In Orwell’s 1984 we were introduced to the Thought Police, a secret police tasked by the fictional superstate of Oceania to surveil the population to root out and arrest those members who might display inclinations for disrupting the status quo. This was understood by readers of the novel to be a frightening, albeit fantastical vision of a totalitarian regime with nearly unlimited means to monitor and control its subjects.

With Edward Snowden’s revelation of the unsettling lengths to which agents of the federal government will go to deter potential criminals, we now see that our present level of technology, which has shifted the paradigm of human communication, has brought us to the point where Orwell’s dystopian vision seems less and less far fetched.

The Department of Justice is now using the internet to ferret out individuals who may be guilty of committing “thought crime”. Their latest target? Inflammatory, anonymous internet commenters.

One of my go-to sites for libertarian news and editorials is Reason.com. I read their articles with regularity and am sure to always check out the comments section afterwards. The community of commenters on Reason is very active and robust. I am an occasional participant, but tend to be more of a observer, appreciating the discussion from a distance. Comments range from highly critical and nuanced, to silly and off-topic, to vociferous arguing with socialists and various other quibblers and trolls, to hyperbolic cathartic venting.

I find this last bit to be an essential part of what makes this obscure little community valuable to it’s members. The comments on the site are known as a place to escape the censorship and extreme political correctness of our day and engage in sarcasm and exaggeration. After seeing what people are saying on more hard-line conservative or leftist sites, or reading about yet another instance of governmental abuse, overreach, incompetence, or simple criminality, it is a place to blow off some steam. Now, I’ve also seen some brilliant, well-reasoned, and insightful commentary, sometimes even better than what you get in the actual article. It’s not always a place to engage in measured debate with ideologues (though it sometimes is), but it’s not really meant to be a venue for that. We come to commiserate and vent because we can’t all go to the same bar every day. Most libertarians find the tacit approval by most people of the institutional violence of the state to be infuriating and a small group has carved out this little corner of the internet for some cathartic release.

Commenters often joke about the more anarchistic and subversive comments putting us on an NSA watchlist. Well, it’s no longer a joke, because those types of comments have actually resulted in the DOJ issuing a subpoena for info on six commenters who wrote allusions to the suffering and death of Katherine Forrest, the federal judge who sentenced Silk Road creator Ross Ulbricht to life in prison. You see, federal judges are apparently privileged to not have to suffer incredible threats on melodramatic web fora, unlike the rest of us who just have to put up with anonymous internet discourteousness and empty threats in more typical ways, like yelling at a computer screen in an empty room, complaining to our weary spouses, or closing the browser tab with a cool and detached indifference.

Instead, the DOJ, lead by superhero U.S. attorney Preet Bharara, has gone full steam on prosecuting these guys for allegedly making “threatening communications”. Let me be clear in what I think about all of this:

Do I think these dudes are actually thinking of or plotting to kill this judge or anyone for that matter?

No, of course not. I think it’s a ridiculous assertion and that people who believe that should be made fun of and embarrassed.

But what if they are plotting to kill her? Aren’t I afraid of looking dumb, then?

No.

Do I think this subpoena flies in the face of enumerated 1st amendment protections?

Of course I do. Because it does; it’s not possible to meet the burden of proof in showing that these guys are threatening to kill anyone. Why go after a case of threatening a judge that is saturated with reasonable doubt?… Unless the real goal is to stop certain types of speech.

Do I think the comments were in bad taste and indicative of a depraved mind?

What difference does that make?

Seriously, why should the level of tact play any role in justifying the subpoena? We all say over-the-top, tactless things from time to time. They have this conversation in the film 12 Angry Men: how many of you have said something like, “I’m so angry I could kill him!” Could you really kill that person or are you simply using hyperbole to express frustration? What might have made these six guys angry? My guess would be that they think that ordering the locking of a person in a human cage for the rest of their life for furnishing a site on which people peacefully traded currency for goods is grossly immoral and an example of the egregious abuse of state power that most Americans tacitly and uncritically accept. The judge was a central figure in this exercise of violence, and yet, most Americans see her as just following the law, perhaps even that she is morally just in doing so. To people who view victimless crimes as an affront to liberty and human decency, this can inspire some inflammatory rhetoric.

Let’s look at it another way: most people don’t lose their head when they read a comment about torturing and killing a serial killer or a child rapist. That person making the comment probably is not going to actually try to hunt down and kill the deranged criminal. And besides, the criminal is evil and probably deserves those kinds of comments. The individuals who wrote the inflammatory comments about Judge Forrest believe she is evil for sentencing a peaceful man to life in prison.

Now, you, dear reader, may not agree with or even understand this assessment (most people don’t, just as most people haven’t really considered the moral argument against drug criminalization) but at least try to see where they are coming from. The judge took a man who committed no act of violence, nor could he credibly be considered a threat to anyone, and cast him to prison for the rest of his life, and probably felt morally superior for doing so. That makes some people very angry, and angry people say dumb things about hell, and shooting, and woodchippers that they don’t really mean. (For the record, to any DOJ agents reading this, I don’t want to kill her, or anyone else for that matter, nor do I fantasize about killing anyone, nor do I even own a woodchipper.)

One other troubling implication of this subpoena is that the DOJ might be targeting certain political groups to curb speech or ideas that powerful people in the federal government disfavor. This was once the stuff of tin-foil-hat conspiracy theorists, but we’ve already seen the IRS targeting conservative groups. Why is the DOJ even policing commenters on a relatively small libertarian media site? The implication is that libertarians, for their antagonism of the government (more accurately, their rejection of violence committed by the state), might be more inclined to harbor potential criminals and terrorists.

This is especially offensive to me because of how easy outsiders will come to believe this and reject libertarianism out of misplaced fear. The hallmark of libertarianism is the freedom of the individual to pursue his or her values and the rejection of force. Most libertarians are fundamentally peaceful people, even if they sometimes talk about the justness of resisting oppression. To suggest that this would equate them with domestic terrorists is a gross mischaracterization and I firmly reject this idea.

Libertarianism is not a simplistic, reactionary cult built around drug use and tax evasion. It is a rational moral and social philosophy born of critical analysis and reason. To try to delegitimize it, not by evaluating its claims, but by painting its adherents as dangerous wackos, demonstrates a sort of sad petulance on the part of the DOJ in their use of fear and intimidation to desperately maintain their illusion of power. Fear not these petty tyrants, but instead look upon them with contempt.

Links:

I first heard about this story from Julie Borowski’s blog.

Here is Reason’s disclaimer about the subpoena. As of yet they haven’t commented on what’s going on.

Here is former Reason editor Virginia Postrel’s take on the matter.

Here is the original article from PopeHat.