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Captain America: A Subversive Patriot Against State Surveillance

Post Graduate (Master of Arts) in English Literature and Philosophy

Captain America

Captain America

The Dichotomy of Knowledge

Knowledge has always been an influential factor in governance because knowledge is power and efficient governance, more often than not, depends on the exercising of power over its citizens.

Totalitarian state has always ascribed special significance to the intimate knowledge of the governed people to ensure absolute control over the population.

In the pre-digital era, they established the institution of the secret police which wielded its all-pervasive power over the population, but their primary task was to collect data that would help the government to detect any dissident voices among the population. Without proper detection of these dissenting voices, the totalitarian state never felt at ease. A sense of insecurity lingered for the people in control of the government. The secret police, thus, ensured the proper collection of demographic data and proper detection of the so-called “enemies of the state” so that the state remained immune from internal revolutions and uprisings.

Even so, the totalitarian government often suffered from setbacks because of inefficient functioning of its own governing machinery. Bureaucracy, though efficient with the process of governance, sometimes proved to be a hindrance for total control of the majority party over the government. The system of checks and balances and red tapes sometimes proves to inefficient for the smooth functioning of the government machinery and the majority party finds that it is unable to wield its absolute power over the government and the common people. Hannah Arendt in her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, makes a compelling point that in order to bypass the aforementioned checks and balances of the bureaucracy which functions as the primary engine of the government, the majority party creates an exact copy of the government portfolio within its party and assigns various members of the party to perform exactly as an elected parliamentarian or a government official would. Effectively, the government just becomes a facade for the majority party. The true source of power hides behind the legitimacy of a governing body.

Such an arrangement also helped Hitler to spy on his own government and party members. Since two parallel executive machineries functioned at the same time, the origin of executive orders was purposefully vague. Such orders only carried the connotation it meant the 'will of the Fuehrer' and needed to be carried out without further delay. Hence working in such a government meant serving the source of the power, without any question or dilemma.

It creates a mythic aura around itself which also expected absolute devotion from its followers. It requires an absolute surrender of one's own agency to a single ideology and represents one of the most perverted forms of substantive rationality and blurs the demarcation from the practicality of such an ideological endeavour so much that to the uninitiated to such an organisation, the behaviour of the initiated may seem irrational.

Moreover, Arendt notes that such rationalization in Nazi Germany corresponded with Hitler's dictum that “the total state must not know any difference between law and ethics” (Arendt 1979, p. 394). Hitler rationalized that any valid law arises from ethics which is common to all (the population of the totalitarian state) and such ethics have their roots in the consciences of the population. Hence, further decrees were unnecessary. This kind of shapeless power helps a totalitarian party retain its control over the government. Since the party mimics the government bureaucracy, it maintains its own secret police which keeps the government's secret police under its control. Hence in a totalitarian bureaucracy, virtually every member of the government or the party might be engaged in spying over other departments of the bureau or each member is spied upon by someone else.

This creates a web of power which enmeshes the bureaucracy, the government and the party without anyone having a glimpse of the true centre of power. These bureaucratic positions are so interchangeable in a totalitarian government that every member of the party is suited to do each other's job and no one within the government is truly indispensable or irreplaceable. The feature that any member of the bureaucracy can be replaced at a moments notice increases the efficiency of the bureaucracy as this keeps the bureaucracy functioning like a perfect machine where every cog is replaceable by another new cog.

Max Weber prophesied this in his book Economy and Society where he says “This whole process of rationalization in the factory and elsewhere, and especially in the bureaucratic state machine, parallels the centralization of the material implements of organization in the hands of the master. Thus, discipline inexorably takes over ever-larger areas as the satisfaction of political and economic needs is increasingly rationalized. This universal phenomenon more and more restricts the importance of charisma and of individually differentiated conduct".

Zygmunt Bauman in the Introduction to his book Modernity and the Holocaust also refers to Weber's point of bureaucratization where Weber points out “Precision, speed, unambiguity, knowledge of the files, continuity, discretion, unity, strict subordination, reduction of friction and of material and personal costs--these are raised to the optimum point in the strictly bureaucratic organization”.

The totalitarian bureaucracy substitutes the knowledge of the files by knowledge of population and knowledge of the people running the bureaucracy itself. By gathering the knowledge through the secret police a totalitarian state reaches the epitome of what sociologist George Ritzer termed as McDonaldization of Society. Such a bureaucracy always depends on the four aspects of McDonaldization, namely: efficiency, calculability, predictability and control. Though it is the control which it seeks the most and it uses the other three devices to achieve it.


Enter the Captain

The movie Captain America: The Winter Soldier released in 2014 with its radical plotline portrayed the present world as a hidden dystopia. In the second instalment of the solo Captain America movie, we find that the fictional Nazi rogue science division 'Hydra' has resurfaced in the modern world. They hid themselves as an underground shadow government within the echelons of 'S.H.I.E.L.D' or the fiction Homeland security agency of the United States.

