Self-Policing In Response To Pervasive Surveillance

On Thursday night, in the course of conversation with some of my Brooklyn College colleagues, I confessed to having internalized a peculiar sort of ‘chilling effect’ induced by a heightened sensitivity to our modern surveillance state. To wit, I said something along the lines of “I would love to travel to Iran and Pakistan, but I’m a little apprehensive about the increased scrutiny that would result.” When pressed to clarify by my companions, I made some rambling remarks that roughly amounted to the following. Travel to Iran and Pakistan–Islamic nations highly implicated in various foreign policy imbroglios with the US and often accused of supporting terrorism–is highly monitored by national law enforcement and intelligence agencies (the FBI, CIA, NSA); I expected to encounter some uncomfortable moments on my arrival back in the US thanks to questioning by customs and immigration officers (with a first name like mine–which is not Arabic in origin but is in point of fact, a very common and popular name in the Middle East–I would expect nothing less). Moreover, given the data point that my wife is Muslim, I would expect such attention to be heightened (data mining algorithms would establish a ‘networked’ connection between us and given my wife’s own problems when flying, I would expect such a connection to possibly be more ‘suspicious’) ; thereafter, I could expect increased scrutiny every time I traveled (and perhaps in other walks of life, given the extent of data sharing between various governmental agencies).

It is quite possible that all of the above sounds extremely paranoid and misinformed, and my worries a little silly, but I do not think there are no glimmers of truth in there. The technical details are not too wildly off the mark; the increased scrutiny after travel is a common occurrence for many travelers deemed ‘suspicious’ for unknown reasons; and so on. The net result is a curious sort of self-policing on my part: as I look to make travel plans for the future I will, with varying degrees of self-awareness about my motivations, prefer other destinations and locales. I will have allowed myself to be subject to an invisible set of constraints not actually experienced (except indirectly, in part, as in my wife’s experiences when flying.)

This sort of ‘indirect control’ might be pervasive surveillance’s most pernicious effect.

Note: My desire to travel to Iran and Pakistan is grounded in some fairly straightforward desires: Iran is a fascinating and complex country, host to an age-old civilization, with a rich culture and a thriving intellectual and academic scene; Pakistan is of obvious interest to someone born in India, but even more so to someone whose ethnic background is Punjabi, for part of the partitioned Punjab is now in Pakistan (as I noted in an earlier post about my ‘passing for Pakistani,’ “my father’s side of the family hails from a little village–now a middling town–called Dilawar Cheema, now in Pakistan, in Gujranwala District, Tehsil Wazirabad, in the former West Punjab.”)

Liberia, Iran, Gautemala et al.: Liberated By Coup D’Etat

In 1981 or so, as a schoolboy perusing my school library’s archives of LIFE magazine, I came upon a set of photos that–like other images in the past–showcased a brutality not immediately reconcilable with my rational understanding of the world: half-naked men, tied tight to poles with green plastic cords that bit into their skin, mowed down by a volley of gunfire from a firing squad. The incongruous backdrop to this summary execution was a sandy sunlit beach, suitable for wading, surfing, and sunbathing on your average tropical vacation. I did not, and could not, fully understand the historical context and geopolitical machinations described in the accompanying article. That was how I first learned of the existence of a land called Liberia, how it came to be, and its peculiar and particular relationship with the United States.

The back story to that execution is worth revisiting–if only as an exercise to see how political and historical patterns may be easily detected:

In 1971, President William Tubman [of Liberia] died and his left-leaning, idealistic vice-president, William Tolbert, took over. Tolbert expanded social services like health care and education and scrapped subsidies on imported rice to encourage Liberian farmers. However, he antagonized the US by renegotiating unfavorable contracts with Firestone and other companies. He also criticized Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians, offered support to the African National Congress and other revolutionary groups, and established diplomatic relations with North Korea, Libya, China, the USSR, and other countries on America’s cold war enemy list. He also refused to grant the American military unlimited access to the nation’s main airport, which it had been using to send weapons to cold war allies around the continent.

This should sound vaguely familiar. (Guatemala-Árbenz, Iran-Mosaddegh, perhaps?)

In 1980, Tolbert was murdered in his bed by soldiers allied to Samuel Doe, a young sergeant in the Liberian army. US foreign aid cuts and riots organized by CIA-backed opposition groups over increased rice prices had already weakened Tolbert’s regime. Doe himself also claimed to have been recruited into the CIA in 1973, and according to eyewitnesses he called the US embassy the night of Tolbert’s murder and received its blessing for the takeover. Ten days later, thirteen of Tolbert’s cabinet ministers were paraded around Monrovia in their underwear and then shot dead on the beach before an audience of horrified Western journalists.  [citations removed]

Those ministers were the trussed up men, the sweat and sand and spit visible on their writhing bodies as they died, that I had seen in those photos.

