Former Wisconsin Governor and Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson has volunteered to have a radio tracking chip the size of a pinhead implanted in his arm. It will contain all his personal information and allow him to be globally positioned round the clock. Since he’s on the board of Verichip, the company that makes the device, I can only surmise that he’s banking on this as a marketing strategy for a technology Homeland Security will soon roll out for us all. A nice little subcutaneous chip with satellite potential is even more efficiently panoptic than a national identity card. But it does have an awfully Orwellian edge, tinged as it is by images of parolees, the chronically ill and bionic claws. What better way to give it an aura of respectability than to implant it in a stodgy old cheesehead like Thompson? It’s like those soothing canards we tell children: Pulling this tooth with this rope, those leeches and a set of tongs isn’t going to hurt one bit. You won’t feel a thing while we sort you by race, religion, buying habits and weakness for the demon rum. See, here’s old Uncle Tommy, who’s going to show you how it’s done.
As billions of dollars shift from education and infrastructure toward defense in our “homeland,” as security forces both here and abroad become less and less broadly educated in anything other than martial science, it is interesting to ponder what money is going where in the now-no-longer “war on terror” (the Bush Administration renamed it “a global struggle against violent extremism,” in case you’re behind the times). The Chinese government recently contracted with a company in Boston for a healthy shipment of bomb-detecting machines with which to protect its rail system. Like the little match girl, we might wonder if that kind of machine couldn’t serve us well too.
But alas, on American trains bewildered conductors have been instructed to look for heavily dressed, shifty-eyed muggles who act “suspiciously.” Citizens are encouraged to follow their gut: “If you see something, say something.” And so buildings are emptied, roads blocked, subways stopped based on Roswellian sightings of Evildoers. In New York City five innocent tourists with British accents were handcuffed and Broadway cordoned off for hours because a tour bus operator had been advised that “stuffed pockets” were a sign of suicide bombers. In the subway every twelfth passenger is asked to open purse, packages and backpack. People call into radio programs demanding more racial profiling–of races “other” than themselves. New Yorkers call for profiling anyone who appears “Asian!” “Arab!” “Muslim!”–broad terms in a city where 100 percent of the population could “appear” to be one or some combination of the above.
So here we are: 100 percent of New Yorkers suspicious of everyone else, startled as jack rabbits, shaken by official mandates to report big bags, unfriendly glances and people who look lost. What more perfect way to tie up a city. Indeed, on a daily basis, false alarms clog traffic, empty theaters and halt industry. This to my mind is not “an abundance of caution” but the very definition of “irrational fear.” This unmoored panic is so sadly disconnected from the destructive potential of determined saboteurs, those operatives who will always find ways to be ninth, tenth and eleventh rather than twelfth, or to “appear” un-Asian, un-Arab and un-Muslim in ways that play against our racialized cultural perceptions. If the tragic execution of a Brazilian electrician who “looked Asian”–an act apparently enabled by Britain’s new policy of shooting-to-kill terrorism “suspects”–has taught us nothing else, it ought to have been the folly of appearance-based assumptions about criminality. Yet as I write, the head of Boston’s transit system is announcing that you can tell a person who is sweating nervously from someone who is sweating because of the heat. It is a hundred degrees in Boston at the moment. We have become a house divided against itself.
Security experts must know that neither bag searches nor racial profiling can protect subways efficiently or at all. But there are better options: Where are the teams of bomb-sniffing dogs that should have been in our subways long ago? Is Homeland Security shopping for any of those machines the Chinese have had such perspicacity to buy in bulk?
In the meantime I suggest that we all log on and track Tommy Thompson as he goes about his business, particularly that business in the boardroom of Verichip. It could be a new reality game. MapQuest meets Where’s Waldo. Tommycam.com. We could track him yawning, scratching his belly, missing his mouth with his fork; follow him up and down the aisles of Wal-Mart, average the time he lingers at this or that counter, calculate the time he spends in his car divided by distances traveled. Even better, we can make him the national fair average for model American males.
If Iowa is the midlevel American accent, Where Tommy Goes will be the template for our new American Standard for unsuspicion. Like a credit card, if he wanders out of his normal range of perambulation, the computer can home right in on him and make sure he isn’t being kidnapped. It’s for his own good, of course. We will be able to follow him into the bedroom, the bathroom and the doctor’s office. Our teenage sons will acquire the cheat sheets for intimate moments found by savvy hackers who will happily sell them online at a bargain. What Tommy Wears will be the measure of whether our own coats are too heavy, given the warmth of the weather. The contents of Tommy’s Backpack will of course always be public knowledge–he’s got nothing to hide!–and mothers will plan their children’s box lunches according to whether he packs liverwurst or a BLT. He might want to make sure he always carries a condom in his wallet, so he can set a public example for Safe Sex. Inquiring minds will want to know.
It’s only fair, I think: If we’re going to have a society surveilled 24/7, let’s begin at the top.