December 30, 2005
Big Brother Is Real This Time
By Richard Reeves
LONDON -- In democratic countries, what war leads to is not peace
but radical reform at home. That is one conclusion of "Postwar:
A History of Europe Since 1945" by Tony Judt, one of the most
important books of this troubled year.
War I had precipitated legislation and social provisions in its
wake -- if only to deal with the widows, orphans, invalids and
unemployed of the immediate postwar years," he writes. "The
Second World War transformed both the role of the modern state
and the expectations placed upon it ...
post-1945 European welfare states varied considerably in the resources
they provided and the way they financed them. But certain general
points can be made. The provision of social services chiefly concerned
education, housing and medical care, as well as urban recreation
areas, subsidized public transport, publicly financed art and
culture and other indirect benefits of the interventionary state.
Social security consisted chiefly of the state provision of insurance
-- against illness, unemployment, accident and the perils of old
So, the great
wars created the beginnings and the culmination of modern welfare
states, growing from aid to individuals, the alone, the broken
and the traumatized, to systems available to all citizens.
the war on terrorism produce at home?
to that question seems to be unfolding in Judt's home country,
Great Britain, and in the United States, where he teaches at New
York University: The great English-speaking democracies are almost
inevitably remaking themselves as police states. Changing or ignoring
the laws of liberty and instituting more and more invasive technological
monitoring of citizens are the new passions of the interventionary
state -- all in the name of spreading freedom.
U.S. government, supported by majorities in national polls, is
ignoring laws on oversight of homeland spying, the British are
developing systems to literally follow, photographically, every
citizen on his or her daily rounds. Big Brother, the fictional
invention of a British writer, George Orwell, will be real and
functional within a year. The first step, scheduled to be operational
next March, will use thousands of cameras linked to government
databases to photograph every vehicle entering or leaving London,
driving on major highways or stopping for gasoline -- and checking
those movements against driver's licenses and other government
information over two- and five-year periods.
new national surveillance network for tracking car journeys,"
said Steve Conner, science editor of The Independent,
"... is already working on ways of automatically recognizing
human faces by computer ... every move recorded and stored by
machines." Police also project a need for more complicated
surveillance systems, schemes aided by hidden computer chips in
new cars and trucks.
originally planned as a crime-prevention and detection system,
has been in development for 25 years. In Britain, as well as in
the United States, police quickly realized that such innovations
as automatic cash machines and EZ-pass readers provided a rough
map of many people's lives -- and led to thousands upon thousands
of criminal arrests. But there is no doubt that terrorism incidents
and threats will speed development and make what were once considered
unacceptable invasions of privacy more acceptable to the British
-- and, one day, to Americans as well.
is mentioned in every conversation and report about such innovations,
but fear is less critical to such systems than are advances in
technology that simply make it simpler to track humans, as if
computer chips were also secretly hidden in our own bodies. On
hearing of the British plans, I thought that it was a spectacular
update to what they did in the bad old days in Moscow: Police
stood on little bridges over roadways in and out of the city to
record the comings and goings of citizens and foreigners alike.
Now they won't even have to wear coats in the cold weather. Technological
policing is cheaper, too, and machines don't get pensions.
the British police are not particularly secretive about their
plans, and digital eyes will certainly make them more effective.
But, no matter how well intentioned, this stuff is scary as hell.
To quote an American who once lived in London, Benjamin Franklin:
"They that would give up essential liberty to obtain a little
temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."
2005 Universal Press Syndicate