Fear continues to be the driving force in the policies of America's government. The differences in this regard between Obama and Bush seem to be minimal at best, though it's unclear how much of that is because there isn't enough difference in the men themselves and how much is because Obama simply hasn't made enough fundamental changes in how the government generally and the national security apparatus in particular operate. To be fair, these are changes that will take a lot of work and time because of how deeply ingrained fear has become.
What's more, even if Obama had made more extensive changes by now, we'd certainly still be seeing a raucous, fear-based reaction from conservatives that would probably end up driving the public narrative and debate anyway. Regardless of his intentions, I don't think Obama has enough force of personality to shift the media and the public away from their fears and towards a more positive outlook that relies on attitudes of self-confidence, self-empowerment, and rationality. It's American culture that needs to change in fundamental ways, not just American government.
Whose Interests Does Fear Serve?
I've already written numerous times here about how fear is being used by the government to expand its powers over us, and I don't want to repeat it all again. I'll just add that the new security measures enacted after the Christmas airplane bombing attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab reveal in stark terms how the government uses public fear and uncertainty to enact policies which only serve to encourage more fear but which do nothing substantive to protect us. In addition to increasing our inconvenience and fear, all they do is create the impression that the government is doing something — and, more importantly, is needed to do something inconvenient and intrusive, otherwise we won't be safe.
What I'd like to point out here is just how counterproductive and useless it is to expand our national security state in the ways which proponents keep calling for. Regardless of whether it's intrusive security screenings at airports, video surveillance in the streets, or monitoring all communications, the actual security of the people is not enhanced. Instead, all that's accomplished is that the power of the state and those running it is secured. It's their interests which are being served, not ours, and isn't that what it's ultimately all about?
The pointlessness of the increased security measures in airports has long been obvious to everyone — not even the TSA can plausibly regard them as having any value. Poor military and security planners often make the mistake of only preparing for previous conflicts, but the TSA isn't even doing that correctly. Forcing everyone to remove their shoes wouldn't thwart a sophisticated terrorist and a wholly unsophisticated one got past them by simply moving the same bomb up their body a few feet.
Taking off our shoes only inconveniences us and gives the government something to do that is very public and dramatic. If the government wanted to do something that is actually effective, they'd take lessons from the only airline that doesn't have these problems but which is also the biggest target: El Al (and other airlines probably wouldn’t have to go as far as they do). Their procedures, though, are much less public and dramatic. They achieve real security for their passengers, not security and increased power for those in charge, so they are ignored.
Widespread video surveillance does little to nothing to prevent terrorism, as the people of London learned on 7/7. At best, the collection of video material aids in learning what happened after the fact, but that's small comfort to the victims. For the sake of so little gain in public security, the public in some cities are being monitored by multiple video cameras everywhere they go.
We don't need to look very far to see how such direct surveillance can negatively affect a society - the former East Germany provides a primary example. Edward N. Peterson wrote in his book The Secret Police and the Revolution: The Fall of the German Democratic Republic:
The SED tried to achieve security from what it saw as a hostile West and unreliable population by the maintenance of blanket surveillance, which meant another primary duty was to decide who got important jobs. The “Stasi State” was as much a massive system of vetting as it was an apparatus of persecution.
The very sense that the Stasi was watching served to atomize society, preventing independent discussion in all but the smallest groups. In this sense it was far from being a secret service and might best be described as the Party’s public scarecrow. Potential terror seemed as effective as real terror until 1989. The MfS was limited in its options, because after Hitler it was difficult to employ the death penalty; it was used little after the 1960s and then not for political opposition.
As external pressures hit the DDR the hardest, its security police became more aggressive, even though imprisonment rarely followed. Markus Wolf’s criticism: “Everyone who ever became suspected of doing anything in opposition was spied on. This is the core of the false security doctrine of the Ministry.” The information system had become so complex that it became inefficient; efforts to modify the system with computers were only beginning. “Tasks increased year to year and not only for state security. The demands for tightest conspiracy and independence, and the separation of each unit from another made an ending of the condition impossible.” This criticism was accepted by the man who replaced Mielke in November 1989, Dr. Wolfgang Schwanitz.
