Life in the Shadows of the Empire

“It takes a lot of degeneration before a country falls into dictatorship, but we should avoid these ends by avoiding these beginnings.”

Sandra Day O’Connor, March 9, 2006

I help publish a small, nonprofit, independent newspaper in western North Carolina called the Asheville Global Report. We print under-reported news that casts an often-critical eye on the doings of our government at home and abroad, in the hope that our fellow citizens will find the inspiration and motivation to hold our government accountable. In doing so, our explicitly nonpartisan goal has always been to fulfill the traditional role of the press in a democratic society.

Since we began our project seven years ago, members of our staff have encountered a few unmistakable incidents of surveillance –by whom, we cannot say for certain. Although one episode back in 2000, when the retired local field director of the FBI came by the used bookstore where I worked at the time, leaves me with some suspicions. It had been two months since I’d been arrested in Seattle during the WTO
demonstrations, and one month since my step-brother had died from a heroin overdose in New Jersey. I was ringing up some books for this older man –who I later discovered was named John Quigley — when he casually uncorked the shocking comment: “Oh, Eamon…did I read somewhere that your brother was sick? You’re a writer, right?”

I’d never met this man before and was stunned, speechless. He’d blind-sided me. After a quick and intensely strange interaction in which I explained that my brother had in fact suddenly died recently, and the sheer impossibility of his having read anything about my brother anywhere, he disingenuously apologized and left. He would continue to shop at the store regularly, almost always parting with a “be careful” farewell. Then of course, there was the time almost three years ago when I’d confronted two men videotaping my fellow editor and I outside of the cafe where she had been working that Sunday afternoon. A few months later, one of these gentlemen had the audacity to appear at one of our benefits, merely to hang out by the club entrance, not speak with anyone and enjoy several cups of water. For some reason, this man who had been our very first patron that night, suddenly lost interest in the show and quickly disappeared after I approached him to chat a little.

But last week was special. There are moments in time when historic change emerges from its sublimated status in the mundane and crystallizes itself into personal consciousness and awareness. These are what I call “WAKE UP” moments. It is in these jolting moments when one discovers that what they are experiencing is endemic of something larger and much greater than themselves. Last week I experienced one of those “WAKE UP” calls. On a whim, I’d decided to drive to a favorite cafe to get breakfast. After I’d finished eating, I went outside to small-talk with a friend of mine. After a few minutes, my friend pointed out to me that somebody up the street was taking our picture.

Perhaps realizing he’d “been made,” our mysterious photographer immediately put his elephantine zoom-lens camera down and made haste to walk away. I followed him.

He seemed surprised when he soon discovered I was silently standing right behind him at an intersection. Abruptly he attempted to cross the street in front of oncoming traffic. Giving him about a yard of distance, I continued to follow him anyway. Halfway across the street, he turned his head back and noticed me on his heels, and then instantly started walking diagonally back in the direction we’d came. What followed next can only be described as a scene that was equal parts Rod Serling, Alfred Hitchcock and Monty Python.

After a few minutes of this sort of preposterous, zigzagging pursuit back and forth across the street in bizarre paces alternately shifting between a fast trot and a sluggish lurch, I decided to give the man some space and sat down on a portico stoop next to a closed restaurant He stopped walking too, and then, while standing right next to me, proceeded to place his zoom lens camera up against the window of the pitch-black, lifeless restaurant and take pictures of … nothing. At this point, it’s more than obvious that I’ve been following him, but his behavior never shifts from feigned oblivion and muted, but comic, confusion.

A few seconds pass and he starts to walk away. I duck behind a car and watch him through the vehicle’s large windows. A minute later he turns around, looks in my direction and attempts to take my picture through the glass. I squat and hide, which begins an absurd round of “peek-a-boo” with me popping up and down, into and out of his view, frustrating his attempts to catch me again on film. Suddenly it maybe dawned on him that we were now fully engaged — still, without having any open, verbal acknowledgment of such–and he abruptly quits the game and keeps walking.

