Wednesday, September 3, 2014

National Insecurity

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Most people don't give much thought to national security. When we do, those thoughts are usually bent in the same direction of those that lend extraordinary thought to the principle. Television and internet-based graphics obligate us to perceive national security in very geographic terms. Whether it's Ebola or ISIS, we view threats to the American way of life as little red dots trying to infiltrate the fragile membrane of our coastline. But our actual concept of national security that dominates our existence is very different. We don't spend our days worrying about more planes crashing into the structures of our governmental and financial institutions, or about outbreaks or disasters decimating local populations. Our fears are much more personal and localized. We put the greater conflagrations raging across the world on the same level as the specter of unemployment or an unexpected auto repair bill. We feel safe so long as the chaos around us doesn't interfere with the predictability of our daily commute. We don't want to be bothered as we go about our way, minding our own business. "National security," in the mind of the average American citizen then, is just a euphemism for personal security.

With that scale in mind, how tragic would it be if suddenly our most private thoughts and feelings were put on global display? How violated would we feel if suddenly the world did not let us mind our own business, and bothered us in the harshest and most persistent way with its unforgiving judgments? For more than a decade, the witnesses of 9/11 have contextualized an event that changed world history in the form of personal narrative. For whatever value such stories hold in their detail and humanity, there is no ignoring how profoundly myopic the "through their own eyes/in their own words" stories are. It seems reasonable (and patterns of human behavior bear out) that we would contextualize a personally traumatic event as a global catastrophe. "My world is over," as we say. It doesn't take a tsunami followed by a nuclear disaster to compromise one's sense of security. In fact, the amount of effort required to visit the suffering of Job on a person is terrifyingly small.

So why did Americans receive the news of this very sort of thing happening to 100 women this week so lightly? Why did so many people around the world make crude sport of the theft and publication of nude photos of their fellow human beings? A legion of people were made to feel extremely insecure about themselves. They were exposed to the world, humiliated and shamed. No person could possibly conceive of such a thing happening to themselves without being mortified. And yet we neither demonstrate sympathy for the victims nor consider the threat to ourselves.

Consider the scope of the operation necessary to accomplish this cruel stunt. A person (ostensibly one individual) achieved the capability to locate and identify a hundred specific women living all over the world, break into their files stored on the servers of the world's most popular and successful technology company, download, sort and find very specific files and content, and then broadcast it. It is the height of folly to think that this sort of thing can only happen to other people. It can happen to anybody. It already does. The revelation earlier this month that more than a billion usernames and passwords were compromised in one fell swoop shows the vast capabilities people can already levy against society. We wring our hands over the possibility of terrorist attacks somewhere in our country as we ignore the ongoing assaults directly against us. These are not attacks that can turn buildings to rubble or kill the president, but they can still end life as we know it. We view pornographic content. We purchase underwear. We have pap smears and prostate exams. Some of us are secretly gay or transgender. Some of us are secretly in love with our coworkers. Some of us flagellate ourselves before a crucifix in our bedroom. Some of us are alcoholics or recovering heroin addicts. Some of us once shoplifted, or were sexually abused, or used a racial slur in a joke, or hit our spouse or child in a fit of anger. We all have secrets. We all have regrets. We all have intimate thoughts and feelings. And our entire existence, as individuals and a collective species, depends on our ability to maintain a vital wall of privacy around those things. It is the analog firewall of humanity-- a boundary that parses who we were from who we are. Without it, the code of our being is corrupted and we lose our identity. There's no distinction between milestones in our moral and ethical development.

Yet we are tearing down those walls. The exposure of the celebrity women is not the first case. After the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting, the New York Journal News obtained license information of all handgun permit owners in surrounding counties, and published maps showing the addresses of gun owners. In retaliation, someone obtained the addresses and personal information of members of the paper's staff and published it on the internet. Included in the data were the names and schools of the editor's children. The hacktivist group Anonymous similarly published the private information of the mayor and police chief of Ferguson, Missouri during the protests there. The practice of "sexting" among young people is on the rise, and consequently many young people are finding themselves the subjects of public humiliation and private torture. Some of them have killed themselves over threats and bullying as a result of something they thought was private and intimate being distributed to the public.

We find people we disagree with, whose ideas or causes we dislike, and instead of holding a debate with them about the issue at hand we hold a gun over their privacy. It's the nuclear option of human dignity, and we are using it at a frightening pace. 

Our minds have evolved technology that allows us to collect, share and broadcast information, thoughts and feelings at a rate and on a scale that are incomprehensible. Part of the problem is that we don't comprehend the destructive nature of that power. Imagine if this capability had existed sixty years ago. What would have been the consequence of outing every LGBT person, communist or Black Panther Party member to the world? What if the papers had decided to show Franklin Roosevelt in his wheelchair? What if Jane Austen hadn't been able to maintain the secret of her identity?

It's very likely the world would be a radically different place, and not necessarily for the better. Now we do live in a world where we have the ability to deny such people their privacy, and we use it to deliberately silence and damage the very thought and creativity that helped create it in the first place. We are thrusting successive generations of potentially great people into it. How will they grow up in and respond to it? Few things shape a person's character like mistakes and regrets. Do we still live in a world where a person can make mistakes, accumulate regrets, and still leverage the experiences to achieve greatness? We may someday soon face a choice. Are we willing to respect our neighbors and give them their privacy and dignity, or are we prepared to abandon the idea of privacy entirely? What happens to our private and intimate thoughts, feelings and relationships when they are no longer private or intimate? What happens to our humanity without privacy or intimacy? If we can never do something that we'll regret, what lessons will we be unable to learn?

Part of living is moving on with life. We are ephemeral beings traveling on a linear timescale. We are born. We live. We die. It is required of us that we have a past, present and future. It violates our deepest sense of self and humanity to live with the prospect that we may never have any future, yet that is precisely the type of existence we are creating for ourselves. Without the ability to leave the past behind, there can be no future. With only the cloud of shame on the horizon, there can be no sunrise tomorrow.

Our society's greatest advances have not been on rails or roads or even rockets. We are propelled farthest by our minds. If we compromise the idea of privacy, then we do irreparable damage to the endeavor of thought. That constitutes a critical-- potentially fatal-- breach of personal security. The legend says that when Archimedes discovered the principle of buoyancy, he ran naked from his house screaming "Eureka!" Perhaps the combination of his society's immodesty and the potency of his idea made such a thing acceptable. It's unthinkable that the physicists at CERN could have done the same today upon discovering the Higgs-Boson.

A hundred women who have given us incredible performances in sports and entertainment have been humiliated and shamed for no other reason than the notoriety wrought of what they've given to us. The message we've sent is clear: society will punish people who contribute to it. More than any threat to our physical infrastructure from across the oceans, this form of terrorism-- the terrorism of insecurity-- vies to spread decay across the intangible fabric of thought. It will do worse than tear our country down brick by brick. It will doom us all to spend our entire existence at a fixed place in time, and die in our own past.

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