Surveillance is the New Internment

By now, many people are aware that the New York Police Department has been conducting an extensive surveillance of Muslims. This has understandably set off considerable discussion about the legal, civic, and moral questions raised by this practice. Luckily, we have centuries of history, jurisprudence, and political theory with which to raise and address such questions.

What we might miss behind those very important questions, however, are the effects of such practices on individuals; specifically within the minds of those surveilled. To understand and appreciate this, we have to rely on more recent work.

In Surveiller et Punir (the English title is Discipline and Punish, but a more literal translation is “To Keep and Eye On and Punish”), Michel Foucault offers some interesting thoughts on the matter. He uses Jeremy Bentham’s notion of the Panopticon to illustrate the history of attempts to regulate behavior, from prisons to schools to retail outlets to psychotherapy.

It’s important to note that Bentham proposed the Panopticon as a plan for a modern and more efficient prison. In it, cells are arranged along a large circumference, such that 1) no cell can look into the adjacent one and 2) all cells are visible to a guard seated in a central tower behind a mesh window. This creates a primitive sort of one-way mirror wherein the guard can see the prisoners, but the prisoners cannot see the guard.

The idea is to induce in the prisoner the idea that s/he is being watched at all times, in the hopes that this places some restraint on undesired behavior. This effect is often referred to now as Panopticism.

In case the effects of Panopticism are not immediately clear, imagine using a hotel room, restroom, or dressing room in a department store and not being sure if you heard a noise behind the large mirror. Are you being watched? You’re not sure. What you do know is that the culture is quite ready to pathologize your feeling of being surveilled. So absent clear and convincing physical evidence, you’re some version of “paranoid.”

Parents and teachers also know that at a certain age words like “I’m watching you” or “God is watching you” have a tremendous capacity to modify behavior. Depending on how well some of us internalize the lesson, we may grow up more or less inhibited with regard to what we think, in addition to what we do.

The idea behind Panopticism is to erode an individuals’ expectations around privacy. Needless to say, you don’t need to actually be monitored in order to feel its effects. All you need is the sense that it’s possible and that the means of doing so are hidden from you.

As an aside, there’s an argument to be made here that in a Panoptical culture, exhibitionism may be every bit as much a form of civil disobedience as steganography.

So what does all this have to do with the NYPD and internment? Well, the admittedly cynical answer is that interment is so 40’s.

But more importantly, it’s much more expensive. From the standpoint of controlling a population, what’s cheaper: rounding people up into detention centers (plus the legal costs lawsuits are sure to incur) or simply letting them know they’re being watched? Especially in their schools, colleges, and houses of worship?

Here, panopticism means trying to ensure that whenever and wherever Muslims gather, from now on, each and every one worries about who’s a spy and who’s for real. From the standpoint of intelligence gathering, of course, this is a setback. Less trust means more reticence to speak and thus less actionable intelligence.

But from a political standpoint — let’s say of demonizing a group of people and presenting yourself to an anxious population as their only hope against certain disaster — it’s incredibly cost-effective. You can cut back on the number of agents now that everyone’s watching what they say, perhaps even redeploying them in places and ways nobody’s thought of yet.

By the looks of it, it seems to be working. As with other laws targeted at other minorities, in order to feel comfortable with this exercise of government power one has to feel reasonably confident the power they’re identifying with will never, ever be turned on them.