This happened yesterday:
The brutal murder of a serving soldier in Woolwich in broad daylight has shocked the country.
The prime minister has flown back early from France to lead the government’s response to the suspected terrorist attack and security across London barracks has been stepped up.
I’m sure there will, on the back of this awful event, be plenty of calls for the surveillance state to be reinforced. I say reinforced for two reasons. Firstly, way back in 2006 the BBC was minded to report in the following manner:
The report’s co-writer Dr David Murakami-Wood told BBC News that, compared to other industrialised Western states, the UK was “the most surveilled country”.
“We have more CCTV cameras and we have looser laws on privacy and data protection,” he said.
“We really do have a society which is premised both on state secrecy and the state not giving up its supposed right to keep information under control while, at the same time, wanting to know as much as it can about us.”
The BBC then added:
The report coincides with the publication by the human rights group Privacy International of figures that suggest Britain is the worst Western democracy at protecting individual privacy.
The two worst countries in the 36-nation survey are Malaysia and China, and Britain is one of the bottom five with “endemic surveillance”.
Referring to the same 2006 marker-in-the-sand, Wikipedia underlines the history:
Examples of fully realised surveillance states are the Soviet Union, and the former East Germany, which had a large network of informers and an advanced technology base in computing & spy-camera technology. (Castells, M. The Rise of the Network Society, 2000)
But they did not have today’s technologies for mass surveillance, such as the use of databases and pattern recognition software to cross-correlate information obtained by wire tapping, including speech recognition and telecommunications traffic analysis, monitoring of financial transactions, automatic number plate recognition, the tracking of the position of mobile telephones, and facial recognition systems and the like which recognise people by their appearance, gait, etc.
More recently, the United Kingdom is seen as a pioneer of mass surveillance. At the end of 2006 it was described by the Surveillance Studies Network as being ‘the most surveilled country’ among the industrialized Western states.
If that was the situation in 2006, just imagine where we might be seven years later. And yet a surveillance state of the characteristics Britain already clearly has didn’t serve to stop yesterday’s terrible act from being carried out.
Of course, we can’t know either how many other terrible acts have been foiled by the surveillance state I allude to – we do, however, have a pretty good idea of how unliberal the country has become. Compare and contrast with recent US pronouncements, for example, in the aftermath of the Boston marathon bombings (the bold is mine):
[...] surveillance cameras don’t necessarily deter serious crimes. Boston’s numerous cameras didn’t stop the crime at the Boston Marathon, nor did London’s more extensive network of cameras deter the 2005 subway bombings. Boston’s talented police commissioner, Edward Davis, put it best right after last Monday’s events when he said that despite the city’s extensive security preparations, little short of a “police state” could have stopped the attacks. It is to Davis’ great credit that as police commissioner he didn’t want a police state.
And if you find it in yourself to agree with Davis, it’s not just because we prefer to be liberal – it’s also, simply, because it apparently doesn’t work.
Which brings me to my final point today: is our persistent hankering after precisely what our position during the Cold War fought to bring down something to do with a far deeper – maybe darker – instinct which possesses us?
Is our manifest desire to invest in the devices and apparatuses of surveillance states – even when we are talking about administering democracies – a result of our need to believe everything can be (even must be) controlled in some way or other?
If not by us, then by something at least …
Let’s rewind to Wikipedia’s own pithy definition of the beast:
The surveillance state is a government’s surveillance of large numbers of citizens and visitors. Such widespread surveillance is most usually justified as being necessary to prevent crime or terrorism. [...]
Now let’s look at its initial definition of God:
God is often conceived as the supreme being and principal object of faith. In theism, God is the creator and sustainer of the universe. In deism, God is the creator (but not the sustainer) of the universe. In pantheism, God is the universe itself. Theologians have ascribed a variety of attributes to the many different conceptions of God. Common among these are omniscience (infinite knowledge), omnipotence (unlimited power), omnipresence (present everywhere), omnibenevolence (perfect goodness), divine simplicity, and eternal and necessary existence.
It doesn’t half seem to me that, in our secular desire to recover and perpetuate the concept of the surveillance state from the Stasi-like infrastructures of times supposedly long gone, we are actually looking to recreate the benefits of God for a non-believing age. The features and attributes do coincide quite dramatically, after all.
Except for one sad difference perhaps: in few ways could we realistically describe that what we are aspiring to is – in any way – even distantly “omnibenevolent”.
The return of what is often understood to be an Old Testament God perhaps?
Is that where we are being driven?
If so, it’s hardly a surveillance state we’re needing to implement, surely: rather, far more urgently, a deity of sorely-missed kindnesses.