Miller Smithton* is a federally licensed firearms dealer. When he wanted to give his own son a hunting rifle for his birthday, he had to run a criminal background check on the young man. "I felt like a worm," Miller told me. "Like a traitor to my own values and my own family. But what else could I do?"
K.J. "Cage" Linton* is a 911 emergency dispatcher and a man concerned about the creeping loss of freedom and privacy in the world. If you call him because your father is having a heart attack or your daughter has broken her leg playing soccer, Cage will calmly ask for your full name, date of birth, and other information. (This is aside from what already appears on his computer screen from the E911 service.) You, in your urgency, give him the information. And this freedom-loving man, without informing you of a thing, enters you into a law-enforcement database. Cage works in a rural county, where he has routinely entered his own friends, neighbors, and family members into this database of crooks and creeps. He knows that all sorts of government employees have free access to the database and use it as a juicy source of both local gossip and leads for investigation. But he's got to stick you in it. It's his job.
Juan Fuentes was just a man minding his own business. On the morning of August 23, 2000 three neighbor children, Jessica, Anna, and Vanessa Carpenter, rushed up pounding his door. Anna was bleeding from dozens of puncture wounds. All three were desperate. A naked intruder had broken into their home and was at that moment savaging their little brother and sister with a pitchfork. The girls begged Fuentes to get his gun and save the little ones' lives. But Fuentes said no. It wasn't that he was afraid to confront the intruder; with his rifle he could easily have dropped a pitchfork wielder. No, it was the government he was more terrified of. They'll take my gun away if I do that, he told the desperate girls, whose brother and sister were dying horribly at that moment. To compound the horror, the girls' own father, John Carpenter, had locked away the family pistol in obedience to California's "child-safe" storage laws. All five Carpenter children knew how to shoot and how to handle guns safely, but because their father feared the law more than he feared an armed intruder, they couldn't save themselves or each other.
We've all heard about the frog in the kettle. Turn the heat up under him gradually enough and he'll sit there until he boils to death. It's become the most common metaphor to describe our gradual loss of freedom.
We never ask, "Who's turning up the heat under us froggies?" because the answer is so obvious. It's government, of course. And it is.
But there's something else that's causing the heat to rise and freedom to evaporate into air. It's going on in all three stories above and in daily life around us. Call it the Quisling Effect.
Most everybody knows what a quisling is: a turncoat, a Judas, a Benedict Arnold. Specifically, the American Heritage Dictionary defines it as "a traitor who serves as the puppet of the enemy occupying his or her country."
The word "quisling" has a naturally slimy sound. Even if you didn't know what it meant, you'd know it was something unsavory, undesirable, or at best, something weak. Not many people realize that (as with martinet, sandwich, and boycott), the word came to us from a man's name.
Vidkun Quisling was a twentieth-century Norwegian politician and head of Norway's home-grown form of Nazism, the Nasjonal Samling (National Unity) Party. He went so far as to urge Hitler to invade his country in hopes of becoming Norway's supreme leader. Hitler did. And Quisling did -- for exactly five days. The Nazis quickly placed him in a figurehead position while one of their own actually ran the country. Within months of the war's end, Quisling got his just desserts. He was executed by firing squad. And a new word entered the dictionary, not only in English, but in many other languages.
The identification of Quisling with dirty deeds is so strong that when I encountered an article that mentioned humanitarian acts Quisling had committed in the 1920s, it was as if I'd just read, "Ted Bundy heroically feeds the poor in Calcutta," or "Jeffrey Dahmer rescues kitten from burning building."
But maybe Bundy did send a few bucks to Mother Teresa. And Dahmer, by many accounts, wasn't entirely a horrible guy, aside from that inconvenient penchant for murdering and eating his lovers. And yes, before he entered the dictionary so odiously, Quisling was actually a respected man.
Even the blackest of us is not all black. And it doesn't take a long look into our own hearts to admit that the whitest of us look more like the pile of laundry that was washed 10 times in Brand X than the pile that was laundered with the good stuff in the old commercial.
In each of the three incidents that open this article, people made pragmatic decisions that went against their own better principles. They did so for all the ordinary, perfectly excusable daily reasons -- because they feared to break the law, because it was their job, because they didn't want to make waves, because it was a compromise that got them through the day. When their actions were done only to obey a law, they could, with justification, claim the government "made" them do it.
Except in a rare tragic case like the deaths of the Carpenter children, the negative consequences are miniscule and life goes on.
But it isn't only "the government" that is causing freedom to boil away around us. Though major and minor manifestations of The Quisling Effect, we sell out our own freedom and the freedom of our children, our neighbors, and our friends. Gradually. Oh, so gradually. But sell it we do. We are participants, willing or otherwise, in our own destruction.
Businesses -- those proud products of our allegedly free market -- also sell out freedom. And they are bigger culprits than we. Sometimes they do it because corporations, by their very structure and nature, have a lot in common with the state. As one friend of mine always put it, "Every corporation wants to be a government when it grows up." Businesses often help condition us to daily regimentation, to trading our privacy for perks, and to going along to get along. That, I suppose, is an unavoidable, unintended (?) consequence of the post-Industrial revolution.
