Sandi Burtseva for TomPaine.com - 02.27.06
In these times of the Patriot Act and domestic surveillance, we might justifiably be concerned that our society is becoming post-democratic. So, while the government charging a citizen with the good, old-fashioned crime of sedition might not exactly be commonplace, it is in keeping with recent trends. In September, Laura Berg, a Veteran’s Administration nurse in Albuquerque wrote to a local paper, The Alibi, expressing outrage at the administration’s incompetent and inhumane handling of Katrina and Iraq. “Is this America the beautiful?” she asked. Evidently so, given that Berg’s letter prompted the VA to investigate her for sedition, a charge that would have sounded significantly less anachronistic back when “America the Beautiful” was written in 1893. Peter Simonson, Executive Director of the ACLU in New Mexico, was stunned: “Sedition? That’s like something out of the history books.”
While there does still exist a federal law governing sedition, which can carry up to a $250,000 fine and a 20-year sentence, it refers exclusively to intentionally instigating violent revolt against the government. To read Berg’s call to “act forcefully to remove a government administration playing games of smoke and mirrors and vicious deceit” as a direct appeal for insurrection is certainly a colorful interpretation. Nonetheless, Berg’s work computer was seized within days of her letter’s publication. It took the VA's chief of human resources, Mel R. Hooker, almost two months to admit that no evidence of the letter having been written on the VA’s computer could be found. Rather than apologize, Hooker went on to reiterate the possibility that the letter constituted sedition. Moreover, according to Berg’s American Federation of Government Employees Union representative, the VA has turned the offending letter over to the FBI.
Although her cause is being championed by the New Mexico branch of the ACLU and Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D- N.M., Berg is understandably distraught and, according to Simonson, “scared for her job,” and has not issued any statements to the press. And so a dissenting voice has been bullied into silence—that’s nothing new. No matter what apologies or assurances Bingaman or the ACLU may be able to secure for Berg, she will not soon be able to forget the risks that are again becoming associated with peaceful dissent. And neither will the rest of America, especially given the fact that Berg is only one target in a recent spate of actions taken to silence federal employees expressing dissent or criticism.
Another target: James E. Hansen, top climatologist at NASA, who was threatened with “dire consequences” following a lecture on the dangers of greenhouse gas emissions. NASA public affairs official George C. Deutschhas resigned in the wake of the scandal. A group of Justice Department lawyers who challenged the Bush administration on NSA wire-tapping and torture found themselves harassed, blocked from promotions, and, one by one, forced to resign their posts and leave the public service sector.
And so, the suggestion that this administration does not tolerate dissent—whether in the form a federal employee expressing a personal opinion in the public sphere or challenging policy internally—can no longer be dismissed. All coming to light within the past month, these stories provide chilling, mounting and incontrovertible evidence of our deteriorating democracy.