The reality of 1984 is now:
Are we all terrorists?
These days a state of emergency has begun to seem normal: the recent revelations about the NSA must surely have made every last one of us aware that there is no privacy left for anyone on earth. The use of fighter drones annuls the sovereignty of individual nation states, whether they like it or not, and the declaration of a danger zone in an inner-city Hamburg neighbourhood by police drastically limited the civil rights of Hamburg’s citizens at the beginning of 2014. And while all these examples leave us feeling very uneasy, there are few signs of resistance by citizens and politicians to this continual surveillance. Orwell’s 1984 has become reality today. But why? Read More
The new methods of total surveillance seem so omnipresent and unavoidable that opposition from citizens and politicians is very limited. We seem, in fact, to have come to terms with the reasons given in an attempt to justify this state of emergency and the “security measures” that go hand and hand with it. The idea that we have mutated into transparent citizens may be too abstract for some to imagine; others might feel that their individual fingerprint will hardly be discernable anyway in the general tangled mass of data collected. Or we feel that as respectable people who have nothing to hide, intervention from the state serves to protect us. Politicians tend to pull this last one out of their hats as a favourite moral cudgel to justify all these surveillance techniques. Anyone who resists, the argument goes, must have something to hide and is ultimately a danger to the general good.
Living in a permanent state of emergency
What is the exact process that leads to the declaration of a state of emergency? On the one hand, one could argue that a state of emergency is an admission of political impotence when the state is no longer capable of acting in accordance with the legal norm. By eliminating or limiting the prevailing rules, the state accedes to the provocation of those who do not accept state sovereignty. In the case of the Rote Flora, an occupied community centre in Hamburg, the tribal areas along the Afghan-Pakistani border, or in cyberspace: those affected insist on their autonomy with regard to the state and on their power to set their own rules. This creates new spaces of confrontation in which power and countervailing power are in opposition without the limitation of any rules at all.
Another point in favour of this interpretation is the concept of ungoverned spaces the US administration has followed since 9/11, and which has become the focus of its security doctrine. Diverse US think tanks have long been involved in compiling an inventory of ungoverned spaces. These state-of-emergency areas are identified, categorized and defined in order to legitimize actions that are seen to challenge valid legislation. So cyberspace, isolated regions in Somalia, Yemen and Afghanistan, along with the banlieus in Paris and Marseille are all declared ungovernable in the same breath. They are mystified as spaces of wildness, of the pre-modern, of chaos or, as the most recent example of Hamburg’s Sternschanze quarter showed, as “threats”. The laws of the jungle apply here, and they allow interests to be enforced in almost any way.
When ungoverned spaces are created, very clearly defined boundaries are suddenly drawn. A person who transgresses these is turned by an invisible hand into a suspect and potential perpetrator of violence. Once this definition has been imposed on someone, they are subject to increased surveillance that may ultimately result in the use of force by the state: If I cross the Indus in Pakistan from East to West, click on a homepage assessed as dangerous, or run from the Reeperbahn train station north to the kiosk across the way – I cross a border every time that cannot be seen by the naked eye, but the transgression of which draws the interest of the powers that be to me.
As soon as people come together in groups (of more than five individuals), they are viewed as a threat and must be neutralised – whether via the use of fighter drones or truncheons.
Ephemeral ad hoc terrorists are created and sustained as long as they are viewed as a threat. What is astonishing is how similar the disciplining of these territories is: whether in Miran Shah in the Afghan-Pakistani border area or at Hamburg’s Rote Flora, as soon as people come together in groups (of more than five individuals), they are viewed as a threat and must be neutralised – whether via the use of fighter drones or truncheons. The fact that the German military’s request for fighter drones coincided with the declaration of a danger zone in Hamburg’s Sternschanze quarter is a clear indication of the extent to which thinking in terms of exceptional spaces and the new practices of asymmetrical use of force that go along with it has been incorporated into all our institutions of organised violence. The logic of creating a danger zone is congruous with the logic that legitimises the purchase of drones.
From ungoverned to over-governed –
Big Brother is everywhere
The state has assumed the role of the interpreting power that determines how long and to what extent a specific territory is subject to a state of emergency – in keeping with Carl Schmitt who wrote in 1922 : “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.” The paradox here is that ungoverned spaces quickly advance to over-governed spaces as soon as they have been identified, for they then require the entire attention of the sovereign’s gaze. The increasing technologicalisation of our society in particular allows the security apparatus to intensively observe a specific territory via the use of telecommunications and surveillance electronics. Computer assessment of logarithms and movement patterns means that people can be categorized as threats simply because they enter certain spaces and perform certain actions over the course of an ordinary day – purely based on suspicion and often without their knowledge. In the Afghan-Pakistan border area, inhabitants can hardly make a move that escapes the artificial eyes of the surveillance drones. The Hamburg police force bragged about stopping and searching more than 400 people per day in the Sternschanze danger zone and every day the NSA stores millions of clicks. Today almost every large airport and train station in Germany numbers among the spaces that have been ruled under emergency power – ungoverned spaces in which citizens can be considered suspect simply based on their skin colour, headdress or clothes. The case of the Rote Flora in Hamburg, already mentioned numerous times above, is an excellent example of how quickly thousands of people can fall under general suspicion. As a reminder: in 2013 left-wing radicals protested the demolition of the “Rote Flora” cultural centre which had been occupied since 1989. The initially peaceful protests escalated into street battles, which ultimately led to the definition of the entire Sternschanze quarter – home to ten thousand people – as a danger zone. This gave police the power to stop, frisk, and arrest, pedestrians. The question of proportionality is still unanswered, especially in a city like Hamburg that has a great deal of experience dealing with difficult riots.
The state security apparatus now views its citizens with overriding suspicion, questions their rights, and in extreme cases even applies violence as a preventative measure.
The logic of creating a state of emergency is therefore not limited to exotic extreme cases located at the fringes of modernity. It no longer fits the geopolitical image of a “free world” that must be defended along a front ranging from North Africa through the Middle East to Central Asia; defended against a complex combination of the threats of terrorism, civil war economies and dissolving states condensed in ungoverned spaces. Over the past decade, the legitimisation of drones and Special Forces missions has taken place on the battlefields of the War on Terror following the same logic, according to which the current state can enforce its power in the major cities, in cyberspace and elsewhere by disregarding or bending the legal norms. The (security) policy decision-makers have internalised the territorialisation of emergency powers and apply these ubiquitously wherever they see a need. This is how the conduct of war on the military battlefields of the War on Terror has prepared us over the past decade for the types of punishment we will have to get used to in our everyday lives in future. The citizen is the one who suffers from this process of declaring ungoverned spaces – whether threatened by fighter drones in Afghanistan or Pakistan or though the limitation of freedom of movement in the Sternschanze. The state security apparatus now views its citizens with overriding suspicion, questions their rights, and in extreme cases even applies violence as a preventative measure.
Which means we should all be asking ourselves one question:
Do we really want to continue to live in 1984?