R.A. Wilson: Optimist?

Lily Tomlin used to say, “I try to be cynical, but I can’t catch up.” Dystopian science fiction, similarly, has a hard time keeping up with the actual growth of the police state.

In the Illuminatus! Trilogy, written back in the early ’70s, Hagbard Celine spoke of the efforts of Illuminati conspirators within the government to create the pretext for a full-scale police state crackdown, and provoke public support for it, through a systematic campaign of political assassinations and terror.

The Illuminati grip on power, Celine said, was still weak. Although they’d made serious inroads toward creating a corporatist economy and laying the legal groundwork for full-scale dictatorship, they were prevented from fully implementing their plans by the threat of a public backlash. The goal of their black flag terror and assassination campaign was to make the public beg for totalitarian control “as a masochist begs for the whip.” The result would be that, “in a few years,” they would have the American public under tighter surveillance than Hitler had Germany.

I think Wilson, writing tongue in cheek, seriously underestimated just how easily the public could be brought around to scream “Non habemus regem nisi Caesarem!” The Drug War and the War on Terror have served very nicely, from the police statists’ perspective, in playing out a sort of Reichstag Fire/Enabling Act scenario in slow motion over the past twenty or thirty years.

Just take a look at the actual measures Celine predicted:

  • Universal electronic surveillance.
  • No-knock laws.
  • Stop and frisk laws.
  • Government inspection of first-class mail.
  • Automatic fingerprinting, photographing, blood tests, and urinalysis of any person arrested before he is charged with a crime.
  • A law making it illegal to resist even unlawful arrest.
  • Laws establishing detention camps for potential subversives.
  • Gun control laws.
  • Restrictions on travel.

The only one that’s still completely (give or take) out of bounds for the government is inspection of first-class mail. Even there, I was once told by a postal clerk that the local postmaster might open packages with “media mail” postage to verify that they qualified for it. And there are recurring “smart stamp” proposals aimed at making it impossible to send anything anonymously by mail, or to use the mail without a permanent address.

As for the rest of it…. Although “illegal wiretapping” became a prominent issue under Bush, Echelon’s automatic surveillance of phone and Internet traffic, and the harvesting of keywords by the NSA’s mainframes in Ft. Meade, have been standard practice for decades. No-knock warrants are standard for virtually any drug-related offense. Stop and frisk? One word answer: Giuliani. I believe fingerprinting and drug tests have been automatic for arrestees in many jurisdictions for a long time, and are routinely carried out now even in many emergency rooms.

I once Googled “resist even unlawful arrest” and found that exact phrase in a district court opinion establishing a duty of automatic compliance with all pro forma demands by persons in uniform. Besides, if you ask to see a warrant they’ll probably just stomp the shit out of you and then claim it was in “self-defense”; the police commission, after a few weeks of paid leave, will find “no evidence of wrongdoing.”

The McCarran Internal Security Act provided for detention of “subversives” in the event of a “national emergency,” and a wide range of subsequent executive orders did likewise. I’m pretty skeptical about tinfoil hatters’ allegations that camps are being deliberately built for that specific purpose in any particular case — but the Japanese nisei learned in 1942 that the government’s pretty good at improvising such things at very short notice.

Gun control? Do I really even need to comment?

Restrictions on travel? The TSA, with wandings and no-travel lists probably spreading to trains and buses sooner than later. Random DUI roadblocks.

In short, R. A. Wilson’s “science fiction” turned out to be a fairly lowball estimate of what’s actually happened.

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