There is no good time for a government official to suggest that citizens who speak up at a public hearing might be terrorists. But there could hardly be a worse time than now.
Americans are reeling from revelations about the government's blanket surveillance of civilians, by way of programs that allow it to sift through reams of data detailing our telephone and Internet activity. On top of that, Attorney General Eric Holder admitted to Congress last month that U.S. drone strikes have killed four American citizens, three of whom were "not specifically targeted."
As if that weren't unnerving enough, Holder defended the extrajudicial killing of American citizens, in a foreign country, if the government believed them to be involved in terrorism. Where government snooping is concerned, the distinction between the needle and the hay seems to be shrinking.
Normally this would not segue into a Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation water hearing. But Sherwin Smith, deputy director of the TDEC's Division of Water Resources, made headlines last week when he told a group of Mt. Pleasant residents that their complaints about water quality could be considered "an act of terrorism." The group, which included members of the Maury County chapter of Statewide Organizing for Community eMPowerment (SOCM), had submitted "a record number" of water quality complaints to the department's field office in Columbia.
"Let me just throw one thing out there just so you are aware," Smith told the group, according to a transcript and audio provided by SOCM. "We take water quality very seriously. Very, very seriously. But you need to make sure that when you make water quality complaints you have basis. Because federally, if there's no water quality issues, that can be considered, under homeland security, an act of terrorism."
Say what? In the recording of the exchange, Smith can be heard attempting to clarify his comment by explaining that "allegations against the public water supply that are unfounded" could be considered an act of terrorism. In other words, such allegations could be seen as an attempt to create panic in a community. TDEC spokeswoman Meg Lockhart tells the Scene that, in conversations with Smith, he indicated that he was "thinking about the Patriot Act when he made his incorrect and inflammatory" comment.
"While the definition of terrorism in that act is very broad, complaints to this department concerning drinking water quality, valid or not, clearly do not fall within it," she says. "Mr. Smith has apologized. Both he and the department regret that this occurred, and will make every effort to see that it does not happen again."
To be fair, the audio of the exchange doesn't seem to reveal a particularly threatening government official, just one who seems astonishingly clueless about the implications of his words. And Lockhart says the department has repeatedly shared sampling results from the Mt. Pleasant water treatment plant "that all indicate a safe drinking water supply." She adds that TDEC has offered to test drinking water in private homes "of anyone who wishes" and has called 70 people who submitted water quality complaints to offer sampling, though she says none have accepted the offer.
But Smith's comments, even if inadvertently, continue a disturbing pattern emerging with regard to environmental issues. Civilians are starting to see the word "terrorism" — perhaps the most damning term one could be associated with in the post-9/11 era — or something like it deployed against those who become a nuisance to the government or its corporate cohorts.
Earlier this month, multiple outlets reported on the startling results of a Freedom of Information Act request by Bold Nebraska, a group opposed to the much-debated Keystone XL pipeline. The group's request yielded a PowerPoint presentation made by the pipeline's owner, TransCanada, for law enforcement officials.
In it, the corporation suggests that protesters — who have been attempting to physically block the pipeline for more than a year but insist they've remained peaceful — could be prosecuted using anti-terrorism statutes. One slide, according to a Grist.org report, directs state law enforcement to district attorneys, who "may have more information regarding the applicability of State and Federal Anti-Terrorism laws prohibiting sabotage or terroristic acts against critical infrastructures." Nothing should make the populace sleep easier than a profit-driven corporation issuing secret directives to state police to quash dissent.
But you don't have to leave Tennessee to find evidence of the pernicious reflex to cast concerned or dissenting citizens as criminally dangerous. As part of a lawsuit between Camden, Tenn. residents and TDEC over an industrial landfill in their neighborhood — a case that was recently decided in the residents' favor — Mark Totty filed an affidavit detailing his experience living fewer than 800 yards from the landfill.
In his affidavit, Totty says that after spending months trying to contact elected officials at the city, county, state and federal levels, he sought a meeting with Gov. Bill Haslam during the summer of 2011 on behalf of a group of his neighbors. "We wanted an opportunity to voice our concerns about this landfill and how it got into our neighborhood without local approval," Totty states in the legal document.
After "numerous phone calls," Totty says he was asked to put his request for a meeting in writing. He says he did so "multiple times" prior to a public hearing in July 2011, but "did not get a response to any of these requests."
Or so he thought.
"In September of 2011," he says, "I learned that the Capital Police Department contacted my local police department asking if I was a threat to the governor. This is very disturbing to me and my family."
If such disturbances could ever be dismissed as paranoia, it's a luxury of the past, or at least the days before we knew our government was spying on us in almost every way and playing judge and jury behind closed doors. And if any agency would benefit from marginalizing or intimidating its critics, it's TDEC, facing a litany of complaints, legal challenges and defeats, and accusations of slipshod, indifferent environmental regulation.
There might not be anything in the water, and the government might use its power nobly. But given today's climate of justified distrust, they can't expect anyone to take their word for it.