Bill Long 7/13/07
There is a story in USA Today that sent chills down my spine. Oh, I am in Phoenix, AZ now for an autism conference, and maybe the feeling of chills is actually a good thing in the midst of 109 degree days. But I don't think so. Actually, I got chills because of a combination of two seemingly unrelated stories. You tell me if you think I am on the right track or just suffering from too much heat on the brain.
Two Seemingly Unrelated Stories
Let me give you the nature of the stories and then my reason for fear. The first has to do with the roaring stock market. The Dow is hitting all-time highs nearly every day, and the NASDAQ is finally climbing to the most respectable levels since March 2001. Money is being made hand over fist. The only major stock that is tanking is Starbucks, and I have an 'offbeat,' but probably true, explanation of that.
So, we have economic boom. Then there is the front page headline from today, "US is Building Database on Iraqis." Then, it clicked all of a sudden in my mind. The direction of the future will be for the American military/political system (i.e., all of us) to collect data on "suspected" militants or terrorists or, in fact, anyone that someone thinks steps out of line or might step out of line, in order to assure the continued rise of the stock market. The "bottom line" in all of this is that in order to preserve the "American way of life" in the future, we will have to pre-empt "militants" or suspected militants or terrorists or anyone that someone thinks might be dangerous by collecting massive amounts of data on all people who might, for some reason, on some occasion, oppose the economic interests of the United States. The data collection, then, will be a prelude to "taking them out" if they become too powerful, articulate or threatening to our economic juggernaut. Law will be brought in to justify this, either through a loosened understanding of "probable cause" or a more robust understanding of "national security." Let me explain all of this.
The Focus on National Security
When the World Trade Towers were attacked in Sept. 2001, things did change in America. What changed was the way that we decided to articulate the dangers that faced America in the 21st century. From the time I was born until the late 1980s, the biggest "threat" we perceived to our way of life was the Soviet Union and the growth of global communism. But when the Soviet Union collapsed around 1990, America, as well as the Soviet Union, faced enormous challenges. The major challenge we faced was how to articulate our approach to danger in the modern world. Many have argued that American capitalism needs an enemy in order to fuel our ideology, though I am not necessarily convinced of that. In any case, we floundered around in the 1990s as we tried to discover what it meant for us to be the only superpower in the world. In fact, as the Internet boom in the late 1990s brought instant wealth and a "gold rush" mentality to cyberspace, we tended to put off the question of who our "enemy" might be. We were too interested in joining the party, with Bill Clinton as genial host, even though he had a diversion of his own in the late 1990s.
But 9/11 changed all that. It brought out of the woodwork reconstructed and unconreconstructed Cold Warriors, those who profit by disturbance, those who felt that immediate and massive retaliation was proper, and many genuinely concerned Americans who felt that the "party" of the 1990s had made us either weak or naive about the real threats in our world. Thus, since 9/11 the "security" folk have had the upper hand in America. Their most visible expression is the new Department of Homeland Security, but their invisible expression is a whole network of people, conferences, "experts," and technological techniques that will enable us to maintain global dominance as well as control people we don't like or whom we want to control. This, then, sets the context for the USA Today story(ies).
Fast Forward to 2007
The front-page story tells of the way that the American military has used and will be using handheld biometric scanners which enable them to collect fingerprints and iris scans on people so that if people "in the data bank" show up in more than one troublesome location, we can, as it were, laser in on them for "questioning." About 10,000 Baghdad residents have been "scanned" since March. We now have 200 of these scanners in operation but will have 3,800 more soon. In other words, we will be able to collect, store, and recall identifying information about people.
The article goes on to say that questions about this device have already been raised in the Pentagon. You know that if the Pentagon is raising civil rights concerns that there indeed is something pretty big here. I think what this shows us is not only the way that the military might use this technology in a "legitimate" way--to catch "militants"--but the way that such a technology can be used, in alliance with other technologies and resources (genealogical research, bank records, credit card records, phone records, etc.) to begin to compile data bases on people that are so extensive that everything but our daily thoughts are available to someone at the touch of a button. In other words, my "brave new world" is one where we are known--completely. It is a secular Psalm 139.
What Is/Can be Done with all this Data
What is the "bottom line" of being known? It is that we can be not simply embarrassed but also controlled by those with the information. It isn't just that we all have "secrets" that we don't want to come out. Even more--we know that things from our lives can be construed and put together in ways that make us look very bad indeed. I think that almost any of us could be taken as a national security risk if certain parts of our past are skillfully put together by someone that wants to make us look bad. If we can be so caricatured, then we can also be taken as a "risk." Those in power might then have "reasonable suspicion" to "check us out."
Why would anyone want to check us out? Because the bottom line in America is to maintain our way of life--which means that we want to have an increasing number of millionaires and multi-millionaires even if billions of people in the rest of the world have only very little to live on. If any of us is perceived to endanger the creation of more millionaires and multi-millionaires in America, we will be a national security risk--and we will have to be neutralized some way. Law will cooperate in this task because law, more than any institution, is the linguistic means by which we maintain the status quo. Law, of course, can also question the status quo--and I hope that some of you will use it to do that...
Is my analysis too starkly pessimistic? I don't know, but the more I look at Americans, the more I see people who believe they "need" much more money just in order to survive. Our kind of life has to be maintained, almost at any cost. In fact, what a smart American will do after reading the USA Today article is to find the company making these biometric devices and invest in it. That, friends, rather than Starbucks, is the wave of the future.