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America, The Sexy Fascist State
Surveillance cameras are booming. The question is, do they make your butt look big?

San Francisco Chronicle | August 25, 2007
Mark Morford

I like to picture it, if I have to picture it at all, as some sort of giant, low-lit converted warehouse, loosely staffed with a haphazard gaggle of scraggy, perpetually hung-over former frat guys and ex-cops and disgruntled former bank tellers all staring numbly at banks of 10-year-old black-and-white Dell monitors set about in a scattershot array of worn gray cubicles, all smelling of stale coffee and overloaded electrical outlets and tiny lost dreams.

They are wary, these government workers, these data miners. They are jaded, burned out, sighing heavily. After all, they know it's all some big in-joke, this supposedly ominous government surveillance thing, all the cameras and the wiretapping and the Internet scouring. I mean, isn't it?

And the joke only got worse when they were all hired en masse by a nebulous substrata of the sprawling and highly ineffective Department of Homeland Security to somehow sift through 10,000 hours of random urban surveillance-camera footage every week and 2 million Web site histories and countless witless phone conversations all of people chatting annoyingly about, you know, work, and relationships, and how tired they are, and how drunk they got last night, and nothing much at all, right alongside endless digital video of citizens walking around picking their noses and scratching their butts and looking confused and happy and miserable and lost and found and occasionally smoking a joint or buying porn or stealing a pack of gum or parallel parking very, very poorly. Fun!

Is this accurate? A likely scenario? Well, maybe. One thing we can be relatively sure of: It doesn't look anything like the edgy high-tech surveillance rooms in, say, "24," or "Las Vegas," or even "Minority Report," all packed with savvy, sexy, hyper-intelligent hipster dudes and sleek geeky babes all scouring gorgeous hi-def TVs and using top-secret NASA technology to zoom in on individual faces and retinas and fingerprints and hair follicles of just about anyone at all, on the fly, in a matter of seconds, always catching their swarthy criminal by episode's end. Would that we were so savvy. And cool. And effective. And interesting. And smart.

Perhaps this is but one of the funny and ironic things about the alarmism over America's increasing surveillance culture, which spills over into Bushco's disgusting and unconstitutional domestic wiretapping law, which points up the larger and more draconian issues surrounding the increasing lack of privacy in our daily lives overall.

It all seems very ugly and sinister and Big Brother-ish, as ominous and frightening and wrong as Dick Cheney strolling through a Vermont kindergarten, right up until you stop and think: Wait, human beings are running all this? The government? Our government, the one that can't even walk and chew gum and run an insanely botched war at the same time? And we think they can somehow keep track of the behavior of 400 million Americans and much of the Middle East using a bunch of cameras and some filtering software? Can it really be all that dangerous? You have to wonder.

And then there's this: Apparently, no one's watching. Despite all the fancy urban cameras and all the idealistic talk about thwarting gun crimes and drug dealers and pedophiles and gay people kissing publicly in downtown Salt Lake City, the bottom line is, cameras largely don't work as a deterrent (just ask the whopping 4 million cameras installed all over England), cops are far too overworked and backlogged to check most of the footage anyway (witness the story about San Francisco's own housing projects: lots of spiffy cameras, no viewers, only one arrest in two years), and, despite the American Civil Liberties Union's entirely appropriate ultra-cautionary stance, most people just see these cameras and, well, shrug.

And then smile. And then fix their hair. And hope the camera catches their good side and doesn't make their ass look huge or their double chin too obvious. Surveillance society? Pshaw. It's a celebrity society, baby. Everyone wants to be on television, no matter what kind of television it is.

It's truly a fascinating and convoluted issue, this surveillance thing, largely because it is, both morally and culturally, nearly impossible to nail down. Are cameras and wiretapping and secret GPS systems and Google Maps and so forth a huge invasion of privacy? Well, yes. Do citizens, by a surprising margin, still say they want more cameras anyway? Yes again. Is this creepy and odd and telling? Absolutely. Is it also somewhat understandable, given the public's frustration with crime and our government's general ineptitude, all undercut by a sad, ironic willingness to spend millions of tax dollars installing technology to watch for crime, as opposed to actually trying to solve the issues that cause those crimes in the first place? Bingo.

And to top it all off, is the MySpace generation -- the most shameless, fearless, blog-ready, on-camera, broadcast-everything generation in history -- already preemptively rolling its collective eyes at the whole issue, saying what's the big deal? You bet it is.

No matter. For now, surveillance is hot all over the world. Pop culture, for one, seems to be reveling in the idea, from the mad popularity of the aforementioned Google Maps to GPS-enabled cellphones to Hollywood itself, which is latching onto the hysteria by way of all sorts of creepy flicks, like the upcoming "Rendition", all about a swell, upstanding family man who's mistaken for a terrorist at the airport and is secretly whisked off to one of BushCo's beloved European torture prisons while a frantic Reese Witherspoon goes totally crazy looking for him. (Note: Dick Cheney reportedly declined a cameo as the guy who gets to stick the electrodes on prisoners' genitalia.)

Hey, it could happen. Innocent people disappearing! Black SUVs at the door! Rebellion and independent thought snuffed out like a candle! Not at all difficult to believe, really, what with the fascist, famously dissent-crushing approach of the Bush regime of these many miserable years. Hell, add some face-recognition technology to the surveillance footage of that anti-Bush political rally, and watch the GOP dogs go on the attack. What, you don't think it can happen? Is happening? Has already happened?

Hmm ... So maybe I'm completely wrong. Maybe it's far more ugly and sinister than I imagine, and there's far more effective and hostile government/police surveillance happening all over our society, right now. And from the looks of it, there's a great deal more to come. RFID chip implants. Spy satellites. Tracking devices on school uniforms. Computer-encrypted ID cards -- like those being issued in China, right now -- packed with far more personal info than you imagine. Cameras popping up in schools, small towns, children's playgrounds, your shower. Yes indeed, it would seem that surveillance society is upon us, full force, cameras soon enveloping us all like a swarm of cold, ruthless bees.

It all comes down, I suppose, to how you choose to see it: It's either incredibly disturbing and shockingly dangerous and illuminates a rather ugly side of the failed human experiment, or it's all just a bit silly, hugely flawed, laughably inept.

Then again, much like the Bush regime itself, it's probably both.

"TerrorStorm is something that should be seen by everyone, no matter what their stance/affiliation/political bent. " - Rich Rosell, Digitally Obsessed UK
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