From Thugs to Douche Bros: the Evolution of the Surveillance State

The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil. 

— Hannah Arendt (1906 – 1975)

That’s Hannah Arendt’s second most famous line about evil. Her most famous phrase, used to describe the Nuremberg trial of Adolf Eichmann, is what she characterized as “the banality of evil.” How is it possible, she asked, that this boringly pathetic nebbish of a man, shown here holding a big furry rabbit on a farm in Argentina before he was captured, could have been one of the masterminds behind the Holocaust? Her answer: evil on the scale of a Holocaust requires banality precisely because it is evil at scale. Scale requires bureaucracy. Scale requires the machinery of the modern state, which in turn requires hundreds or thousands of bureaucrats and lawyers and functionaries of all sorts doing their little humdrummingly evil part.

I was in Vilnius, Lithuania this weekend, my first time to visit the Baltics. Vilnius is an old walled city, which I LOVE, so I spent most of a day exploring the fortifications and thinking D&D thoughts. But I saw on my little tourist map something called the KGB Museum. Curiosity sufficiently piqued, I went and checked it out. Here’s a picture of one corner of the building. Not so long ago I would have been arrested for taking this photo.

It’s a small museum, taking up just a tiny portion of the building, with the entrance off to the side. There are some exhibition rooms upstairs, a few of which are reconstructions of the surveillance offices manned until the last days of Russian occupation. It’s exactly like Hannah Arendt would have expected, sheerly bureaucratic. You can just imagine the bored to tears lieutenant taking a long drag on his cheap cigarette, opening up a file drawer to retrieve the assignment form he must fill out in triplicate on carbon paper to have another tourist trailed or another student monitored. It’s more than just banal. It’s drudgery. It’s surveillance for the sake of surveillance.

And then there’s the prison in the basement.

Yep, it’s an honest to god prison, with guard rooms, intake and processing rooms, cells … and an execution chamber for shooting people in the back of the head. Actually, the execution chamber wasn’t the most chilling bit. That honor goes to the padded cell, something I’ve only seen in campy movies. Only it’s not some well-lit room with observation windows and all that. No, turns out that padded cells are padded more for their soundproofing qualities than anything else, because the screams of the tortured and the broken can really grate after a while. All right there in downtown Vilnius, right across from a pleasant park square, all in a reasonably impressive but utterly forgettable government building, the kind you’ve seen 100 times in every capital in every country in the world.

One impression I got from the museum – and maybe this was the impression that I was intended to get, or maybe it’s just my bias about Russians – is that the evil of this place was banal, for sure, but it was also thuggish. Bullying thugs in the early days when Stalin was still kicking around, and more bureaucratic thugs through the Khrushchev and Brezhnev years, but thugs nonetheless. I mean … a padded cell? A room devoted to shooting people in the back of the head? There was no glory in this posting, no movement up the KGB career ladder for going to the Lithuanian office. You were just a thug.

I mention this because I have a very different impression about the type of people who are managing the creation of the surveillance bureaucracy in the United States. I don’t think they’re thugs. I think they’re highly educated men (a few women, but almost all men) from Team Elite universities, drawn from both political parties but more recently very much from the GOP side. They are cliquish and clubby, most comfortable in the company of other similarly situated men. They are bros.

I think they’re mostly lawyers, the sort of lawyers who write briefs excusing torture. The sort of lawyers who draft Patriot Acts. The sort of lawyers who, if they become judges, take every opportunity to undercut the Fourth Amendment.

I don’t think they’re evil people. Evil would require too much effort. But they are douches. Meaning they are casual in their thoughtlessness. Meaning they are careless in their words and actions. Meaning they tend to treat others as a means to an end rather than as an end in themselves. Meaning, as Arendt wrote, they never made up their minds to be good or evil, but just rumble forward rhinoceros-like wherever the state tells them to go.

It’s just as banal an evil as the KGB lieutenant sitting in that office in Vilnius. Only today they wear expensive suits, congratulate themselves for being public servants, and look forward to their next elevation.

I’m not so idealistic as to think I can change all this. But I don’t have to smile and nod. I don’t have to acquiesce. I don’t have to become a rhinoceros, too.

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