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The Post-Cold War Origins of the Surveillance State


Just a few months ago I visited Israel for the first time in 40 years. I stayed in a distant aunt’s apartment, in the spare room that doubled as a shelter from missile attacks. Its two-foot thick walls were curious to me, and the idea of missiles raining down on suburban Tel Aviv was rather abstract. Such security concerns felt very localised, and the global dynamics of War on Terror felt like a different epoch.

The Hamas terror attacks and Western response are a sharp return to those dynamics, though we had been living with their offspring for some time – the new systems of censorship have their origins in the War on Terror, which then shifted to countering violent extremism, and expanded to countering anti-elite dissent more broadly.

The earth pivots on its axis once more. I’ve seen five in my lifetime – the fall of communism, 9/11, Trump and Brexit, Covid, and now the Hamas attacks. The last three pivots coming in just the past seven years. Apart from the first, all the others resulted in a radical winding back of civil liberties. That looks to be the case again and it could get far worse, especially if there are more attacks in the West itself.

I am now old enough to see the pattern in these moments. There are calm heads who have the best interests of the people at heart, and there are always a plethora of opportunists who do not. On each occasion, we are asked to give up our liberties, and in most cases, we never see them returned.

Just last month President Biden renewed the US state of emergency put in place since 9/11. 22 years.

The Neocons paved the way for the new authoritarianism with their secret courts, lies on WMDs and the Iraq invasion, and the construction of a massive system of surveillance. Corporate liberals enthusiastically jumped on board, expanding the surveillance state and then remodeling the War on Terror to “counter violent extremism,” justifying the micro-policing of the internet to combat hate and “disinformation.”

Both approaches were devoid of principles – rather each asked “Which political grouping is most advantageous to me?” and went about weaponizing the tools at their disposal. For woke liberals and progressives that meant an alliance with the intelligence community and the administrative state (the Censorship-Industrial Complex) to counter populist movements and to rein in dissent more broadly. This system seemingly reached its zenith during Covid, where freedom of expression advocates turned a blind eye (or worse joined) efforts to censor legitimate speech.

We may be nowhere near the zenith.

Now that alliance with the administrative state is fraying. Progressives and liberals in the digital rights space were happy to sign up for NATO-aligned censorship initiatives when the enemy was Russia. Many are unlikely to do the same for Palestine. In fact, many celebrated Hamas’ pogrom. BLM Chicago tweeted their support of the massacre at the music festival, pro-Hamas protesters in Sydney chanted “gas the Jews,” and 34 Harvard student organisations claimed the rapes and killings committed by Hamas were “entirely” the fault of Israel. 

Just the day before too much side-eye could lose you your job.

The fact that progressives found it hard to condemn the killing of Jews (orthodox, left, right, liberal alike) or need to “contextualise” a Nazi being applauded in Canada’s parliament, shows us just how crazy things have become. But this “speech” has also exposed the bigotry of those who claim to fight bigotry.

No one can seemingly walk and chew gum.

If there is any silver lining it is that the depths of this hypocrisy have been exposed, along with the people who coddle and fail to confront them.

And now the censors are coming for the woke and the free Palestine movement. Already positions are shifting radically on censorship – some free speech champions on the right now advocate censorship, and previously enthusiastic censors on the left now rail against getting canceled.

In FranceGermanyBritain, and Australia there are crackdowns on legitimate protest and free expression in support of Palestine and against the war. Thierry Breton, European Commissioner for the Internal Market, went further with his threats against social media.

Only a few months ago I wrote that it is “important to return to strong principles of free expression, including for ideas we dislike. The shoe will one day again be on the other foot. When that day comes free speech will not be the enemy of liberals and progressives, it will be the best possible protection against the abuse of power.”

That day has come much more quickly than I anticipated.

Those who have grounded themselves in politics rather than principles have created a great unmooring that has left us vulnerable to the latest political huckster and led us down a dark, dark, path.

This is not a call for equanimity – that Jews should just have to deal with threats to protect freedom of expression, and vice-versa. There are laws to deal with calls for actual violence and the glorification of terrorism. That should be the small reserve of hate speech laws, rather than micro-policing the clumsy speech of everyday citizens.

But unfortunately, it will probably not work like that. The Pandora’s box of everyday surveillance was opened by the Neocons and expanded by corporate liberals and their woke allies. Into that current will be swept speech and expression of all kinds; hateful, constructive, and otherwise.

Is the speed and force of this shift enough to convince those who had abandoned free speech to renormalise it as a principle? The shoe is now on the other foot.

Republished from the author’s Substack

Published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
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  • Andrew Lowenthal

    Andrew Lowenthal is a Brownstone Institute fellow, journalist, and the founder and CEO of liber-net, a digital civil liberties initiative. He was co-founder and Executive Director of the Asia-Pacific digital rights non-profit EngageMedia for almost eighteen years, and a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society and MIT’s Open Documentary Lab.

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