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Privacy is not American

Obama's defence of US surveillance implies that rules of civilisation don't apply abroad

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta |
June 13, 2013 3:06:58 am

Obama’s defence of US surveillance implies that rules of civilisation don’t apply abroad

The latest Prism and Verizon revelations about the United States’ surveillance and data mining programmes are a reminder of the profound crisis facing liberal democracies. There are complex legal and technical issues. But the moral framework that President Obama has set up to justify these programmes will dent the reputation of the US. Obama blithely justified these programmes by saying that “with respect to internet and emails,this does not apply to US citizens and it does not apply to people living in the United States”. But the moral hierarchies this insinuates are scandalous. It is a brazen acknowledgment that the rights of non-US citizens or residents count for nothing; American policy can trample on these rights with impunity. For a nation that prided itself on its universalism,this brazen disregard for the rights of others is odd. Presumably,the point of a Universal Declaration of Human Rights is that no state shall violate these rights,not just that your own state shall not. To claim privacy to be American! So much for universality.

To be sure,members of a state have a special political standing in relation to that state that outsiders do not. But this dualism in respect of rights is unjustifiable. It is now part of a permanent pattern of American foreign policy. It is at the heart of a problematic use of drones. It is at the heart of America’s practice of what Edmund Burke had resonantly called “geographical morality”,where the rules of civilisation do not apply abroad. So torture and rendition can be outsourced to those others,outside the moral pale. This dualism is made even more unjustifiable when allied with another proposition: “foreigners” are deemed guilty until proven innocent. In any action taken against “outsiders”,there needs to be at least some presumptive cause,some justification. Someone has to be designated an enemy. But the open-ended nature of this surveillance dispenses with that pretence: everyone is a potential enemy without rights. War is a permanent condition that can be waged anywhere and everywhere. This may sound melodramatic,but that is exactly the moral relationship this surveillance enshrines with the rest of the world. Perhaps this is an exaggeration. After all,the American government admits that data about Americans was acquired,even if only “incidentally” — one of those curious words in the new Orwellian moral lexicon that reminds one of the easy use of “collateral”.

Surveillance can be more insidious than censorship. Censorship is at least in the open. It names itself. It can be contested. Surveillance hides behind a veil. It induces a subtler but more insidious form of discipline. The fear of being watched is psychologically more debilitating than being shut up. At least in being shut up,you have a contest on your hand. Surveillance produces a constant anxiety in the subjects. By data mining you make every action of the subject complicit in making them the object of suspicion. It is not entirely reassuring to say that those who have done nothing wrong have nothing to fear. To say that is to entirely miss the point of what it means to treat someone with some dignity. The slow contortions in the psyche that the power of indiscriminate surveillance produces can be extraordinary. Secrecy is a power that feeds on itself. Even in this case,it has produced a kind of neurosis that even Joseph Heller could not have dreamed of in Catch-22. The New Yorker quoted the Electronic Frontier Foundation as saying something to the effect that even where national security letters are used to request surveillance,you cannot say you have received them,“they are nasty,because you cannot talk about having received one”. This might be prudence from an intelligence point of view,but it makes secrecy a hermetically sealed circle.

This episode challenges liberal democracies in other ways. It shows the limits of procedural justice that is not disciplined by norms. The alacrity with which the FISA court seems to have given approval to these actions is alarming. Most Congressmen are either in the dark or seem not to be quite sure about what it is they have authorised. The diabolical possibilities of technology seem to have far outpaced the understanding politicians seem to bring to the subject. There is also the remarkable fact that George W. Bush now seems entitled to an apology from liberals. It was really not him who created a paranoid state. There are,it seems,larger forces at work that have let reason of state run amok. The Obama administration’s record seems equally,if not more,problematic on a range of crucial moral issues,from torture to privacy. The ease with which Obama has got away with his mendaciousness on the subject is a reminder of how partisanship can obscure principle and facts alike.

This episode will do lasting damage to American authority. It undermines its authority to criticise Chinese recourse to reason of state arguments. It undermines its argument that free trade,open investment and the internet are simply neutral spaces,free of operations of power. It shows how easily a state can systematically use the power of its corporations for its own ends,exactly the things the Chinese are supposed to be doing. It will,as Edward Luce argued,increase suspicion of the power American companies wield in this area. The idea that four or five companies,between them,have an overwhelming control of information,which can now be made easily available to hostile states,should encourage attempts to limit their power. This action will legitimise other liberal governments who clamp down on the rights of their citizens. India,never the most exemplary state in this respect,has seen a major regression on civil liberties in the last few years,justified in much the same terms.

This talk may be dismissed as whining on behalf of rights that few people care about,against the security that most people want. It is a debatable matter whether an unfettered state enhances security. Instead of liberating us from fear,it now feeds on perpetual fear. This is precisely the danger of the triumph of the surveillance state: it makes liberty an irrelevant political issue. It is all the more remarkable,therefore,how individuals like Edward Snowden,however inchoate their motives,seem still infected by old-fashioned patriotism on behalf of American ideals. It is troublingly ironic that the only place he can inhabit is Hong Kong,a nether zone between the United States and mainland China; and that too not for very long.

The writer is president,Centre for Policy Research,Delhi,and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’

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