The thing the American public is not understanding about the implications of the NSA scandal is this: encroaching totalitarianism can move slowly, in stages.
1. Surveillance: First is a dramatic increase in the amount of surveillance and data collection undertaken by private actors and the state. This forms the surveillance state, which thanks to a number of important whistleblowers we are now finally recognizing.
2. Criminalization: The state now has a vast pool of information about everybody. They will want to use it to further the control and force mechanisms they already exert through criminalization and incarceration. We are likely to see more behavior criminalized then previously – and in fact we are, as various forms of political dissent become criminalized and the prosecution of non-violent activists, drug users, poor people who cannot pay off their debts etc. continues to be a priority. Most importantly, whistleblowers, individuals who try to inform the public about the extent of the surveillance state or about criminal acts by the state are singled out for excessively harsh prosecution, obviously meant as a deterrent. Meanwhile, to reinforce our apparent helplessness, military or law enforcement agents who abuse their positions or even brutalize or kill unnecessarily are in most cases protected by their bureaucracies and the justice system. Police abuse and repression become normalized, as was seen in the reaction to the Occupy movement. Among the public this increases paranoia and fear.
3. Public acceptance: The public is not entirely happy about these developments but feel unable to do much other than accept them for a variety of reasons. One is because of perceived threats to their security caused by terrorism, real or imagined. Another is because of real and imagined fears of the consequences of dissent, and the knowledge we are being watched. And finally most people are otherwise busy trying to survive in a harsh capitalist economy with an ever-diminishing safety net, and endless entertaining distractions.
Unfortunately, the end result of this is a totalitarian state. A state which reserves the right to kill anybody anywhere in the world at any time and which reserves the right to collect all the data it wants about anybody anywhere in the world. A combination which implies: “We will be watching everything, everywhere, all the time, and if you get out of line you may be killed.”
The overwhelming majority of both Republicans and Democrats are culpable in creating this situation. The intention may not be to make the US into a globalist totalitarian killing machine run by spooks, sellout figureheads and the 0.01%, but that will still be the outcome if we do not stop this.
Apathy means giving in to a potentially irrevocably bleak future. We cannot afford the luxury of it.
Jonathan Taylor is a Professor in the Geography Department at California State University, Fullerton.