Fugitives and Detainees in American Social Life

Two years ago in Tracking the Fugitive I predicted that one of the dominant symbolic figures of the 21st century will be the fugitive. In film, literature, music, art, video games–in all these arenas, the fugitive will play a central role. And the reason, I suggested, is because there is no room anymore for fugitives in our society. With technologically-sophisticated corporate and state apparatuses tracking every move, every transaction, it’s nearly impossible now to become a fugitive, to live life “off the grid.” And the more difficult fugitive life becomes, the more legendary fugitive figures become. As Peter Stallybrass and Allon White put it in their classic study of the grotesque and carnivalesque, “…what is socially peripheral is so frequently symbolically central.” So the more marginalized and rare fugitives become, the greater role they play in our symbolic repertoire. The image of Osama bin Ladin, for example, has much more narrative power than the actual man. He’s become a kind of boogeyman for the 21st century.

As for fugitives in our own country, Eric Rudolph was perhaps the last great American fugitive.

The fate of Rudolph–in permanent solitary confinement in the ADX Florence supermax in the Rockies–tells us what stands as the antithesis of the fugitive: the detainee.

Detainees come in many forms: the prisoners held in federal and state supermaxes across the country (in addition to Rudolph, ADX Florence alone houses Ted Kaczynski, Terry Nichols, Richard Reid, Zacarias Moussaoui, and many other former fugitives); the “illegal enemy combatants” held in Guantánamo without writ of habeas corpus; the undocumented workers rounded up by ICE and held in makeshift internment camps like the one in Raymondsville, Texas.

And what is the relationship between fugitives and detainees?

As the fugitive becomes one of the dominant images in American cinematic, literary, and folk culture, the detainee will become one of the dominant figures in real life.

The principle works under a law of inverse visibility. Detainees, for all their sheer number, will be virtually invisible to the mainstream media.The more detainees held indeterminately in detention centers, internment camps, and black ops military barracks, the less visible they will be. In their place stands their opposite: the fugitive.

Detainee should be the watchword of the 21st century, but it won’t. Instead, the fugitive will dominate the stories we tell ourselves about the modern world.

Don’t Hug that Tar Baby

It’s been widely reported (and not just on the Daily Show) that new Presidential Press Secretary Tony Snow used the racist term “tar baby” in his first televised press briefing.

Responding to a question about the NSA’s secret wiretapping program, Snow answered:

I am not going to stand up here and presume to declassify any kind of program. That is a decision the President has to make. I can’t confirm or deny it. The President was not confirming or denying. Again, I would take you back to the USA Today story to give you a little context. Look at the poll that appeared the following day […] something like 65% of the public was not troubled by it. Having said that, I don’t want to hug the tar baby of trying to comment on the program… the alleged program, the existence of which I can neither confirm or deny.

Just to illustrate what “tar baby” means to most people, below is a photograph of Tar Baby’s Pancakes, a restaurant in North Myrtle Beach whose logo taps into the vast reserves of racist imagery comprising our nation’s history.

I snapped this photograph in July 2005, when I was in Myrtle Beach with my family. We didn’t eat at Tar Baby’s, but when I saw the sign, I had to stop and pull over. The sign left me speechless (close-up of the sign at Flickr). Finally–and sadly–I’ve found some relevance to this photograph.

Tar Baby’s (Larger Image)
Posted to Flickr by samplereality.

Total Information Awareness, Reprise

A few more thoughts on the massive NSA database of every domestic phone call, ever, in the United States…

The database actualizes what was once only theory: DARPA’s defunct Total Information Awareness project, which sought to “counter asymmetric threats [i.e. terrorism] by achieving total information awareness.”

Awareness of everything, godlike omniscience.

Is this the only way neo-cons can imagine protecting Americans from terrorist attacks?

Forget Total Information Awareness, this is Total Imagination Failure.

Another disturbing aspect of the NSA’s database is that General Michael Hayden, now Bush’s nominee for the head of the CIA, was in charge of it. Hayden is not a retired general. He is still on active status in the U.S. Air Force. So what we had here with the NSA (and what we might have with the CIA) is a military officer running a civilian organization. It is yet another chilling example of the militarization of domestic, civilian life.

There’s a reason the founders of the Constitution made a civilian (the President) the Commander-in-Chief of the military. Men with guns need to be kept in check. Because men with guns will eventually use those guns (and tanks and planes and phone records). Ironically, nobody recognizes this more than the neo-cons, who see Iran’s nuclear ambitions as de facto evidence that Iran will eventually deploy those nuclear weapons.

Again, Total Imagination Failure.

Can You Hear Me Now: The NSA, Me, and Papa John’s

The big surprise in today’s USA Today story about the NSA building a staggering database of every single domestic phone call in the United States is not that such a database exists, but that the NSA waited until after 9/11 to begin building it.

I think we had always assumed that the government was already gathering this information, logging every phone call, timestamping every caller and every recipient, and crossreferencing all those records. Think of it: every pizza delivery order in the U.S. stored for posterity’s sake. Oh, the marketing possibilities!

“A database of every phone call ever made”: this is how one insider describes it.

