of law in practice.

Terrorism now provides a ready-made pretext for those cracking down on any form of dissent. The unprecedented security apparatus of the Sochi Games requires those who attend to obtain Olympic passports, in addition to tickets, enabling the authorities to blacklist potential activists. Sochi has been made into an isolated militarized fortress-state, with more than twice as many soldiers and police as the 2012 London Olympics, constant surveillance, and a heavy artillery and munitions presence. For those who argue that the Olympics are apolitical, just have a look around Sochi.

Force, systemic human rights violations, gross corruption punctuated by the Road to Nowhere, the muzzling of dissent, and global appeasement are the true legacy of these games. The recent steps taken to mollify critics of Russian tyranny actually reveal the farce of Russia’s justice system. The releases of Putin’s high profile foes underscored the arbitrariness of the Russian justice system. And the designation of far afield free speech zones accentuates that free speech is simply not allowed.

Why such global acquiescence to these cruel and absurd games? Consider the U.S., land of lady liberty. Two weeks ago we learned from a NYT report that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court legitimized NSA metadata collection for more than seven years without providing a legal rationale. The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board on January 23 released its findings that NSA metadata collection is unlawful and should stop. The Obama administration nonetheless continues to attack the messenger, prosecuting leakers and threatening journalists.

Whether in Russia, the U.S. or the Czech Republic, we need dissent abetted by a free and independent press not under threat of state prosecution. But for Ed Snowden and Glenn Greenwald, the FISC would still be the secret handmaiden of the national security state. Thanks to transparency abetted by technology, we see that all powerful states are dirty. We now know that for more than seven years, the law was completely silent as the U.S. national security state accreted ever-greater illegitimate power. While the Emperor believes he is well-robed in his language of democracy, free markets, and rule of law, we can see him naked.

Back to Sochi. The current issue of The Economist has a cover photo and lead story emblazened with “The triumph of Vladimir Putin.” These Games, with a record price-tag of more than 50 billion USD, come at a cost of more than money. As documented in The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Valdimir Putin by Masha Gessen, the leader of Russia is the chief thief of a wholly corrupted Russian State. Systemic human rights violations are the natural consequence of his unchecked power. His triumph is our loss.

Since replacing Dmitry Medvedev as President in 2012, Putin has cracked down on all forms of dissent, including muzzling private news outlets, in order to suppress the opposition movement that had spread throughout the country. That principled U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul will step down after the Sochi Games, rather than before, is tesatament to his being a loyal public servant and having found his cause in Russia bleak and untenable. Any good man serving a conflicted master needs great help.

For we, are the only real check against tyranny. We must act and speak out against oppression. From Sochi to your home state raise your voice against injustice, while you still can. As Dr. King wrote in his Letter from a Birminham Jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

William A. Cohn, a member of the California Bar, lectures on law, ethics and critical thinking at the University of New York in Prague and is a visiting professor of jurisprudence at New York University in Prague where a Public Forum on NSA global surveillance will be held on February 19 at 6 p.m.