Archive for the ‘Security’ Category

“Blow up the Internet!”

March 14, 2011

The other day, I was waiting for a slice of pizza at my favourite spot, when a regular came in and struck up a conversation with one of the owners. “Lucy,” he said “all the excitement in the middle east is ruining my business. With the rise in the gas prices, the truckers can’t afford to operate, and we’re losing insurance deals.” The man, it seemed, was some kind of insurance broker. This is what I like about downtown: office types brush up against the unemployed and grad students, and you never know what type of conversation to expect while waiting for a piece of hot, Halal Hawaiian.

The man ordered a vegetarian slice and went on talking. “But do you know what the crazy thing is? They say all this chaos happened because of Facebook!” I thought about adding my two cents worth at this point. It’s a small pizza shop–standing room only–and so conversations between strangers do not seem entirely uncalled for. I thought about mentioning the rising costs of food, youth unemployment and tyrannical governments to the list of possible causes for unrest, but kept silent, hoping for further illumination. The man didn’t disappoint. “Facebook… can you believe it?!” he continued, “That’s why the first thing Mubarak did was unplug the internet.”

Happily, Lucy chimed in in support of the popular protests, noting that “they just see how we live and want the same thing for themselves.” I hope, actually, that they do a little better, and that the experience of living under tyranny for so long has engendered a longing for freedom and political engagement that surpasses Western lethargy in the face of oppressive and irresponsible governance. But the insurance broker’s sudden fear of social media and the revolutionary power of the internet struck me as a bad sign, given the recent proposed American legislation for an internet kill switch. While supporters of this legislation point out that the circumstances that would allow the President to utilize the switch differ from Mubarak’s opportunistic deployment–the switch could only be thrown in response to a significant cyber threat to American security–it does not seem like such a threat would be difficult to “generate” should circumstances dictate a strategic advantage to killing web-based communications on the part of the powers that be.

Last November, a successful cyber attack managed to temporarily shut down Iran’s nuclear program. The Stuxnet bug had the effect of speeding up and slowing down centrifuges in such a way as to cause them to breakdown. Because the bug’s effects took the appearance of random fluctuations in the centrifuges’

"Ok, which one of you was traipsing around here without the fuzzy slippers?"

rotor mechanisms, the virus went unnoticed until critical damage actually occurred. Though transmitted via data sticks rather than the internet, the Stuxnet bug seems symptomatic of a new era of cyber-warfare. In this context, what is to stop a Western government from sounding a “cyber emergency” as an excuse to initiate an internet blackout were a political situation like those occurring in the middle east to make such a move desirable? With the politics of national security playing an increasingly significant role in justifying state power, we should think twice about granting these types of powers to elected officials. At the same time, it is only to be expected that the middle Eastern demonstration of the emancipatory functions of social media should cause alarmed reactions from governments in the “free” Western world. What is sad to me is the number of people whom I imagine would gladly follow the call to greater state control of the internet if it would somehow safeguard the profit margins of banks and insurance firms.

The Spectaclular Politics of Security

November 30, 2010

The arrest of the teenager Mohamed Osman Mohamud for attempting to detonate what he thought to be a car bomb at a Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Portland Oregon provides the latest example of the conservative strategy to relegate political discourse to concerns over the physical security of the population by manufacturing a climate of fear which acts to buttress the increasing power given to repressive organs of the state. What Georgio Agamben calls the politics of security, or the distortion of government’s pastoral function under pressure of a perpetual state of crisis management, effecting the dramatic incursion of state power into the lives of citizens (both domestic and foreign), is supported by these periodic “attacks” by “terrorists” on Western soil. Alongside gaining support for authoritarian government policies from a cowed populace, these incidents serve the further purpose of disguising the root causes of social anxiety (the unraveling of the social fabric by neo-liberal policies?) by deflecting them onto an alien threat which often takes the form of a racial other. Rather than questioning the political and economic structures that have stripped citizens of the protections offered by the post World War Two social settlement, the new politics of security locates the dangers to Western society in external threats (immigrants, the Middle East, the Global South), framing the current social and political crisis as an epic “clash of civilizations” and thereby deflecting public attention from the infiltration of capitalist, profit-oriented paradigms into ever more spheres of social and individual life.

