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TERRA FIRMA
April 13, 2015 Bincy Mathew
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Where does an individual stand today in the age of mass surveillance?

U.S. has gigantically expanded its surveillance programme allowing it to intercept day to day phone conversations and internet browsing of civilians.
Reuters
U.S. has gigantically expanded its surveillance programme allowing it to intercept day to day phone conversations and internet browsing of civilians.

Academy award winning screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr. was blacklisted in Hollywood in 1947 for his Communist ties after a government crackdown on subversive activities. Where does an individual stand today in the age of mass surveillance?

Successive U.S. presidents have invoked the notions of free speech and democracy when invading another country, such as the Iraq War in 2003 or the Arab Spring in 2011. How does it fare when it comes to its own citizens?

A glimpse at stances adopted by the United States government seven decades ago on movies, shows a picture different from the one the U.S. has contrived.

When Sony took The Interview (2014), a satirical film on North Korean government, off theaters, it received flak from not only Hollywood bigwigs, but also U.S. President Barack Obama. It was interpreted as bowing down to anti free speech maniacs.

Red scare

Filmmakers have not always had it easy vis-à-vis the U.S. government unlike this instance where a U.S. President backed the film. More than 60 years ago, individuals who made movies that were considered a forum for the spread of Communist propaganda were denied work. With the Hollywood Blacklist, many screenwriters, actors and directors had a difficult time in the years following the World War II.

Ring Lardner Jr, who did the screenplay of 1970 film MASH, was blacklisted in 1947 for his Communist affiliation by House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), an investigative committee of U.S. House of Representatives which probed subversive, Communist activities. Hollywood was at the time targeted by the HUAC as it was considered a breeding ground for Communist activities.

Lardner, who was among the Hollywood Ten who refused to answer questions posed by the committee, said he found it to be unconstitutional. As a result he was convicted for contempt of Court and sentenced to 12 months of prison. In the subsequent years, hundreds of people were barred from work in Hollywood, including actor-director Charlie Chaplin.

Anti-war films

A number of anti-war films, themed on the Vietnam War (1955-1970), were produced in the 1970s and 1980s by notable directors including Francis Ford Coppola, Oliver Stone and Stanley Kubrick.

Auteur Robert Altman's film MASH, which was released forty five years ago, is a satirical comedy set in the background of the Korean War. Released against the backdrop of strong anti-war sentiments, its underlying motif is war-time Vietnam.

The film is invigorated by impressive performances of actors Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould, who have enacted the roles of army surgeons stationed in 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) in Korea in the early 1950s.

Even as these two Army doctors efficiently perform surgeries; they blatantly defy authority, get into romantic liaisons and do outrageous pranks on colleagues. The film, with its brutal humour, challenges popular perceptions of morality, religion and authority.

At the end of the film, one is left thinking: What does nationalism or extolled sacrifice mean to a man who has been drafted into the army such as Hawkeye Pierce played by Sutherland in the film? Who does a war stand to benefit and what does it mean to a soldier battling on the front line?

The blacklist ended in the 1960s with the waning of McCarthyism. But the U.S. did not change its position on Communism as it continued to target countries around the world that did not align themselves with its foreign policy. Post World War II saw the overthrow of democratically-elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953 in a coup orchestrated by the CIA; U.S. funding of Afghan Mujahedeen in the late 1970s and 1980s; and the use of 9/11 attacks as a pretext for waging war in Iraq in 2003.

Fate of whistleblowers

With the stated aim of protecting the country against terror attacks, the U.S. has since gigantically expanded its surveillance programme allowing it to intercept day to day phone conversations and internet browsing of civilians. The policy of monitoring lives of the public dates back to the days of Cold War when the FBI spied on civilians to track their political leanings as well as to clamp down on Anti-Vietnam War protestors.

The personal information which is gleaned could thus be misused not only to tarnish reputations of government critics by tracking their browsing history on pornography but also to target peaceful civilians fighting for civil liberties or against unjust policies of the State.

For example, the FBI conducted raids in the homes of Palestine and Colombia solidarity activists in September 2010 based on a warrant that the activists had provided material support to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and Hizballah, which were considered terrorist organizations by the U.S.

Significance of Edward Snowden

In an interview to Wired in August 2014, whistleblower and former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden said that private communications of millions of Arabs and Palestinians staying in the U.S. were passed on to Israeli intelligence by the NSA. This would have put in grave danger the lives of relatives of these people staying in Palestine.

Snowden is paying the price for blowing the whistle on surveillance programmes by being charged for violating the Espionage Act. His intent was not to supply information to a foreign nation, but to let the public know what is at stake.

Like Snowden, Wikileaks editor in chief Julian Assange and former U.S. soldier Bradley Manning are having to face the music for revealing classified information on Iraq and Afghan War logs on torture, abuse and unreported killing of civilians.

The U.S. President decides to back a movie on North Korea because of his government's ideological approach towards the country. But he is unable to come to terms with the shortcomings and lapses of his own policies that have little regard for civilians even as they are portrayed as safeguarding public interest.

Whistleblowers have over the years been charged under law for exposing wrongdoings. Who is to provide protection to whistleblowers when the State is against them?

Millions watch Snowden striving to protect himself for what he disclosed two years ago in order to defend and protect the rights of those million individuals. Some read about Snowden in the margins of newspapers as if he was subject of another news item, others feel jittery about what he has revealed and what this privacy means to them. But no entity has yet been able to secure to Snowden the free will he stood up for; strong public pressure is clearly lacking.

The fallout of hounding of Snowden is that well-intentioned, discerning civilians would refrain from exposing wrongdoings of people in positions of power, especially in the government. If Snowden was to be the last whistleblower, democracy in the U.S., for those who care, would be the casualty.

March 8, 2015 Hari Narayan
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