Here in the midst of the still-building storm and scandal over the revelations about PRISM — referring (in case you’ve recently been living under a rock or sunk in a coma) to “the system the NSA uses to gain access to the private communications of users of nine popular Internet services” — journalist and social media specialist Jared Keller offers these sobering and, to my mind, utterly necessary reflections on the equally troubling revelation that many Americans are deeply complacent about the whole thing:
Despite days of headlines about the American surveillance state and government invasions of privacy (and a huge spike in sales of George Orwell’s 1984 on Amazon), Americans seem to have accepted the scope and reach of the post-9/11 surveillance state into their lives as necessary.
. . . Why are Americans so comfortable with the surveillance state? It’s likely that this acceptance goes hand-in-hand with an acceptance of the reality of modern terrorism.
. . . The threat of terror in our cities, immediately after 9/11, was paralyzing. Now, despite the horror of the bombings in Boston and the attacks that have been thwarted by counterterrorism efforts in the years since 9/11 (like Najibullah Zazi’s 2009 plot to detonate explosives on the New York subway), terrorism seems to have become more accepted as a modern geopolitical phenomenon, a fixture in the background of our daily lives.
. . . . [I]f terrorism and the resulting surveillance state have become accepted features of American public life (which, according to the latest polls, they have), then the apparatus the government deploys to adjudicate and prosecute our war on terror should become normalized in our existing legal regime. The Patriot Act and National Emergencies Acts that provide the legal basis for the modern surveillance state were supposed to be temporary “emergencies,” but with their continued re-authorization by Presidents Bush and Obama, they have become the norm.
— Jared Keller, “Why Don’t Americans Seems to Care about Government Surveillance?” Pacific Standard, June 12, 2013
Keller goes on to point out the really deep impact of these things on our collective circumstance here in the U.S.A.:
We are lurching from emergency to emergency, living in a permanent state of exception. Margot Kaminski, executive director of the Information Society Project at Yale Law School, puts it nicely in The Atlantic: “Foreign intelligence is the exception that has swallowed the Fourth Amendment whole.” This, I think, is the most significant impact of Snowden’s leak: not necessarily to expose wrongdoing in the legal sense (since the sweeping dragnet of Prism and the NSA’s monitoring of Verizon’s phone records are technically legal) but to take the abstract legal concepts outlined under our emergency constitution and translate them into a political reality in the minds of the American populace.
“I really want the focus to be on these documents and the debate which I hope this will trigger among citizens around the globe about what kind of world we want to live in,” Snowden told The Guardian. “My sole motive is to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them.” The Pew/Washington Post poll may indicate that people are comfortable with swapping liberty for security, but that doesn’t mean they’re comfortable with an unaccountable, totally opaque, Kafka-esque security apparatus that falls in the legal gray area of our ongoing state of exception.
By way of context, I ask you to recall what our old Teeming Brain friend James Howard Kunstler said, and said very loudly, in his best-selling book The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century, which was published way back in the prehistoric mists of 2005. Writing in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, and witnessing the craziness all around him, Kunstler prophesied thus:
It has been very hard for Americans — lost in dark raptures of nonstop infotainment, recreational shopping and compulsive motoring — to make sense of the gathering forces that will fundamentally alter the terms of everyday life in our technological society. Even after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, America is still sleepwalking into the future. I call this coming time the Long Emergency. . . . [W]e are entering a historical period of potentially great instability, turbulence and hardship.
Or actually that particular passage comes from a 2005 article by Kunstler in Rolling Stone, likewise titled “The Long Emergency.” Kunstler’s main focus in that article and his book was not terrorism or surveillance but the seismic shaking of industrial civilization’s foundations by the dawning of the age of scarcity for cheap and easy fossil fuels (a development that isn’t belied but confirmed by all of the recent talk about the “new oil bonanza,” which is the result of massive investments in the kind of galactically complex and far out alternative oil extraction maneuvers that were formerly inconceivable because they were unnecessary). But his “Long Emergency” characterization still clearly encompassed terrorism and the growth of a massive surveillance state in America and elsewhere to complement the massive geopolitical conflicts and at-home unpleasantness stemming from oil-fueled imperial ambitions.
Again, Kunstler said those things eight years ago. And he was hardly alone. In other words, it’s as our transformation here in America into an Orwellian and Kafka-esque surveillance state where the all-consuming desire to snoop and fully crucify the notion of privacy is driven by the reality of our “lurching from emergency to emergency, living in a permanent state of exception” — it’s as if this transformation is unfolding according to a well-foreseen plan. Just like, say, the financial and economic collapse of 2008, which was foreseen by Kunstler and others but pshawed by the talking heads who were supposed to represent authoritative and trustworthy mainstream wisdom. These authorities, we were told, offered a bulwark of sanity and sensibleness against the kooks who said the entire economy of not just America but Europe and elsewhere was all a big, crazy, scary, evanescent hallucination that was primed to pop like a soap bubble.
But pop it did. And living in the Long Emergency we are. All bets are still off, just as they were several years ago when the meaning of common sense shifted to something we’re still trying to figure out. Only now we’re doing it while being tracked, recorded, and analyzed every step of the way.