SHIELD deployed spy-satellites with the intention of collecting data and targeting individuals who could prove to be a hindrance global peace. SHIELD's plan backfires when the Hydra faction hidden within SHIELD assassinates the Director of SHIELD and takes over the control of SHIELD. They claimed Captain America a.k.a Steve Rogers as the assailant and forces him to go into hiding.

Hydra, or rather, SHIELD under control of Hydra activates 'Project Insight' and brings the satellites online to indiscriminately collect data. An algorithm designed by Dr Zola, the chief scientist of Hydra is fed into the satellites targeting system which would now target individuals who could prove to be a hindrance to Hydra on their path of global domination.

As Steve Rogers finds out more about Hydra's master plan, he uncovers that SHIELD's obsession with absolute security by devising a method of predicting terror attacks before they actually happen has transformed into a master weapon of domination in the hands of Hydra. SHIELD collected data from phone calls, bank records, medical histories, voting patterns and as a character in the film remarks “your damn SAT scores”. SHIELD used those data to predict behavioural patterns of individuals who could cause destruction to life and property. But when Zola's algorithm is applied to SHIELD's program, it began targeting perceived enemies of Hydra with the intent of eliminating them.

Steve Rogers further uncovers that Hydra actually manufactured global unrest in order to initiate SHIELD into conceiving 'Project Insight' to provide security to American Homeland. As the recorded 'mind' of Dr Zola explained to Steve Rogers, " HYDRA was founded on the belief that humanity could not be trusted with its own freedom. What we did not realize was that if you tried to take that freedom, they resist. The war taught us much. Humanity needed to surrender its freedom willingly. After the war, S.H.I.E.L.D was founded and I was recruited. The new HYDRA grew. A beautiful parasite inside S.H.I.E.L.D. For seventy years, HYDRA has been secretly feeding crisis, reaping war. And when history did not cooperate, history was changed. HYDRA created a world so chaotic that humanity is finally ready to sacrifice its freedom to gain its security. Once the purification process is complete, HYDRA's new world order will arise.”

It is important to note that probably for the first time a commercial cinema is making these connections between the global war on terror and increased surveillance which covers all spheres of life. The totalitarian state similarly functions by creating fear in the mind of its population from a perceived enemy. As a result, the population grants the secret police legitimacy to gather data from their private lives to gain their security or to gain a false sense of security.

Stuff of Comics - Real World Politics

We can see that the totalitarian secret police fulfils all the aspects of McDonaldization of the bureaucracy. It depends on its efficiency to collect information of its population and to deal effectively with any threat that may arise outside or inside the establishment. By analyzation of the data collected, they calculate the possibility of a person becoming a threat to them, thus using the aspect of predictability to understand and predict the movements of its targets.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier had the shadows of real-world events on its plot. It was released on May 2014, nearly a year after Edward Snowden exposed the NSA's wiretap and extreme surveillance methods which cast a wide net over the American population. In its defence, the NSA said that threat assessment was of paramount importance for the security of the country and security always takes a more important position in the government's agenda than personal freedom. This kind of policy strangely mirrors Dr Zola's statement on freedom and security.

The state names a certain individual as an enemy of the state and a threat to the state's security. When that person is 'tagged' by the security agencies, his movements begin to be constantly monitored by the state. More often than not, the person whom the state perceives as a threat meets his end before he commits any actual crime. In such cases, it is not justice that is delivered but a targeted assassination. Many times, such assassinations not only eliminates the target but also any family or relative and friends related to the target.

In the real-world scenario, like Dr Zola's algorithm, the US military uses as an assessment system called the Disposition Matrix, formulated under the President Obama administration which is a database for tracking, capturing and killing suspected enemies of the United States.

As a result of this, innocent lives are often targeted and innocent people get killed as they find themselves caught within this net-like structure of surveillance. In 2011, US citizen of Yemeni origin Anwar-Al-Awlaki was charged in-absentia in a Yemeni court for preaching fundamentalism online and encouraging other people in acts of terrorism. He was marked by assassination, drones were deployed in his search. According to official reports available, Awlaki was killed on 30th September 2011.

On the murkier side of the details, Jeremy Scahill, an American investigative journalist in his documentary feature Dirty Wars reported that US threat assessment system also calculated Awlaki's 16-year-old son to be a viable threat and he was eliminated in a drone strike on 14th October 2011. Murkier still was the death of Nawar-Al-Awlaki, the eight-year-old daughter of Anwar-Al-Awlaki, killed on 29th January 2017 during a commando attack authorized by President Donald Trump.

The drone technology brings a special significance in the rationalization of this surveillance. As Zygmunt Bauman remarks in the Introduction of his book Modernity and the Holocaust that Nazi regime devised methods to optically separate the executioner and the people who were killed.

