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Cameras, Cameras, Everywhere!

Tricia Shore | September 26 2005

Leviathan loves a flattering self-portrait.

Some people envision Leviathan as a big hairy slightly benevolent monster, the kind that you feared was hiding under your bed when you were four, scary but a monster that your parents would have been able to handle. It’s the kind of monster that you’d notice if he were standing outside your front door. If we go back a bit further than Hobbes and look at what Job in the Old Testament says about this monster, we’d see that it has "mighty strength" and that "round about his teeth is terror. His back is made of rows of shields." Things certainly calmed down a bit for Leviathan’s image after the Old Testament. In the illustration of a currently published Hobbes paperback, Leviathan is merely a slightly-befuddled-looking giant, protecting the masses that are contained inside. It is this version of Leviathan that we want to believe, the slightly helpful, slightly befuddled monster of government that is here to help us. Leviathan must love this more flattering image of itself. Its existence depends on our believing this latter version.

How else do we explain Leviathan’s latest coup, a $400,000 federal government grant, followed closely by another $300,000 federal grant, followed by a generous donation by Motorola of $1,000,000 in equipment. What modern government miracle does all this money grant us? Why, placing security cameras in the Jordan Downs housing project in Watts, of course! What a splendid idea for the police force there, ah, well, or what used to be the police force. Councilwoman Janice Hahn actually said, after claiming that she was "cautious about endorsing the cameras," and while apparently bearing a straight face, that a loss of funding for the "housing police department" prompted the Los Angeles Police Department’s claim that "they don’t have the officers to patrol properly."

I don’t claim to be an economist – ask my husband, he’ll definitely agree. But it does seem as though $1,700,000, adding together the corporate and government generosity mentioned in the previous paragraph, would hire quite a few officers--possibly enough for a housing project’s security. Maybe Councilman Hahn doesn’t know about the grants – doubtful – or maybe she just doesn’t put two and two, or in this case, one million and seven hundred thousand, together. I can relate – a lot of us were trained in government school mathematics, the unstated purpose of which is to produce people like Councilman Hahn, people who merely want to be "cautious" about Big Brother’s moves and who don’t connect enough numbers and dots to say: Hey, if you’re going to spend that much money, why don’t you just hire more police officers?!?

And I don’t mean only to place the blame on Ms. Hahn. She’s probably got enough going on in her life, trying to rationalize irrational behavior such as spying on citizens with cameras. Anyway, she’s not the only one to be merely "cautious" about this camera thing. In fact, she pales in comparison to such governmental luminaries as Assistant Chief George Gascon, head of daily LAPD operations, "Cameras are as much a part of policing now as handcuffs."

I can’t help but think of my husband here who, as young boy, opened his Santa Claus presents before his parents woke up one Christmas, and, finding a pair of toy handcuffs from Santa under the tree, accidentally handcuffed his own hands behind his back, forcing his parents out of bed way too early to fetch the key and unlock him. I’m proud to say that my husband has learned a few things since that time, things that apparently Chief Gascon has not. My husband no longer plays with handcuffs.

As with my husband, some people in the housing project have actually grown up. A few residents have much better sense than those whom Leviathan has chosen to protect them. While LAPD Cmdr. Charlie Beck is telling us that "It’s the criminals, not residents, we’re targeting," and admonishing that the "residents will grow to understand this is there to protect them," the residents, whom Leviathan has so generously helped with their housing needs, have defiantly taken to thinking for themselves: "How do you think they’d feel if I put a camera outside their homes?" asks Robert Lopez. Robert obviously did not have enough public schooling. He sees Leviathan for its sneaky monster self and is actually standing up to this devious beast. Never fear, Leviathan is working behind the scenes to make sure that people like Robert "grow to understand."

Sneaky is as sneaky does; and this time, I must admire the craftiness with which Leviathan has bundled this little security package. You see, some of the grant money will actually be used to conduct computer classes because, along with a little extra added governmental security via surveillance, the residents will receive "free wireless Internet access." Hooray! Now it’s all okay, isn’t it? Our friend Robert, way too smart for Leviathan, has this one figured out too. He knows of "few residents who have computers to take advantage of the Internet access."