A moment later he turns around again and looks back, but I’ve disappeared. Briskly, he marches back in the direction he came and I continue to discreetly follow him. Not much later, as we near what will be his final destination — a parking garage blocks away from the restaurant where this escapade began, and right near our office — a healthy-looking man in “homeless” garb suddenly crosses my path, saying intently to me, “are you still following him?” Undistracted, I keep on the first stranger and follow him to the garage. As he pays his fee to leave, I make no attempt to hide the fact that I’m copying down his license plate number. He looks at me, and without a word, takes off.

The creepiest part about all of this is that I’d driven to the restaurant. He obviously had not and was perhaps informed about my location? Of course, one must always hold out the possibility that this man was just a garden-variety Asheville wing-nut. Not only does our city have our fair share, but it has become a well-established facet of our local culture such that it has earned us national notoriety. Like I said before, we
cannot say for sure who these strangers are, or what exactly they represent. But their appearance in our lives would seem to dovetail with current events, the likes of which, we’ve made it our duty to report. And our website seems to be a big hit with employees of the US Department of Defense. The following day, with little media fanfare, President Bush signed the USA PATRIOT Act into permanence. The lack of media attention to this historic event was all the more glaring in that Bush was in effect signing the death certificate of the Fourth Amendment — which protects US citizens from unwarranted spying — at the precise moment that his administration was fending off controversy about abusing that very right. Also attracting little media attention that day were the staggering remarks made by recently retired Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor who’d made the astonishing admission that she feared the US republic was edging towards a dictatorship.

Indeed, days before on the Senate floor, resident constitutional expert Sen. Robert Byrd issued a stark warning about the PATRIOT Act that demands to be quoted at length: “This new proposal would erase too many of our freedoms guaranteed to the American people. In essence, this legislation says that the Bill of Rights is right no more… There is no doubt that constitutional freedoms will never be abolished in one fell swoop, for the American people cherish their freedoms, and would not tolerate such a loss if they could perceive it. But the erosion of freedom rarely comes as an all-out frontal assault but rather as a gradual, noxious creeping, cloaked in secrecy, and glossed over by reassurances of greater security.”

Now this week it was revealed that a local college freshman and former Eagle Scout had his computer confiscated by the Secret Service. Why? He’d made the grave mistake of quoting some lyrics by the band The Misfits on his web page, in which he had replaced some of the words describing the assassination of JFK to portray a Bush version of the theme. Our local Gannett monopoly franchise newspaper, the Asheville Citizen-Times would reflectively opine that “it pays to be cautious online.”

No doubt. It was also reported this past week that the FBI has listed Indymedia — an open source newswire born out of the WTO protests which disseminates news very similar to our newspaper — as one of the current, top ten domestic terrorist threats in the US. Did you catch that? The FBI now considers disseminating news an act of terrorism.

As I entered our office this morning, I passed two guys who recently moved into our building. They’re media producers of some sort, and they were intensely discussing a new ad campaign they’re working on for the military. The one fellow looked very much like Verizon’s trendoid posterboy –horn-rimmed glasses, vintage bowling shirt, elaborate arm tattoos — and he reeked of the musk of “X-treme sports” and that “I think capitalism is killer, dude,” ethic that seems more and more common in our gentrifying city.

“We’ll have the soldiers marching down the street together in formation…the main theme of these ads is unity,” this guy was instructing his friend. “It’s all about unity. Maybe use the image of a man who is lonely and sad (gestures with arms over his head) and then cut to ‘No man should have to be alone.’ Then the Navy logo will come in, and it’ll build up, cut with images of power and masculinity… I really like the idea of using imagery of thunder and lightening…we want to stress unity and masculinity, power, the warrior spirit — all that man was meant to be, all that man was born to be.” Famous Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels often said similar things.

However seemingly unrelated, for me, all of these events knit together into a social mosaic of “WAKE UP” moments. As each of us individually struggle to make our way through this competitive world, it can be easy to lose sight, let alone recognize the fabric deterioration of our ostensibly “democratic” social compact. Who knows who walks among us, what their intentions are and what greater purpose they may ultimately serve? You may not care and perhaps you may only register bafflement about what any of this paranoid portrait of contemporary life may indicate. But I for one, Senator Byrd, Justice O’Connor, am hearing you loud and clear.

EAMON MARTIN is an editor of Asheville Global Report.