But businesses increasingly manifest The Quisling Effect for the very same reasons we private people do: to avoid making waves, to be allowed to do business as usual under the eye of an ever-stronger state, or to appease the real or imagined demands of the "authorities." (In the latter case, it might be more apt to apply a different WWII analogy, and accuse them of The Chamberlain Effect; but that's another story.)
How typical is this? Your ISP meekly enables all e-mail and Web activity to be easily monitored by the FBI, not because the law says they must, but because the FBI unilaterally decrees that they should. Online commerce companies, led by the 800-pound mine canary eBay, announce that they will turn over any customer record to any law enforcement agent, without asking for a subpoena, search warrant, or even an explanation of probable cause. Saks department store sends a notice to charge account customers, saying it will no longer accept more than $350 in cash payments. Even though that amount is far, far below the federal government's own "suspicious" cash reporting limits, Saks is scared, Saks has decided to be overly cautious. Saks' lawyers have no doubt advised the company to prepare for a future in which even $400 is a sign that a loyal Saks customer is a terrorist or drug dealer.
Banks demand detailed information about you and the origins of your deposits. Following 9-11, one supermarket chain, in a "patriotic" gesture, even turned over its entire database of customer purchasing records to the federal government for "anti-terrorism" records. (And yes, the type of food you buy and how you buy it really is part of the government's profiling of your terrorist potential.)
In some cases, the thousands of companies who do such things really are bowing to the law (even when the law isn't constitutional). But in most cases, they're merely complying with fishy agency interpretations of regulations or cravenly, pathetically trying to look compliant and cooperative in general so that they themselves won't become targets of the FBI, IRS, or Department of Homeland Security.
It must have been a lot like this in Stalinist Russia. But nevertheless, in each case, these businesses are following their own momentary self interest -- just as we are when we run a background check or enter a caller's name in a database. In relationships with "security scared" businesses, your legal rights, or for that matter their own long-term self interest (assuming freedom is in the long-term interest of every private enterprise), are easy casualties.
Saks doesn't care about your freedom. Nor should it have to, in the best of all worlds. Its main concern is with its own survival, as it should be. In a free market, its survival would depend largely on how well it served customers. In this world, survival depends more and more on how well a company kowtows to regulators or law enforcers. And like virtually all corporations (and most individuals), Saks' little hive-mind will simply adapt to present conditions in whatever way it thinks will best ensure its own survival.
(The very concept that the federal government has a right to order private businesses to do anything is another matter. But we've long ago accepted that state of affairs as normal, however abnormal and unfree it really is.)
If this is the way institutions behave, then we can't expect much better from individuals who, no matter how much they love freedom and still want a nice, uncomplicated daily life. In fact, Miller Smithton, my gun-dealer friend, pointed out that there's even a corollary to The Quisling Effect in which we not only make conscious decisions that trade away freedom, but we begin adopting the psychology of the unfree in our daily lives.
For instance, Smithson told me he finds himself sneaking his perfectly legal machine guns from his house to his car and back so that his yuppie neighbors won't see him. He's not doing anything wrong, owning and using these machine guns. Nor is he hiding the guns because he's afraid his neighbors are going to steal such valuable stuff. He just doesn't want to cope with the almost-inevitable suspicion -- complete with reports to the ATF -- that being seen with absolutely legal weapons might bring down on him.
So, he submits. Not only in his rational choices, but in his attitudes and way of life.
Go back for a moment to the definition of a quisling: "a traitor who serves as the puppet of the enemy occupying his or her country."
If you believe that the behemoth now squatting on the banks of the Potomac is constitutional or in some other fashion legitimate, then the definition of quisling doesn't apply to anyone who bows to that government's will -- even when, by bowing or "complying," we diminish our own and our children's freedom. By those terms, the loss of freedom itself is "legitimate," and heaven help us all.
But if you believe that the ever-consuming, ever-growing creature now spreading itself across the land is, rather, an alien living off the traditions of freedom as it destroys its own host, if you believe that the security state, the surveillance state, and the control state are truly occupying forces that don't belong in this land and aren't good for it, for you, for your progeny, or for the future ... then clearly all who cooperate with it manifest The Quisling Effect. Some of us bear a large responsibility for selling our own freedom. Some a lot less. But hardly anybody walks among us who isn't responsible in some way for cooperating with the freedom-consuming occupier.
Unfortunately, there's no solution -- for the moment, at least. There is no incentive for your banker or your ISP to stand up and say, "Hey, wait a minute, this is wrong and we're going to fight it." And for both businesses and individuals, there is almost no motivation, beyond sheer stubbornness and increasingly archaic principles, to do anything else but comply.
If froggie is getting hotter in the pot, government is ultimately at fault. If froggie stays in the pot instead of jumping out, froggie is also responsible. But with millions of quisling froggies out there helping turn the heat up and up and up ... where, really, is the most sincerely freedom loving froggie to go, even if he decides to take the giant leap? Straight from the boiling pot into a world of hot-hot burners.