Big Brother in a Shrinking World
If this is homeland security, pity the homeland.
I went out to 26 Federal Plaza in Manhattan last Monday to meet a government deadline for ‘Special Registration’. This is a new program set up to track all aliens of dubious descent in the US, with the first target group consisting of nationals of Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Sudan. Special Registration is one incarnation of the new America, the America of big, centralized, secretive data-mining. Everything about it is shamelessly Orwellian. There are the usual euphemisms; what exactly is ‘special’ about this registration? There are plenty of ominous acronyms; the program is part of The National Security Entry-Exit Registration System or NSEERS (get it? those who see?). There is the inescapable drive towards a complete, chip-driven scrutiny of every detail of your life: the information gathered about me during special registration will eventually become part of the Total Information Awareness program which seeks to develop massive database and profiling technologies that could analyze things such as, well, me. And whether I am dangerous or not. Finally, the whole thing is supposed to be integrated into and managed by a faceless, high-tech behemoth: the Department of Homeland Security, which will swallow up 21 different federal agencies and run them all on an initial budget of $35.5 billion. With all this, the mom-and-pop civic organizations that built American democracy from the ground up seem like figments of the quaint and idle imagination of French counts. But does that mean Big Brother is really threatening?
The DHS is the kind of high-tech federal mammoth that sends libertarians retreating into dim basements, issuing alarms about 1984 in 2002. So naturally I walked into Federal Plaza worried about robotic, unemotional officers using cyber gear to plug into my DNA, parse my spiritual and political beliefs, and track my browsing habits. I came out less worried about Big Brother and more worried for Uncle Sam. It turns out his bureaucratic mammoth is just wooly and clumsy and stumbling about in the dark, even with Intel inside, an Oracle-driven database, electronic fingerprinting and face recognition software.
At 8 a.m. Monday morning everything at 26 Federal Plaza is fine. We’re greeted by a cordial staff. A white liberal type uses a competent, practiced accent to call us by our first names as though he’s known us, or at least our types, for years. The comforting nudge-nudge jokes come from a kind blond woman with white skin and cheeks so red someone must have smeared raspberries on them. The one South Asian and one black Caribbean are the only employees wearing ties. In short, this is the catalog image of multi-racial America, gentle and smiling, quite different in essence from what you get at border crossings.
There are a few give away signs that this is a fledgling operation. The procedure is ad-hoc rather than routine, there is no guard telling you to take a number, some absentee names are called out three different times by three different staff members. But all in all, there is room for optimism. The seats are new. People enter with freshly ironed trousers and crisp manila envelopes carrying their documents. The shining silver web-cam style cameras on minipods seem both efficient and unthreatening. Everyone sits and cranes their necks eagerly, confident that they’ll be called next and we’ll all be done by noon at the latest. After all, none of us in here have a record to worry about.
In fact, most people in here are from an ironically different target group. The INS waiting room is filled with yarmulke-wearing Middle Eastern Jews, mostly Iranian, many of whom escaped and have been living here for several years without properly regularizing their status. An old bearded man with a black vest reads the Torah, moving his lips in silence. Guys on cell phones are canceling business appointments. A young man is studying for his finals. There are some Armenians too. A couple of Sudanese, some Syrians. What we all share in common is the dawning realization that nothing is happening.
At mid-day we are told the computers are down. The computers had been down on Friday too. And it’s not just here. As one staff member explains, if the system’s down here, it’s down everywhere, all across the nation, at airports and INS offices, from LA to Miami. So nothing can be done about it. The system is somewhere else, in some other special program, in a place where they do things such as data-mining. Some people have been waiting for two days to register and it looks like they are headed for three. The system. Is down.
If only in all this they’d catch one or two big-time terrorists, it would make it all seem worthwhile. Instead, they are rankling the Canadians and taking in visa over-stayers. In California, hundreds of people with immigration irregularities were detained. (A Reuters headline called them all Muslims. Is that true? Can we can the INS officials, Reuters reporters – even know the difference?) Many of these people had been in the US for years, working, sending their children to school, the usual immigrant story. They had failed to regularize their immigration status sometimes due to government backlogs and negligence. The troubling aspect of this is not that these people were taken in for violating laws. That is what states to do and it has been happening over the years to poorer Latin American workers caught in INS raids. The troubling part is that in this case, the government is not giving out any real information.
Still, all the analogies to the internment of Japanese during WWII may be stretching it. For one thing, this is not a blanket policy, covering all nationals of a certain origin irrespective of status. In this case, citizens and permanent residents are not part of the current dragnet – if I had a green card, I’d have been spared this ordeal – and those whose status is bureaucratically unblemished don’t appear to run into problems. In fact, Iranians have been in the streets protesting the INS practices. There have been obvious concerns about racial profiling and discrimination, but all modern immigration systems are based on discrimination amongst classes of people who are judged to make good citizens (rich, educated) and others who would make, literally, poor citizens. So what are we suddenly protesting? What exactly is the basis of the discrimination? It’s not ethnic because the countries on the list are ethnically diverse. It’s not religious because there are many non-Muslims on the list (see Jews, above) and many Muslims who are not. It merely picks out people who were born in certain places: the five countries I mentioned; another thirteen, ranging from North Korea to Algeria and Morocco to Eritrea, in an expanded second group with registration deadlines in mid-January; and a third after-thought of a group, consisting of US allies Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, whose nationals have until February to come in and feel special.
