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Postscript: The Present through a PRISM

See also guest post by Jesse Stavis. He has also published an article about what happened at the Progressive here.

Since I posted about our engagement with NSA recruiters who were visiting the campus at the Univ of

Good Muslim anyone? (Internal flap of NSA brochure)

Good Muslim anyone? (Internal flap of NSA brochure)

Wisconsin, I’ve been inundated with hundreds upon hundreds of tweets, emails and messages from people, both Americans, but also folks from Germany, the UK, France, Pakistan and elsewhere. They have been overwhelmingly positive, heartfelt messages (with a few nastier comments thrown in, but I imagine that is par for the course). I’ve tried my best to keep up and respond to, and/or acknowledge the messages in some way, but once again: Thank you for all of your messages of support.

It has been inspiring for us to hear from all of you!

When we posed our questions to the NSA recruiters, we did not expect to go viral. But some time soon after tweeting out my post, my blog crashed. So did the blog PrivacySOS (follow @onekade!) who had posted about it. By next afternoon, Huffpo had picked it up. Numerous blogs, local sites and news sites also reported the story including: Business InsiderThe Guardian, Firedoglake, Sueddeutsche Zeitung (the largest German-language daily in Germany), WORT Radio, NBC15 (Wisconsin’s local channel which also features Jesse Stavis @tolstoved. Means one who studies Tolstoy), one of the other students who spoke), WeAct Radio, Isthmus, Wisconsin ReporterWonkette, ActivistPost, Daily KosTruthdig and RT America here and here (see below for one of the videos), among others. There have been some Youtube videos posted as well.

I’ve made the audio downloadable as per several requests.

Here, I want to add some things I left out in my initial post (because I wasn’t expecting so many people to read it), make some corrections, and finally make some notes on a few things I thought were interesting:

1. The recruiters in question were  seasoned employees of the NSA, not newbies. They told us that together, they had 55 years of experience with the NSA. The female recruiter worked on South Asia and implied that she was in a senior position in that office. That was the impression others I’ve spoken with also had. The male recruiter worked on China and Korea.

2. Anybody can be an “adversary.” That means foreign governments, allies, and American citizens. Anyone can become an adversary at any time as far as the American government is concerned. That means OWS anarchists, socialists, activists and leftists of various stripes, environmentalists or just stupid kids. That means Anwar al-Awlaki because his opinions were reprehensible, or his teenage son –also an American citizen– who was killed in a drone attack just because, or Tarek Mehanna, or Fahad Hashmi, or the Muslim Students’ Association, or Muslims generally, or me or you. As Atlantic Wire reported last month,

And the NSA would never abuse its awesome surveillance power, right? Wrong. In 2008, NSA workers told ABC News that they routinely eavesdropped on phone sex between troops serving overseas and their loved ones in America. They listened in on both satellite phone calls and calls from the phone banks in Iraq’s Green Zone where soldiers call home. Former Navy Arab linguist, David Murfee Faulk described how a coworker would say, “Hey, check this out… there’s good phone sex or there’s some pillow talk, pull up this call, it’s really funny, go check it out.” Faulk explained they would gossip about the best calls during breaks. “It would be some colonel making pillow talk and we would say, ‘Wow, this was crazy.'”

In a word: creepy. But, what’s more worrisome to me than the eavesdropping on the pillow talk of American troops is the differential burden that the surveillance state levies on the marginalized. For example, it is not accidental that the names on my little list above are largely Muslim. When bureaucrats or the government or the police are managing large populations, they narrow down categories of presumed suspects through racial profiling. That is why stop-and-frisk disproportionately

Sent to me by dminkler.com

Sent to me by dminkler.com

affects African-Americans and Latinos. And, it’s the same reason why –when hunting for ‘terrorists’– American security forces obsess over Islam, and the mainstream media tends to present Muslims as the face of terror even though white hate groups are on the rise. In fact in 2009, conservatives so heavily criticized the Department of Homeland Security when it “reported that white supremacy is the US’s biggest threat for domestic terror” (ThinkProgress) that Janet Napolitano ended up withdrawing its report.

So, there’s a racial politics to the surveillance state. The marginalized, poor and non-white are likely to bear the brunt of the state’s violence. But, in the end, it affects the entire social space. First of all, it has a chilling effect on dissent, particularly in these communities.