And then, grimly and inexorably, other aspects of the visible historical pattern stand forth:

Doe promptly dismantled Tolbert’s leftist policies, cut ties with Libya, the Soviets, and other enemies of America, renegotiated contracts with US companies, and allowed the US military free rein at the airport. In return, Doe received $500 million in foreign aid from the Reagan administration, far more than any other African country at the time.

And this, of course, is not where it ends. Charles Taylor awaits.

Kapuściński on Crowds and Revolutions

In his semi-novelistic, semi-journalistic account of the Iranian revolution and the final days of the Shah of Iran, Shah of Shahs, Ryszard Kapuściński, in the closing chapter ‘The Dead Flame’, writes:

Everything that makes up the outward, visible part of a revolution vanishes quickly. A person, an individual being, has a thousand ways of conveying his feelings and thoughts. He is riches without end, he is a world in which we can always discover something new. A crowd, on the other hand, reduces the individuality of the person; a man in a crowd limits himself to a few forms of elementary behavior. The forms through which a crowd can express its yearnings are extraordinarily meager and continually repeat themselves: the demonstration, the strike, the rally, the barricades. That is why you can write a novel about a man, but about a crowd–never. If the crowd disperses, goes home, does not reassemble, we say that the revolution is over.

This is an interesting cluster of remarks that do not necessarily belong in the same paragraph.

The ‘outward, visible part of revolution’–the one most often identified and commemorated and studied–often does have a transitory character; it is upon us quickly and ebbs away just as rapidly. It is why most superficial analyses of revolution insist on its ‘suddenness’ and its ‘dramatic change.’ But revolutions do not occur in days, weeks, or even months; sometimes they take years, decades, centuries. But the revolutionary, radical changes underway are not always visible, not always on the ‘surface’; more often than not, they happen away from the town square, away from the sites of assembly and protest and sloganeering and brickbats, away from where statues are pulled down. They happen in spaces of quieter, but just as intense, political dispute, where blueprints for change are drawn up, haggled over, contested, and drafted. Sometimes they happen in tiny, localized pockets of intimate and personal spaces where the tiniest of individual interactions are up for recontestation and reconfiguration. Sometimes a revolution bubbles up and then back down to find its ultimate resolution in these little pockets. There is a reason a revolution is called ‘radical’ – it’s because it happens at the roots, which more often than not, are deep, and well hidden away from continual inspection.

As for the forms in which a crowd can ‘express’ itself, they are not as ‘extraordinarily meager’ as Kapuściński might imagine. To suggest this is to make the mistake of imagining that the forms of the novel are meager because they always, at least until recently, took the form of paper books. ‘The demonstration, the strike, the rally, the barricade’ are very abstract templates. Within them lurk endlessly diverse possibilities for the display of revolutionary potential: perhaps in their manner of assembly and movement, perhaps in their persistence, perhaps in their effectiveness, perhaps in the forms in which their members finally rise up and resist. A revolutionary crowd is a collective artist of sorts–and here I address Kapuściński’s dismissal of the possibility of a novelistic account of it–one capable  of many reconfigurations of itself. That these basic forms have endured for as long as they have is perhaps the most eloquent testimony in support of the claim that they offer ample opportunity for creative revolutionaries to express themselves.

Finally, ‘if the crowd disperses, goes home, does not reassemble’, the revolution is indeed, often over. But sometimes, and this takes us back to where we began, it’s because the ‘crowd’ knows work remains to be done and not necessarily in the streets. There, the revolution continues.

Mr. Panetta Warns of Danger And Would Like to Spy on You

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta comes a-calling, warning us of the dangers of cyberwarfare, of a new ‘Pearl Harbor’ that lies ahead. He conjures up devastating visions of the nation’s ‘cyber-infrastructure’ by a band of code warriors, sneaky rogues that could:

[D]erail passenger trains, or even more dangerous, derail passenger trains loaded with lethal chemicals. They could contaminate the water supply in major cities, or shut down the power grid across large parts of the country.

Terrifying stuff. Before I  stock up on tinned food, bottled water, spare batteries, toilet paper, ammunition, load up my shotguns, and head for the shelters, let me just, in passing, make a couple of minor observations.

1. The US been the most aggressive proponent of cyberwarfare in recent times, thus, as usual, serving as inspiration and inviting emulation and retaliation. As Steve Coll noted a while ago:

[David Sanger’s new book, “Confront and Conceal]describes a joint American-Israeli offensive cyber-attack operation in 2010 against Iran’s nuclear industry. The existence of the weapon used against Iran—a piece of malware called Stuxnet—was previously known, and there was rough knowledge of the authorship. Sanger, though, describes both—and President Obama’s hands-on role—more fully than any previous account. The attack was designed to disable Iranian centrifuges that enrich uranium. (The enriched uranium could ultimately be used to make nuclear bombs.) Cyber Command and the 24th Air Force presumably played at least a supporting role, along with the National Security Agency, although it remains unclear exactly who did what in the operation, which may be continuing.

