This may occur directly, as with the Bush-Paulson bailout plan, which gives the Treasury Secretary virtually unlimited and unsupervised power to give billions of taxpayer dollars to his cronies on Wall Street, while also allowing him to override the few restrictions left on the machinations of raw greed in the financial markets. (Yes, of course, all of this will change completely after Barack Obama is elected: instead of Hank Paulson and George Bush doling out bailout pork to their Wall Street pals, a brand-new Treasury chief and Obama will be doling out bailout pork to their Wall Street pals.)
But the economic freak-out will also be employed as a distraction, with governments using it to enact measures hugger-mugger while public attention is obsessively focused elsewhere. A prime -- and chilling -- example of this can be found in a new law slouching its way through the legislative process in Britain, where it is likely to emerge in the stark light of day next year. And it is a very rough beast indeed; the measure will, as Jenni Russell puts it in the Guardian
[create a] centralised database that will track, in real time, every call we make, every website we visit, and every text and email we send. That information will then be stored and analysed - perhaps for decades. It will mean the end of privacy as we know it.
Or rather, what's left of privacy as we used to know it. And Americans should not take comfort in the fact that this truly Orwellian law is being prepared across the sea. Britain has long been a bellwether for repressive measures in the United States, blazing a path on detention without charges, omnipresent camera surveillance, "strenuous interrogation," and other liberty-stripping "counterterrorism" measures, many of them honed in the glory days of the dirty war with the IRA. [For more on how British dirty war tactics cross-pollinated American black ops in Iraq, see "Ulster on the Euphrates."]
Russell outlines in grim detail the full implications of the bill being pressed forward by the "progressive" Labour government:
In the name of the fight against crime, and the fight against terror, we are all to be monitored as if we could be suspects. Computers will analyse our behaviour for signs of deviance. The minute we become of interest to anyone in authority - perhaps because we take part in a demonstration, have an argument with a security guard at an airport, spend too long on a website, or are witness to a crime - the police or the security services will be able to dip into our records and construct a near-complete pattern of our lives.
Russell also notes a salient point of this measure -- and also of the plethora of other "security" strictures that are increasingly binding the lives of the citizens of the Western democracies: to instill fear and obedience, not only by the application of outside force, but more horribly, from within.
Stop and consider this for a moment. Think about how happy any of us would be to have our lives laid out to official view. All our weaknesses, our private fears and interests, would be exposed. Our web searches are guides to what is going on in our minds. A married man might spend a lot of time on porn websites; a successful manager might be researching depression; a businessman might be looking up bankruptcy law.
We all have a gulf between who we really are and the face we present to the world. Suddenly that barrier will be taken away. Would a protester at the Kingsnorth power station feel quite so confident in facing the police if she knew that the minute she was arrested, the police could find out that she'd just spent a week looking at abortion on the web? Would a rebel politician stand up against the prime minister if he knew security services had access to the 100 text messages a week he exchanged with a woman who wasn't his wife? It isn't just the certainty that such data would be used against people that is a deterrent, it's the fear. As the realisation of this power grew, we would gradually start living in the prison of our minds.
That last sentence is a shattering truth of our times -- again not only in Britain but also in the land of "free speech zones" wrapped in razor wire, where security forces raid privates homes in "pre-emptive" strikes against potential protesters, and trigger-happy tasers silence citizens speaking uncomfortable truths to the powerful.
As Russell notes, the proposed new law -- which is being smuggled into the government's legislative program with almost no debate at all -- is "only the worst manifestation of an official intrusion into our lives that is just about to hit us, but of which we seem strangely unaware." And again, the UK is leading the way:
The UK's network of speed cameras will soon be able to track every journey we make by road under the automated number-plate recognition system. Mobile network records can already place us, at any time, within 100 yards of our phone's location. The ID database will record every time we go to a hospital or a benefit centre, fill in a prescription or a draw a large sum from a bank. The children's database will give access to every piece of gossip or fact about our children or their family, perhaps in perpetuity. It will record that an older sister may be alcoholic, or that a father is in jail, or that a 14-year-old is thought to be having sex. Nobody will be able to break free of this information about their past.
Most alarming of all, for its breadth of knowledge about us, the NHS database will give hundreds of thousands of staff the ability to discover when we lost our virginity, the drugs we're on, our mental health history.
Once more, Russell zeroes in on a salient fact about the growing Anglo-American Orwellosphere:
None of this information will be safe, because we know three things about the mass collection of data. The first is that the authorities will mine it where it suits them. The second is that the data will be lost. And the third is that it will leak.
Already in America, more than 400,000 people (by the most conservative estimate; the real number is likely far higher) are now on a highly secretive "terrorist watch list" -- compiled arbitrarily by unknown officials, using unknown criteria (or none at all), for unseen ends. And of course, the American government has been conducing widespread, warrantless, unregulated, and patently illegal surveillance against multitudes of its own citizens for years. This KGB-style operation -- openly acknowledged by the president himself -- was later given ex post facto "legitimacy" by the Democratic-led Congress, which also granted blanket immunity for the corporations which aided and abetted the criminality. It was one of the most shameful Congressional actions in a decade jam-packed with them -- and Barack Obama supported it fully.
As Russell rightly notes of such measures:
I'm all for the targeted pursuit of crime and terror, but this isn't it. This is a multibillion-pound misuse of the state's time and our money which will fundamentally damage our freedom to think and to act.
Here again is the crux of the matter. The relentless barrage of "security" measures being heaped upon the British and American people will have almost no effect on terrorists and organized crime, which are their ostensible targets. As always, terrorists and criminals will game the system, whatever it is, finding ways to work around it, outside it -- and within it. What then is the real purpose of these measures? We took up this question here a couple of years ago:
With each passing day, it becomes more evident that the main purpose behind Bush's illegal, warrantless domestic spying program is not collecting intelligence on terrorists and would-be terrorists – a task for which the government's existing draconian powers of surveillance were more than sufficient. As many people have noted, Bush already possessed the legal right to order the immediate surveillance of any person in the country, subject to the sole restraint of having to seek approval from the secret FISA court within 72 hours. Given the established record of this court's near-total acquiescence to thousands of such requests over the years, it is simply impossible to believe that it would not grant its ex post facto approval to any surveillance ordered by Bush which had even the most tenuous connection to a potential terrorist threat.
This undeniable reality leaves us with only one logical conclusion: Bush's secret spy program is designed for activities not covered by FISA's copious security blanket. It is now apparent that these activities include using the vast powers of federal, state and local governments to spy on the Bush Administration's perceived political "enemies" – a vast group, given that the Bushist definition of an "enemy" is anyone who opposes any of their policies.
Again, we must note that the Democratic presidential candidate voted for the measure which "legitimized" this program. Therefore it seems highly unlikely that he will suddenly act to overturn it or de-legitimize it once he is in office -- much less prosecute any of the perpetrators of this vast criminality. It goes without saying that John McCain will also embrace this program, and all other accelerations of the Total Security State now descending upon us.
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This story was published on October 8, 2008.