The Realist Bibliophile(1)

Intensification of Surveillance: Crime, Terrorism and Warfare in the Information Age, eds.

Intensification of Surveillance: Crime, Terrorism and Warfare in the Information Age, eds. Kirstie Ball and Frank Webster (Pluto Press, 2003).

Countering Terrorism: Dimensions of Preparedness, eds. Arnold M. Howitt and Robyn L. Pangi (MIT Press, 2004).

For the last two years, the phrase "the war on terrorism" has entered the general lexicon.  Yet, how has this war affected people's daily lives and the institutions of society?  Two edited volumes--one, the outgrowth of a conference at the University of Birmingham, the other, a product of the Belfer Center's Studies in International Security in cooperation with the Executive Session on Domestic Preparedness--try to provide some answers. 

In his contribution to the second volume, Ashton Carter observes that "the nation's capabilities for homeland security, even optimally coordinated, are simply not adequate to cope with twenty-first century terrorism. … What is needed is far less a coordinator of what exists, than an architect of the capabilities we need to build."  The contributors to Countering Terrorism examine the threats of biological, chemical and nuclear terrorism; assess problems with current methods for responding to terrorist acts, and draw upon previous operations (such as the "war on drugs") or the experience of other states (Israel, the UK, Japan) in dealing with catastrophic terrorism.

But what are the consequences for the preservation of our societies as open and free ones?  In the last contribution to Countering Terrorism, Laura K. Donohue warns how "temporary" measures enacted to combat terrorism often can end up permanently entrenched in domestic law.  In other words, what had been seen as provisional tools to combat a specific emergency became established baselines from which further measures could then be enacted.

This notion of a "slippery slope" is a theme also tackled by Intensification of Surveillance.  One of the points stressed by the various contributors to this book is that actual privacy has been eroded for years, especially given new technologies often originally developed for commercial purposes (e.g. to target consumers or to facilitate transactions).  Yet, prior to 9/11, even if the state or other entities possessed the ability to know a great deal about a person's business, even intimately, it did not automatically follow that they necessarily cared much about it, and so people went about their lives with a high degree of confidence that their lives remained protected by a type of virtual privacy.

What happens if that is no longer the case?  Writing in the Winter 2003/04 issue of The National Interest, James Bennett points out that "one of the trends of cheap, ubiquitous computing has been the growing, worldwide availability of strong programs for encrypting data on personal computers.  With such programs, individuals and companies can communicate and trade beyond the easy ability of governments to intercept, or, if proper precautions are taken, even to be aware that the transactions exist."  In other words, a heavy-handed state approach does not make us safer, but risks jeopardizing a healthy partnership between state and civil society to combat crime, on the one hand, but leave intact the safeguards that protect the privacy and autonomy of the individual.

Some ITNI readers may not like the leftist tilt in Intensification, and both volumes are written in academic prose (complete with jargon).  Yet, both volumes raise important questions for debate and further discussion, the most important one being whether one has to destroy an open society in order to save it.