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The Architecture of Surveillance in Northern Virginia

Back in November, I had to drop off my bus at one of the county garages for a minor repair.  On the way, I radioed dispatch and said I’d need a ride back to the lot where my car was parked.  I dallied outside the garage office, on the clock, until my ride ambled along and scooped me up.

The driver was inquisitive and after learning that I was relatively new asked if I enjoy my work.  Not wanting to reveal too much about myself—I hate mixing politics with chitchat—I started joke-complaining about how goddamn hard it is to find the garage.  The gambit worked.  My new friend told me a funny story about his first year on the job.

He was taking his bus down to the garage for service when he made a wrong turn.  (The garage really is a pain in the ass to find.)  After pulling into the nearest parking lot large enough to accommodate a bus, he consulted his county map.  He noticed a car behind him.  The car trailed him when he began moving.  Its occupants gestured at him to stop.  Two men approached the bus and began asking questions.  After they ascertained that he was simply lost and looking for a place to turn around, the men explained that he wasn’t authorized to be in the lot and warned him not to return.

“It’s an NSA building or something like that,” the driver said.

I studied the building as we passed.  It was a glass midrise, large overall, without distinguishing features—exactly the kind of office building one finds throughout the DC area, but without a logo or brand.  Its location was weird, though.  What was a government building doing in this part of the county?  There was nothing around but autobody shops, warehouses, tire outlets, and small, archaic strip malls constructed of hazel-colored brick.

An internet search that evening provided no clarity.  As far as I could tell, the building’s main tenant was a private online security outfit, which could mean anything.  Who else operated from within the building?  Who the hell knows?  Maybe the guy was just telling a good yarn, I figured.  The event he described did seem fanciful.

Therein lies the problem.

Those of us unconnected to the massive intelligence industry—and we’re the majority, I try to convince myself—don’t know the details of that industry, but we know enough to keep wary.  Our ambivalence is a great success for those who spy, sabotage, and surveil (and make good money doing it).  Without understanding the conditions of our social life in relation to state power, or recognizing how coercion structures day-to-day habits of movement and consumption, we’re condemned to a deracinated existence.

Ever since the morning of my garage trip, I’ve paid closer attention to the architecture of surveillance and espionage in Northern Virginia.  It comprises a lot of the sprawl around here—the boxy office buildings, the parking structures, the McMansions, the exurbs, the incomprehensible access roads, and of course the shopping malls and chain restaurants that come with them.  Policy consultants.  Military lifers.  Defense contractors.  Security experts.  The backbone of our prosperity.  Even assuming that most of their jobs are pointless, it’s a lot of damn people keeping our rebellious impulses in check.  Then there’s Fort Belvoir, Andrews Airforce Base, Quantico, Anacostia-Bolling.  US Defense Services.  Navy Intelligence.  Department of Homeland Security.  The National Reconnaissance Office.  The Bureau of Intelligence and Research.  The Office of Intelligence and Analysis.  The NSA, FBI, CIA.  Booz Allen Hamilton.  Boeing.  Humana.  Raytheon.  BAE Systems.  General Dynamics.  Northrup Grumman.  Lockheed Martin.

A truly high maintenance group, the ruling class.

These buildings are everywhere.  Driving the region for a living is a constant education.  The structures of a police state line overcrowded highways.  Those structures are meant to project power and prosperity, but they’re somehow also distant.  They lack distinguishing features, having been built to avoid becoming iconic.  Everyone sees the buildings, but few people notice them.  The great trick of imperialist architecture is to be simultaneously oblique and ubiquitous.  So it is in Tyson’s Corner, Dulles, Langley, Rosslyn, Eisenhower, Merrifield, Crystal City.  And even in the unintelligible cartography of an industrial area filled with Afghan grocers.

The architecture makes one thing clear:  we’re meant to exist in states of uncertainty, knowing but unknowledgeable.  We understand that a vast intelligence network exists—a police state, a spying network, a surveillance apparatus, whatever you want to call it—but we can’t quite measure the effect on our daily existence, only its general detriment to freedom.  And so it’s easy to minimize the sources of our anxiety.  That’s part of their operation, after all.

For a long time, I hesitated to express skepticism about official stories, even when it was pretty obvious that things weren’t adding up, because I’d always heard that Arabs are susceptible to conspiracy and I didn’t want to reinforce stereotypes or be dismissed as a crank (dismissing skepticism as crankiness is part of the scam).  Years of reading changed my perception.  There’s simply too much evidence of infiltration and malfeasance in every node of struggle, in every diplomatic transaction.  (Hell, I experienced this stuff in miniature when I was a professor—the snitching, the double-dealing, the hidden alliances, the external influence, the ulterior motives, the insidious pressure to conform, all of it exquisitely calibrated to the status quo.)

Ubiquitous but oblique.  These days I’m proud to identify with people whose distrust is so eloquent.

In my suburban journeys I’ve learned to see the ubiquity more than the obliqueness.  Intelligence work is visible in political life, beyond sight of business parks and roadways.  Upon the outbreak of any insurgency, especially one involving Black people, social media will be flooded with left-identified pundits disavowing Marxism, often in ridiculous fashion:  it gets in the way of important stuff like voting; it’s too complicated for the working class; it’s a white theory that doesn’t apply to people of color.  When these disavowals commence, always in concert, I can’t help but think of their origin story in those subtly imposing buildings throughout Northern Virginia.

How many employees do they have?  How many subdivisions do those employees fill?  The answers are inconceivable.  But we can make strong inferences simply by looking through the protective glass.

This article first appeared on Steven Salaita’s blog, No Flags, No Slogans.

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