Machines of Loving Grace

I'd rather risk becoming a terrorist's victim than live under a surveillance state.

Illustration By Oliver Munday
Illustration By Oliver Munday

That the United States will suffer another major terrorist attack is certain. In the long run, determined, intelligent malice, coupled with the willingness to sacrifice one’s own life in the act, must now and then trump our defenses, which remain merely reactive. To be sure, proactive measures (such as drone strikes and commando operations) may prevent certain terrorist operations. All the same, we can only see and foresee so much. A lone-wolf suicide bomber retains the advantage.

It follows that any rational policymaker would wish to know as much as possible about as many people as possible. A perfect extension of this aim would entail constant passive surveillance of everyone on Earth, with the capability of making that surveillance active and then employing lethal force as needed. As a Richard Brautigan poem has it, we would be "all watched over by machines of loving grace."

I myself would rather risk becoming a terrorist’s victim than live under any such system.

NOT LONG AGO, THANKS TO A REQUEST MADE under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), I learned that I had been a suspect in the Unabomber case. You see, I had written a historical novel called Fathers and Crows, and the Unabomber’s moniker was FC. That book, by the way, exemplified my "anti-growth and anti-progress" themes, according to the (redacted) copy of my FBI file, because it was about 17th-century Iroquois. Even worse, "regarding airline-related targets, VOLLMANN’S extensive travel (beginning at age 5) would presumably cause interaction with airline industry."

In fact, some cursory investigation of my activities might not have been unreasonable. To carry out my journalistic work I have visited war zones, drug lords, and so-called "rogue states." But the snoopers were more interested in my "anti-progress" themes.

My file, which I wrote about in detail for Harper’s, indicates that the FBI surveilled and perhaps burgled my home. After the Unabomber was brought to justice, I became a suspect in the 2001 anthrax attacks, in part because I had been a former Unabomber suspect. Your tax dollars at work!

The contents of the file (or the 294 out of 785 pages I was allowed to read) are frequently laughable. About this case, my FOIA lawyer, David Sobel, wrote: "Vollmann’s writing and professional associations were the sole reasons for the FBI’s interest in him, leading to the creation of a Bureau dossier that tells us a lot about the factors that often drive law enforcement and national security investigations." The 1974 Privacy Act, passed to prevent the sorts of abuses uncovered by the Senate’s Church Committee, prohibits federal agencies from keeping records on how Americans exercise their First Amendment rights. But as Sobel noted, "This restriction, however, is not absolute; it permits the collection of such information if it is ‘pertinent to and within the scope of an authorized law enforcement activity.’ As the Vollmann file demonstrates, that’s a loophole that’s easy to pass through when the ‘rights guaranteed by the First Amendment’ are exercised by those deemed to ‘think like’ or ‘write like’ the wrong people."

As I remind myself and my friends, no real harm came to me. In a worse country, I might have wound up in prison. Of course, what would have happened to me right here had my name been Mohammed?

Anglo-American that I am, I have suffered only small inconveniences. For one thing, I have lost any expectation of reliably receiving my international mail. My Japanese translator informs me that she has written me a number of times; her letters never reach me. Books from my French publisher have come with each volume’s spine carefully slit open. All I can do is throw them in the trash. A letter from my mother, who lives in Switzerland, shows up with the envelope unsealed. How will I ever know why this keeps happening to me? Has the U.S. Postal Service grown ham-handed, or are my tax dollars helping to employ some operative charged with bulking out the file of Suspect No. S-2047? As a uniformed bully proudly informed me in 2002, when I was detained (for the first time) at the border crossing in Calexico, California (for only three hours): "We know quite a bit about you."

