The pre-Enlightenment has just been beaten by the post-Enlightenment.
As the last fundamentalist fighters are hunted through the mountains
of eastern Afghanistan, the world's most comprehensive attempt to defy
modernity has been atomized. But this is not, as almost everyone claims,
a triumph for civilization; for the Taliban has been destroyed by a
regime which is turning its back on the values it claims to defend.
In West Virginia, a 15-year-old girl is fighting the
state's supreme court. Six weeks ago, Katie Sierra was suspended from
Sissonville high school in Charleston. She had committed two horrible
crimes. The first was to apply to found an anarchy club, the second
was to come to classes in a T-shirt on which she had written "Against Bush, Against Bin
Laden" and "When I saw the dead and dying Afghani children
on TV, I felt a newly recovered sense of national security. God bless
America." The headmaster claimed that Katie's actions were disrupting
other pupils' education. "To my students," he explained, "the
concept of anarchy is something that is evil and bad." The county
court upheld her suspension, and at the end of November the state's
supreme court refused to hear the case she had lodged in defense of
Katie is just one of many young dissenters fighting for
the most basic political freedoms. A few days before Katie was suspended,
AJ Brown, a 19-year-old woman studying at Durham Tech, North Carolina,
answered the door to three security agents. They had been informed,
they told her, that she was in possession of "anti-American material".
Someone had seen a poster on her wall, campaigning against George Bush's
use of the death penalty. They asked her whether she also possessed
On October 10, 22-year-old Neil Godfrey was banned from
boarding a plane traveling from Philadelphia to Phoenix because he
was carrying a novel by the anarchist writer Edward Abbey. At the beginning
of November, Nancy Oden, an anti-war activist on her way to a conference,
was surrounded at Bangor airport in Maine by soldiers with automatic
weapons and forbidden to fly on the grounds that she was a "security risk".
These incidents and others like them become significant in the light
of two distinct developments.
The first is the formal suspension of certain civil liberties by governments
backing the war in Afghanistan. The new anti-terror acts approved in
Britain and the US have, like the reinstatement of the CIA's license
to kill, been widely reported. The measures introduced by some other
allied governments are less well known. In the Czech Republic, for example,
a new law permits the prosecution of people expressing sympathy for the
attacks on New York, or even of those sympathizing with the sympathizers.
Already one Czech journalist, Tomas Pecina, a reporter for the Prague-based
investigative journal Britske Listy, has been arrested and charged for
criticizing the use of the law, on the grounds that this makes him, too,
a supporter of terrorism.
The second is the remarkably rapid development of surveillance technology,
of the kind which has been deployed to such devastating effect in Afghanistan.
Unmanned spy planes which could follow the Taliban's cars and detect
the presence of humans behind 100 feet of rock are both awesome and terrifying.
Technologies like this, combined with CCTV, face-recognition software,
email and phone surveillance, microbugs, forensic science, the monitoring
of financial transactions and the pooling of government databases, ensure
that governments now have the means, if they choose to deploy them, of
following almost every move we make, every word we utter.
I made this point to a Labour MP a couple of days ago.
He explained that it was "just ridiculous" to suggest that better technologies
could lead to mass surveillance in Britain. Our defense against abuses
by government was guaranteed not only by parliament, but also by the
entire social framework in which it operated. Civil society would ensure
there was no danger of these technologies falling into the "wrong
But what we are witnessing in the US is a rapid reversal of the civic
response which might once have defended the rights and liberties of its
citizens. Katie Sierra's suspension was proposed by her school and upheld
by the courts. The agents preventing activists from boarding planes were
assisted by the airlines. The student accused of poster crime may well
have been shopped by one of her neighbors. The state is scorching the
constitution, and much of civil society is reaching for the bellows.
This, I fear, may be just the beginning. The new surveillance
technology deployed in Afghanistan is merely one component of the US
doctrine of "full-spectrum
dominance". The term covered, at first, only military matters: the
armed forces sought to achieve complete mastery of land, sea, air, airwaves
and space. But perhaps because this has been achieved too easily, the
words have already begun to be used more widely, as commercial, fiscal
and monetary policy, the composition of foreign governments and the activities
of dissidents are redefined as matters of security. Another term for "full-spectrum
is absolute power.
There are, of course, profound differences between the US and Britain.
The US sees itself as a wounded nation; many of its people feel desperately
vulnerable and insecure. But while our cowardly MPs seek only to dissociate
themselves from the victims being persecuted by Torquemada Blair's inquisitors,
the lord chancellor's medieval department is preparing to dispense with
most jury trials, which are arguably now the foremost institutional restraint
on the excesses of government.
The paradox of the Enlightenment is that the universalist project is
brokered by individualism. The universality of human rights, in other
words, can be defended only by the diversity of opinion. Most of the
liberties which permit us to demand the equitable treatment of the human
community - privacy, the freedom of speech, belief and movement - imply
a dissociation from coherent community.
While those who seek to deny our liberties claim to defend individualism,
in truth they gently engineer a conformity of belief and action, which
is drifting towards a new fundamentalism. This is an inevitable product
of the fusion of state and corporate power. Capital, as Adam Smith shows
us, strives towards monopoly. The states which defend it permit the planning
laws, tax breaks, externalization and blanket advertising which ensure
that most of us shop in the same shops, eat in the same restaurants,
wear the same clothes. The World Trade Organization, World Bank and IMF
apply the same economic and commercial prescription worldwide, enabling
the biggest corporations to trade under the same conditions everywhere.
Some of those who, in defiance of this dispensation,
write their own logos on their T-shirts are now being persecuted by
the state. The pettiness of its attentions, combined with its ability
to scrutinize every detail of our lives, suggest that we could be about
to encounter a new form of political control, swollen with success,
unchecked by dissent. Nothing has threatened the survival of "western values" as
much as the triumph of the west.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001