This alienation effect optimized the efficiency of the genocide as the executioner was alienated from his moral dilemma that arose from the possibility of watching a person die. Nazi Germany perfected the alienation to the ultimate point which the technology of that era allowed them to achieve. In today's world, the alienation has been epitomized by the drone technology where the operator only acts based on live camera feeds on a computer screen. Since the drone operating screen has been mimicked into countless simulation scenarios and video games, it is easy for the drone pilot to live a make-believe situation during any live mission. There is no real possibility of any human interaction whatsoever between the drone pilot and his target. The drone operator, like in any efficient bureaucratic, always stays behind the shadows. It is virtually impossible for him to receive military honours as he is not involved in any field operation. His job is strictly confined to an office room. Moreover, as the load is shared by computer systems, the training of drone pilot requires minimum effort and he is easily replaceable, which in turn, increases the efficiency of the whole system.

In states which are not inherently totalitarian in nature, we can identify alarming signs of autocratic steps taken by the government or the bureaucracy. The reason given by the state for taking such steps has always been 'national security'. But one of the telltale signs of some darker intentions on the part of the state is the deliberate misleading or hiding information about the data gathering process.

A few years ago, popular website archive.org was blocked in India by court order citing the unauthorized release of two Indian films on its website. But many media outlets reported a different version for the reason for the block of the website. UIDAI, the government agency tasked with creating the UIDAI Cards, more commonly known as the Aadhar cards and the Aadhar database liaise and outsource their work to other agencies. They recently hosted the names of their private contractors on their website. Curiously, their list was taken down from the website sometime later. Archive.org has another subsidiary website called the Wayback machine which saves cached copies of media reports from around the world. They also saved the cached copy of the UIDAI list of their private contractor. Online news magazine GGI News reported that one of the sub-contractors that supplied the biometric kits for collection of Aadhar data was a US-based company named Cross-Match. Their products, the magazine reports, are well known within the intelligence community for their accuracy of identifying a person by his biometrics. Known clients of Cross-Match are CIA, Homeland Security and NSA. As per reports from Homeland Security of USA, Cross-Match products were used to identify the Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden during the raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan. According to GGI News, Cross-Match received certification to collect biometrics for Aadhar data from the Indian government in 2010. On 25th August 2017, Wikileaks reported that CIA can access any data collected by Cross-Match or its parent company Francisco Partners which US Department of Defense as one of its clients. The report seems to imply that the CIA or US Department of Defense can access Aadhar biometric data in real-time.

Rationale behind Surveillance

What is the rationality behind such invasive surveillance? Primarily, it is the sense of control that the government and the bureaucracy have over its population. And the knowledge of the population increases the efficiency of the power the government can wield over them. The theory boils down to the basics of McDonaldization. The collected data increases the calculability and predictability, which leads to an increase in efficiency and control. The political parades, meetings, symbols and the faces which draw the limelight cast shadows on the actual bureaucratic policies and the government machinery which remains hidden from the view, even in democratic states. Such arrangements grant stability to the bureaucracy. Since the bureaucracy cannot target a single individual without his or her digital data, it collects every data that flows through the mainframe of various telecom servers operating within the country. By having access to all the data, it grants them the ease of access through a search engine or keyword. In our own country, DRDO has developed a computer software network called DRDO NETRA (NEtwork TRaffic Analysis) which intercepts and analyzes network traffic using pre-defined filters. “NETRA can analyse voice traffic passing through software such as Skype and Google Talk and intercept messages with keywords such as 'attack', 'bomb', 'blast' or 'kill' in real-time from the enormous number of tweets, status updates, emails, instant messaging transcripts, internet calls, blogs, forums and even images generated on the internet to obtain the desired intelligence.” But as artificial intelligence, it cannot analyze the context of such words being said, which illustrates the machine-like efficiency has its limits and there will always be a need for human intervention in such spheres. Through the program, the government attaches its suspicion to words rather than human subjects. Hence, a human subject is deemed suspicious on the basis of the words uttered rather than actual evidence. Such a process dehumanizes the human subject to a mere collection of words, some of which are noted as suspicious in a search string.

Ending Remarks

I would like to end this article with the words of Ladar Levison, creator of the encrypted email service Lavabit. In the documentary feature, Citizenfour Levison says “ I believe in the rule of law. I believe in the need to conduct investigations, but those investigations are supposed to be difficult for a reason. It's supposed to be difficult to invade somebody's privacy because of how intrusive it is, because of how disruptive it is. If we don't have our right to privacy, how do we have a free and open discussion? What good is the right to free speech, if it's not protected, in the sense that you can't have a private discussion with somebody else about something you disagree with? Think about the chilling effect that that has. Think about the chilling effect it does have on countries that don't have a right to privacy.”

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Abhijit Chatterjee