IN THE DAYS WHEN I WAS A COMPUTER programmer, there used to be an acronym: GIGO, meaning "garbage in, garbage out." A surveillance file is only as good as its compilers. If some functionary wishes to make himself look important and me look bad, he can write, as one did, that when my detainers asked me about my button camera (used for a journalistic investigation in Mexico), I became "evasive about its use." In fact, this is an utter lie. I answered all their questions freely and fully. Without the Freedom of Information Act, I would never have been alerted to this tiny character smear. Well, where’s the harm? Simply this: Were I an agent of the Department of Homeland Security who was called upon to read the file of Suspect No. S-2047, I might well decide that his evasive character warranted more thorough treatment. My laptop has never yet been confiscated at the border; perhaps that will happen the next time I return from the Middle East. Who knows? Such micro-slanders — or, if you like, errors of understanding and transcription — further their own extension.

If you doubt this, let the following be a metaphor. I travel often. In the last several years, the zipper of my unlocked suitcase has been broken three times. Lately, some good Nazi seems to have started on the inner lining. First it was torn back just a trifle, then a trifle more. I imagine they will keep doing it, because it is now beginning to appear thoroughly suspicious. I once called a Homeland Security telephone number to complain and, of course, received no response.

For another example, consider the Iraq war. As I understand it, erroneous intelligence — the weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein did not have and the link between Baghdad and al Qaeda that could never be verified — led to a war whose false pretenses have covered this nation with shame and whose destruction of Iraqi society and thousands (some say hundreds of thousands) of casualties in no way constituted just reprisal for the 9/11 attacks. I remember when then-Secretary of State Colin Powell tried to sell our errors or lies (how can I ever know which?) to European heads of state, seeking and largely failing to get partners for our so-called "coalition." You may disagree with my opinion on this subject. But please remember that it is shared by many people all over the world and that it bears violent consequences. Having been to Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, and Iraq, I can assure you: The rage we engender through secret and therefore unaccountable killings over there impels some individuals to reprisals. Secrecy hinders the detection of errors, thereby making us less safe if we kill the wrong people.

This raises the central question: Who gets to decide what surveillance proves and what response it calls for?

When I read in the newspaper that another drone strike in Pakistan has neutralized militants or suspected militants, I wonder how many of them were innocent women and children. What if they all were? What little I possess on which to found any judgment, namely my FBI file, proves that investigations can be absurdly off base and that agents can lie. U.S. citizens seem to be expected to believe whatever the government say
s about whomever it kills, just because it says so. I reply: Not in my name.

SURVEILLANCE BECOMES MORE ODIOUS TO THE surveilled as it is coupled with secrecy. An absolutely open society, in which we could watch each other at any time, might be beautiful in its own way, but it would certainly be alien to us. A society in which the surveilled are kept ignorant of the watching, the state that our security apparatus appears to be striving for — one reason it expressed so much fury when leaker Edward Snowden exposed its activities — would be the other extreme. As I have said, it is not a society in which I would like to live.

Surveillance creates a power differential. The spies know ever more about the spied-on, who know virtually nothing about the spies. We live in what is fondly imagined to be a "representative democracy." I understand this to mean that my leaders exercise power on my behalf, subject to recall. My choice at the polls will be limited and may be sterile; nonetheless, I cherish the sense, however illusory, that my government remains accountable to me. If my congresswoman supports legislation that entails spying on citizens, I may, if I hear about it, try to vote her out and vote in another person who might repeal her bill. If, however, I am prohibited from knowing what she seeks to do, my ability to stop her declines from implausible to hopeless. Where is accountability then?

THERE ARE TWO REASONS SPIES PREFER TO watch their targets secretly. First, and most practically, so long as surveillance remains undetected, it may continue at will. At times, this is commendable. I am grateful to those American agents who eavesdrop continuously on al Qaeda and other organizations dedicated to doing me harm. But let me state the obvious: Most human beings, including those whose profession is surveillance, prefer to make their work convenient and productive. Who would voluntarily make it inconvenient and unproductive? Therefore, some outside party had better monitor each spy, to decide just when he must be compelled to go against his immediate interest.