Yet, there are gaps in the record: Qwest is the only big carrier to refuse to cooperate with the NSA (unlike Verizon, BellSouth, and AT&T). Good for them. Sell your Qwest stock soon, though. (Or, maybe hoard it, and wait for that big buyout from the resurging Ma Bell…)

The sky is falling, but my phones are tapped, so I’m okay and you are too

I caught snippets of the Diane Rehm Show today, and there was a panel of experts discussing the domestic war on terror. There’s the predictable apologist for the Bush administration, spouting the standard refrain that because there’s been no terror attack on the U.S. since 9/11, all that illegal wiretapping and surveillance and profiling and warmongering has paid off. Okay, fine, that’s no surprise, what he’s saying. Typical specious reasoning, Homer Simpson style.

But what got me was one of the callers. First, he said that Robert Heinlein is one of his favorite authors. Red flags go off, right there alone. Then the guy, a marine who, to his credit, is on his way to Afghanistan, says that Heinlein has a quote, something like, You can have peace and you can have freedom, but you can’t have peace and freedom.

If I’m not mistaken, that’s Starship Troopers talking, Heinlein’s most (and there are many contenders) fascistic novel, where his militaristic, kill the motherfragging aliens, and so what if a few humans die, because they were weak and deserved to die urges come to full blossom.

And this guy is citing it as a textbook for American liberty?

I bow before the almighty forces of juvenile literature!

MTO Database from Amazon

I’ll take a break from my travel blogging to mention Applefritter’s astonishing article Data Mining 101: Finding Subversives with Amazon Wishlists.

Individuals’ public Amazon “wishlists” are, collectively, essentially a gigantic aggregate of data, waiting to be mined, and in this post, Tom Owad details how he used the wishlists to track the reading preferences of over a quarter of a million readers. Owad’s point is that the U.S. government can just as easily (but probably not as cheaply!) do the same thing, in order to track down Americans reading subversive material.

Now if only the terrorists would create wishlists at Amazon!

I’m sorry. 9/11? I’m responsible. It was me, I did it.

In his press conference this morning, President Bush was asked about the New York Times‘ recent revelation that the NSA was operating a covert surveillance program that monitored hundreds of Americans’ phone calls and emails without any court supervision or warrants.

Bush responded:

My personal opinion is it was a shameful act for someone to disclose this very important program in a time of war. The fact that we’re discussing this program is helping the enemy.

The fact that we’re discussing an illegal wiretap program that defies the Fourth Amendment is, right now, at this very minute, helping Osama bin Laden? The fact that I just wrote the previous sentence means that I’m helping the so-called mastermind of 9/11?

You have to admire the verve of President Bush, suggesting that the ones who question our government here are responsible for the ones who blow things up here and abroad.

Should I apologize now, finally? Should I send a Hallmark card? Sorry about those planes and IEDs, I didn’t mean it. Love will find a way, Peace on Earth and Happy Holidays?

But wait, I thought the “enemy” was Saddam Hussein. And he’s already caught and in jail. So we’re safe now, right? Or am I still at fault?

I’m so confused.

Baby’s First ATM

So yesterday my wife, son, and I ventured for the first time into Kids-R-Us, home of the well-behaved toddler, destination of choice for the stark raving mad parent. Our visit deserves a separate post of its own (suffice it to say that it ended with the purchase of 100 plastic balls, each the size of a grapefruit), but what really needs to be said is this: why does a child need a play ATM machine?

Here you see an image (Larger Image) of what the proud parent ahead of me in the checkout line bought their little girl: the YOUniverse ATM toy, complete with a plastic ATM card, an alphanumeric keypad, a functioning screen, a slot that accepts bills, and Baby’s first PIN number. WTF? Seriously, a PIN number.

It’s true that many toys are nothing but thinly disguised training tools, preparing our children for the drudgery of adult labor–play kitchens, play vacuums, play tools–but I think the play banking machine is a different beast altogether.

The machine takes for granted an idea that I will go to my deathbed resisting: that our electronic lives–our database selves composed of PINs, account numbers, credit records, virtually every transaction of our day-to-day lives, stored and aggregated in corporate datawarehouses–are essentially our whole identity.

Without that PIN, we’re nothing.

I am reminded of a scene in Don DeLillo’s White Noise, in which our hero Jack Gladney visits an ATM machine:

In the morning I walked to the bank. I went to the automatic teller machine to check my balance. I inserted my card, entered my secret code, tapped out my request. The figure on the screen roughly corresponded to my independent estimate, feebly arrived at after long searches through documents, tormented arithmetic. Waves of relief and gratitude flowed over me. The system had blessed my life. I felt its support and approval….What a pleasing interaction. I sensed that something of deep personal value, but not money, not that at all, had been authenticated and confirmed. (White Noise 46)

Written over twenty years ago, this passage still seems fresh–if only we stop to think about it. Automatic Teller Machines have become such a part of our daily life that we forget. “Automatic” now describes us as much as it does the machines themselves.

DeLillo continues, “the system was invisible, which made it all the more impressive, all the more disquieting to deal with.” I think Baby’s First ATM functions as an innoculation to the more disquieting, unsettling aspects of our second, database selves. It’s not a conscious effort by the banking industry, of course (I am not that conspiracy minded). Rather, I think it’s the absurd, logical extension of the reduction of our lives to sets of data owned by corporations.