That, actually, is one of the program’s real problems. I am, by choice, a Canadian citizen; by accident, a national of Iran, which as it happened is where I was born. I have to go and register because according to the new special notion of citizenship and nationality, my allegiance to an accidental place of birth trumps my allegiance to a country I chose consciously. To be fair, human beings have the odd tendency to feel abnormally strong allegiance to their place of birth, hence the term homeland and, of course, the desire to give it security. But the US requirements also trump the sovereignty of other states in the international system, whose citizens are now being treated differentially according to criteria imposed by the US. This transforms the post-enlightenment secular idea of citizenship into a post-911 fossil. Someone should remind us again that North America was founded on the idea that origins are not destinies, a person’s place and station of birth are not equivalent entities. The US law’s antediluvian notion of origins is absurd today. We are living in a world where to take one among the countries on the second list more people of Lebanese origin (12 million) live outside than inside the country and the largest Lebanese communities abroad are in the Ivory Coast (70,000). We are living in a country the US where the second language of Beverly Hills is Farsi. In this world, origin and destination are cleft apart, making an unpredictable axis.
Take the origins of all those who have been arrested or killed for terrorist activities since 911. How many were Iraqis, Iranians, Syrians or Libyans? It seems that there have been more U.S. and U.K. nationals in the rank and file of al-Qaeda. So why is that first group there at all and why is it first? Why were Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, political friends of the US, added recently as an afterthought when such a great number of the rank and file came from these countries? And how about Egypt? Apart from providing al-Qaeda’s top leadership and much of its rank and file, Egypt is distinguished by being the second largest recipient of US aid after Israel. Whatever the purpose of the selective registration process, its priorities seem not to add up to an efficient bulwark against potential terrorists. It either has other unknown motives or it is the voodoo solution of an administration of witch doctors lost and frightened in the complicated, uncontrollable world of globalization. Purge some ghosts, purify the air, mark the border between sacred and profane.
By Monday afternoon, the system in practice was faring no better than the policy in principle. The computers were still down. All those heads extended on craned necks had slumped. Four or five people were asleep. Hairdos were ruffled, the manila envelopes crinkled. A couple was playing cards. Some had spread out to eat. A worrying number started to mumble out loud to themselves. Every time a staff member appeared, he or she was mugged with questions, solicitations, pleadings. But they themselves were desperate. Their faces said we don’t want to be here anymore than you do. And that actually brought us closer, helpless people on different sides of the surveillance cam. They eventually decided to run things manually and recruited help from floors up. We were now back in the analog age, being fingerprinted with ink and photographed with a Polaroid. While the terminals sat idle, files and photographs piled up. Then were lost. I had to dig mine out myself. People stood up from their seats, milled around in disgruntled groups, called out for help.
"It’s chaos," reported one observant staff member.
"Smile," said the Asian man with the Polaroid.
The closest thing I’d experienced to 26 Federal Plaza at about 3 p.m. was the Mugama’a at 1 Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo. In a neo-fascist building dating to the days of Nasser, this was a crumbling Egyptian bureaucracy in charge of citizen records. On the seond floor, there was an office in charge of registering visitor entries and exits. The American version in Manhattan had nicer seats and a smoke-free environment.
When I finally left the federal building, at four o’clock, I had been specially registered twice. The next day, when I was leaving the country, I had to go through the INS again and check out. Not surprisingly, I was not to be found in The System. So I was registered for the third time. I don’t know what will happen when I return.
In the 475 pages of the Homeland Security legislation, which according to the New York Times will take decades to decipher, there is great emphasis on big centralized operations of which the above is version 1.0. There is no doubt that currently, the INS has trouble handling the 500 million people and 100 million vehicles that cross the US border annually. According to a discarded Daily News I found at 26 Federal Plaza, an FBI operation testing the borders recently managed to slip in some very dangerous missiles and chemical agents through the ports. This will undoubtedly be used to justify more appropriations and more ghost busters. But the problem is not with more, it is with what you are willing to do with more. Only 2% of shipping containers entering through commercial ports get inspected. That figure has been the same pre- and post-9-11. What goes unmentioned even by the Daily News is that trade and profit are the highest priorities. No one wants to disrupt the flow of commodities. Almost $900 billion worth of goods enter the US every year and that can make for a lot of Departments of Homeland Security.
Still, defenders claim that an integrated customs, police, CIA, FBI, immigration, etc. database will help the country manage things. Visa over-stayers are the expected victims. They claim that early glitches are normal, database crashes are growing pains. Within the next few years, this thing will be as dependable as a blind oracle.
The first major theorist of modern bureaucracies was Max Weber. He explained the technical efficiency and rational superiority of its administrative methods, though he lamented the loss of personal relationships and the falling away of the sacred, of some sort of ethical principle, in determining outcomes. He witnessed modern bureaucracy in its early stages and did not foresee how rationality can betray itself and how an accidental glitch within a supposedly infallible system can make life hell for regular folks. That kind of vision fell to a later generation and the second great theorist of bureaucracies, Franz Kafka. Kafka came too early to see yet another kind of bureaucracy. The totalitarian state became Orwell’s territory. There is another kind still, which for lack of a more evocative label can be called a third world bureaucracy. This kind of bureaucracy was set up, in part, to meet the exigencies of the state as modern state. Its existence was proof that the government was doing something, namely governing, managing its citizens. They were inundated with data which was of little use to them. In the midst, information that may have been of use to them got lost in the data glut. In the actual offices, there was eternal waiting, and lots of personal chatting and a complicit fatalism between the citizen and the bureaucrat. There was also chaos. That was the Mugama’a in Cairo. The big new US bureaucracy in this shrinking world, could become Orwellian while producing a safer nation. More likely, it will do little to make the country safer, but will make it seem as though something is being done. The result might be a kind of third world bureaucracy: personal, inefficient and frustrating, just like what I saw on Monday.
A-A FARMAN-FARMAIAN is a Canadian writer, published in The Toronto Globe and Mail, National Post, Yahoo! Internet Life, Saturday Night, Pacific News Service, Al-Ahram Weekly and other magazines and newspapers. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org