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"Down With Big Brother," wrote the fictitious character Winston Smith in his secret diary, a thought-crime seen as an "all-inclusive offense," whose punishment was extermination. Big Brother, the dictator of the totalitarian society in George Orwell’s terrifying, classic novel, Nineteen Eighty Four, was unapologetically watching Smith. How big is the step from the electronic cameras that have proliferated in our daily lives to the telescreen in Winston Smith’s own living room through which the Thought Police monitored his every action and sound?
For all of our diversity, Americans share a common culture and history where our liberty and freedom are built on a solid base of privacy for our citizens. As patriotic American voters, it’s our civic duty to watch over our government and hold them accountable–not the other way around. Here in America as we approach the year 2004, local, state and federal governments are watching their citizens through electronic cameras everywhere we go–at 50 yard intervals as we drive down the highway, at banks, grocery stores and state and federal government buildings.
George W. Bush actively impedes our ability to access information necessary to keep his administration under the control of American citizens. He does not believe in government transparency that would allow us to do our patriotic duty as citizens. Even after the biggest corporate scandal that robbed workers of their pensions, rewarded CEO’s with huge payoffs and ultimately brought down the Enron energy company, Bush would not release the details of the meeting between his administration and leaders of Enron which helped to shape our national energy policy. So we can’t watch his shenanigans, but he is watching us, by God.
Historically when the American government wanted to monitor its citizens, it had to do so covertly through wiretapping or opening their mail as with Operation Cointelpro, which secretly spied on and harassed anti-war groups during the Vietnam War. It had to do so against the resistance of at least a minority of citizens and certainly contrary to our rule of law. The congressional investigations during the 1970’s revealed violations of civil liberties so blatant and widespread that it almost destroyed the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
But these electronic cameras that are watching us at every intersection are so blatant and our citizens are compliant if not joyful to have them. At a meeting of our neighborhood citizen’s association, my neighbors were almost giddy with excitement at the prospect of getting an electronic camera to "watch over" our community, as though we were talking about a kindly mother figure. I rose to ask whether anyone was concerned about the privacy infringement that these cameras posed, only to be shocked that no one shared my concern. To the contrary, my point fell on defiant ears and I was entirely unable to influence my neighbors. It felt like I was speaking a foreign language. An elderly woman whom I respect approached me after the meeting and shook her finger in my face and said, "Young lady, those cameras are for your protection."
The government tells us that they must watch us for our own safety; while the National Institute of Health wants to build a bioterrorism laboratory in my neighborhood which they say poses no danger to our families or community. I don’t believe that deadly pathogens possibly including live tuberculosis, anthrax and Ebola that will likely be used in this laboratory should be in anyone’s backyard and most certainly has no place on the corner of an extremely high-traffic, intersection in a highly populated, suburban center a few miles from the Nation’s Capital. But we’re asked to believe that deadly pathogens in vulnerable locations are perfectly safe and electronic eyes do not violate our liberties. It begins to sound like the double-speak in Winston Smith’s party’s slogans: "WAR IS PEACE; FREEDOM IS SLAVERY; IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH."
Covert spying that the government does on its citizens has been accepted by the public in times of trouble, but retrospectively reviled. These cameras are so overt, why do we tolerate them? We’re asked to believe that these cameras are going to stop terrorists. If you want to scare people into giving up their liberties for security, just say, "terrorism." Let’s be real. Cameras are not going to stop or catch a terrorist who is willing to die for their cause. Those cameras don’t stop people on area highways that regularly tailgate and weave in and out of traffic at speeds often exceeding 100 mph. I see this behavior regularly, which is no less dangerous than wielding a loaded gun.
In Nineteen Eighty Four when thinking back over time, Winston Smith does not remember a period without war, but since no official records now exist, the war officially never happened. Winston realizes that this knowledge existing in his consciousness will soon be annihilated. The Party slogan, "Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past," is frightening to him. Since Americans have never gotten the straight scoop on the war in Iraq from the Bush Administration, I have an idea: Let’s turn all these cameras on the White House. We can all tune in on our home TV sets and get the information we need to do our most fundamental duty, putting citizens back in charge of our democratic process.
Since we can’t advance the cause of liberty by cutting the cables to these cameras which act as the electronic eyes of government, for fear of being charged with an "all-inclusive offense," we’ll have to settle for the sharp edge of words to cut into the blind majority support of these spying eyes. To paraphrase Ben Franklin: they who would trade liberty for security, deserve neither.
KARYN STRICKLER is a writer and political activist living outside of Washington, DC.
Copyright KARYN STRICKLER.