The Religion of Extreme Surveillance in America

Dostoevsky predicted The Religion of the Surveillance State

Julian Assange said in a recent interview (below) that the state of extreme surveillance has become the new religion in the U.S.

Oxford Dictionary defines religion:  noun [mass noun]: the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods, such as: “ideas about the relationship between science and religion”; [as a count noun] a particular system of faith and worship: the world’s great religions; a pursuit or interest followed with great devotion, such as: “consumerism is the new religion.”  [Origin: from Old French, or from Latin religio(n-) ‘obligation, bond, reverence’, perhaps based on Latin religare ‘to bind’]

This begs the question: Must one consciously assent in order for something to deemed a religion? Implicitly the answer would seem to be yes. But in the case of “The Religion of Extreme Surveillance,” assent is not necessary for it to hold sway and carry its impact. In this regard, it seems that the true challenge the Religion of Surveillance would be active dissent. But then we enter the murky waters of “whistleblowing.” Then we are deemed the enemy, or at least, traitors, which is why I have finally gotten clear on where I stand on the troubling case of Edward Snowden (to be written about soon).

As it is right now, a lack of dissent is sufficient to keep the Religion robust. It is having its way, defining the terms and setting the rules: spying on you and me keeps us safe (you’re all right with that, yes?). It also clarifies the consequences for those who oppose the Religion: you will be tracked, spied upon, hounded, harassed, sometimes humiliated and possibly have your passport revoked.  The Religion says: You want this. Your constitutional rights must be forfeited so that  we can keep you safe.

The post-9/11 trauma brought us to our knees and we gladly surrendered our rights!  One should not be surprised that the terms of this surrender keep changing. The Patriot Act (which stands for Uniting & Strengthening America (by) Providing Appropriate Tools Required (to) Intercept (and) Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001 — USA PATRIOT) expanded the role of law enforcement and has, in turn, became the justification for all manner of violations of basic constitutional rights.

One of the authors of the Patriot Act, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, expressed alarm at the recent disclosures about the invasive and indiscriminate dragnet surveillance going on by the government, culling personal information from an untenable, disproportionate swathe of American citizens:

“In an interview on Laura Ingraham’s radio show Wednesday morning, the Republican congressman from Wisconsin reiterated his concerns that the administration and the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court have gone far beyond what the PATRIOT Act intended. Specifically, he said that Section 215 of the act “was originally drafted to prevent data mining” on the scale that’s occurred.

Sensenbrenner, the current chairman on the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations, suggested that the secret nature of the FISA court has prevented appropriate congressional oversight over the NSA’s activities.”

Rep. Sensenbrenner further asserted “I don’t agree” with Washington’s dismissal of leaker Edward Snowden as a traitor. He said he would not have known the extent of abuse by the FISA court and the NSA without Snowden’s disclosures.

So I have come to understand what Assange meant when he called Extreme Surveillance the New Religion in America.

The idea is helpfully articulated in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s chapter “The Grand Inquisitor” in The Brothers Karamazov.  The chapter entails a protracted monologue by the agnostic and cynical brother Ivan to his listening and devout brother Alyosha, recounting a parable he wrote. It involved the Spanish Inquisition and the Grand Inquisitor putting Christ (who had returned to the land of mortals) on trial.

When (in the parable) the Inquisitor addresses Christ’s third temptation, in which Christ refused to accept from Satan the kingdom of the world, Dostoevsky seems to be scrutinizing humanity’s craving for security. By refusing to take “the sword of Caesar” from the hand of Satan, Christ opted instead to watch the onset of “the confusion of free thought” that would inevitably corrupt to a stable society. This confusion, in turn, sets the stage for impostors like the Grand Inquisitor  to “plan the universal happiness of man.” Some say Dostoevsky  was prefiguring modern democracy-gone-wrong, such as hauntingly resembles our predicament today. The Inquisitor says to Christ: “You have only Your elect [few], while we give rest to all. We promise that only when they renounce their freedom and submit to us will they be free.” He defies the silent Christ to contradict him.

In essence the Inquisitor is saying that by abandoning their freedom of choice (and submitting all choices to the Inquisator) the masses are also abandoning their capacity to know or choose good from evil and thus abdicating personal responsibility.  They bow to him.  He does the dirty work. Dostoevsky’s point is: in giving up personal freedom, they entrust their destinies and their souls to another’s providence, which of necessity then places them outside of God’s providence.

Assange was quite lucid on the this point. The Religion of Extreme Surveillance has become a new god to which many, knowingly and unknowingly, have acquiesced without dissent. We want safety and if Extreme Surveillance will secure it then we will bow to it. Concomitantly, alas, this places one outside the realm of God’s providence.

The bigger point is: it is the Grand Lie. The Religion of Extreme Surveillance will not secure our safety. We will never be safe from the spectre of terrorism. The only antidote I see is renouncing the fear of it and refusing to be among the coddled minions clamoring to be saved by the Grand Religion. We must assume the burden of choosing between good and evil, casting our lot with God’s providence and surrendering the contingencies to Him.

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About Wendy Murray

Wendy Murray is a veteran and award-winning journalist. She served as associate editor and Senior Writer at Christianity Today magazine and has written extensively for other publications such as Books & Culture and The Christian Century. She has written 11 books.