The Normalization of Dystopia

Lily Tomlin used to say “I try to be cynical, but I can’t keep up.” Writers of dystopian sci-fi have the same trouble keeping ahead of actual reality.

Forty years ago, Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea, in the Illuminatus! trilogy, portrayed a near future in which the ruling elite used a wave of assassinations a la JFK, RFK and MLK to terrorize the American public into accepting a full-scale police state. “The assassinations, you see, establish the need for such laws in the public mind.” A few years of such orchestrated terror, and the state would have Americans “under tighter surveillance than Hitler had the Germans.”

As it happens the real-world impetus to such creeping totalitarianism was not assassinations. It was the Drug War and 9/11. But the overall effect has been very much the same.

Wilson’s and Shea’s elite spokesman enumerated a long list of police state measures — most of them utterly fantastic to American readers in the early ’70s — that Americans would be driven to accept. Today, in the non-fictional America of 2012, most of them are considered entirely normal procedures “the authorities” use to “keep us safe.”

Let’s take a look at that fictional list:

“Universal electronic surveillance.” NSA? Warrantless wiretaps? National security letters?

“No-knock laws.” We didn’t even need a law to make no-knock warrants standard paramilitarized police procedure.

“Stop-and-frisk laws.” Again, who needed a law? Ever hear of Rudy Giuliani?

“Automatic fingerprinting, photographing, blood tests, and urinalysis of any person arrested before he is charged with a crime.” Standard procedure in most jurisdictions.

“A law making it illegal to resist even unlawful arrest.” Google that one and you’ll find the principle stated in so many words in actual case law. The old common law principle that the constabulary’s authorty derived entirely from judicial warrants is as dead as Sir Edward Coke.

“Gun control laws.” No comment.

Some haven’t yet materialized.

“Government inspection of first-class mail.” Although there’s recurring talk of “smart stamps” that make anonymity impossible, and the government keeps tightening the screws on anonymous remailers and upping the identification requirements to rent a P.O. box.

“Laws establishing detention camps for potential subversives.” I’m not aware that camps have been specifically allocated for detention of subversives in a national emergency. But power to detain “terror suspects” — right now — without criminal charges is established in law under NDAA, and was already claimed by the executive. Whether or not there’s dedicated housing already in place for such detainees, the government’s quite capable (as shown by the use of Ft. Chaffee to house Katrina refugees) of improvising.

Others have been implemented on steroids. The obvious example is “restrictions on travel.” The TSA’s passenger processing regime is for all intents and purposes an internal passport system for air travel. And the internal passport system is rapidly spreading to other transportation sectors. TSA VIPR (Visual Intermodal Prevention and Response) teams have appeared in bus and train stations all over the country. Even driving isn’t safe. A VIPR team recently set up a checkpoint in the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel on Hwy 64.

So we’ve got an internal passport system fully in place for civil aviation, rapidly getting there for trains and buses, and maybe coming for highways. Remember when internal passports, checkpoints, and uniformed goons saying “papers, please” was one of those exotic things that happened in faraway totalitarian states like Soviet Russia?

Just like torture. That’s another one of those things that only the bad guys used to do. Now that America’s Finest do it too, it’s been renamed “harsh interrogation techniques.”

Not that American soldiers and intelligence operatives never used torture in the past. I mean, we’ve all heard stories about waterboarding Moros in the Philippines, and “Charlie” being thrown out of choppers in Nam. But back then it was done quasi-officially, with plausible deniability for the folks back home in their nice clean offices in Langley and the Pentagon.

Now, however, torture’s been proclaimed official policy in memos from John Yoo, Alberto Gonzales, and Donald Rumsfeld. Waterboarding of terror suspects — you know, like Japanese soldiers were executed for after WWII — was explicitly authorized by the highest circles of the U.S. government. “Oh, but Saint Obama did away with all that!” Really? You don’t think anything nasty still goes on at Baghram? You think all those former Soviet bloc prisons leased with U.S. black ops money were really just shut down?

Let’s face it, dystopian sci-fi simply can’t keep up with reality.

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