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Indians to U.S.: Welcome to the Panopticon

A dominant metaphor in colonial political science of this generation has come from the British utilitarian Jeremy Bentham by way of the French post-modernist, Michel Foucault: the Panopticon, a prison design where the architecture allow constant surveillance by guards, who are unseen by the inmates.

The newest use of the Panopticon metaphor comes from another Brit, Emile Simpson, in an essay about the NSA surveillance controversy. Simpson states the paradox of the NSA as follows: “When an enemy may be anywhere, the state looks everywhere. So how can it infringe on privacy nowhere?”

I’ve written before about how those of us born in Indian country grow up without much personal privacy, but the Panopticon metaphor is not apt because the surveillance is not a line of superior to inferior but rather a web. Everybody knows everybody else’s business, or thinks they do.

It seems to me, observing from my roots rather than European academia, that being watched may be something we could get used to if the government would take watching in the other direction seriously.

Every reporter has had to assimilate the phrase “file a FOIA,” pronounced FOY-ah and referring to the Freedom of Information Act. That law had the laudable purpose of making government more transparent to the people, but bureaucrats have turned it to exactly the opposite purpose.

The FOIA sets out a bureaucratic rigmarole to follow if there is a disagreement on what is public and that rigmarole must be followed before you can go to court and complain. Going to court, of course, is more rigmarole with expense added on top. Most of the reporters for whom “file a FOIA” is all in a day’s work have a publication standing behind them with lawyers on retainer.

What if you are the proverbial blogger working from your parents’ basement? Or just a voter who wants to know who influenced a particular decision and how? The purpose of FOIA was not to enact a barrier, which it has done, but to tear down barriers between the people and the government. You should seldom have to file a FOIA because most information should just be turned over to anybody who asks without question.

I’m not claiming tribal governments don’t have the same problem. I once contacted my own tribal office to ask a simple question about how many Cherokees lived in the homelands as opposed to elsewhere, and that simple question plunged me down a rabbit hole from which I did not emerge in time for my deadline.

While I don’t exactly understand bureaucratic secrecy mania, whether federal or state or tribal, I do understand how it makes people feel. The bureaucrat, intentionally or not, is making the point that he or she does not work for you. The bureaucracy is entitled to know anything about you while you are entitled to know nothing about the bureaucracy.

Back to Mr. Simpson’s Panopticon paradox. Terrorism is not a place or a person; it is a tactic. Specifically, it is a tactic historically only useful in asymmetrical warfare. The US may have practiced terrorism and it certainly violated international law by incinerating areas of Dresden and Tokyo that had no military significance, but that terrorism was no more effective than Germany’s similar terrorism in Coventry, London, or Belfast. Stalingrad and Leningrad were laid waste. Warsaw and Helsinki caught terrorism from both sides in the sense of death from the sky raining on civilians.

Terrorism against civilians was a major tactic in the Indian wars. A fellow named George Armstrong Custer had made his Indian fighting reputation against quiet camps of women and children and elders until the day he finally attacked a superior force from the Great Sioux Nation and their Cheyenne and Arapaho allies when fighting men were at home. What the Cheyenne remember from Sand Creek was terrorism on steroids, and the epic battle of the Nez Perce only ended as it did because of regard for the women and children…on the Indian side.

Yes, Indians know terrorism from our histories, and so we know that it seldom works to break a people’s spirit, which is the point. Sometimes terrorism becomes a tit for tat nightmare, as when Geronimo set out to avenge the killing of his family by Mexican troops, or the atrocities on both sides of the war between Texans and the Kiowa-Comanche Alliance.

Americans are terrorism targets at home because the people we have defined as enemies lack the resources for the conventional battlefield. They live under Predator drones packing Hellfire missiles, so they consider it more than fair if we have to worry whether some dude on an airliner is going to light up his exploding underwear. More than fair, because they give a life in each strike, while our strikes are more…sanitary.

Pointing out this plain fact of the matter is enough, in the opinion of some, to get me branded a “terrorist sympathizer,” and therefore worthy of surveillance. Or, oddly enough, even objecting to surveillance can make you a target of it. Because terrorism is not a place or a person, the area of concern can quickly become home, anyone’s home.

Suicide bombers—the terrorists we claim to fear—do what they do when they can see no other choice against a power that dwarfs them. The Tunisian fruit vendor who lit himself on fire. The private pilot from my hometown who crashed his plane into the IRS building. Countless teenagers in the Middle East we wish knew better. If we want them to know better, the remedy is not more Hellfire drones but rather choices. Ways to live a life controlled by themselves and not by others.

Government surveillance is based on the slogan that knowledge is power, a slogan heavily freighted with truth-value. So, government, you want us to acquiesce to your knowledge of our every move? Extend to us the same power over you. For whom do you work, anyway?

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.