Coming soon to a downtown near you

The recent event in Portland has been constructed by the media in a way that reads like the plot of an episode of the popular “realtime” television drama 24: the ruthless, Somolia-born killer Mohamud attempts to strike at the heart of America’s “greenest” city, choosing this location precisely because it is the place where no one would expect such an attack to happen. His desire for everyone attending the tree-lighting ceremony at Pioneer Courthouse Square (affectionately known as “Portland’s living room”) to “leave dead or injured” (Associated Press) appears to have been expertly neutralized by the FBI, who outmaneuvered Mohamud, arresting him as soon as the nineteen year old would-be killer dialed the number on a cell phone that he believed would set off a car bomb. Borrowing from the stock plot components of theater, the media coverage framed this as a moment of dramatic reversal in which the explosion failed to occur and Mohamud was swarmed by FBI agents while the lighting of the Christmas tree proceeded as planned. Mimicking Jack Bauer and his operatives from 24, and in a display of sentimental pathos that would be almost comical if its effects were not so perniciously and cynically positioned, the FBI agents saved Christmas from the heathen Muslim jihadist.

This narrative nakedly illustrates the disheartening reality of a discursively produced racism that, in the new climate of xenophobic paranoia, seemingly must attend the Western tribal ritual of Christmas: the public kindling of the tree of light as a symbol of hope at the darkest point of the year is spectacularly linked to the public humiliation of a nineteen year old boy who becomes the cipher for an Orientalist view of Muslim culture as violently opposed to everything America stands for. The psychological and social realities that would lead this young person to attempt such an act are paved over by a sensationalist focus on the heartlessness of the perpetrator and the mastering of this threatening alien by a skillful police force, and we are left to wonder the extent to which Mohamed Osman Mohamud might have been coached and encouraged by the FBI in its sting operation. Is it possible that Mohamud’s sense of disenfranchisement and anger was detected by security forces and directed toward the production of the act which they could then step in and play the part of the hero in neutralizing? To what extent was this alleged terrorist event enabled or even encouraged by the intervention of the FBI in the first place?

The manner in which the event unfolded, with the FBI secretly in control of the situation, the car bomb a mere prop provided by the security agents, and the would-be perpetrator thwarted at the very instant he expected to execute his plan, plants it firmly within the realm of a spectacular politics in which crime does not constitute a rupture with the given social order, but rather becomes the orchestrated means by which that order reifies and justifies itself. As in Jean Baudrillard’s concept of the simulacrum, the difference between an actual crime and its simulation becomes irrelevant: what matters is that reality—the actual social relations between Christian America and Muslims, for instance—is effaced beneath a construction that is no longer even ideological, but rather inscribes the relations of domination directly into a carnivalesque spectacle of state-controlled violence and oppression. To this extent, the burning of the Corvallis mosque which Mohamud attended can be seen as the direct result of the FBI’s, rather than Mohamud’s, actions: knowing full well the strong anti-Muslim sentiments the spectacular arrest would make, state power nevertheless chose to apprehend Mohamud in this, rather than in a less public and inflammatory manner.

