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It was announced as an operation to prevent fraudsters from getting into innocent people's bank accounts. What could be more noble? What could possibly go wrong?
Maybe that's why, when Operation Choke Point first became public in March 2013, everybody from the mainstream media to the most eagle-eyed freedom bloggers basically ignored it.
As it turns out there's nothing noble about it and a lot is already going wrong. As usual with these secretive federal programs, we may not learn for years how much evil has already been done under the pretense of good. One thing we can be sure of: if these tactics aren't halted, they'll grow inexorably and will end up threatening not only our gun rights and our freedom, but the very concept of a society based on fairplay and honest dealings.
What is Operation Choke Point?
The barebones description given by American Banker seems innocuous enough. Mostly:
Immediately after Operation Choke Point was announced, the Justice Department began issuing subpoenas to banks, both large and small, that it claimed were giving access to scammers. It then began pressuring banks to settle by paying millions of dollars to the federal government. Later the FDIC and Federal Trade Commission joined the act.
Well, nobody likes fraudsters, right? And banks need to be vigilant. No problem so far.
Sure, the tactic of pressuring banks into making large preventive settlements based solely on which companies and individuals they do business with does sound a little more like blackmail than the workings of a serious justice system (where evidence would be presented in open trial and no penalty assessed without a verdict); but well, that's just the way things are done these days. Case closed.
But not so fast!
Reports soon began to surface that legal, though controversial, businesses were getting letters from their banks closing their accounts. At first it was payday loan operations and legitimate small lenders. Then people and businesses in the porn industry.
But of course, nobody loves payday lenders (except the millions who turn to them when in need, and even many of them would happily see those lenders slapped -- after giving them loans). And while plenty of people like porn, both secret porn-watchers and public moralists tend to look down their noses at people who earn their living that way. Again, not many of us were likely to notice that these groups were being hit -- or to cry foul if we did.
Finally, though, a few news sources and bloggers began to ask, "What's going on here?"
As it turns out, a lot is going on.
Suddenly, people are quoting Martin Niemoeller
It turns out that Operation Choke Point has already identified some 30 target business types with the aim of shutting an unknown number of businesses in these categories completely out of the U.S. banking and payments systems.
Some of the targeted fields contain honest businesses while still having reputations for harboring fraudsters: dating services, money-transfer operations, telemarketing, and "get-rich" products, for instance.
Others were obviously targeted because some moralizer or safety Nazi doesn't approve: online gambling, fireworks sales, pharmaceutical sales, head shops, businesses selling racist materials, and of course porn. (One liberty-loving former call girl, Maggie McNeill), has already spoken out articulately.
Some choices were ominously political -- and that's where we come in. The targeted businesses include -- you won't be surprised -- firearms dealers and ammunition vendors.
Yes, the federal government, it appears, wants to put pressure on corporations to force gun-related businesses out of U.S. banking and payment systems. That means no bank accounts. It may mean no business loans. No ability to process credit and debit card payments. Severely reduced ability to order parts or inventory, rent or buy shop space or manufacturing space, pay bills, pay employees, or execute the thousand other things businesses must do everyday to continue running. In short, the federal government is targeting entire industries for destruction.
Operation Choke Point aims to put a choke hold around the necks of perfectly innocent businesses, business owners, employees -- and customers.
Worse, it aims to do so not by attacking the businesses (which, of course, the ATF has been doing all along). That would be observable and bring loud outcrys. Instead, it threatens and punishes financial instutions that dare to do business with these perfectly legal companies. Under such threat, what do you expect typical, risk-averse finacial corporations to do?
They'll shove their politically incorrect customers out the door, of course. Even without Operation Choke Point, they were already doing it (and perhaps doing it at government behest or with government collusion) as Defense Distributed and Wikileaks can attest. Conveniently, the blame falls on the corporations; government hands remain "clean" and controversy is muted.
Suddenly, gun bloggers are quoting Martin Niemoeller: First they came for the ..."
If we don't defend the payday lenders and the porn stars now, they say (rightly), there will be nobody to defend us when "they" finally come for the gun stores.
Belatedly, the alarm is being sounded.
But it's worse than that. It really is
Nothing good results when governments target specific groups for ostracism. And it's not only the targeted groups that suffer.
Horrible though it is, when governments use overt lawmaking or even public diktats to persecute people, at least the persecution is out in the open. It can be opposed. The targets can protest, prepare, or run if they realize early enough what's going on. Opponents of the outrages can organize and oppose. Given enough notice and enough passion, maybe they can prevent disasater. When the Nazis began to target Germany's Jews, the whole world could see -- even though most of the world chose not to understand or care.
When a government opts to use covert pressure, it's harder to see -- and prevent -- onrushing disaster. And the disaster is ultimately worse because of the very hiddenness of the tacics.
The disaster goes far beyond the mere act of driving perfectly legitimate businesses either out of business or underground. I hate to use the term "social contract" (because I never signed one and neither did you). But society -- indeed, civilization itself, operates on certain assumptions: that laws are (or should be) fair; that government is accountable to the people; that individuals and businesses are generally honest and honorable in their dealings; that hidden agendas are rare; that people operating within the law deserve equal protection under law; and that if you're a peaceable person you won't be targeted for either prosecution or persecution. Sometimes these assumptions are honored more in myth than reality, but they matter because these (and many other beliefs and expectations) are the glue that holds civil society together.
Begin secretly and randomly targeting the innocent and society is headed for a fall. Suddenly, nobody knows who or what is trustworthy, or whether they'll be the next victim. Nobody knows if they can build a business without it being arbitrarily torn apart. To survive, formerly legitimate businesses are forced to go offshore or underground. People who once prided themselves on being "law-abiding citizens" face the choice of going broke or becoming criminals.
Make no mistake: what begins with targeting only the morally or politically unpopular ultimately has no limit. The "progressive" administration that targets guns is followed by the "conservative" administration that uses the same tactics to ostracise and destroy birth-control providers. The "progressive" administration that follows that may use the now well-established precedent to covertly eliminate liquor or fatty foods or sugar (or any remaining firearms!) from the country. And on it goes. It's what Margaret Thatcher called the "ratchet effect." Each new administration -- no matter what it calls itself, no matter what political position it claims to represent -- builds on the powers established by the previous ones. And uses them ruthlessly.
Meanwhile, trust erodes, and increasingly nobody knows where they stand with the powers that be or what they can rely on as they seek to satisfy their daily needs and go about their (formerly) ordinary lives.
Forty years ago when Nixon was caught covertly using government to target his perceived foes, Americans rose up in scorn and drove him out of office.
Today, Obama can use the IRS to wound his political foes and use his "Justice" Department to cripple any business it wishes -- and Americans can't even work up a good yawn.
This is not just a sign of growing corruption in politics. This is a sign that we now expect and accept both moral and political corruption and the dirtiest of dirty tricks from on high.
Well, in part that's just common sense. It's always been naive to expect "honest" government. But now it's reached the point where government corruption isn't just used to get money, consolidate power, or crush high-level opponents. Corruption is being used against us, our freedoms, and the companies we do business with.
The lack of trust (and lack of trustworthiness) is now filtering down to street level now. And that won't end well. It never does.