|Trevor Paglen, They Watch the Moon, 2010.|
Turnkey Tyranny, Surveillance and the Terror State
By Trevor Paglen
By exposing NSA programs like PRISM and Boundless Informant, Edward Snowden has revealed that we are not moving toward a surveillance state: we live in the heart of one. The 30-year-old whistleblower told The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald that the NSA’s data collection created the possibility of a “turnkey tyranny,” whereby a malevolent future government could create an authoritarian state with the flick of a switch. The truth is actually worse. Within the context of current economic, political and environmental trends, the existence of a surveillance state doesn’t just create a theoretical possibility of tyranny with the turn of a key—it virtually guarantees it.
For more than a decade, we’ve seen the rise of what we might call a “Terror State,” of which the NSA’s surveillance capabilities represent just one part. Its rise occurs at a historical moment when state agencies and programs designed to enable social mobility, provide economic security and enhance civic life have been targeted for significant cuts. The last three decades, in fact, have seen serious and consistent attacks on social security, food assistance programs, unemployment benefits and education and health programs. As the social safety net has shrunk, the prison system has grown. The United States now imprisons its own citizens at a higher rate than any other country in the world.
While civic parts of the state have been in retreat, institutions of the Terror State have grown dramatically. In the name of an amorphous and never-ending “war on terror,” the Department of Homeland Security was created, while institutions such as the CIA, FBI and NSA, and darker parts of the military like the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) have expanded considerably in size and political influence. The world has become a battlefield—a stage for extralegal renditions, indefinite detentions without trial, drone assassination programs and cyberwarfare. We have entered an era of secret laws, classified interpretations of laws and the retroactive “legalization” of classified programs that were clearly illegal when they began. Funding for the secret parts of the state comes from a “black budget” hidden from Congress—not to mention the people—that now tops $100 billion annually. Finally, to ensure that only government-approved “leaks” appear in the media, the Terror State has waged an unprecedented war on whistleblowers, leakers and journalists. All of these state programs and capacities would have been considered aberrant only a short time ago. Now, they are the norm.