This week we have many introspective analyses of the consequences of an evil act perpetrated 10 years ago. Those consequences are a mix of good and bad, ranging from no successful coordinated attacks in the U.S. to foreign wars with gruesome human and financial costs. The consequences in which I am most interested, and about which I am most concerned, are those attached to the growth of the surveillance state toward a police state.
For most of the past decade the federal government has implemented, and the American people have accepted, invasive search, extensive surveillance, and increased militarization of law enforcement, and have done so with little or no analysis of whether or not the benefits of reduced attacks are large enough to justify the enormous financial, social, and cultural costs of, in my opinion, the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned us about in 1961. I wrote about this in May in the context of the TSA’s increasing use of untested x-ray radiation scanners that are ineffective at identifying weapons and explosives and invasive criminal-style frisks of airline passengers, referring to John Mueller’s and Mark Stewart’s performance of the benefit-cost analysis that the GAO repeatedly recommended that the Department of Homeland Security should do and has refused to do.
I think we should all be more concerned about, and pay more attention to, the consequences of our increasingly authoritarian/submissive society (can’t have one without the other!). Glenn Greenwald has been a stalwart voice, doing investigative analysis of the growth of the surveillance state, with this recent omnibus and link-filled post as a thorough compendium of the information- and data-related surveillance and secrecy authority and control that the federal government is exerting. I also wrote in May about how the Patriot Act has reduced our civil liberties, including economic liberties as an important component of our civil liberties. The government’s enforcement of the Constitutional protections of our rights to be free from unreasonable government search have evaporated into near-nonexistence (both at the airport and elsewhere), which increases our general uncertainty and reduces our productive and valuable social-economic engagement and interaction with others. In the process it also dehumanizes those who are in positions where they can exert this coercive authority and control, as anyone familiar with the Milgram experiment on obedience to authority and the Zimbardo Stanford prison experiment knows too well. Actually, one of my favorite quotes about authority is from Stanley Milgram:
The disappearance of a sense of responsibility is the most far-reaching consequence of submission to authority.
I fear that we have witnessed some disappearance of a sense of responsibility and individual moral agency in American culture, and that is one of the greatest costs of the evil act of a decade ago.
And to what end — how justified is this fear? High financial, human, cultural costs, to avert events that are one-quarter as likely as being struck by lightning. Some may criticize the performance of relative risk assessments between accidents and deliberate attacks, but it’s precisely these crucial relative risk assessments that enable us to recognize the unavoidable reality that neither accidents nor deliberate attacks can be prevented, and that to maintain both mental and financial balance we cannot delude ourselves about that, or give in to the panic that is the objective of the deliberate attacks in the first place. Thus the title of this post, which comes from two separate quotes from Bruce Schneier — the first from his excellent remarks at EPIC’s January The Stripping of Freedom event about the TSA’s use of x-ray body scanners, the second from his classic 2006 Wired essay of the same title:
The point of terrorism is to cause terror, sometimes to further a political goal and sometimes out of sheer hatred. The people terrorists kill are not the targets; they are collateral damage. And blowing up planes, trains, markets or buses is not the goal; those are just tactics.
The real targets of terrorism are the rest of us: the billions of us who are not killed but are terrorized because of the killing. The real point of terrorism is not the act itself, but our reaction to the act.
And we’re doing exactly what the terrorists want.
Other than the above links, I have found two recent essays on the subject exceptionally good. The first, from a symposium in the Chronicle of Higher Education, is from Alex Gourevitch on fear, in which he notes
The great lie of the war on terror is not that we can sacrifice a little liberty for greater security. It is that fear can be eliminated, and that all we need to do to improve our society is defeat terrorism, rather than look at the other causes of our social, economic, and political anxiety. That is the great seduction of fear: It allows us to do nothing. It is easier to find new threats than new possibilities.
A decade after 9/11, we look backward and find ourselves in all-too-familiar surroundings. We have, in fact, accomplished very little. We have yet to do any of the serious thinking that might carry us beyond the banal, stifling quest for security. That kind of thinking would require us to have a different relationship to fear: a willingness to accept it, even cause it.
The second is by American writer Paul Theroux, but is not to be found in an American publication, interestingly enough, but in the Telegraph. It is outstanding and thoughtful in its entirety, but this part really resonated with me:
Of all the agencies created by the panicky response to 9/11, the Transportation Security Agency [sic.; it’s Administration–ed.] (TSA) is the most visible and to me one of the most obnoxious for its obstinacy, its clumsiness, its inefficiency and its ubiquity. There was a time when bag searches and interrogation of travellers was purely a feature of travel in eastern Europe. Now such searches and screenings are a common feature of life in America; and that we have become habituated to it, submitting without complaint, is one of the saddest consequences of 9/11. I think of it as the Gestapo-with-a-grin, Stasi-with-a-smile method of intimidation, a species of security theatre that has redefined what a weapon is (a small bottle of liquid, a nail file, a hat pin, a shoe) – it has redefined the notion of privacy, of travel, of freedom.
Heck, even Business Week is arguing that it’s time to rethink counterterrorism spending.
So let’s get on with it. Be neither authoritarian nor submissive. Be indomitable. Refuse to be terrorized.