Obedience is Freedom: On the Existing American Police State

With 280 million people in the US it would be impossible for one organization or group of agents to ensure that everyone obeyed the rules, so we're taught to police our own actions instead, making it easier to ensure our conformity. Conformity requires obedience, and obedience is the essence of the police state.
Scott Schaffer

Issue #58, December 2001

Right around the time of the September 11 attacks on the US, my students were reading about the Japanese educational system. The article they were discussing talked about the ways in which Japanese schools devolve responsibility for the success of the class, as well as the upkeep of the school, onto the students — especially in early grades — so that they learn early on that they are dependent on, responsible for, and accountable to one another. This "values teaching" (to use the term almost as hip among educators as "assessment" and "standardized testing") ensures that Japanese children gain a sense of duty to others; the sense that they thrive only as a society instead of as individuals.

Almost every single one of my students missed this latter point. Instead, they focused on the devolution of responsibility, which often takes the form of students running the classroom: presenting lessons, correcting one another, and in some cases disciplining one another. When asked to respond to this, one student said, "American kids could never do that. They're not mature enough; they need a strong authority figure in the classroom."

When I asked my class why they felt this way, they didn't make the logical connection between "maturity" and the way in which kids are taught to be mature. As the article they were reading pointed out, Japanese students learn to be mature by being expected to be mature. Meanwhile, American kids learn how to be mature only by bucking the system through their teenage years, drinking, having premarital sex, ditching classes, and mouthing off to any authority figure they can. In other words, they only become mature after they've sowed their wild oats, learned how to be "responsible" for their actions, and in essence have had their wildness beaten out of them. For my students, as for American children in general I think, maturity became a matter of obedience. One is mature when one can sit down, shut up, and do what they're told without fighting it. Yet every one of my students holds firmly to the idea that the United States is "the land of freedom" where people can do what they want, say what they want, and live their lives as they want. The American dream posits the ideas that we are responsible to no one other than ourselves, that our freedom is only bounded by those laws that constrain us from doing real harm to others, and that these outer bounds of acceptable behavior are tolerable so long as they don't infringe on our natural rights.

What my class ended up with after all of this discussion was essentially this: individual freedom is bounded by laws that are a necessary evil, yet we must have a strong authority figure visibly present in order to get us to obey these laws. This obedience is the real sign of maturity and adulthood.

This is why, in the aftermath of September 11, the United States will not need to install a police state reminiscent of either 1984 or the Soviet Union. We already have one.

* * * * *

The idea of a police state brings to mind nightmarish visions of stormtroopers patrolling our cities, our correspondence, and our conversations, as well as people living in fear of being caught thinking something contrary to the dominant order. Orwell's 1984 gave us the clearest vision of this: Big Brother was everywhere, knew everything, and even dictated the contents of people's memories. The telescreen, the Thought Police, and other apparatuses ensured that people never had a thought that contradicted the doublespeak offered to them by the government. And Winston Smith, the main character, was charged with rewriting history to ensure that no contradictions in what the powers-that-be had said or done would survive in the people's collective memory.

Meanwhile, the Soviet Union — and during the Cold War, the United States, though in more subtle forms — presented the closest thing to a real police state we'd seen. Armed forces served as the police department, flying the colors in order to show who was really in charge. The KGB and GRU ensured that all dissent was ferreted out and destroyed, while Pravda, Komsomolskaya Pravda, and other state-run media ensured that only one version of reality appeared: the version sanctioned, if not explicitly written, by the Communist Party apparatchiks. The US' House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), led by America's own Big Brother Joseph McCarthy, helped serve some of the same functions here, ensuring that Hollywood and the big media companies were "Commie-free," enlisting people in fear for their safety and liberty to rat out those suspected of being Communists, and rooting out all thoughts and actions contrary to the US. This process continued into the 1960s and 1970s, when the FBI's Counter-Intelligence Program (CoIntelPro) and the counterintelligence divisions of major metropolitan police departments served the function of the Thought Police in two ways: busting people who acted in ways contrary to the national security of the US, and fomenting violent and obnoxious protests to elicit the support of the general public in rooting out un-American folks. Our public culture already has a vision of what a police state would be like.

What Americans refuse to acknowledge, though, is that a police state in roughly this form has existed long before September 11. Even after the demise of CoIntelPro and the Los Angeles Police Department's Special Services unit, a great amount of internal surveillance remained in place. Go grocery or clothes shopping and you will find tens, if not hundreds, of video cameras throughout the supermarket or mall. Go driving in any number of cities in the US and regale in the fact of photo radar, which takes a photograph of a car as it speeds down the highway or runs a red light at an intersection (a process that, by the way, the Canadian Supreme Court found unconstitutional because it didn't allow for people to be immediately accused of their crime). And in some small towns, police departments have begun installing dummy police cars to reduce speeding through their villages.

