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Liberty Under the Panopticon

Surveillance and the American Illusion of Freedom

by ROBERT BOLTON

County Cork, Ireland.

Dissonance defines twenty first century America. Try as it might to uphold its founding visions, societal and political structures quietly erode its most treasured ideal: freedom.

In a remarkable feat of self-destruction, caused mostly by a foreign policy that inspires nothing but contempt, America’s claim as the “free land” cannot anymore be taken seriously. It’s never ending marathon in winning the war against terrorism, coupled with its carefree foreign policies, have failed to serve any great purpose other than maintaining the charade of a ‘hard man’ national masculine identity. But like all “tough” guys, their weaknesses have nothing to do with scars or muscle injuries, but from the brittle, frail identity their relentless acts of bravado desperately try to hide.

The problem with America is that it’s identity, primary based on the idea of “freedom”, is loosely defined. Beginning with the rushed, under read “Patriot” Act, surveillance techniques have been creeping into the cracks and crevices of American everyday life in slow, steady increments, which serve as a perfect method to normalize a police state. And now, with the scandalous revelations that the National Security Agency has been acquiring the phone records of millions of Americans, never mind spying on Europe, the search for freedom it seems, well — still a search.

No laws, values or controversies occur within a vacuum. Every social ill is symptomatic of a wider malaise, and a surveillance society is symptomatic of a either a society constantly under genuine threat, or one that thinks it’s under genuine threat. But which is it? No matter what the reality, if freedom is to be honored, surveillance has got to go, but like make-up masks the blemishes of an allergic reaction, surveillance masks the cause of its own purpose.

Terrorism interrupts the western mission of freedom, but fear, which the American media dishes out like a feeding frenzy, halts it entirely. At the same time, surveillance laws which supposedly keep society safer only reduce the scope of freedom that can be exercised, and what no better way to give credence to the surveillance state than instilling fear upon the masses, to which the remedy is the promise of “protection”.

As an Irishman keeping track of American news, I have been appalled at senseless mass shootings, so much so my hostility towards the 2nd Amendment would incite wishes to have me emigrated. But recent revelations on American surveillance policies has forced me to realize that the purpose of the second amendment – to overcome government tyranny – makes perfect sense.

But pro-gun advocates must be blind, for government tyranny is on America’s doorstep, and I’m not even seeing peaceful mass protests. The lockdown initiated from the Boston bombing should have been enough of a wake up call to call out the citizen army which the 2nd amendment assumes is available for duty. For the president to say  “we don’t cower in fear”, he must have been looking at the wrong news channel, because in reality, instead of acting on the “we will never bow down to terrorism” rhetoric that Washington pounds out like hammer and tong, people peeped and peered out their windows very much stiff with anxiety.

There was hysterical reporting, deserted streets, and police entering random homes, trying to convey the message that they knew what they were doing. Commentators refrained from suggesting that the lockdown could be part of yet another step towards closing American society in securing the titanic omnipresence that is a police state. Even the great Noam Chomsky, in an interview for Russia Today didn’t have much to say on the Boston lockdown issue, only that “I’d hate to second guess police tactics.”

Instead of dutiful citizens kicking up a fuss at capitol hill, they are confined to their cosy sofas and cyberspace to vent their anger. The question must be asked therefore – at what point do Americans say “enough”? When, or rather, if Americans have decided that the government have taken it all a step too far, will it be too late to take action? Or could it be that the political elite have successfully masterminded the acceptance of the police so ingeniously, that America is unable to decide on what exactly constitutes government tyranny?

America therefore, needs to decide on its parameters and limits to its sneaking surveillance, with full public consent. If the American surveillance boom keeps going at the rate its going, the psyche of the masses will succumb to desensitization. American’s may internalize the surveillance society, no matter the magnitude of its tyranny and accept it as the norm. At that point, when the American psyche has been manipulated into accepting the police state as an unquestionably necessary reality that cannot be reversed, we can forget muttering “God is Dead” and start lamenting “Freedom is Dead”.

Barack Obama, the leader of the “free” world, is now merely a charismatic pastor, highly skilled at transforming scripted clichéd speeches into compassionate sermon like monologues intended to sound like it comes from the heart, rather than the malicious minds of manipulating political puppeteers. Obama constantly meanders in and out of apologetic, excuse pumped rhetoric, suggesting that debate needs to happen on issues of national security and gun control, while cleverly reminding his flock that America needs to remain defiant in the face of terrorism. This is the cheapest most accessible talk therapy there is, and it’s right in your living room.

But simply calling America defiant does not make it so. Defiance towards terrorism at home, has now become nothing more than buzz words and candy catchphrases, which are all desperate attempts to feed the worrisome psyche with calm.  The American method of “defeating” terrorism is like belting a swing ball expecting someone else to hit it the other way. But with no one but yourself playing, the harder you hit, the more it will hurt when it pelts back into your jaw.

American foreign policy is now the fertilizer for terrorist motivations, with every American intervention being another ingredient in the big pot of terrorist excuses for having the most pernicious contempt for the US. Most damagingly however, is that the American political ego simply cannot comprehended the hatred it arouses. Unfortunately, like all Shakespearean tragedies, the hero pays a price. Unless the American elite overcomes its superiority complex and re-thinks its foreign policy, terrorism is here to stay, and with it, mass surveillance.

And so, America’s founding vision of itself as the “free land”, is incompatible with its current state of  tourrettes syndrome in interfering with foreign countries. As society grows more complex, as citizens stress and strain under the capitalistic forces of everyday life, little time is made to worry about the coming age of taser drones hovering about over the neighborhood, or to the legislative acts passed by congress which further impinges on the individual freedom.

If America is to truly remain free, if it truly wishes to be defiant, it must look into its own backyard. Rather than fight terrorism, it must fight the causes of terrorism (Which in case I haven’t been clear, the causes of terrorism lie in American foriegn policy).  Time, however, is running out. The president is no longer a leader, but a governor; the constitution, nothing more than a nostalgic dream of what the founders envisioned.

Robert Bolton is a freelance writer in Ireland.