Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for June 2013

“Often the best source of information about waste, fraud and abuse in government is a government employee committed to public integrity, willing to speak out. Such acts of courage and patriotism…should be encouraged rather than stifled.”

These were the words of one Barack Obama when on the presidential campaign trail in 2008.

In an interview with an American online journal at the time, I cautioned Americans about expecting differences in foreign policy from the Bush era. When the almighty god of National Security takes over, humans are expendable, paranoia reigns, and the military-industrial-megamachine runs amok.

But I must admit that Obama has succeeded beyond my expectations in “outbushing” Bush. During his first term in office, six whistleblowers were charged under the Espionage Act of 1917 for disclosing classified information. That is twice as many as all previous presidents combined.

The threat facing whistleblowers has implications for media freedom. In the Internet and cell-phone age, journalists are no longer able to guarantee their sources’ anonymity. And if the sources dry up, so do the stories and we are left in the dark about what our governments are doing.

A 29-year old ex-CIA employee, Edward Snowden, recently leaked information on a secret US spy programme that harvests internet and phone records of US citizens and foreigners. Snowdon told Britain’s Guardian newspaper that he had leaked the details of the US National Security Agency’s surveillance programme to “protect basic liberties for people around the world.”

The merging of government and the corporate world is shown by the extent to which “national security” is outsourced to private contractors. Snowden’s company, which receives all its funds from the federal government, is in turn owned by the private equity firm Carlyle Group. (Republicans only dislike Big Government when the poor are the beneficiaries).

Snowden’s revelations are not new. What is interesting is the anger of many white Americans upon discovering that they are included in the objects of government surveillance. As long as surveillance focused on foreigners, or Americans with Arab or Pakistani appearance, there was no problem. The majority could sleep peacefully in their beds, free of the threat of “terrorism”.

In his book Collateral Damage, the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman observes that “Security obsessions are inexhaustible and insatiable; once they take off and are let loose, there is no stopping them.”

The questions that every sane person should raise in the public arena, wherever he or she may happen to live, are surely these:

1. Can democracy survive if protected by undemocratic means?

2. Is a society that requires torture, indiscriminate surveillance, technological over-kill, and the sacrifice of other peoples’ rights and liberties for the sake of one’s own, a society worth defending?

Through this Blog I may well have become yet another “person of interest” to the CIA. After all, I have defended Bradley Manning who, instead of being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his courage in exposing war crimes, is being court-martialled for treason. I have also expressed disgust at the hypocrisy and double standards practised by American and British governments when it comes to democracy and human rights; and I have frequently condemned the immorality as well as illegality of the use of drones in non-combat zones in Pakistan and elsewhere.

In the United States, the massive surveillance apparatus built up since 9/11 is the domestic companion of the overseas drone killings. It spells the degradation of the liberal state. Unaccountable government is at one end of that spectrum of degradation, and an unaccountable financial sector at the other.

Iraq has already been forgotten by the American and British public, and so will Afghanistan. Bush and Blair have retreated to their private havens and lecture circuits, while the people of Iraq continue to suffer the aftermath of their destructive and illegal political actions. When on a single day last month 57 Iraqis were killed, it was considered a non-event in the Western media compared to the killing of a British soldier on a street in London. Yet the two atrocities are historically connected.

In the popular American television series Homeland, Sgt. Nicholas Brody is suspected of having been turned by a Middle Eastern terrorist organization. He is put under surveillance by CIA agent Carrie Mathison. Sitting in her apartment, she can watch every minute of Brody’s life at home in every room of his house. She’s trying to see whether something he says or does will reveal his affiliation with the terrorists. Mathison can see everything about Brody except in the one place hidden from the surveillance cameras: his garage. Away from his family, who would never understand his conversion to Islam, Brody goes to his garage, lays out his prayer mat, turns to Mecca, and prays.

Carving out such “sacred spaces”, free of the encroachment of governments, capitalist markets and intrusive technologies, and making those spaces the launching pads for the prophetic unmasking of national idols- surely this is the biggest missionary challenge facing the American Church. And it may well be unlikely “geek” heroes like Manning and Snowden, and those courageous Muslims who refuse to let their faith be domesticated or co-opted, who help that Church recover its integrity and nerve.



June 2013