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The Panopticon State
Where the government can see, it can send a drone.


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Mark Steyn

Insofar as it relieves Washington of the need to think strategically about the nature of the enemy, the drone is part of the problem. But its technology is too convenient a gift for government to forswear at home. America takes an ever more expansive view of police power, and, while the notion of unmanned drones patrolling the heartland may seem absurd, lots of things that seemed absurd a mere 15 years ago are now a routine feature of life. Not so long ago, it would have seemed not just absurd but repugnant and un-American to suggest that the state ought to have the power to fondle the crotch of a seven-year-old boy without probable cause before permitting him to board an airplane. Yet it happened, and became accepted, and is unlikely ever to be reversed.

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Americans now accept the right of minor bureaucrats to collect all kinds of information for vast computerized federal databases, from answers on gun ownership for centralized “medical records” to answers on “dwelling arrangements” for nationalized “education records.” With paperwork comes regulation, and with regulation comes enforcement. We have advanced from the paramilitarization of the police to the paramilitarization of the Bureau of Form-Filling. Two years ago in this space, I noted that the U.S. secretary of education, who doesn’t employ a single teacher, is the only education minister in the developed world with his own SWAT team: He used it to send 15 officers to kick down a door in Stockton, Calif., drag Kenneth Wright out onto the front lawn, and put him in handcuffs for six hours. Erroneously, as it turned out. But it was in connection with his estranged wife’s suspected fraudulent student-loan application, so you can’t be too careful. That the education bureaucracy of the Brokest Nation in History has its own Seal Team Six is ridiculous and offensive. Yet the citizenry don’t find it so: They accept it.

The federal government operates a Railroad Retirement Board to administer benefits to elderly Pullman porters: For some reason, the RRB likewise has its own armed agents ready to rappel down the walls of the Sunset Caboose retirement home. I see my old friend David Frum thinks concerns over drones are “far-fetched.” If it’s not “far-fetched” for the education secretary to have his own SWAT team, why would it be “far-fetched” for the education secretary to have his own drone fleet?

Do you remember the way it was before the war on terror? Back in the Nineties, everyone was worried about militias and survivalists, who lived in what were invariably described as “compounds,” and not in the Kennedys-at-Hyannisport sense. And every so often one of these compound-dwellers would find himself besieged by a great tide of federal alphabet soup, agents from the DEA, ATF, FBI, and maybe even RRB. There was a guy called Randy Weaver who lost his wife, son, and dog to the guns of federal agents, was charged and acquitted in the murder of a deputy marshal, and wound up getting a multi-million-dollar settlement from the Department of Justice. Before he zipped his lips on grounds of self-incrimination, the man who wounded Weaver and killed his wife, an FBI agent called Lon Horiuchi, testified that he opened fire because he thought the Weavers were about to fire on a surveillance helicopter. When you consider the resources brought to bear against a nobody like Randy Weaver for no rational purpose, is it really so “far-fetched” to foresee the Department of Justice deploying drones to the Ruby Ridges and Wacos of the 2020s?

I mention in my book that government is increasingly comfortable with a view of society as a giant “Panopticon” — the radial prison devised by Jeremy Bentham in 1785, in which the authorities can see everyone and everything. In the Droneworld we have built for the war on terror, we can’t see the forest because we’re busy tracking every spindly sapling. When the same philosophy is applied on the home front, it will not be pretty.

— Mark Steyn, a National Review columnist, is the author of After America: Get Ready for Armageddon. © 2013 Mark Steyn



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