The advent of the Internet and faster computers has increased the depth of surveillance in American society. ECHELON — an initiative developed by the British, Canadian, Australian, and American governments — is able to quietly scan through billions of e-mails a day to root out anything resembling a revolutionary or terrorist message (including those dealing with academic discussions of resistance movements, Marx's Manifesto of the Communist Party, and other intellectual texts). When the inevitable outcry from the Electronic Frontier Foundation arose, ECHELON was retired and replaced with little fanfare by a server that would supposedly only be activated in response to particular threats or when pinged with a particular user's e-mail address. Now, we have photo identification servers at airports, sporting arenas, and other public locations that can take a photo and match it to mug shots stored in the databases of local police departments, the FBI, InterPol, and other agencies. Web sites can track the servers one visits and offer up advertising information geared "specifically for the user," relying on the footprint left online to gather data about the people visiting the site, how they use various sites, and how frequently they clear out their cookies. And cellular phones, the personal LoJack if there ever was one, are able to blurt out your location with the tap of a few keys, a service that's transformed into a luxury option on minivans and Cadillacs for the bourgeoisie who get lost in the suburbs.

These are the little things we deal with. And Americans for the most part deal with them quite willingly, if they realize they're in place at all. Despite de Tocqueville's insightful analysis of American culture in which he argued that Americans hate any form of authority, we seem to trust in these kinds of surveillance and tracking. If the government allows it, we seem to think it must be for our benefit in some way. So we allow ourselves to be scanned on entering the airport or The Gap, videotaped while we try on bras at Victoria's Secret or khakis at Banana Republic, tracked while we chat away on Interstate 5 at 70mph, and offered up personalized content based on some site we mistakenly hit three weeks ago.

This idea that surveillance — be it direct police surveillance or the tracking of web site preferences — is beneficial for us in some way is a touchy subject. Americans don't like to think that we're being surveilled. Yet we respond to it in the ways we are expected to: we comply, we obey, because we're told that it's good for us. Store surveillance at Wal-Mart is good for us because it keeps costs down. OnStar is good for us because if we need emergency help, the police know exactly where we are. Web footprint tracking is beneficial because it personalizes an impersonal Internet. And we're rewarded for these things: lower prices for cheap clothing and for auto insurance, the opportunity to win a free vacation because we visited a travel site, etc. Even when faced with a lone police officer rolling down the highway, we respond immediately by slowing down to the speed limit — even if the car we think is a state trooper is the LA Unified School District's security car.

We're trained, in other words, to accept policing as a good, either as a sign that we live in a civilized society (because there's no anarchy around us) or as a by-product of lesser-civilized people living around us. The word "police" derives from the French policer, meaning "to refine" or "to civilize." And we are "refined" or "civilized" in the passive sense of the term: we are made to be refined or civil; we are taught to be obedient; we are compelled by a strong outside force — law enforcement officers, the only members of our society with the legal right to use deadly force — to be compliant. We act on this everyday: the thought of a police car behind us brings us back down to the speed limit; a simple look at a student talking out of turn in class makes them quiet down; and we learn to accept the idea of being videotaped, photographed, scanned, and forced to identify ourselves when requested.

As Foucault pointed out in Discipline and Punish, we are made by a variety of institutions to be obedient subjects, even more so with the advent of democratic systems. Prior to the demise of the ancien regimes, monarchs had no need to make obedience a matter of socialization — they were higher on the social ladder, had absolute power in their society, and could kill anyone who challenged their legitimacy and authority. With the democratic revolutions in the US and France and their concomitant ideas about the equality of all people (or at least the eventual extension of the idea to all people), new methods of social control needed to be developed. Since no one had any inherent power over another by virtue of their station in life, authority had to be vested in positions or offices occupied by particular people, and others had to be taught how to obey that authority. Hence, Foucault argues, militaries began to train soldiers not only in the basics of warfare but also in the very movement of their bodies (the genesis of the salute, for example); schools had to teach students not only the content of different forms of knowledge, but also the entire manner of conduct in a classroom that prepared students for their participation in social life; and in History of Sexuality, Foucault claims that we are "disciplined" even into thinking of sex and sexuality in a scientific manner, meaning that instead of the Kama Sutra, Americans end up with sex manuals that read more like IKEA assembly instructions. Even the US' dominant religion, Protestantism, is a disciplinary mechanism. By claiming that all people are equally subservient to God and that no one can change their predestined fate through their actions, Protestants end up policing their own actions in order to convince themselves, through a kind of certitudo salutis (gesture of certainty) that they really are of the elect.

In other words, most of our socialization in modern times is intended to police or refine us, or rather, to ensure that we police ourselves. With 280 million people in the US it would be impossible for one organization or group of agents to ensure that everyone obeyed the rules, so we're taught to police our own actions instead, making it easier to ensure our conformity. Conformity requires obedience, and obedience is the essence of the police state.

