the panopticon state

The panopticon was a type of building designed by the 18th-century British philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham, famous as the leading thinker on utilitarianism. Designed with prisons in mind, the panopticon was a cylindrical building whose chambers all faced an inner atrium with an “inspection house” at its center. The intent was that watchmen in the inspection house could observe the inmates of the cells at all times, while the inmates would never be sure exactly when they were being observed—only that they could be. According to Wikipedia, Bentham said that this prison would be “a mill for grinding rogues honest.”

Reportedly, when Edward Snowden disclosed that the U.S. government has been gathering data on millions of its citizens’ phone calls and on Internet traffic, worldwide sales of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four bumped up. As I write this, Snowden is still apparently holed up in an airport in Moscow, searching for a country that will grant him asylum from that same U.S. government. Many have turned him down, at least some of these after receiving pressure from the United States. Snowden is wanted on charges of espionage.

Espionage. But who has really been doing the spying here? Snowden’s crime consists in alerting his fellow citizens that their own government has been spying on them, and continues to do so. The program has been secret because . . . well, because people don’t like being spied on.

“But it helps us catch criminals,” goes the rationale; “it helps us catch terrorists.”

Even if this were true, I’m afraid it’s no reason to violate citizens’ privacy. The same rationale could be used to justify surprise body searches or home searches without warrants, or to force everyone to undergo periodic polygraph testing, or to report to the police before making a trip.

One of the many humiliations of being incarcerated is the loss of privacy. In prison you are forced to eat and bathe in common; people can watch you when you sleep or go to the toilet. If people send you mail it can be inspected and read before you ever get it. If you have visitors, your interaction with them is controlled and monitored.

To be deprived of privacy in any of these ways is to have one’s human dignity assaulted. This affront to dignity is part of the punishment of incarceration, but it should be no part of being a free citizen. Those who rationalize the violation of citizens’ privacy by trying to frighten them with the prospect of crime or “terror” are serving their own interests. Anyone who asks—or demands—that you sacrifice your dignity for any reason whatever, or someone who simply robs you of it without your knowledge, does not have your best interests at heart. That person is asking you—or forcing you—to capitulate your humanity and to assume the status of livestock. Is a person who would ask you to do this worthy of your trust, your obedience?

How afraid of terrorism are you? Death by acts of terror is spectacular but rare: your chances of dying that way are close to nil. Your chances of dying in an automobile crash—or even by lightning-strike—are vastly greater. How afraid does that make you? If you’re like me, it doesn’t make you afraid enough to stop driving. You practice reasonable prudence and get on with your life.

Is Edward Snowden a criminal? Who knows? The question of the legality of what he has done is a sideshow. It justifies a vindictive manhunt the real purpose of which is no doubt to send a warning to those who may be thinking of blowing the whistle on government skulduggery: “Don’t cross us, or we’ll destroy you.”

How different in tone from these words uttered by President Barack Obama on his first day in office:

Starting today every agency and department should know that this administration stands on the side, not of those who seek to withhold information, but those who seek to make it known.

Reassuring words. But actions speak louder. And the state’s actions say that those who seek to make information known will have to run for their lives.

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