Ask Not What The Country Can Do To You But What You Can Do To Yourself

In The Daily Discussion on November 19, 2010 at 4:21 pm

I’ve decided that if the government wants to monitor me that’s fine. But I could do a much better job monitoring myself than anyone else.

Hasan Elahi

Trackingtranscience is a brilliant response by Professor Hasan Elahi, a Bangladeshi-born American citizen, to his detention and interrogation at the hands of Home Land Security and FBI personnel. Professor Elahi was accused by his neighbors for being a 9/11 terrorist (description; dark, Muslim) and later taken off a flight returning from Europe for questioning. The FBI accused him of hoarding explosives in a Florida warehouse. He was subjected to months of interrogations, nine polygraph tests, and left on the ‘watch list’.

So he decided that he will just watch himself and effectively erase all pretence at ‘privacy’.

Now Elahi posts his day, every single mundane aspect of it, on the project website at Trackingtranscience.net A globe-trotting Professor of media, he posts all his activities, complete with GPS coordinates and the date/time stamps at the site, effectively monitoring his daily life. His meals, toilet breaks, airport waits and almost all the mundane acts that define 99% of what constitutes modern life. His server logs reveal that the Pentagon, and even the Executive Office of The President have clicked in while the FBI continue to monitor his activities through this site itself. Our tax payer’s money at work.

Tracking Transcience

Tracking Transcience

Hasan Elahi was featured in a Colbert Report interview, where Steven Colbert not-so-subtly reminds us that the only reason Professor Elahi was, and continues, to be taken as a ‘threat’ is because he is ‘foreign’ i.e. non-white, Muslim, from Asia.

Hasan Elahi on The Colbert Report (Click To Go To Video)

Hasan Elahi on The Colbert Report (Click To Go To Video)

There is something refreshingly subversive about this work, a trait I find missing in most uses of photography. There is also humour and criticism, another thing I find largely missing from photography. It is a subversion and a humour that is also a means of criticism of the ever smaller space we occupy as independent, private and autonomous human beings in our so-called modern, industrial societies. This may seem contradictory – the full surrender of privacy as a means to counter our loss of privacy. But the project is in fact a creative show of the middle-finger to authorities that claim technical and methodological sophistication but in fact rely on simplistic racial profiling to get their jobs done.

We seem to believe that our intelligence services rely on sophistication technical and research, when in fact the apparent methods of operations seem rather banal and simplistic. However, I have always prefered the honesty of the rabidly bigoted and ignorant. Like Tunku Varadarajan who argued:

We are a civilized society. One of our cardinal rules of coexistence is that we (try always to) judge people only by their actions and not by their identity, whether racial, religious or sexual. This is our great strength as a society, and also, in the present circumstances, our great weakness: How to address the threat posed by the fact that, of the hundreds of thousands of Muslims in our midst, there are a few (perhaps many more than a few) who are so radicalized that they would kill their fellow Americans? Must we continue to be neutral in handling all people from different groups even though we know that there are differential risks posed by people of one group? The problem here is a heightened version of the airport security problem, where we check all people–including Chinese grandmothers–regardless of risk profiles. But can we afford that on a grand, national scale? (And I mean that question not merely in a financial sense, but also in terms of the price we’d pay in failing to detect a threat in time.)

Indeed. Why beat about the bush when in fact we have, in complete ignorance of facts or reality, decided that it is the Muslims who have an exclusively penchant for violence and terrorism?

Professor Elahi is also revealing the fact that citizens of the West already surrender entire details of their lives, habits and preferences choosing to surrender their privacy for services and entertainment. With our greater reliance on electronic media and communications, the process of tracking and monitoring has become even easier. Even Facebook has become the target of ‘surveillance’, and tens of thousands of cameras and monitors litter our urban landscape, creating practically a 24×7 record of every citizen’s every movement and action. Our internet behavior is monitored and recorded, and available to any intelligence agency. I will say nothing about our cell phone usage, which we already know is carefully tracked.

Works such as this are a reminder of the reality of a state whose surveillance activities have grown far beyond any we would have tolerated in the pre-9/11 era, eroding our constitutional liberties and rights in the process. We seem to have forgotten that our liberties were hard-fought, and that they are always and constantly under threat. Elahi’s project reminds us that we choose the wrong answer to the questions that David Foster Wallace once put to us in the aftermath of 9/11 when, he asked:

Are some things still worth dying for? Is the American idea one such thing? Are you up for a thought experiment? What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, “sacrifices on the altar of freedom”? In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea? And, thus, that ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our democratic way of life—sacrifices not just of our soldiers and money but of our personal safety and comfort?

