The New Yorker ran a thoughtful piece by Ian Parker on the suicide of Tyler Clementi, a gay Rutgers University freshman who committed suicide in the fall of 2010, sometime after he discovered that his roommate, Dharun Ravi, had used a webcam to spy, and invite a public-spy-in, on Clementi’s encounter with a male-lover in their shared dorm-room. The article, relying on electronic records from emails to tweets, suggests that there may be an ambiguous link between Ravi’s spying and Tyler’s suicide. It is not clear that the spy-in happened, nor how disturbed Tyler was over the news that he was being spied on, but it was clear that he was aware that his roommate spied on him, however briefly.
Ravi stands on trial for, among other things, invasion of privacy (sex crime) and bias intimidation (hate crime). Regardless of whether Ravi’s actions can be closely traced to Clementi’s suicide, Ravi is—even if his own accounts are to be believed—still culpable for harassment and extreme violation of his roommate’s privacy.
Clementi, who had come out as gay to his parents only three days before he began at Rutgers, doesn’t reveal–in his electronic records–a level of emotional devastation that might be consistent with his decision to commit suicide. But I can’t help but wonder about the psychic devastation that Clementi felt upon discovering that his intimate relationship was subject to surveillance, public spectators, and public mocking.
A few days ago, I was listening to a story on This American Life (#456, Reap What You Sow) about the concerted campaign to induce undocumented migrants across the country, but especially in Alabama, to self-deport. Reporter Jack Hitt discussed the strategies of Secretary of State of Kansas, Kris Koback, to induce “self-deportation.” Koback is considered the “mastermind” of “attrition through enforcement” throughout the country. Kobach is also the proud creator of the National Security Entry-Exit System (NSEERS), which is based on legal precedents that were used to detain and hold citizens and migrants of Japanese descent during the second World War, among other populations. According to a 2004 report on Special Registration by the Asian-American Legal Defense, through NSEERS, the Bush Administration rounded up over 82,000 Muslim men in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks; over 13,000 were put in deportation proceedings. After that wildly successful anti-immigration maneuver, Koback turned his crafty mind and overpriced education to other issues: he has helped author the anti-immigrant legislation in Pennsylvania, Missouri, Texas, Arizona, and Alabama’s HB 56. He so modestly describes himself as helping states “restore the rule of law.”
Two things to keep in mind: first, the restoration of the “rule of law” doesn’t involve punishing Goldman Sachs or Lehman Bros. investment bankers for squandering away the pensions of career pipefitters, teachers, and nurses, nor lobbying President Obama to cut off their “bailout” bonuses. Rather, it involves the creation of laws that pivot on the intersection of citizenship and surveillance. Koback’s contribution here is to centralize surveillance through the checkpoints of immigration and citizenship: For example, through Alabama’s HB 56, proof of legal status is required for all children entering public schools; birth certificates are required in every business transaction with the state; any citizen may challenge private business owners’ hiring practices as illegal according to this law. This law has also induced Alabamians–illegally–to take HB 56 into their own hands, refusing to conduct private business transactions without proof of papers in grocery stores. Employees at several Wal-Mart stores across the state refused to allow one migrant to receive a Moneygram from her mother without proof of legal status, even though such proof was neither part of the law nor store policy. Other migrants were told they wouldn’t be paid for work they had already done, or that they would no longer be allowed to rent their apartment, because these acts would be considered engaging in “illegal contracts.”
One migrant’s daughter was enrolled in a Birmingham, AL public school, where there has already been a conversation about what would happen if their parents are picked up by Immigration and citizenship enforcement (ICE): Their teachers have told them that they would be fine because they were American citizens; needless to say, that conversation terrified those kids even more than they already were. Moreover, we know, according to ColorLines‘ Shattered Families Report that they will NOT be fine. In fact, the undocumented parents of US born children may very well be rounded up during a routine traffic stop, or a routine grocery store purchase, or during an ICE raid conducted in their place of employment, in which case they will be shuttled off to a detention facility and, chances are, deported before they ever have a chance to make arrangements for their children to be cared for by friends or family or to bring them with them, regardless of whether the parents are deported or released. And of course, children without guardians would be considered “abandoned,” and become wards of the state, ready to be shuttled off to a nice white family in need of a child to adopt.
These laws have created a climate where all brown people, regardless of citizenship and national origin, are acutely aware of being monitored: Women have quit their jobs and children have been taken out of school and kept at home, deprived of the chance of a routine life of education, playing with friends and socializing with family and neighbors. The climate of “self-deportation,” is in fact a climate of self-monitoring, of the acute awareness that one is always being surveyed, that one’s comportment, behavior, existence is always under acute scrutiny. Your own fellowchurchgoers will refuse to shake your hands during the passing of the peace (16:50) This is what it means to be an outsider. The law prescribes the attitude that “good law-abiding citizens” should take.