* * * * *

September 11 changed Americans' perceptions of security. Generally, "security" — the personal sense of safety — is the intellectual and political counterbalance to the absolute freedom Americans believe they have. Because most people are generally free to do what they want, without any explicit reference to needs of, or duties toward, others, other people are necessarily a threat to our own freedom, a threat that can be at least mollified by having personal or societal "security."

In the aftermath of September 11, President Bush created the Office of Homeland Security, charged with ensuring that the US mainland would be safe from any kind of external threat by coordinating the counter-terrorist programs of the FBI, CIA, National Security Agency, Defense Intelligence Division, and local and state law enforcement groups. This Cabinet-level post, now occupied by former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, will essentially have the powers of Big Brother: to suspend habeas corpus, to coordinate domestic and internal surveillance against American citizens, and to utilize the military as a police force. Until now these powers had only been conceivable in as a movie script (The Siege, with Bruce Willis and Denzel Washington) and only constitutional under the loosest and most inept legal interpretations. Ridge was front-runner for the vice presidency before Bush picked Dick Cheney, and has been discussed as a possible replacement for Cheney if Cheney is subject to medical retirement. Ridge is ostensibly qualified for the vice presidency because of his "expertise" in Vietnam (an expertise reminiscent more of Senator Bob Kerrey's service history or the movie Platoon), and has been given not only great latitude by the White House but also an incredible amount of support by the American people.

Americans, it seems, want a police state. They want to be protected from "the grave terrorist threat," now apparently manifesting itself in the form of anthrax attacks against The National Enquirer. They want to feel safe. They believe that having National Guard troops, dual checkpoints at automobile border crossings, random searches, and the presentation of identity cards will ensure that something as inconceivable as planes crashing into the World Trade Center and Pentagon will never happen again. I could say they're wrong — but that's not the point of this essay.

Rather, my point is this: we don't need a police state in front of our faces. We already have one in our minds. The dark side of America's response to September 11 — not only the mobilization of a massive military campaign against Osama bin Laden, the Taliban, terrorist groups in the Philippines and Malaysia, and anyone else who smacks of any kind of relationship with terrorism, but more importantly, the suspicion, threats, and violence directed against anyone who "seems Arab" — shows that we're already paranoid and that we're already acting in accordance with the prerogatives of the Office of Homeland Security.

Americans have so far supported the suspension of issuing student visas, the idea of a national identity card, and restrictions on immigration from countries where terrorism is "rampant." They have fallen in lockstep with Bush's military mobilization, giving him an 87% approval rating for dragging us into another conflict that, to quote Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, will look more like the Cold War than the Gulf War. They have, in certain cases, gone so far as to attack mosques, threaten Arab store owners, and kill two Sikhs in Arizona (members of a religious community that aren't even close to Muslims).

And Americans have actively agitated against anyone who would dissent from the mainstream opinion — that is, bomb the damned Afghanis back to the Stone Age. Judy Rebick's October 8/2001 ZNet commentary on Sunera Thobani, a Canadian activist who decried American foreign policy and was vilified in the Canadian press and Parliament, as well as Simon Houpt's analysis of American media since the attacks in The Globe and Mail both show that Americans have enacted the worst kind of policing against one another already — the policing of thought. FedEx and Sears Roebuck both pulled advertising from Bill Maher's Politically Incorrect after he said that American cruise missile attacks would be "cowardly." And NPR's All Things Considered reported on October 9 that the University of North Carolina received calls for the termination of professors who had held an anti-war teach-in at the Chapel Hill campus. Freedom of speech is historically the epitome of American freedoms, it is the key to the "marketplace of ideas" proclaimed by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes as essential to the functioning of democracy, and it is the freedom most frequently invoked by Americans. But it has been the first casualty of the "war against terrorism," and dissent has been quelled.

It is precisely this kind of policing that terrorism works to achieve. It's designed to instill such fear in a population that they violate everything they stand for. And apparently Americans are all too willing to play along with this. They're willing not only to face machine-gun-toting National Guard soldiers at the airport and to have their trunks searched as they drive across the border — all forms of policing from the outside — now, they're willing to cease being democratic individuals, committed to principled debate and discussion, for the sake of a kind of internal policing, one which happens all too easily in our society.

This is why we don't need a police state. We'll get one, of course. The 'war against terrorism' will drag on for years (until American corporations can find another way to prop up the economy), and until every terrorist is vanquished, we'll accept severe limitations on our freedom and police ourselves so we can feel better. Meanwhile, those in charge will continue on, pursuing the kinds of policies that put us at risk and ensure that we "need" a police state, one that results in a great deal of cash for major corporations (especially in the security industry). And all the while, we'll comply — because we need a strong authority figure, and because we're taught that obedience is maturity.

Scott Schaffer is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Millersville University and Managing Editor of Journal of Mundane Behavior. He's also wishing he had defected to Canada years ago, because sometimes, "peace, order and good government" is better than "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Contributors: Scott Schaffer
Last modified 2004-10-04 10:00 PM
Copyright © 2001 by Scott Schaffer. All rights reserved.
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