Obviously the parallel is inexact because widespread video surveillance isn't the same as widespread spying by an army of informers, but at the same time it's hard to argue that video monitoring everywhere is ultimately better or less corrosive. What's more, the American government has already tried to emulate the Stasi army once and can't be trusted not to do it again. Naomi Wolf writes in The End of America: A Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot:
TIPS was to begin with a pilot program in ten cities and offered citizens a toll-free number to call. The million citizens the program hoped to enlist would have worked out to one informant for every twenty-four Americans. (The ACLU notes that this pilot program alone would have doubled the Stasi's ratio of informant to citizen. In 1989, when the Stasi records were opened, the people of the former GDR were amazed to find that only a minority of citizens had actually been watched, because most had simply assumed they had open files on them. That is why surveillance is effective—even cost-effective: You don't have to actually monitor citizens—just let them know they might be monitored.)
Much if not most of the money used for video surveillance might be better spent on efforts that would both help prevent and help solve such crimes: direct human intelligence by working with relevant communities and getting close to suspects. This sort of basic police work isn't so public, though, and has to be narrowly targeted. Regardless of how effective it is, though, it wouldn't preserve or enhance the power of those in charge.
That brings us to the sort of surveillance most people are familiar with: surveillance of our communications in email, the post, and telephone conversations. In some ways it's also the easiest for the government because with some basic technological tools, they can sit back and let the information just come to them. In other ways this is the worst for the government, though, because it results in massive amounts of information that is too expensive to even store properly, never mind sift through.
W.R. Smyser writes in From Yalta to Berlin: The Cold War Struggle Over Germany:
The SED further handicapped the East German economy by the resources that it committed to the Stasi. By the late 1980s, full-time Stasi employees had risen to 85,000, with another 200,000 paid spies and perhaps 1 to 2 million informers. The Stasi opened about 5 percent of all East German mail and routinely monitored all telephone calls and any other means of communication. It kept files on 6 million out of 16 million East Germans, perhaps half of the adult population, as well as on 2 million out of 60 million West Germans and on countless foreign visitors.
The Stasi grew to twice the size of Hitler’s Gestapo secret police but monitored a population only one-fifth as large. It also attracted universal hatred. All East Germans knew that any meeting or event that they might attend would include a sizable number of Stasi informants even if it had no conceivable political purpose. East Germans never said anything meaningful to any person they did not know and trust.
Informal estimates on the length of Stasi files ranged up to 160 kilometers (100 miles) of carefully collected and sorted material. No one has reliably calculated the proportion of East German gross domestic product spent on police and intelligence operations.
We couldn't possibly train enough people to sift through as much information as the government is capable of collecting today, and even if we could it wouldn't be possible for anyone to connect any of the dots they find. Indeed, that may have been part of the problem with the failed Christmas bombing: we had important information, but it may have been lost in a sea of useless information.
How much more will our government spend to pretend to keep us safe? I'm not sure, but I wonder how many people in the government realize that spending more and more money is actually furthering the interests of Al Qaeda as well. Ever since they turned their attention away from Middle Eastern governments towards the United States, their goal has always been to impose so much cost (money, blood, convenience) on us for being involved in the Middle East that we'd no longer think it's worth the effort and leave. This would leave those governments unprotected, allowing the Islamic extremists to more easily topple and replace them.
So when the government spends more on national security measures that don't create more security and impose more inconvenient restrictions on us that don't make us more safe, just remember that they are knowingly acting to further their own interests in expanding their power and perhaps unwittingly furthering the interests of the terrorists they claim to be protecting us from. At almost no point, however, are we ever really made safer.
Fall Fundraiser: Please give if you can.