I'd never heard of Brandon Raub until a few days ago. I've never met him, and frankly don't know that I'd like him if I did. But what he's gone through the last few weeks should be of concern to all Americans, of whatever political persuasion.
Raub is a Chesterfield County resident and veteran of the Marine Corps, having served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. After his hitch in uniform, he seemed to adopt - and express - some political views that most of us would find distasteful, to say the least. Some of his Internet posts were clearly anti-government, and he displayed a keen interest in the "truther" conspiracy theory that the U.S. government planned the Sept. 11 attacks.
Not surprisingly, Raub's unconventional politics began to show up on his private Facebook page. He posted several messages containing anti-government diatribes and even offered to lead a vaguely defined revolution. Some of the games he played might give one pause, and he has been widely quoted for posting the charming lines, "Sharpen my ax, I'm here to sever heads." As it turns out, these lines came from a Canadian rap song. Not my taste in music, and probably not yours, but hardly illegal to quote.
All told, offensive stuff, maybe even repugnant. But is such expression criminal? Should it be?
On Aug.16, after authorities had fielded some complaints about Raub's Facebook posts, he was taken into custody by Chesterfield police, the FBI and apparently the Secret Service. Though all three entities denied he was under arrest, he was taken away in handcuffs (a scene captured in a widely seen YouTube video). The officials who took him had no warrant and filed no charges. They assert that Raub resisted arrest, though he wasn't arrested. As far as I know, no weapons were found in his house and Raub was taken to a veterans' facility near Richmond and later to Salem for psychiatric evaluation. He says at least one doctor threatened to brainwash him and put him on psych drugs against his will.
Meanwhile, his case caught the attention of the Rutherford Institute, a Charlottesville civil liberties advocacy group. On Aug. 23, Rutherford's case was heard in Chesterfield by Circuit Court Judge Allen Sharrett. He dismissed the government's case against Raub in no uncertain terms, calling it "devoid of any factual allegations." It's hard not to reach the conclusion that Raub had been detained for Orwellian "thought-crimes," but at least one judge was willing to intervene.
Raub, I'm afraid, might be the tip of a frightening iceberg. I spoke to John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, earlier this week. He told me starkly that "there is no privacy anymore. It's over." Such technology as facial recognition surveillance, police drones and cellphone intercepts means there is nothing Big Brother might not be watching you do, Whitehead warned. Especially if you post it on the Internet.
Of course, we want the government keeping watch on true threats to public order. Terrorist groups of any stripe, nut jobs who might shoot up a mall or the legitimately insane who might be a threat to their own safety must be monitored. But every time resources are devoted to harassing some person who has expressed unpopular views but made no actionable threats, it enables those who are the real hazards to increase their menace.
And frankly, who should alarm us more? The guy with a laptop who thinks the Bush administration knocked down the World Trade Center, or the government that can seize any of us at any time on paper-thin legal grounds and hold us without charge or warrant because we may have expressed an idea some official finds inappropriate?
You don't have to like Raub or his politics to find this all disturbing. He is an American citizen, constitutionally guaranteed the exact same rights as you and me. Facebook posts are private expression, and as far as I can see, Raub never made any specific threat against anyone (certainly nothing specific enough to involve the Secret Service). Frankly, I've heard mutterings just as seditious from Occupy Wall Street protestors, Limbaugh listeners and my own students.
For that matter, I recently read about one guy who proclaimed "the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants." You might have heard of him. He also wrote a subversive treatise we call the "Declaration of Independence." I suppose he also could be locked up today.
Long is director of the Salem Museum and a Roanoke Times columnist.