As Hannah Arendt points out in 1958,The administration considers the law to be powerless because it is by definition separated from its application. The decree, on the other hand, does not exist at all except if and when it is applied; it needs no justification except applicability…People ruled by decree never know what rules them because of the impossibility of understanding decrees in themselves and the carefully organized ignorance of specific circumstances and their practical significance in which all administrators keep their subjects. (Origins of Totalitarianism, 244)
[Arendt has another passage that I can’t find on totalitarianism leaves us constantly vulnerable to criminality because offices and the law we are supposed to obey change constantly; a cookie for anyone who can find it].
Before you respond by insisting that “if they don’t want to live like this, they should just go “home,” do remember: those of us who are members of this blighted polity are also subject to the same scrutiny: As Bill Newman and the Mass ACLU have uncovered, the United States is now populated with Fusion Centers. These are local sites which collect, through the marvel of the 2006 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (which your President Obama returned to DC from the campaign trail in August specifically to vote for), yours and my data: collecting your Weight Watchers food diaries online, crossing tollbooths with your EZ pass, pictures of your license plates in cities where you’re not supposed to be at that hour, your encounters on Craigslist and online porn sites, your telephone calls to your best friend and your shrink, your phone sex sessions with your traveling spouse, scrolling through various religious websites for inspirational lectures, online purchases for medications to relieve the symptoms of embarrassing diseases, email interactions with our lefty or radical or….god forbid, Muslim, students.
These Fusion Centers are regional: they collect data locally and then share it with national FBI data centers—this is, indeed, “the rule of law.” It is done legally. And after all, the difference between what is legal and illegal is inscribed through the stroke of a President’s pen on the signature line of a bill. The difference between what is moral and immoral, between privacy and violation of your most sacred thoughts—those too are established through the votes of your Senators and Congresspersons, as well as through the President’s pen. And don’t you worry—it’s a bipartisan effort: Senators Leahy (VT), Boxer (CA), Di-Fi (CA), Pelosi (CA), Gillenbrand (NY), Cantwell (WA), Kerry (MA), Reed (NV), Udall (UT), and the list goes on and one–all voted for the NDAA. The simpler question is, who didn’t vote for it?
The homophobic harassment of Tyler Clementi by Dharun Ravi was a violation of the sacrosanct right to privacy as deployed by an arrogant, young male migrant upon another young, gay, man. Immaturity, narcissism, bias, and youth all appear to be contributing factors in Ravi’s stupid, selfish act. His actions should at least be scrutinized carefully in a court of law, and condemned regardless of the outcome of the trial. Still, how interesting that the extreme, systematic, violation of a group of vulnerable migrants through the concerted surveillance and coercion of state legislation is not to subjected to the same condemnation. “Self-deportation,” as Mitt Romney describes it, is considered less “messy” and less “expensive” than having officials track down, arrest, detain, deport, and break up families. There are records, evidence, and perhaps culpability in the latter. Self-deportation expresses a similar dislocation and pain, a similar fear, the same kind of harassment, coerciveness, and systematic psychic violence that a sole individual with a webcam does to another single person. Need I extend the argument to Fusion Centers? The difference, of course, is that the psychic violence is much more detrimental when leveled against groups who are already vulnerable, groups who are Muslim, South Asian, Middle-Eastern, brown, angry, dissenting, racially conspicuous.
As worse is the climate in which we have accommodated ourselves to having our everyday habits, routines, foibles, peculiarities, private habits, dislikes, sexuality subject to scrutiny by a state—by 50 states—by The State—that records, organizes, classifies their findings against us, ready to bring out at a potentially threatening moment (threatening to the state) to use against us.
Arendt again (in 1951):Rule by decree…is superior simply because it ignores all intermediary stages between issuance and application, and because it prevents political reasoning by the people through the withholding of information.
She refers to the totalitarian state as one in which there is no distinction between public and private: both meld into one, and freedom, public as well as private, is an illusion. There is no home to seek refuge in from the public light of day. Even worse, spontaneity—to laugh, love, inquire, explore—becomes even more rare. One’s every move becomes a defensive calculation against potential violence: should I explore this website? Should I speak out? Should I argue with this administrator? He could turn me in—even falsely—and make my life a living hell. Should I go out to buy groceries this morning? Should I let my child out to play? Can I drive to work today? Psychic violence, violations of intimacies, shredding privacy are equally harmful whether done by one or done by a systematic set of laws, officials, networks, warehouses and databases.
I’ll leave with you a last thought by Arendt:We are not concerned here with the ultimate consequence of rule by terror—namely, that nobody, not even the executors, can ever be free from fear; in our context we are dealing merely with the arbitrariness by which victims are chosen, for this it is decisive that they are objectively innocent, that they are chosen regardless of why they may or may not have done… In order to establish a totalitarian regime, terror must be present as an instrument for carrying out a specific ideology; and that ideology must have won the adherence of many, and even a majority, before terror can be stabilized…And an ideology which has to persuade and mobilize people cannot choose its victim arbitrarily. (Arendt, OT, 6-7)