Mass Surveillance Is The Handmaiden of Unending War


This week, I’m pleading with my legislators to not go to war, a process that lays bare the assumptions underlying both militarism and mass surveillance.

After trillions of dollars and millions of lives wasted in the Middle East, we are somehow politically no farther forward than we were in 2002.

Like back then, the leaders of both parties are banging the drums of war and raising the spectre of an unchastised enemy becoming a haven for terrorists to attack American soil.

Congress is united that Something Must Be Done.

The Something is apparently, again, bombing brown people to kingdom come.

Once again, a compliant media is concerned mostly with how much war they can push for how quickly, not with interrogating the powerful on why this is such a goddamn emergency that the only option is war. They are running solemn editorials asking whether President Obama is showing enough kneejerk belligerence (known in Washington as “leadership”) or not quite enough and the effect of said insufficient kneejerk belligerence on the goddamn midterms and the goddamn presidential election two years hence.

Yes, I get it. Who controls the US Senate is interesting. Who gets to sit in the Oval Office is also interesting. But you’d think that the thousands who will surely die from our bombs would also be interesting, and would have some weight in American decisions.

They do not; they count for nothing, or even less than nothing; they are “roaches“. And it is more or less taboo to talk about how “eradicating” them, in Rick Perry‘s phrase, might well come back to bite us, even when ISIS enjoys vigorous recruitment and funding precisely because we have been bombing in the Middle East for a decade now and have very little good to show for it.

A coldly rational assessment of the last decade of bombing suggests that US interests have not been advanced as a result; the US is no better loved; instead, we have put those we love in harm’s way, and have tortured and imprisoned and killed on an enormous scale, and for some reason it has only generated more hostility and suspicion. Why should we ever have expected it to be otherwise? Why expect it to be otherwise now?

How about this for a cheaper and more effective suggestion?

Why not offer the Yazidis and the other victims of ISIS oppression, asylum in the United States and help getting on their feet? They have a “well-founded fear of oppression”, as the phrase goes in immigration law. It would be extraordinarily cheaper and less murderous than trying to dislodge ISIS, and ISIS could rapidly find itself with neither the propaganda they hoped for nor the subjects to extort, rape, and abuse. We are meant to be a refuge for the huddled masses yearning to breathe free; this seems like an obvious example of how we could do it.

But no; the American empire is slowly falling victim to the remorseless logic of all empires. Expansion breeds a sense of having a duty to manage the affairs of others, with or without their consent. Managing others without their consent breeds revolt. Revolt breeds violent repression, which undermines the myths sustaining the empire as deserving of hegemony. These factors spur more revolts in more places, which exhaust the empire and leads to its demise.

The great tool, the hope of those who still wish hopelessly for this to be the American century, is mass digital surveillance. Surveillance can direct strikes to where data suggests they are most needed. It can enable the disruption of dissent before dissent turns into revolt. It allows servants of empire to keep feeding their myth that they are about beating the bad guys and making the world safe for democracy (within the narrowly prescribed lines acceptable to the hegemon). Best of all, for the military contractors and the officials making bank off of a private sector payday, mass surveillance ensures that there will always be a threat they can get our political leadership to hyperventilate about. The last thing they want is actual peace; and for today’s eighteen-year-olds, the last time there was peace was when they were five, and the next time may well be never.

Had we chosen not to chomp on ISIS’s bait, ISIS would have likely remained a regional threat with no realistic prospect of harming US interests. Now we have intervened, they have the best marketing possible for their cause, in the form of the dead bodies of innocents that will surely result from the bombs everybody in US elected office seems so eager to drop.

Do we really need to go through another ten-year cycle before we agree, as a majority of the US public now agrees about our prior wars, that intervention against ISIS was a mistake? Why don’t we try something different this time, save ourselves a trillion dollars or so, and stop the war now before more innocent people get killed?

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