By John Whitehead
The 2020 presidential election may be over, but nothing has really changed. The U.S. government still poses the greatest threat to our freedoms. More than terrorism, more than domestic extremism, more than gun violence and organized crime, even more than the perceived threat posed by any single politician, the U.S. government remains a greater menace to the life, liberty and property of its citizens than any of the so-called dangers from which the government claims to protect us.
This threat is especially pronounced for America’s military veterans, especially that portion of the population that exercises their First Amendment right to speak out against government wrongdoing.
Consider: We raise our young people on a steady diet of militarism and war, sell them on the idea that defending freedom abroad by serving in the military is their patriotic duty, then when they return home, bruised and battle-scarred and committed to defending their freedoms at home, we often treat them like criminals merely for exercising those rights they risked their lives to defend. The government even has a name for its war on America’s veterans: Operation Vigilant Eagle.
As first reported by The Wall Street Journal, this Department of Homeland Security (DHS) program tracks military veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and characterizes them as extremists and potential domestic terrorist threats because they may be “disgruntled, disillusioned or suffering from the psychological effects of war.”
Coupled with the DHS’s dual reports on rightwing and leftwing “extremism,” which broadly define extremists as individuals, military veterans, and groups “that are mainly antigovernment, rejecting federal authority in favor of state or local authority, or rejecting government authority entirely,” these tactics bode ill for anyone seen as opposing the government.
Yet the government is not merely targeting individuals who are voicing their discontent so much as it is taking aim at individuals trained in military warfare.
Don’t be fooled by the fact that the DHS has gone extremely quiet about Operation Vigilant Eagle. Where there’s smoke, there’s bound to be fire. And the government’s efforts to target military veterans whose views may be perceived as “anti-government” make clear that something is afoot.
In recent years, military servicemen and women have found themselves increasingly targeted for surveillance, censorship, threatened with incarceration or involuntary commitment, labeled as extremists and/or mentally ill, and stripped of their Second Amendment rights. An important point to consider, however, is that under the guise of mental health treatment and with the complicity of government psychiatrists and law enforcement officials, these veterans are increasingly being portrayed as threats to national security.
In light of the government’s efforts to lay the groundwork to weaponize the public’s biomedical data and predict who might pose a threat to public safety based on mental health sensor data (a convenient means by which to penalize certain “unacceptable” social behaviors), encounters with the police could get even more deadly, especially if those involved have a mental illness or disability coupled with a military background.
That the government is using the charge of mental illness as the means by which to immobilize (and disarm) these veterans is diabolical. With one stroke of a magistrate’s pen, these veterans are being declared mentally ill, locked away against their will, and stripped of their constitutional rights.
If it were just being classified as “anti-government,” that would be one thing. Unfortunately, anyone with a military background and training is also now being viewed as a heightened security threat by police who are trained to shoot first and ask questions later.
Feeding this perception of veterans as ticking time bombs in need of intervention, the Justice Department launched a pilot program in 2012 aimed at training SWAT teams to deal with confrontations involving highly trained and often heavily armed combat veterans. The result? Police encounters with military veterans often escalate very quickly into an explosive and deadly situation, especially when SWAT teams are involved.
Given the government’s increasing view of veterans as potential domestic terrorists, it makes one think twice about government programs encouraging veterans to include a veterans designation on their drivers’ licenses and ID cards. Hailed by politicians as a way to “make it easier for military veterans to access discounts from retailers, restaurants, hotels, and vendors across the state,” it will also make it that much easier for the government to identify and target veterans who dare to challenge the status quo. After all, no one is spared in a police state. Eventually, we all suffer the same fate.
It stands to reason that if the government can’t be bothered to abide by its constitutional mandate to respect the citizenry’s rights—whether it’s the right to be free from government surveillance and censorship, the right to due process and fair hearings, the right to be free from roadside strip searches and militarized police, or the right to peacefully assemble and protest and exercise our right to free speech—then why should anyone expect the government to treat our nation’s veterans with respect and dignity?
It’s time to end the government’s war on the American people, and that includes military veterans. Certainly, veterans have enough physical and psychological war wounds to overcome without adding the government to the mix. Although the U.S. boasts more than 20 million veterans who have served in World War II through the present day, large numbers of veterans are impoverished, unemployed, traumatized mentally and physically, struggling with depression, suicide, and marital stress, homeless, subjected to sub-par treatment at clinics and hospitals, and left to molder while their paperwork piles up within Veterans Administration offices. At least 60,000 veterans died by suicide between 2008 and 2017. On average, 6,000 veterans kill themselves every year, and the numbers are on the rise.
The plight of veterans today—and their treatment at the hands of the U.S. government—remains America’s badge of shame. So here’s a suggestion: If you really want to do something to show your respect and appreciation for the nation’s veterans, why not skip the parades and the flag-waving and instead go exercise your rights—the freedoms that those veterans swore to protect—by pushing back against the government’s tyranny? It’s time the rest of the nation did its part to safeguard the freedoms we too often take for granted. Freedom is not free.
Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. His books Battlefield America: The War on the American People and A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State are available from the AFP Bookstore. He can be contacted at [email protected].