I have read an interesting series of articles on something called Panopticon. This is a concept put forward by an English social engineer where a prison is built in such a way that allows all inmates to be observed at any time without knowing whether they are under observation.   Jeremy Bentham described it alternatively as “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in quantity hitherto without example,” or “a mill for grinding rogues honest.”

Panopticon, courtesy of Wikipedia
Panopticon, courtesy of Wikipedia

A few examples were built and used for a while:

Presidio Modelo Prison, Cuba
Presidio Modelo Prison, Cuba

This is, of course, tied to the current situation that the nation finds itself in with the NSA. The defenders of these actions have two common refrains; nothing we did is against the law and if you are not doing anything wrong than you have nothing to fear. Both are wrong, of course.

First, the notion that constitutional rights can be regulated away is incorrect. The US Supreme Court has ruled that (Marbury V. Madison) in the Constitution, the people established a government of limited powers: “The powers of the Legislature are defined and limited; and that those limits may not be mistaken or forgotten, the Constitution is written.” The limits established in the Constitution would be meaningless “if these limits may at any time be passed by those intended to be restrained.” Chief Justice John Marshall observed that the Constitution is “the fundamental and paramount law of the nation”, and that it cannot be altered by an ordinary act of the legislature. Therefore, “an act of the Legislature repugnant to the Constitution is void.” The limits of government intrusion provided in the fourth amendment to the Constitution of the United States stand, regardless of what the USA PATRIOT Act or any other recently passed federal legislation says.

Secondly, things have not ended well when a government has given itself this much power. In conjunction with the NSA’s all-seeing eye, the executive branch has also acquired the power to detain and hold indefinitely without charge anyone deemed a threat (defined as “terrorist”) to the government (NDAA 2012, 2013) and the ability to extra-judicially kill all they see fit (Justice Department: US drone strikes constitutional). Of course, neither of these things are constitutional either.

As the former East German Stasi officer Wolfgang Schmidt states “It is the height of naivete to think that once collected this information won’t be used.”  We have, through our own lethargy and inattention brought upon ourselves the overly attached government, only not as cute as that, something like this:

I will be your girlfriend
I will be your girlfriend

Heaven forbid.

I wrote, a while back, that we have not reached a Runnymede moment. I retract that statement, we have indeed reached a point in time where civil disobedience may be necessary in order to restore our constitutional republic.  The time for being safe, sitting on the fence, flying under the RADAR is over.  As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said:

And how we burned in the camps later, thinking: What would things have been like if every Security operative, when he went out at night to make an arrest, had been uncertain whether he would return alive and had to say good-bye to his family? Or if, during periods of mass arrests, as for example in Leningrad, when they arrested a quarter of the entire city, people had not simply sat there in their lairs, paling with terror at every bang of the downstairs door and at every step on the staircase, but had understood they had nothing left to lose and had boldly set up in the downstairs hall an ambush of half a dozen people with axes, hammers, pokers, or whatever else was at hand?… The Organs would very quickly have suffered a shortage of officers and transport and, notwithstanding all of Stalin’s thirst, the cursed machine would have ground to a halt! If…if…We didn’t love freedom enough. And even more – we had no awareness of the real situation…. We purely and simply deserved everything that happened afterward.

Let us not learn the hard way.

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3 thoughts on “Panopticon”

  1. Thanks for “sticking your neck out” on this, so to speak. As a country we seem to have forgotten about the Constitution, and the younger generations (as David McCullough has been heard to lament) don’t seem to have learned much of anything about/from history.

    I’m not sure which makes me worry more, the quasi-racist tin-foil hat types or the free reign that seems to have been given to the NSA. Thank you for striking a balance and saying what needs to be said. Now, more than ever, we need a legitimate grassroots uprising (not funded by Koch money) that fields candidates for local and state offices that are willing to do the difficult tasks and slowly right the ship of state!

  2. As much as I like the idea of radio civil disobedience, I question its effectiveness in the modern era. It seems to me that the very people whose eyes I want to open to what is happening to our nation can’t be bothered. They’re either too busy keeping track of what happened on “Jersey Shore” or are listening to Spotify and Pandora.

    It seems a bit like yelling “Fire” in an empty theater, even though the fire is real.

    I harbor a somewhat romantic notion that radio will once again be a relevant form of mass communication after some breakdown of social order or technological setback. But then I feel the creeping need to don my own tin foil hat.


  3. The only way to get the genie back in the bottle at this point would be to turn back the technology clock about 40 years.

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