In all the discussion surrounding the NSA’s citizen-monitoring programs (and there has been too little discussion, in my rather well-informed opinion), the American punditry has neglected the religious dimension of our descent into Big Brotherism. By this, I mean the extent to which any National Security project essentially becomes a religious project, removed from reality as we know and can experience it and based, instead, upon faith, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Consider the following:
- Dualism. The National Security state posits a perpetual conflict between forces Good and Evil (Us versus Them). The Good are righteous in all things, the inheritors of righteous ancestors guided in their ways by God or Reason, while the Evil are just the opposite, guided by Satan or Irrationality. Saying of the forces of Evil that “they hate our freedom” ascribes to them the ultimate irrationality, not just the hatred of God-given freedoms but also an insatiable desire to stick their nose into other people’s lives. According to the legend that grew out of Old Testament stories, was Satan jealous of the high position given Mankind, but rather than coming to peace with this, he constantly interferes in people’s lives, giving them momentary thoughts of lust or doubt all throughout the day. “You are either with us or against us.” The world cleaved in twain, never mind that nature recognizes no such dualism: after all, there aren’t just electrons and protons—there are also neutrons, the Switzerlands of atomic physics, to give but one example. Good and Evil are not ontological categories by any means.
- Jihad or crusade. In relation to the above, since the Evil constantly schemes to take over, or at least just destroy, the Good, so must the Good pledge itself to the destruction of the Evil. The National Security state depends upon the maintenance of a constant struggle against its enemy of choice, with that struggle ritualized and sanctified, with its holy sites—Ground Zero—and its martyrs—our soldiers, whose “sacrifice” we are constantly said to appreciate. (What ever happened to that ancient practice of sacrificing kings in order to make the sun come up in winter? Why is it always working-class joes these days who must be sacrificed?)
- Non-provable claims. In the National Security state, the population is regularly told that the means of protecting them are overwhelmingly successful, that “this program has stopped x plots against American citizens.” Of course, the proof of this is never forthcoming. (Whenever it does manifest, we usually learn that it was the FBI themselves who coerced some poor schmuck into carrying out some loserly attempt, even down to selling him the weapons he needed.) In much the same way do religious leaders harp upon the efficacy of prayer, for example, despite any lack of proof. One cannot issue an FOI request to the NSA or God Almighty in order to check to see if they are really keeping us safe, how many of their claims are backed up by evidence. And any slip in security is blamed on us, in an always non-provable manner, or do we forget Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell’s claim that pagans and feminists caused 9/11? We can always be found wanting, and questioning the divine hand that protects us, asking to peer behind the veil, could lead to catastrophe (“the terrorists would know what we were doing”). Did your wife just die of cancer? She must not have had enough faith.
- The ideal of heaven-like security and safety. If you have not yet read Paradiso, the third part of Dante’s Divine Comedy, let me dissuade you—it’s the most godawful, boring piece of literature once might conceive, and I say this as someone who once endured an unabridged audiobook of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans read by someone doing his best Al Gore impersonation. Basically, Dante ascends through the different spheres of heaven, talking to the denizens along the way, all of whom assure him that everything is absolutely wonderful and that he shouldn’t take any notice of there being different levels of heaven, that all levels are really a ball, each in their own way. Perhaps if you read Italian, you can appreciate the language, but there is only so much of “everything is good and perfect” that one can read before one wants to throw said book across the room and scream, no matter the test you’ll be taking on it tomorrow. But all that boringness and safety is the ultimate goal of the National Security state here in this world—not just a population protected by threats from outside, but also a population which lives in praise of that which keeps it safe. Which relates to my final point—
- Omniscience and the erasure of free will. So your wife is out of town at a conference for a few days, but you’re determined that distance shouldn’t keep you from enjoying a little carnal connection via cell phone or Skype. Phone sex is better than none, right? You’ve got the bottle of lube and you’re waiting for 10:00 p.m. when there pops into your mind the latest revelation courtesy of Edward Snowden, that the NSA can listen to, and record, every cell phone and Skype conversation in America, and beyond. Suddenly, you’re not so sure about this. Not that a little shared orgasm over the phone lines could be considered an act of lèse-majesté (unless you cry “Death to the president!” at climax), but just knowing that others could well be listening in might be enough to kill the mood (provided being observed by total strangers isn’t what gets you off). Likewise, just knowing that the government is monitoring all Facebook traffic, maybe you’ll rethink posting what you really believe about the president’s unconstitutional spying programs. Suddenly, you’ve tumbled into all those old arguments about the relationship between deities and morality—that Mankind needs to believe that God watches over everything, for otherwise people will just behave as beasts. Or as Voltaire put it, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him.” If you internalize such a religious point of view, how much of your life, your very being, do you try to edit down to fit the allowed confines, even down to your thoughts, so as to avoid the slightest chance of damnation? And if you internalize such a political point of view, believing yourself constantly observed and judged for your every action, how long before you make yourself content with any old atrocity, conducted in the name of peace and safety and security, just to avoid the divine wrath of our president and his functionaries? Being confronted with an omniscient force does not just make us compliant, it also makes us boring, fit to inhabit Dante’s Paradiso, a realm where there is no phone sex whatsoever.
Call it a secular theocracy. Call it the National Security Church. Whatever you call it, just know that it is not based upon reason or observation but upon faith in ideas that fall far outside of reality. Unreason reigns in America.