Secondly, for the police or the FBI or the NSA or the drones to come for some of us requires that the rest of us agree or at least, remain silent. I think that silence is produced: through the jingoism of television whether it’s the evening news or shows like NCIS, 24, or Homeland as well as through attacks on education, research and dissent. Finally, there are all the smaller ways of disciplining people into silence, things we even do to each other. You are told it’s rude to ask questions. This is not the right time. This is not the right space. Those are not the right people. Shut up. Shut up. SHUT UP.

That kind of social space kills independent thought. It produces thinking that is vehemently opposed to asking questions of NSA recruiters and by extension, the state. Such thinking is more angered by the whistle-blowing than what it reveals. To paraphrase a dead French guy badly, the surveillance state has to change people/populations into the kind of group that basically remains silent. That is what is needed first in order to make the unthinkable possible and finally, normal.

This is why, when they come for some of us, they actually come for all of us.

Therefore, a critical response can only succeed if it is able to understand the entire structure as a whole, that is, as long as we continue to draw distinctions between people that ought to be surveilled and those that should not be surveilled, we will fail. The point –and the real test– is learning to stand in solidarity with people who are not like you or me or us.

3. “The globe is our playground.” A little nugget of honesty about the worldview of the intelligence and military community.

4. They are just doing their jobs. I’m not sure why this is a defense. It didn’t work at Nuremberg. And, it shouldn’t work now. This is not to compare what is happening now as somehow equal to or better or worse than the German holocaust, but to underscore a philosophical point Hannah Arendt made about the nature of modern evil: It’s banal. That means it hasn’t got a pitchfork or horns sprouting out of its head. Rather, it is thousands of ordinary people just doing their jobs.

The question of whether they are “good” people and love their families or “bad” people is irrelevant here. The routinization of such work into small tasks turns the victims of that work into an

Sent to me by dminkler.com

Sent to me by dminkler.com

abstraction or a mathematical problem for the people-just-doing-their-jobs. (Thanks to a commenter at the Guardian, the prior link is to a discussion of how the NSA reconfigures issues into an abstract mathematical problem that is then handed over to its mathematicians –none of whom actually know the real-world ‘problem’ that they are working on or to what end their mathematical solutions will be applied. For another instance, take the discussion of drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. In the mainstream media, it is a discussion that lacks imagination and has been reduced to counting up the dead and categorizing them as “civilian” or “militant” –effectively turning it into a numbers problem: are we killing more of the “bad” ones than the “good” ones or vice versa? Needless to say, this is a terrible, even a horrifying kind of question.)

So, some people go on just doing their jobs and other people go on not asking questions for fear of appearing rude (Jesse talks about how the high school teacher sitting next to him during the session kept muttering about our ‘rudeness’), enraged, irrational, naive. This is how, together, we build monsters.

What has struck me about the anti-war movement in America in these last few years –perhaps it is different elsewhere and perhaps it was different before– is generally how polite it has been. How ironic to chant, “Whose streets! Our streets!” while politely walking into pens and free speech zones. How strange to demand an end to the war while politely conceding to the demands of the NYPD that protesters not use Central Park, that they only march on these streets and not those streets so that order can be maintained, so that things can carry on as if there were no protest at all. I am not arguing for blind rage, but I think anger –articulate, politically engaged, critically minded anger that holds the line– can be a virtue in these times.

5. Edward Snowden should’ve stuck it out instead of “running away.” This is interesting to me because I think this speaks to a kind of Christian imaginary: the hero as martyr, like Jesus, who should hang on the cross. That is apparently what will redeem the worth of these revelations. I am not saying that the people who make this claim are Christian; I am only observing that long after secularization, forms of Christian thought and habit hang around, and I think this is one of them. It is a very specific kind of typology for a hero, and one that only makes sense in a context where people (whether they be actually Christians or Muslims or Hindus or Jews or atheists or whatever) are habituated to the idea of Jesus’ martyrdom for our redemption. It’s out there in the social space. Hell, think about the end of Harry Potter.

6. To the people telling me to grow up, I’m 5 ft 1.75 inches, and I’m pretty sure I’m not growing any taller. And to those wondering if I’m a “foreigner,”  well, if I am one, so are you. I do get how my name trips up your black-and-white world though. If it helps, you can call me Maddie.

Some links I thought were worth sharing:

Prism Break

Restore the Fourth

Mass Surveillance in America: A Timeline

Let’s not forget about the corporations who surveil us too.

PRISM by the numbers

Security Data-Mining and Other Forms of Witchcraft 

Update: RT America video from the program “Breaking the Set”

Finally, once again thank you so much for your messages. It has been inspiring for us.


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