In the middle of last month, the Trump administration unveiled a “pre-crime” program that would make any lover of civil liberties shriek.
Whitney Webb of MintPress News reported that U.S. Attorney General William Barr “issued a memorandum to all U.S. attorneys, law enforcement agencies and top-ranking Justice Department officials announcing the imminent implementation of a new ‘national disruption and early engagement program’ aimed at detecting potential mass shooters before they commit any crime.” Barr called for the Department of Justice and the FBI to spearhead an effort to “assess and engage potential mass shooters before they strike.”
One of the most telling aspects of this memo is Barr’s candid admission that the bulk of “early engagement” tactics the new program plans to use originated from previous plans dealing with terroristic threats. Put simply, the basis of the policies implemented after 9/11 are also the pillars of the “early engagement” tactics that Barr intends to use to identify potential criminals. The keyword being “potential,” thus indicating the pre-crime nature of this program.
Mass surveillance will likely play a major role in this program. Algorithms used to analyze massive amounts of data appear to be a major feature of this program. Most of this data is used to find certain patterns such as composite symptoms of “mental illness.” Back in July, Barr gave the keynote speech at the 2019 International Conference on Cyber Security (ICCS) and called on makers of consumer electronics and applications using encryption to provide a “backdoor” for government entities such as law enforcement. In Barr’s view, obtaining access to encrypted communications is an issue of public safety.
Although many tech companies take pride in protecting their consumer’s privacy, Barr believes that “a major incident may occur at any time that will galvanize public opinion on these issues.”
Shootings like the one in El Paso have indeed catalyzed such support for these kinds of measures. After the El Paso shooting, President Trump even floated the idea of creating a new federal agency called HARPA that would cooperate with the Department of Justice to use “breakthrough technologies with high specificity and sensitivity for early diagnosis of neuropsychiatric violence.”
It specifically includes “advanced analytical tools based on artificial intelligence and machine learning.” The data analyzed under this program would be gathered from consumer electronic devices and information turned over by health-care providers on people they deem to be a threat. In sum, many of the activities that everyday people participate in could be subject to surveillance and eventually, these people could be turned over to government authorities. Pretty scary stuff.
It gets even worse when looking at the bigger picture. The FBI and other federal agencies will play a major role in these surveillance programs, and that should worry all Americans given the track record of these organizations. In an internal memo that was recently made public, so-called “conspiracy theories” were connected to domestic terror threats. Even academia has jumped in to link “conspiracy theorists” with mental illness.
Mental health has generally been a tool that the state uses to justify undermining people’s rights. By tying it to conspiracy theorizing, the government is opening up a whole new avenue of encroachments. Simply questioning government narratives could leave people susceptible to being categorized as “mentally ill”, which could land them on watch lists, subjecting otherwise peaceful individuals to government snooping.
To its credit, the Trump administration has resisted calls for passing specific gun control legislation, such as universal background checks or red flag gun confiscation orders, which would only add to the federal government’s already long list of gun control measures. However, undermining basic rights such as privacy and due process are unacceptable. These rights don’t exist in a vacuum and they are interconnected. Breathing a sigh of relief when an administration decides to not pass gun control, but turning a blind eye to legitimate violations of due process through Minority Report-style programs does freedom advocates no favors.
Federalizing law enforcement is not the way to go either. Instead, a modest proposal is to devolve more federal power to the states and let state and local law enforcement agencies handle these issues. Similarly, mental health can also be tackled at lower levels of government. Both state government and private actors (I personally prefer the latter) should rebuild mental health institutions so that the mentally ill who actually pose a threat to others receive the treatment they need.
More importantly, let’s have a frank conversation about our crumbling civil society. As political scientist Robert Putnam famously wrote, we’re “bowling alone” these days as many private organizations such as the Boy Scouts of America are shutting down their operations or are witnessing declines in membership.
Many of these organizations have kept America’s adolescents from partaking in destructive social behavior. Reviving these institutions will do a lot more to curb violence than any expansion in government will ever do. Further, they’ll allow us to have safer communities while preserving our cherished civil liberties.