Sunday, May 14, 2006

Not Ogres, But Ordinary Men

For the ruthless machines of domination and extermination, the masses of coordinated philistines provided much better material and were capable of even greater crimes than so-called professional criminals, provided that these crimes were well organized and assumed the appearance of routine jobs...

[Himmler] proved his supreme ability for organizing the masses into total domination by assuming that most people are neither bohemians, fanatics, adventurers, sex maniacs, crackpots, nor social failures, but first and foremost job holders and good family men...

The mass man whom Himmler organized for the greatest mass crimes ever committed in history bore the features of the philistine rather than of the mob man, and was the bourgeois who in the midst of the ruins of his world worried about nothing so much as his private security, was ready to sacrifice everything – belief, honor, dignity – on the slightest provocation. Nothing proved easier to destroy than the privacy and private morality of people who thought of nothing but safeguarding their private lives.

Hannah Arendt, "A Classless Society,"
The Origins of Totalitarianism

The difference between, on the one hand, executive branch members eavesdropping on our conversations or reading our e-mail, instant messages, or postcards, and, on the other hand, computers generating a report on every electronic contact every one of us ever makes is important to the executive branch's defense of the still mostly undisclosed NSA conduct. Yet the former is in a practical sense arguably less troubling, because obviously it is more limited; there aren't enough government employees to read all our mail or listen to all our chitchat. By contrast, the NSA computers give humans the capability to know everyone who each one of us ever contacts. With that information these humans are empowered to suspect, in effect, everyone of anything. They then can act on such suspicions.

After all, the NSA computers do not just store information. Presumably they suggest possible conspiracies reflected in the data, in accordance with the assumptions that NSA oficers imparted to the computers' intelligence. The assumptions, perhaps, were not defined by law or reviewed by any court. The computers' suggestions are then reviewed by people and turned into reports, one presumes, that are circulated to other people. All this still occurs outside any known legal framework or possible judicial review. The readers ask for more information, and perhaps order punitive action. No one outside the executive branch knows whether non-uniformed, political people have the power to order inquiries and action, but perhaps they do. In any event, it must be true that the computers' examination of phone records at a minimum spawns other investigations and presumably arrests. Is all that also done without warrants or judicial oversight?

None of the folks involved in watching all of us wants to do the wrong thing; each wants to assure peace and security for us. But they are not, as far as reports indicate, operating according to any legal structure familiar to Americans. Their actions are not reviewed by independent judges. They did not tell the Attorney General what they were doing and don't propose to fill that person in. They compose a clandestine organization of watchers guided only by their own sense of right and wrong. However unerring might be that sense of theirs, for the rest of us Americans to place blind trust in, and passively submit to, unknown and unchecked governmental power would be strange. After all, that behavior is part of what our forebears fought the American Revolution to assure would not be an element of our culture.

Reed Hunt, "A Very Different America," TPM Cafe

Arendt's words, 55 years old, are as relevant today as when they were published, indeed, more so. The abstraction that computer data warehouses place between the people running the programs and the people affected by the decisions made as a result of that analysis increases the likelihood of atrocities occuring because the analyst is that much more removed and isolated from knowing the results of her actions. I think of the plot in the movie Brazil where an innocent man is abducted, tortured and murdered because of a typo in a government record. I think of the people currently in Gitmo or the black prisons in Eastern Europe who are enduring the same because of mistaken identity. (No, I don't condone torture and murder when the person has been ID'd correctly, either.)

But we needn't posit atrocities to object to what is done. What about being unable to find a job because you are on an NSA shit list? Unable to get credit? Be denied an airplane ticket? Be denied health insurance because the results of the data mining are sold to find the program and now the insurance industry has deemed you too much of a risk?

Hunt is right that the individuals doing the analysis need not be criminals or "bad" people. They need only be good family men (and women) just trying to do their job and take care of their own private interest. They may never know what their small analytic role is in the larger unfolding of total surveillance nor how it affects you. They can be like the soldiers who very earnestly believed that Iraq had something to do with 9/11, so they are serving the national good by fighting the enemy there.

The lack of the rule of law and its instantiation in the world - a legal ruling - removes the last anchor that the ordinary analyst, the good and sincere worker, has to allow them to resist participating in an atrocity. If the measure of right is the Preznit's desire that X or Y be done, then it becomes a battle of ethical wills (or, rather a battle between an ethical will and the amoral abyss) as to whether the person will do X analysis. This is what the whistleblowers know. A claim that so-and-so would never do anything wrong may be factually true, but it is institutionally usupportable. The reality that people act to preserve their own interests, even if they know those interests are wrong, can be countered only through a standardization of allowable actions, authorized by law and codified into impersonal rules.

That is why the NSA surveillance operation must be brought under strict FISA control. This is why is it not enough that Hayden be a personally nice guy who wants to do right. We cannot trust to individual decisions on what is acceptable intrusion into the digital markers of our lives. It is too late to put the data warehouse genie back in the bottle - it can just as easily be moved to a new set of servers and conducted clandestinely. What is needed is the light of day peering into the activities, and support given to the ordinary people who need help resisting the siren song of "It's for your own good. Just run that report."

After all, we are all philistines.


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