A couple of weeks ago, I was scheduled to take a trip from New York (JFK) to Los Angeles on JetBlue. Every year, my family goes on a one-week pilgrimage, where we put our work on hold and spend time visiting temples, praying, and spending time with family and friends. To my Jewish friends, I often explain this trip as vaguely similar to the Sabbath, except we take one week of rest per year, rather than one day per week.
Our family is not Muslim, but by coincidence, this year, our trip happened to be during the last week of Ramadan.
. . .
The onslaught of NYPD agents was broken when a South Asian man with a Homeland Security badge walked in and said something that sounded unintelligible. After a second, I realized he was speaking Hindi.
“Sorry, I don’t speak Hindi.”
“Oh!” he said, noticeably surprised at how “Americanized” this suspect was. We chatted for a few moments, during which time I learned that his family was Pakistani, and that he was Muslim, though he was not fasting for Ramadan. He asked me the standard repertoire of questions that I had been answering for other agents all day.
Finally, the FBI agent returned.
“How are you feeling right now?” he asked. I wasn’t sure if he was expressing genuine concern or interrogating me further, but by this point, I had very little energy left.
“A bit nauseous, and very thirsty.”
“You’ll have to understand, when a person of your… background walks into here, travelling alone, and sets off our alarms, people start to get a bit nervous. I’m sure you’ve been following what’s been going on in the news recently. You’ve got people from five different branches of government all in here – we don’t do this just for fun.”
But no matter how I’ve tried to rationalize this in the last week and a half, nothing can block out the memory of the chilling sensation I felt that first morning, lying on my air mattress, trying to forget the image of large, uniformed men invading the sanctuary of my home in my absence, wondering when they had done it, wondering why they had done it.
In all my life, I have only felt that same chilling terror once before – on one cold night in September twelve years ago, when I huddled in bed and tried to forget the terrible events in the news that day, wondering why they they had happened, wondering whether everything would be okay ever again.
This leaves one last possible explanation — those in power were angry and impulsively acted on that anger. They’re lashing out: sending a message and demonstrating that they’re not to be messed with — that the normal rules of polite conduct don’t apply to people who screw with them. That’s probably the scariest explanation of all. Both the US and UK intelligence apparatuses have enormous money and power, and they have already demonstrated that they are willing to ignore their own laws. Once they start wielding that power unthinkingly, it could get really bad for everyone.
And it’s not going to be good for them, either. They seem to want Snowden so badly that that they’ll burn the world down to get him. But every time they act impulsively aggressive — convincing the governments of Portugal and France to block the plane carrying the Bolivian president because they thought Snowden was on it is another example — they lose a small amount of moral authority around the world, and some ability to act in the same way again. The more pressure Snowden feels, the more likely he is to give up on releasing the documents slowly and responsibly, and publish all of them at once — the same way that WikiLeaks published the US State Department cables.
Last week saw the release of documents describing DHS’s latest efforts in “facial profiling.” The agency has awarded a $5.2 million federal contract to the defense firm Electronic Warfare Associates to develop facial recognition technology allowing video cameras to pick “watch-listed” suspects out of crowds at distances of up to 100 meters.
Meanwhile, the New York Times reports on the expansion of a DHS initiative that’s bringing roving squads of armed Transportation Security Administration agents to trains, buses, and stadiums near you.
Random stops, bag searches, and interrogations are among the services TSA provides with its “Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response” program. Clearly, somebody in the TSA brass thought it would be really cool to call these units “VIPR” squads.
Some might find it unsettling to learn that the federal agency in charge of crotch-groping aspires to strike with the speed and ruthlessness of a venomous snake — but I’m all for truth in advertising.
These militaristic monikers show us how the permanent security bureaucracy sees the relationship between the rulers and the ruled: They believe they are the BOSS of you.
. . .
At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, James Madison warned that “the means of defense against foreign danger have always been the instruments of tyranny at home.” That’s worth remembering when you consider the origins of the BOSS program.
“You’re not the boss of me!”
Unfortunately, it seems that the future Aldous Huxley predicted in 1932, in Brave New World, is arriving early. Mockery, truculence, and minimalist living are best, then enjoy the decline. However, we do need a Revolving Door Tax (RDT), learn what Members of Congress pay in taxes, and prosecute politicians and staff and their “family and friends” who profit from insider trading. Oh, and pay “public servants” what they are worth.