This morning’s New York Times reports protests from members of Congress over the FBI’s repeated abuses of the Patriot Act to spy illegally on citizens. Glenn A. Fine, the inspector general of the Justice Department, reported that the use of “national security letters,” authorizing warrentless spying, had escalated:
There were 8,500 in 2000, the year before the Patriot Act broadened surveillance powers. There were 39,000 in 2003, 56,000 in 2004 and 47,000 in 2005, the years covered in Mr. Fine’s review.
But his office found that the number of letters in case files was 20 percent higher than those recorded in the central legal office at the bureau. Those discrepancies, plus slowness in gathering and transmitting data, meant that the numbers of national security requests reported to Congress were “significantly understated,” Mr. Fine wrote.
The Times takes care to say that no lives were destroyed as a result of these abuses. Maybe not, but I have a modest proposal that would make it more likely such assurances had passed a reality check: required viewing of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s film, The Lives of Others, for all elected officials and members of the FBI and Justice Department staffs. That’s for starters, anyway.
I could praise the film as a work of art, truly deserving of its Academy Award for best foreign language feature. But what’s foremost in my awareness right now is its value as a work of political analysis.
In portraying the East German national security state at its height in 1984, The Lives of Others conveys a claustrophobic world in which everyone is being watched, and everyone may be pressed into involuntary service as a watcher. This culture of hyper-security transformed human interaction into an extended form of blackmail, choked with the type of Kafkaesque calculation we hope never to face: betray my partner or risk torture and prison? Betray my neighbor and gain advantage for myself? People were compelled to behave in their own rooms as if their every offhand remark were being broadcast on TV.
Informed estimates say that at the time of the regime’s collapse, one in fifty East German citizens actively collaborated with the Stasi (the Ministry for State Security, the secret police). With today’s U.S. population, that would equal 6 million agents and informers. Think of it: if there are a hundred people at your workplace, at least two of them are keeping and eye on you and reporting to the secret police.
This culture of hyper-security created tremendous opportunity for abuse, with secret police commonly using the instruments of their authority to pursue personal infatuations and grudges. (The inspector general’s report on FBI abuses doesn’t say if any of the abusers were motivated by the desire to eliminate a romantic rival or seek revenge on an enemy, although we know J. Edgar Hoover pursued personal vendettas in office. But in truth, if you have the instrument and lack the scruples, won’t you always wind up using them to aggrandize yourself? As playwright Anton Chekhov famously said, if a pistol appears onstage during the first act, we can be sure it will be fired in the next.)
Half an hour into the film, I had to remember to breathe.
So here’s what’s most remarkable about The Lives of Others: in the nearly opaque atmosphere of the East German prison state, love, idealism and honor persisted. Indeed, the film offers a complete typology of human refusal to be destroyed by illegitimate authority. Some people stand up to the secret police and pay the price; some toggle between courage and terror; some settle for the more limited risk of jokes and sly ridicule. Some rediscover human feeling, a spark of moral courage igniting the cold embers of their hearts and fueling remarkable acts of resistance.
The film focuses tightly on a small group of individuals we get to know and for whom we come to feel something. No more than a dozen faces and voices stand out from the crowd of extras and minor parts. Without spelling it out in a didactic way, we come to see how the state must produce increasingly horrific and irrational displays of power to maintain the culture of fear, and as these displays swell to occupy nearly every social space, how individual refusals aggregate until the hyper-security state collapses of its own weight and the Berlin Wall comes down.
In one scene near the end, the protagonist visits the former archives of the Stasi to review his own files. He is granted total access to every scrap of paper collected on him: the archives are thrown open without reservation for citizens of the united Germany. As my husband and I were driving home from the theater, we pondered how even ordinary American citizens lack comparable access to the information collected on ourselves, while those languishing in our secret prisons are not even permitted to know the charges against them.
The circumstances are very different, of course. The Stasi’s files were opened after the East German regime and all its agencies had been abolished. Neither—despite some citizens’ paranoid denunciations to Homeland Security of foreigners whose complexions they find suspect—is ours the type of culture of surveillance in which it is likely your neighbors and mine are regularly reporting to the secret police on our associates, opinions and reading habits…yet.
This country has been a hyper-security state in the past, during the McCarthyite witch hunts of the 1950s when people lost their livelihoods and went to prison for beliefs and associations. There too, in time, refusal to knuckle under brought McCarthy down. The Bush administration has taken us a long way down the same road since 2001. I look forward to the Congressional hearings likely to follow these latest reports on the FBI, in the hope they will introduce a healthy dose of freedom into the increasingly murky atmosphere of our national insecurity state—before it goes any further.