After all, the second reason spies like their secrecy is because it protects them from oversight. In The Republic, Socrates mentions the ring of Gyges, which gives its wearer invisibility. What would I do if I had it? Could I resist watching my favorite actress take a shower or, worse yet, read my unexpurgated FBI file? "If now there should be two such rings, and the just man should put on one and the unjust the other, no one could be found, it would seem, of such adamantine temper as to persevere in justice." Why indeed should I trust in the justice of an operative, never mind an entire system, whose very existence is secret?

NOW FOR MY FINAL OBJECTION TO SECRET surveillance. I can, perhaps, admit the theoretical possibility of government spying that is motivated only by the highest good of that government’s citizens — "good" as both the government and its citizens define it. Of course such a situation is extraordinarily unlikely. From my point of view, it would entail, among other things, an absolute prohibition on "fishing expeditions" and on the use of data collected ostensibly to fight terrorism for other purposes. For example, a drone that can see through walls and ceilings flies over my home to check for anthrax and discovers a marijuana greenhouse (which, let the FBI be assured, I don’t have), after which the Drug Enforcement Administration comes to arrest me. Or let’s suppose that someone like President Richard Nixon simply wishes to extend his "enemies list." I repeat, preventing such misuses of surveillance is nearly impossible — all the more so because many functionaries would claim that they are not misuses. All the same, let us envision some herculean, incorruptible mechanism of oversight that forces the government to police itself, with severe criminal penalties applied to corrupt agents or corrupt purposes (such as entrapping members of dissident organizations). The problem remains that, when it comes to surveillance, we have to deal not only with the government, whose ends and limits Abraham Lincoln succinctly laid out:

The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves — in their separate, and individual capacities.

In all that the people can individually do as well for themselves, government ought not to interfere.

Limited active and passive surveillance of proven terrorists is Lincolnesque, justified. Unfortunately, we also must take into account big business.

EVEN THE MOST NAIVE PATRIOT CAN HARDLY believe that the corporations have our interest at heart. Their purpose is profit. The robo-entities that send me credit card offers in the mail, which I must then shred to reduce my risk of identity theft; my bank, which always tries to learn more about me; the nameless ghouls and trolls that track consumers’ preferences, associations, and spending habits on the Internet in order to "assist" us with personalized advertisements; the phone companies, so ready to share God-knows-what information with the National Security Agency — these are the sorts of creatures that will feed on the surveillance boom.

MY OLD FRIEND PAUL FOSTER, WHO IS AT LEAST as good an American as I, proposes the following definition: "Privacy is the right to do what you feel guilty about." "Guilty" is not quite the word I would choose. But were I to expand on Paul’s formulation, I would say that whatever I do in the bathroom and bedroom ought to be my business alone. The second time the U.S. government detained me in Calexico (nearly seven hours), I eventually needed to urinate, so a uniformed functionary followed me to the lavatory and then watched through the doorway as I peed. I was not ashamed, only offended. I’ll bet he wouldn’t have liked it if I’d watched him pee. Well, so what? Have my "rights" been violated? And when I come down with prostatitis and they test me for gonorrhea and enter the result of the test into my medical record, where’s the harm? It all depends on whether the medical-industrial complex sells that information. Maybe some puritanical college will buy it and then make sure I never lecture there. Well, I could probably still pay my mortgage. But what if every time I applied for a job the employer’s hired candidate-investigation service pulled up the information that I have been a terrorist suspect and that Homeland Security’s surveillance of me appears to be ongoing? Thank goodness I am a privileged native son! For what if my name were Mohammed? My file reveals that sometimes the FBI could not even spell my name right. What if they mixed up one Mohammed with another and nobody cared? 

Postscript: I feel honored to have been invited to express my thoughts here. The longer I live, the more I love our beautiful land and the ideals of our Constitution.

William T. Vollmann is an American novelist, journalist, essayist, and winner of a 2005 National Book Award.