Eternal Vigilance…

In the wake of the internet-wide SOPA protests I found this well known quote bouncing around in my head:

Eternal vigilance is the price of peace [and liberty]

This is a paraphrase of a quote that has been variously attributed to Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and, no doubt, Kim Kardashian at some point or other. (By the way I appended the [and liberty] bit because it didn’t feature in the version of the quote in my head, but it does tend to be included when the quote appears outside of my head). Either way, it occurred to me that this sentiment was no longer strictly accurate, so a few minutes later I tweeted this:

Eternal vigilance is the cost of peace; but the price of liberty

(See, this time I did include the liberty bit in there). Unfortunately no one was being sufficiently vigilant at the time to retweet this fried gold epithet, but I was impressed enough with myself to consider writing a blog post about it … which is this blog post …

So, read on for the reasons why I think this famous phrase needs to be, basically, rephrased.

Price vs Cost

What’s the difference between price and cost? Don’t they mean the same thing? Your opinion may differ, but to me price is something you are asked to pay: its a term of a potential contract (“This TV set is priced at $900 – do you want to pay that or not?”). Conversely cost is something that has already been taken from you (“That TV set cost me $900!”). By extension cost is not always something you have a choice in.

Hence, the semantic difference between the original quote and mine is that the first implies we have a choice: we all have to be eternally vigilant if we want to maintain a state of peace. My updated version reflects a theory that the cost of peace has already been extracted from us.

Who watches the watchers?

panopticon.jpgEternal vigilance is happening all around us, but it’s us who are being watched: we are now the [potential] enemy. If you remember The Matrix – the good one (the only one) – you might recall the scene where Morpheus explains that any person inside the matrix can be taken over by an agent at any time, therefore every single (innocent) person is to be treated as an enemy. Following that discussion Keanu Reeves goes on to murder a staggering number of people who just happened to be in the wrong lobby at the wrong time. I had a huge problem with this ethic at the time, fictional or not, but it demonstrates how easily people can be made to accept this terrible way of thinking. For instance, do you remember anyone complaining about all the innocent people being shot to pieces while Keanu danced up and down the walls? Do you remember anyone walking out of the cinema in disgust? I certainly don’t (and I didn’t).

Let’s now consider how our liberties have been slowly, sometimes subtly, stripped away in the wake of 9/11. For example, it’s now considered perfectly normal that the US government can snoop on almost anyone they like. Of course, this sort of thing isn’t restricted to the US, but the US is the country that most volubly (and incorrectly) claims to be the home of free speech. Any one of us could be a terrorist, therefore it’s okay for our governments to spy on every one of us: we are all now effectively guilty unless proven innocent (and even then we’re probably still being eyed suspiciously from a dark corner at the end of the street). It’s a bit like saying to all your neighbours: “I think one of you is talking about me, therefore it’s okay for me to put hidden cameras inside all of your houses”.

Our governments argue that the only way they can keep us safe is to keep watching us all the time: we have nothing to hide therefore we shouldn’t be worried about being watched, but that terrorist next door will do his best to hide what he’s doing so we need to remove all of his hiding places. We need to be able to intercept his emails, listen to his phonecalls, read his mail. The fact that our privacy is also up for invasion shouldn’t bother us because we’re being kept nice and safe from the terrorist who wants nothing more than to destroy everything we stand for. Oh, and we have nothing to hide, which is why we don’t need to lock our doors at night or put curtains over our bedroom windows.

Where’s Mel?

You can define freedom in many ways, but one thing you can always associate with the loss of freedom is a distinct loss of privacy: think of a prison, where you’re watched all the time; or a totalitarian state, where your every word is subject to scrutiny and censorship; or being grounded, so your parents can keep an eye on you. In short, being watched constantly, and surrendering that huge chunk of our personal freedom, is the price we are asked (made?) to pay in order to protect ourselves against our enemies and maintain peace. It’s an oxymoron: loss of freedom is the price we pay to maintain our freedom.

But surely if these powers are only being ‘used for good’ then we don’t need to worry? Think again. There are probably hundreds of examples of anti-terrorism powers being abused (i.e. being used against people who aren’t terrorists, or who can’t legitimately be suspected of being a terrorist), but one I remember from a long time ago is when the UK police used exactly those powers in order to arrest demonstrators at a weapons fair. Not terrorists: demonstrators (yes, the UK government found a way to make it illegal to protest!). More recently the Metropolitan police actually found a way to label demonstrators as terrorists. And it doesn’t even take an organised protest for police to stop you in your tracks now.

So what are we being protected from? People who don’t want our governments to sell weapons to dodgy countries? People who think it’s wrong that millions are left in poverty while a privileged few take all the money? Children’s TV presenters?

The real Wizard of Oz is…

But this is still okay, right? Because all the police are doing are trying to stop people who might be trying to blow up the rest of us from time to time? Think again – some of the most intrusive laws being proposed (and some that have already passed) relate not to terrorism but to copyright.

At some point, or maybe it’s always been the case, our governing bodies ended up being guided more by profit than ethics – protecting mere profits became more important than protecting us. Here’s an example (admittedly from 2009) that illustrates how robbing your neighbour’s house actually incurs a much significantly lower penalty than downloading a few songs

How can an act that doesn’t even have a proven impact on a corporation be deemed so much more serious than an crime that would likely traumatize someone and potentially ruin their life? Simply to protected their perceived profits (the financial impact of piracy is not even proven) media corporations, often with government support, would happily put laws into place that would to all intents and purposes control what we do on the internet. The most chilling scenario was put forward on the radio this morning: imagine a world where simply emailing a song to a friend could land you in jail. While this is perhaps over dramatic, laws like SOPA (with their broad remit and vague definitions) would enable this sort of thing to happen.

Some of us may be willing to surrender a bit of privacy on the pretext that it’ll make life harder for terrorists (that’s a debatable point, but one for another day), but I expect none of us would sacrifice anything in order to ensure that Hollywood execs can keep paying their pool boys and limo drivers.

SOPA has been defeated, but there will be other similar bills that come in its wake. The only reason that SOPA didn’t actually become law is because people were watching and put their hands up when they smelled a rat. Hollywood fully expected this bill to pass; they expected no one to pay it much attention, and they certainly didn’t expect the backlash that it rightfully received. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to those who identified the threat and we should thank all the people who raised warning flags and took a stand that our internet remains untouched.

For now.

These are the reasons why eternal vigilance is now the price of liberty. We are ourselves watched, which is the claimed cost of peace, but If we don’t remain eternally vigilant for those things which really threaten us – which often come from ‘inside’ – then we will end up losing those very liberties which our governments pretend so hard that they’re fighting to protect.

Watch the skies! You’re next! You’re next!