The operation’s code name—“Olympic Games”—suggests some of the complacency and self-satisfaction among the President’s advisers…..“Olympic Games” seems to be, so far as is known, the first formal offensive act of pure cyber sabotage by the United States against another country, if you do not count electronic penetrations that have preceded conventional military attacks, such as that of Iraq’s military computers before the invasion of 2003.

2. The proper reaction to any pronouncement from post-911 administrations, when their officials come calling to warn us of dangers that lurk ‘out there’, should be–given their track record and sustained erosion of civil liberties–unbridled skepticism. With that in mind, note the following:

Mr. Panetta said President Obama was weighing the option of issuing an executive order that would promote information sharing on cybersecurity between government and private industry. But Mr. Panetta made clear that he saw it as a stopgap measure and that private companies, which are typically reluctant to share internal information with the government, would cooperate fully only if required to by law.

“We’re not interested in looking at e-mail, we’re not interested in looking at information in computers, I’m not interested in violating rights or liberties of people,” Mr. Panetta told editors and reporters at The New York Times earlier on Thursday. “But if there is a code, if there’s a worm that’s being inserted, we need to know when that’s happening.”

This roughly translates to: We are not interested in spying on the citizenry, but under the right circumstances, which we alone will determine, possibly on the basis of vague, unspecified, broadly stated, indeterminate intelligent reports that we will not let you, the affected citizenry, be privy to, we will be very interested in spying. At that moment, we expect our favorite poodles to roll over and beg to be tickled.

Here is a vague warning of danger, one that we might have brought upon our heads by our own reckless actions. May we have your civil liberties, please?

The Campaign Trail: Where You Go To Say Dumb Things

Could there be a stupider foreign ‘policy’ decision than the one to strike Iran, ostensibly to disrupt its nuclear weapons program? (If the strike ‘succeeds’ it will: encourage Iran to build a nuclear weapon for, as its rulers are likely to notice, only nations with actual nuclear weapons don’t get attacked by the US; consolidate ‘mullah power’; unite the Iranians, current radicals and mullahs alike, against the US; destabilize the region even more as new, possibly more radical alliances than the current Hamas-Hizbollah ones are formed.)

That such a move is even being considered, is being lightly tossed around, by supposedly responsible statesmen, should be cause for some consternation. But viewed from another perspective, the casual trafficking in this threat is also unsurprising when we notice the venue of its proclamation: the election and campaign trail. Where else would something this stupid be said? The invocation of armed power as a solution, indeed, the only viable one, for dealing with a foreign policy problem that requires instead finesse, patience, and a great deal of nuanced, region-specific, historically and culturally sensitive knowledge is a reminder, once again, of how utterly divorced from reality the campaign season can make politicians. And it raises again the question, always worth keeping handy, of the pernicious effect on politics and democracy that the business of elections, electioneering and campaigning can have.

It is now April, the fourth month of the year, and Election Day is almost exactly twenty-eight weeks away. Till then, election-related material will blanket the air waves, newsprint, and the various physical media that bring us the Internet. There will be many more campaign gaffes and ‘gotcha’ moments (Etch-a-Sketch will be reincarnated in many forms; Obama will, in all probability, be asked to backpedal on ‘race issues’; and so on); and more often than not, candidates desperate to rouse the faithful will reach deep into the bag of Dumb Things and pull out one grand exhibit after another. (As it would only be honest to note my political biases, I should point out that I expect more Dumb Things to be said by the Republican candidate than by Obama; the latter seems less relatively inclined to shoot from the hip in these matters.) But none of these differences between candidates will obscure the central issue that the extended election season and the length of the campaign trail are increasingly conducive of the production of a coarsened discourse combined with the  technological efficiency, scope and reach of the modern election’s media apparatus. Sure, there is ‘airing of the issues’, but there is also time and space enough to air half-baked thoughts and pander relentlessly.

A persistent confusion about democracy arises in assigning elections disproportionate importance over and above the creation, maintenance and sustenance of the rest of its crucial economic and political infrastructure; the extended election season with the ample opportunities it provides for Quality Not Quantity, for the production of Things Better Left Unsaid, is the worst, most dispiriting instance of this misplaced priority. Here, the election, supposed centerpiece of democracy, seems more like a malign interruption, a gigantic roadblock to quality political discourse, which, I have been assured, is a rather crucial part of a dynamic polity.