For the first time in a long time I feel ill at ease. First I read an article in The Atlantic by Conor Friedersdorf that asked, why did the FBI and Massachusetts state law enforcement put out many different stories about what happened in Ibragim Todashev’s apartment in Orlando, Florida, early in the morning of May 22, 2013? After the people who were there couldn’t get their story straight, why did the FBI clam up?
Then I saw Ibragim’s father, Abdul-Baki Todashev, at a press conference in Moscow, holding up a photograph of his son in the morgue. The photograph shows a bullet wound in the crown of Ibragim’s head. He said at the conference that the FBI had killed his son “execution style.” Ibragim’s friend, Khusen Taramov, took the photographs when he went to the morgue to identify Ibragim’s corpse. He sent them to Ibragim’s father in Russia.
That was good thinking. Video evidence is the best: less room for mistakes, misunderstandings, translation errors, deception, secrecy, and conflicting interpretations. The photographs show Ibragim with six bullet wounds in his torso, and one in the top of his skull. One way or another, the account the FBI gave about what happened in Ibragim’s apartment on May 22 is not true. The sweetness in this story is that the photographs come to us from Moscow. The FBI cannot shoot Khusen, Ibragim’s resourceful friend, now. They cannot shoot Ibragim’s father in Russia. They can only say, “Oh, shit,” and hope no one notices.
The little we know about this murder does not make one feel comfortable. If the FBI is trying to control this story, it is not having a lot of success. On May 17, two FBI agents, Christopher Lorek and Stephen Shaw, fell to their deaths from a helicopter during a training exercise twelve miles off Virginia Beach. As usual, the press release did not supply a lot of details. First reports said the two agents had been involved in Dzokhar Tsarnaev’s arrest in Watertown, Massachusetts on April 19, 2013. A subsequent report said they had not been in Watertown during the arrest.
I’m sure the FBI hopes the photographs that went from Orlando to Moscow, then back to the States will sink and disappear quickly, as the story about Lorek and Shaw did. Mainstream media do not like complications, and neither do we! We have so many stories now about FBI agents who come to do the unpleasant work of secret police. They have done this kind of work for a long time, but it feels different now. They have become more brazen than they were under Hoover. They shot Ibrahim Todashev through the top of the head, in his own apartment early in the morning, and left his corpse to be photographed by his friend. The Mafia is not that stupid, or brazen.
We have to draw a few lessons here. First is that photographic evidence is the best, by far. Let it accumulate. Have your smart phone and digital cameras ready. We can distribute digital images worldwide more rapidly now than we ever could. Governments would like to control this information. In some places — Iran, China, North Korea, and Syria, for instance — governments do try to control it. We haven’t reached that point here, as the photos of Ibragim Todashev illustrate. We have to be sure we don’t reach a point where government can control evidence of its crimes.
The second thing to remember is that the FBI and other police forces are not your friends, especially when dealing with events like the Boston Marathon bombings. We do not live in Mayberry anymore; Andy Griffith is not minding the store. Agents come to ask you some questions, and you wind up dead. Our constitutional republic has gradually become a police state, as the occupation of Boston on April 19, 2013 illustrates. The symbolism of the date is not lost on Boston residents. That is the day in 1775 when farmers and townsmen in Lexington and Concord stood up to British regulars and began their fight for self rule. Two hundred thirty-eight years later, government agencies places Boston under martial law, with the consent of Deval Patrick, Massachusetts governor, and even with gratitude from Boston residents. Boston is the first city to suffer a total lockdown from an occupying force. Where will it happen next?
Third, recognize that government authorities act from motives we can recognize. They want to exercise control, over people and over information. That is another name for power. They also fear loss of control, which is to say loss of power. The general psychology is that if you do not act to expand your power, you risk losing what you have. A related factor is greed, which affects power as well as wealth. The more power you have, the more you want. Greed and fear become powerful motivators for people who are weak. When these things influence people armed with all the power of the state, you have secret police who shoot people at the end of eight hour interrogations. People who do that kind of thing are protecting themselves.
Fourth, look for patterns of behavior. We are creatures whose minds work best from association. We make connections with associative memory. We build from what we know to what we don’t know in order to learn, and make comparisons through the entire process. All of these activities and mental skills apply when we try to understand secret organizations. We used to apply these powers of observation and analysis to understand our adversaries during the Cold War. We can apply the same skills to understand how our own government operates. If we do not, the only truth we’ll know is the truth government creates for us. That was a main theme of 1984: how to deal with a secret government that engages in constant dishonesty and propaganda to achieve its ends. When we observe the FBI’s behavior, we have to use our ability to recognize patterns to understand what is happening to us.
The last lesson, you have heard me repeat many times. We have to resist this criminal power with all our heart and strength. We have to find a way to resist it without violence. If we use violence, the fight is over, our republic lost. People greedy for power know how to use armed force to keep what they have. They do not know how to respond to other kinds of challenges. If one side in the conflict uses force, it must be the government. We have to find ways to recover our freedom without responding in kind. With discipline, clear thinking, effective planning, able leaders, and a good feel for the psychological elements of conflict, the effort can succeed. It cannot succeed if we do not act to protect ourselves.
Update: see a second article by Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic here.