Cold War Kids: surveillance in Germany
November 9, 2013 Leave a comment
A lesson in the abuse of information technology: when Edward Snowden started revealing the extent of NSA’s spying into not only US citizens private conversations, but also those of foreign individuals, government and entities, outrage fell over the world the way dominos fall all over each other, in a cascade, a cacophony of screams and gasps that were only as loud as the ignominy of the revelations themselves. Not everyone was equal in the face of seemingly impotent rage: Brazil was more vocal than a suspiciously quiet Sweden, and France tried hard to balance a diplomatic act that Germany – and more precisely, its press – thoroughly ignored. It’s become impossible to bypass the German rage, to simply take Angela Merkel’s reaction – or lack thereof – to face value. While the UK has remained more or less silent on GCHQ’s collusion, and Spain is trying to mend the broken pieces of its own intelligence shortcomings, Germany is boiling, culminating this week into an all-encompassing call to provide Edward Snowden with the political asylum he was once denied.
There are many reasons why Germany is seeing red, and one of them lies within our own lifetimes. If you are in the early thirties, you remember a time when Europe was divided by an iron curtain put in place by a paranoid and vindictive soviet empire. This paranoia was in part justified and in part an integral component to the regime it created in the DDR. It was 24 years ago, and for two whole generations, the system of surveillance implemented against Germans, both East and West, was intrusive, invasive, violating, violent, isolating, and extremely pervasive in its everyday implications: no one was immune, no trust could be built as part of the social contract, and everyone was preemptively considered a criminal. It permeated German society until nowhere and no one was safe. It created an unstable and flailing national psychology that the fall of the Wall could only begin to stabilize. And a short generation later, Germany wakes up, betrayed again, once again shackled to the whimsy of another nation’s interest, another pawn in the foreign relations chessboard on which national sovereignty is only to be invoked in the name of the war on terror. Once again, Germany loses its grasp on itself.
Surveillance is a double edged sword: as articulated by pro-intelligence pundits, it is a necessary evil in the battle against plots, schemes and plans to attack, disrupt, maim and kill. It is a little, sometimes insignificant price to pay to maintain safety – or more accurately, the illusion of safety. In the wet eyes of Gen Keith Alexander laid the crocodile tear of allegedly thwarted attacks against the state, of the “thousand of lives saved” by indiscriminate data collection, and of course, as always and forever, 9/11, the spectre haunting us all and justifying every single means to every possible end.
In a 1961 press conference, Charles de Gaulle addresses the shortcomings of the Soviet Empire during the Berlin Crisis. His words are strangely resonating today as we are witnessing the very same failures and mistakes being repeated by the other empire, the one that supposedly survived, yet carried on horrific methods of population control in order to achieve external security.
… there is something so arbitrary and so artificial that one is led to attribute it either to the premeditated unleashing of frantic ambitions, or to the desire of drawing attention away from great difficulties; this second hypothesis seems all the more plausible to me since, despite the coercions, isolation and acts of force in which the Communist system encloses the countries which are under its yoke… actually its gasps, its shortages, its internal failures, and above that its character of inhuman oppression, are felt more and more by the elite and the masses, whom it is more and more difficult to deceive and to subjugate.
But it is that historical narrative that touches on a sore spot for Germany. A spokeswoman on the preservation of Stasi archives spoke to the Washington Post and said, “But it is precisely because of the Stasi’s hunger for information and its abuse of East Germany’s citizens that we are today so sensitive about modern day surveillance. It is not just about a wiretapped phone — it is a reminder of the fragility of free societies.” Our free societies now bear the scarlet letter of internal failures and oppression – and we must resist being deceived and subjected to its whim.Surveillance is not a random, once-occurring, warranted happenstance. It is a long term operation that should always be justified by clearly defined notions of national security and always subjected to judicial approval. That the NSA scandal appeared to be of extraordinary circumstances – circumventing the rule of law, possibly going even beyond powers granted to the executive was only one part of the outrage it sparked. It’s the widespread and systematic nature of it, the assumption of pre emptive guilt, the notion that each and every single individual might all of sudden, one morning, become a threat to national security, internal or external, and their intimacy, professional relations and personal beliefs be subject to scrutiny are of a pervasive nature that creates a society in which paranoia seeps from every pore. Under the terrifying rule of the Stasi, Germany lived not just in fear of the state, but in fear of each other. In a society which welcomes collaboration with the state, that provides incentives for the media to sit still and write narrative-abiding copy, dissent and debate are not welcome, rejected, to the point of creating a parallel universe in which everything is staged, faked, creating an illusion of liberty that no one buys, instead knowing their safety could be turned around on them any minute should they say the wrong word, see the wrong movie or read the wrong book.NSA surveillance is the resurgence of a disturbing ghosts of tyrannical regimes past. It is a leftover we thought we had gotten rid of when the Cold War came to an end, when the tension of living in a perpetual conflict eased a little. It was just a generation ago, and Germany is still picking up the broken pieces. It it still reconciling, mending, gluing, sticking to a model it took a year to create after the 1989 uprising. Issues of distrust, hard-shell individualism and denunciation are internalized to be sustainable, and they never leave the psyches of people who have suffered through tapped phones, overheard conversations, and opened correspondence. If the NSA merely “just” cast an incredibly wide net of data collection, their insistence on considering Germany a power source of potential or substantive enemies, those methods that may be brand new and updated in their technology but archaic and obsolete in their methodology are reminiscent of the Zersetzung, this practice of systematic surveillance and psychological warfare enabled by the East Germany secret police, the Staatssicherheit – the state security. Even the name is similar. For four decades, up to its official dissolution in October 1990, when Germany was reunited as one single state entity, the Stasi instilled, created, and installed fear in the minds of the citizens living under its all-encompassing eye.