Police Commission Vice President Alan Skobin, however, has people like Robert all figured out: "This isn’t about Big Brother," says Skobin, apparently without a hint of irony, "It is about protecting and serving the public." So there, Robert! And let Skobin’s quote also be noted to everyone else who hasn’t been so desensitized by the reality show sporting Orwell’s governmental name that they have forgotten the 1984 allusion. Oh, and then there’s James Foreman, another thinking resident, who ponders: "Do you think people around here are going to trust the LAPD to use their Internet connect?" With so many thinking people around, it’s easy to see why the government wants to monitor things. "Maybe it will catch someone," another resident ponders. Maybe indeed. If Leviathan and its corporate pal are doling out almost two million dollars, you can bet there’ll be some catching going on.

And is Motorola merely being a good corporate citizen here? Or is it hoping that this little camera snooping thing will catch on, so that its investment in this housing community will yield more contracts across the country? All in the name of security and protection, of course.

Nothing much surprises me about this Leviathan move, or about its sneakiness on the "underprivileged," as Bush’s loving mother calls those who are evidently not privileged. I’m assuming here that she would apply the same word to the people in this housing project as she did to the people who were unlucky enough to be caught in Katrina’s subsequent Superdome fiasco. Lest we be as smug as Mama Bush – compared to the Bush family, most of us are indeed underprivileged.

The supposedly underprivileged, though, have been guinea pigs for Leviathan’s creeping paws for quite a while. While Rob Reiner and his posse are telling Californians that we should allow Leviathan to take away our children and educate them by age 3--using the term educate ever so loosely here – the coalition for universal preschool in California is citing studies that show how taking away students from their parents all day helps to improve their academic performance, at least until they’re in second grade or so. Diane Flynn Keith has information on this ploy.

Never mind that the studies were mostly done using that wonderful Leviathan helper, Head Start, a program of the mid-1960s that resulted in some of the very people that Mama Bush now calls underprivileged. Leviathan was so successful with these guinea pigs that its ideas spread to the more privileged. One theory of marketing shows that it is much easier to take a product initially designed for higher-income folks and market it to those of us nearer the bottom of the income chain. Think Guess jeans in the 80s here.

But in Leviathan’s topsy-turvy world, things initially marketed to the lower-income folks eventually become the desire of the middle and upper classes. How else does one explain the recent campaign telling those of us whose children watch PBS that we better make sure our children attend the right preschool as early as possible, or else they won’t be attending the right college. Reiner and his ilk have taken Head Start statistics, which show that children benefit from early education programs, and applied them to all children. The ploy is working and mothers everywhere now believe they are not smart enough to teach their own children the alphabet and such. As with many people born in the mid-1960s or later, I assumed that preschool had been around for most of our country’s existence. Ah, the sneakiness of Leviathan, educating us masses to believe that things have always been some particular way!

Ms. Keith informed me that preschool is a relatively new invention. I was indeed surprised to learn that prior to Head Start, most moms stayed home with their children until the compulsory school age of six or seven – that children learned at home and became "school-ready," whatever that vague phrase means. Tell that to the moms I know, most of whom are scrambling to place their child into a preschool of some sort – all the better if there can be some kind of developmental disorder with which to diagnose Junior so that he can go to a special preschool program on Leviathan’s dime.

But I digress. Or do I? Is it implausible that Leviathan is playing another sneaky trick, this time with the Watts housing residents? While we comfortably sleep, currently unwatched, in our middle-class suburbs, supposedly free from the gang activity that Leviathan is blaming for its candid camera experiment, we are tempted to believe that Leviathan has a point this time. Maybe Leviathan is helping the poor people to stay safe!

It must have been easy for people in my Los Angeles neighborhood to watch Head Start in the 1960s and say, Isn’t that nice that they’re doing something good for the poor children? And here we are, 40 years later, with my being an anomaly because I keep my children at home with me instead of having them diagnosed with some supposed disability and sending them to a government preschool. Never fear – through such programs as the sneaky camera project, Leviathan is trying hard to condition my own children that cameras are there for our protection. If you doubt me, go to your local intersection with a camera that snaps your picture and license plate if you do something it doesn’t like.

There's no use in believing that Leviathan is the boogeyman or that its biblical description is at all relevant to us today. Leviathan is merely that nice police officer who’s protecting you. And now it’s becoming the police officer’s benevolent tool: the camera – just watching. And patiently waiting.

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