June 12, 2013

Where are the Snowdens of Yesteryear?

Yossarian keeps asking that question in Catch-22, as he tries to rid himself of a terrible vision. It's late in the book before you learn, in the novel's oddly-sequenced, time-vaulting way, what Yossarian was talking about.  In a book noted for its hilarity and black irony, the passage is unforgettable:

"I’m cold." Snowden whimpered, "I’m cold."

"There, there." Yossarian mumbled mechanically in a voice too low to be heard. "There, there."
Yossarian was cold, too, and shivering uncontrollably. He felt goose pimples clacking all over him as he gazed down despondently at the grim secret Snowden had spilled all over the messy floor. It was easy to read the message in his entrails. Man was matter, that was Snowden’s secret. Drop him out a window and he’ll fall. Set fire to him and he’ll burn. Bury him and he’ll rot, like other kinds of garbage. The spirit gone, man is garbage. That was Snowden’s secret. Ripeness was all.
"I’m cold," Snowden said. "I’m cold."
"There, there," said Yossarian. "There, there," He pulled the rip cord of Snowden’s parachute and covered his body with the white nylon sheets.
"I’m cold."
"There, there."

People have often asked me, especially when I was writing this blog during the Bush years, whether I felt any sense of personal risk or danger from expressing views contrary to the "policies" (such an imbecilic word) of whatever administration was in power.  I never really have.

I've been following the development of the Surveillance State for years and years, partly because I've been a regular reader of Glenn Greenwald since his earliest writings (in book form) on the Patriot Act, then his column for the Salon e-zine, and now his work for London's Guardian.  He's a meticulous writer, always careful with his facts, never given to speculation, and scrupulous in his constitutional analysis. He sounds "radical" at times only because the Bill of Rights itself has become something of a nuisance for the Washington power elite, and American citizens are now essentially clueless about the extent to which key civil liberties have been thrown away in our endless quest for "security."

So I've always worked on the assumption that the government can find out anything it wants about you anyway.  You don't have to write a blog.  There's nothing "dangerous" or "inflammatory" about what I write; I don't foment revolution, I don't advocate illegal acts, I don't give "material aid" of any kind to terrorist organizations.  And all of these things are true until and unless the federal government chooses to construe something you have said or written differently.  It can happen to me, it can happen to you.  I figure that at least my thoughts are written in essay form; they form (usually) a cogent whole, so the attempt to abstract something out of context at least offers that prima facie defense: read the whole thing, sir

The fact that we even entertain such ideas, the "paranoid" fantasy of government persecution, is a very sad commentary on the state of civil liberties in the United States.  I suppose this was Edward Snowden's point: if the government has everything you've ever said or written through digital means stored somewhere, they can pick and choose among your utterances to create a New You, the composite picture formed by the process of abstraction.  The trick is never to become a target; yet how do you control that?

Such a situation should not exist, of course.  In the grand scheme of things, terrorism is a miniscule threat.  In April, in Boston, three people were killed and many more seriously injured when two criminals exploded two homemade pressure-cooker bombs.  A few days ago, a killer went on a rampage with an assault rifle in Santa Monica and killed twice as many people (six) and wounded many more.  In the first instance, because the killers were foreign-connected (Chechnya) and used bombs, we deem it terrorism of the kind we're trying to interdict through a massive surveillance apparatus, recording just about everything that can be digitized and stored.  In the second case, it's run-of-the-mill mayhem, and the killer's weapon of choice is freely available on the open market, subject only (maybe) to a background check (we wouldn't want to be too invasive, right?).

The difference in approach is pretty easy to understand if you're cynical enough.  There's a lot of money to be made in the security business, and terrorism is the perfect rationale for the grand scale of the enterprise.  The National Security Agency, the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency: these organizations don't exist in order to do background checks on assault rifles.  But wiring up the whole country, getting every Internet service provider and every telecom company on board, and employing vast legions of programmers, encryption experts, spooks of all shapes and sizes, all dedicated to getting it all recorded, data-mined, subjected to analytical algorithms, and stored away in a vast database in the Great Basin of Utah - there's your cash cow.  

In its current manifestation, I doubt that this Surveillance State is much of a threat to the personal liberty of ordinary Americans (whatever an "ordinary American" is).  When one political mouthpiece after another assures you that this is only for your own good, it's probably true for now, in the sense that it is not intended to entrap you or subject you to individual scrutiny.  On the other hand, it's not intended to protect you from random acts of terrorism either, not really.  Because it can't.  The Patriot's Day bombing in Boston is the ironic case in point.  All of this snooping was in place at the time of the massacre, although it would appear from Edward Snowden's disclosures that it was ramped up with another FISA order after the bombing.  If someone wants to pack a pressure cooker with ball bearings and gun powder and rig up a triggering device, there is no particular reason that the details of such a plan have to be broadcast over the internet or discussed by telephone.  The people at the NSA know this; if I can figure it out sitting here, and you agree with me, it's doubtful that we're the only two people in this fair land capable of routine deduction.  A random act of violence that we declare "terrorism" cannot be stopped by compiling massive databases of random information, no matter how sophisticated the "data-mining" or algorithmic scrutiny.  It didn't stop the Boston bombing, and it didn't stop the Santa Monica shooting spree (nor the increasingly common antecedents of the Santa Monica massacre).

Thus, the earnest national discourse of whether all this invasion and recording keep us "safer" is essentially stupid.  The systematic trashing of everyone's Fourth Amendment rights has been around for a decade, yet acts of routine, spectacular violence and bloodshed have increased dramatically during that period.  We pride ourselves on controlling one component of that mayhem that we call "terrorism" and justify the NSA's boondoggle on that basis; what it probably means is that genuine, foreign-based and (let's face it, this is what we're talking about) Islamic terrorism is a rare event, whereas drug-addled or just ordinarily crazy people grabbing a rapid-firing weapon and killing as many people as they can in a hurry is just another day in America.

Which is not to say that a tolerance for snooping on this scale cannot become a huge problem.  If it persists, it certainly will, although America will have much greater problems in the years ahead.  

What bothers me, at an idiosyncratic level, is that in my line of work, I am familiar with what "transcriptions" of ordinary speech look and sound like.  I read them all the time in depositions, in transcripts of recorded statements and court testimony.  It's incoherent garbage.  So the NSA is building a database built on an abstraction of ourselves that is all unguarded, spontaneous garbage: incoherent, halting, inarticulate, fumbling garbage.  It would be good to purge all of that, to get rid of it, to leave it all behind, because it doesn't really do any good anyway.  It's a way to employ people to do something pointless and expensive, and eventually dangerous nonetheless.  The words, the tweets, the texts, the emails, the emoticons, the nonsense - there is no human spirit in that.  Without the spirit that animated the words, we're all reduced to garbage.


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