When we talk about surveillance in other countries, repression in other countries, political problems in other countries, we need to keep in mind that we have some problems here as well, and some problems abroad that we have helped to cause. Whenever we talk about the rest of the world, we ourselves are standing in a shadow: the shadow of Guantánamo, the shadow of Abu Ghraib, the shadow of extreme rendition, the shadow of an American government that no longer respects an American constitution, the shadow cast by every FBI agent who walks into a library or bookstore and demands to see the records of its patrons and customers.
When we think about surveillance we tend to think of the high-tech monitoring of persons of interest, suspected political enemies, people of importance, people already in the spotlight. But for a long time our government has been one of those that considers its own poor to be dangerous, politically seditious, and therefore necessary to watch closely and to terrorize—or at least demoralize. At a recent PEN program for New York City high school students, a writer asked the audience how many of the kids present had been harassed by the police or arrested merely for hanging out with their friends. Nearly every nonwhite hand in the room went up.
One of the girls told the following story. She had gone to visit a friend and had been unsure which apartment her friend lived in. She hesitated in the lobby. Moments later a cop came in and arrested her for loitering. Her first thought was, “My mom is going to kill me”—and now, she said, she has a juvenile arrest record.
Surveillance occurs not only in distant countries, aided by satellites, wire taps, and underground command posts, but in a very low-tech, up-close-and-personal way right here, right now in the lobby of an apartment building in our own Washington Heights.