And yet, the question of whether Mohamud was a victim of entrapment or not, while important from the perspective of determining the guilt or innocence of the accused, is absolutely irrelevant to the spectacular politics of security that the event was constructed to support. Even were an investigation to reveal entrapment on the part of the FBI and thus at least partially absolve Mohamud, the roles played by the actors in this drama were scripted well ahead of time, and the event has already done its work of confirming dominant social mythologies. The idea of an FBI conspiracy behind Mohamud’s alleged plan to detonate the bomb actually serves to reinforce the spectacular nature of this “event” by producing the illusion of a political reality beyond the generated fiction. Following Baudrillard’s advice, we must resist the temptation to call this event a political scandal, as to do so simply reinforces the idea that there is a legitimate, moral order to contemporary politics that this particular instance ideologically manipulates and distorts. The Portland event, like the Watergate of Baudrillard’s historical example, is neither real nor unreal, but hyperreal. The hyperreal is fiction that conceals an absence by producing the illusion of depth. To believe that Nixon’s deception was a scandal is to assert that the political order has a modicum of accountability that it does not, in actuality, hold as an operating principle. In a similar vein, to assert that the Portland bomber’s arrest is a travesty because he is the victim of entrapment is to overlook the fact that the current “war on terror” is, itself, a screen for Western colonial interests in the Middle East, and that unjust American policies have generated the social tensions that would dispose a young Muslim man to such an act in the first place, with or without encouragement from the FBI. To navigate past the obfuscation provided by hyperreality, we must accept the two versions of “reality”–the bomber as “genuine” or as victim of entrapment–as interdependent and mutually-reinforcing products of an immanent yet unrepresentable social Real that prevents people from identifying the actual adversary exploiting them. It is this misrecognition which leads us to generate false threats (whether they be in the form of a racial other or a conspiratorial state power) to placate a sense of anxiety which originates in a completely different location altogether.

Don’t Protest, Think!

June 8, 2010

The revelation that the Canadian Harper government will be spending close to two million dollars to produce a media centre replete with a fake lake for the upcoming G20 summit only reinforces the fact that whatever actual political discussions take place will be secondary to the statement about modern power that is made by the spectacle surrounding the talks themselves. I do not think it is an overstatement to say that the primary political content of these types of events consists of the security and media regime that the governments involved are able to mobilize, with Canada’s 1.2 billion security budget proving that we can play the game in the same league as other First World nations. The overall effect of three metre high, 3.5 kilometre fence that will cordon off a large section of downtown Toronto and implement a check point system for entry and exit is to naturalize a militaristic model of urban regulation, an intrusion of totalitarian control structures into the realm of the everyday that a largely frightened population is coerced into accepting as necessary due to the heightened “threats” posed by protesters, malcontents and dissidents. But to what extent are these threats configured and produced by the implementing of the control structures themselves?

The two elements of protest and repressive state action are mutually supporting and dependent. To this extent, the protesters, though acting out of what might seem as politically justifiable motives, are unintentionally supporting and strengthening what Agamben calls the politics of security (the process by which a politics of governance is replaced by a reactive politics of fear that reinforces the state’s claim to power). Far from showing the world that there are still people in the West who don’t buy into the system of global exploitation, protesters are actually contributing to the G20’s hold on power by giving countries like Canada an excuse for implementing more spectacular and draconian security measures. The result is a restructuring of public space to produce the kind of “state of exception” that Agamben argues was manifest in the Nazi concentration camps of World War Two, but which also provides the hidden model for modern political power.

As a friend of mine pointed out, the protester needs the police truncheon just as much as the truncheon needs the protester’s head: the two acts of spectacular repression and resistance are mutually dependent and reinforcing. What would be a more effective tactic, one that actually points out the cynicism and excess of the governmental strategy, would be to not protest at all. By simply not showing up, protesters would prove that Harper spent 1.2 billion dollars of taxpayer money unnecessarily, thereby destabilizing his government’s claim to power.

The Harper government’s strategies, however, such as providing a designated protest zone replete with satellite feed so that dignitaries can watch the show while they eat their lunch in the Convention Centre lounges, or the refusal of the Canadian government to recompense property owners whose buildings might get damaged due to protester activity, are calculated to both incite reactionary protest and undermine public support for it at the same time. Through strategies such as these, the spectacle of protest is recuperated by the spectacle of power, and the protesters reinforce the very position they would hope to undermine or refute. There is nothing like a little state oppression to make a protester feel that his or her actions are more crucial and necessary than ever, but once the media frenzy subsides, the stories of incarceration and police abuse are circulated, and the “freedom fighter” endorphins wear off, what we will be left with is increased public sentiment in support of the stability, order and coercive control that politicians like Harper are only too happy to provide.

Better would be to stay home, read some Gramsci, and reflect on the social conditions that contribute to the dissolution of engaged public discourse productive of the climate of political apathy in which governments like the current Canadian regime can flourish.