Dearborn, a town in Michigan with fewer than 100,000 residents, has one of the largest Muslim populations in the U.S. An astounding number of people in Dearborn are on the U.S. government’s watch list. That these two exist at once should come as no surprise, said writer Jeremy Scahill, as he opened the eighth episode of Intercepted and began interviews with Muslim rapper Kayem and Edward Snowden.
With Kayem, he talked about the surveillance state and targeting of Muslims. Kayem talked about how he’s been needlessly harassed, forced to go through insane scrutiny during airport security (which recently went so far as to prevent him from boarding), and placed on watchlists. He joked that he tells friends, “If something happens and I’m in the news…I didn’t do it!” laughing about the degree to which he’s been wrongfully targeted as a Muslim-American. Scahill chimed in.“The ‘Shaggy’ defense––it wasn’t me!” they laugh, as they found a way to mix glorious hip hop references into an otherwise-difficult conversation.
As the interview progressed and Snowden appeared via video call, Scahill’s questions centered around Russia hysteria and the rise of Trump. Snowden gave many familiar answers related to the value of transparency and the clear constitutional problems associated with mass data collection. Snowden’s thoughts on Trump, though, were less alarmist in comparison to many political observers––perhaps because every aspect of mass surveillance is alarming, Snowden remains unsurprised by the alarm of someone like Trump being elected.
“This isn’t actually new,” reminded Snowden, reinforcing the idea that unchecked abuse of power has pretty much always been happening––this time, though, the Trump administration is “so inept” that they’re honest about their wrongdoing or so bad at hiding it that it’s clearly visible to us. Perhaps visibility of power expansion and incompetence, although awful in the short term, can invigorate longer term structural change.
“All governments lie,” Snowden continued, “and all governments break the law.” If anything, the transparency with which we see the incompetence of the Trump administration might remind us that limited power is always better than its rampant, unchecked alternative. The problem is deeper though––many government officials, despite wrongdoing, have never seen the inside of a courtroom in a criminal proceeding.
But part of the problem with the current administration––and mainstream media reporting––is unbridled Russia hysteria. “MSNBC has basically transformed into a Cold War opponent of the Soviet Union,” laughed Scahill.
Snowden is no stranger to Russia-related fear mongering. When critics fabricated theories about his connection to Russia after the U.S. revoked his passport mid-transit to Latin America, his credibility was put on the line––with no evidence presented by said critics. In an effort to smear him, he was painted as a potential NSA contractor-turned-Russian spy.
Although frustrating, Snowden made it clear that he thinks skepticism is good. Reducing standards for evidence tends to be a bad thing and being conscientious arbiters of which information is true and false is crucial. But both Scahill and Snowden remained fiercely critical of the media’s handling of Russia-related topics, talking about how Russia has been an easy scapegoat for the past few years, given Cold War history, lack of public trust in Putin, and general uneasiness about the Putin administration’s unpredictability.
This makes even more sense put into the context of recent events: as of this month, Politico has started a histrionic Russia timeline, politicians and journalists have been quick to discredit Wikileaks’ trove of CIA documents due to Russian connections, and MSNBC has been fixating on Trump’s relationship with Russia, at the expense of other news. Many in the media are thoughtlessly jumping to quick conclusions about Russia instead of accurately assessing the foreign policy landscape. When hysteria wins, we all lose. Perhaps we should heed Snowden’s advice and be better skeptics, clear-headed arbiters of fact and fiction intent on thinking for ourselves.
Liz Wolfe is Young Voices’ managing editor.