Clearly, we have not considered these questions enough. And if we have, we chosen not to insist on our rights enough. There is no small irony in the fact that an entire conservative, venal, backward looking, revisionist, culturally revanchist, racist and retrograde segment of our nation is screaming against ‘big government’ when it comes to the provision of services that serve our society – healthcare, welfare, education, while simultaneously cheering greater government intrusion and control of everything that hinders of liberties and rights – more soldiers on our borders, greater surveillance and monitoring, larger military and budgets and the larger wars.

I became an American citizen in 1999. While preparing for my interview with the immigration authorities in New York City I spent considerable time studying the Constitution. However, when it came time for the interview, the bored and distracted official simply asked me inane questions about the day America celebrates its independence and other some such irrelevant matters. When I questioned him about whether he was going to ask me whether I understand the rights and responsibilities I had as a citizen of this nation – the rights defined in the Constitution, he simply said ‘No’. When I inquired why a new citizen was not expected to know his rights and liberties, the rights and liberties that were the very foundations of the nation he was in fact being asked to defend at all costs, the official simply looked annoyed and informed me that the interview has done. It seems that it is not important for an American citizen to know what it is that s/he is meant to defend. The evidence of this is quite apparent today.

We are this very moment confronting one of the largest, most concentrated assault on our civil liberties, and the main front of this assault are our legal rights. We should not forget that as we deny justice to those we claim are ‘our enemies’ we deny justice to ourselves. Confessions through torture, unlimited detentions, denial of access to counsel, illegally obtained evidence, renditions and other illegal and unconstitutional means make delivering justice impossible and weakens our system from within. The contortions and mockery of due process by which we try our prisoners and enemies will one day become the contortions and mockery that we will try ourselves. The ease with which we deny justice to ‘our enemies’, in complete violation of our own and of international law, will be the same ease with which it may be denied us. And our president, who once promised so much, continues to look away from the Guantanamo he promised to close, the suspects he promised to give civil trials and rights to, the torture evidence he promised to release and the adherence to our laws he promised to uphold.

The more of ourselves we surrender to those we believe are ‘protecting’ us, the more we leave ourselves susceptible to abuse and injustice. The tentacles of the security and fear driven state are endless. There is always an argument for more security, more protections, more safety and more controls.There are always crisis that require extraordinary measures. The incredible stupidity of the Transport Safety Authority (TSA) and the back-scatter x-ray machines is evidence enough that the entire security bureaucracy has run amuck, with rules and regulations that are now completely devoid of meaning or necessity, and overtly driven by a corporate security sector that works from fear and towards excess.

On the other front we have a system of ‘infiltrating’ poor, Muslim communities in the USA with paid-for informants and entrapment experts who lure people into acts criminal and then parade them as powerful evidence of a working security system. Fear, insecurity and doubt are being spread in most all Muslim communities as entire people are singled out for observation, targeting and surveillance simply on the basis of their religion and ethnicity. Most all so-claimed ‘major’ terrorism plots foiled have been incidences of CIA informants helping entrap otherwise innocent and innocuous individuals through suggestion, coercion, greed and outright lies to become involved in plots whose outlines and intents were defined and prepared by the CIA informants in the first place. We are now trying to police ‘intent’ and ‘ideas’ by further eroding civil rights and legal procedures. Amitava Kumar’s A Foreigner  Carrying In The Crook Of His Arm A Tiny Bomb examines this question in greater detail is a highly recommended read.

Professor Elahi’s project is the first that I have seen that attempts to raise important questions about the meaning of the security state and its implications for the individual citizen. This is creative art as resistance and criticism. It can’t replace direct action, as that by the courageous and determined John Tyner who recently confronted the intrusive and ridiculously pointless back-scatter x-ray machines being used by the TSA, but it is crucial to making the argument.

The audience in the Colbert show may have laughed, but the vision that is outlined in Trackingtranscience.net is no laughing matter.

It may be our tomorrow.

Its time to remind ourselves of David Foster Wallace’s question again: … is [ours] a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our democratic way of life—sacrifices not just of our soldiers and money but of our personal safety and comfort?



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