Our Semi-Soviet Surveillance State


Oh god. It’s getting worse. Everything. I knew it would. Death and taxes are long shots by comparison.

So I’m in Washington, a federal enclave, as someone said, surrounded on all four sides by reality. This was supposed to be a medical trip to have vital internal organs pawed, sliced, and injected with strange fluids. Kidneys, carburetor, remaining brain, that sort of thing. But this is Washington. Horrors everywhere.

Hillary. I don’t hate Hillary. She’s smart, tough, sane, been around, corrupt, and personally repellent as a fanged garden slug. By today’s standards, that’s a bargain.

But why the hell is she Secretary of State? How many years has she spent abroad? What languages does she speak? What does she know about the street in Karachi, Cairo, Guadalajara? She probably thinks Mumbai is what you eat with a RC Cola.

See, what’s happened is that we are ruled by an incestuous bridge club clucking to itself in what amounts to a thermos bottle. Hillary is SecState because Precedent O’Bama wants to heal rifts within the Democratic Party. It would make more sense to poison the lot, but never mind. Everything is about domestic politics. And these dismal retreads promote each other in circles. Hillary goes from governor’s wife to First Basilisk to senator to SecState. Oh help.

Same with Cuba. The good of the country doesn’t matter. We gotta keep the rubes gurgling with delight. That’s all that counts. The US continues to make itself loathed in Latin America, in substantial part because of that stupid embargo. Why? Because a noisy rabble of pseudo-Cuban losers in Miami votes Republican. But of course it doesn’t matter what the rest of the world thinks. All those funny little countries around the world really don’t have anything we need, except our economy, and China will give us visas to visit our industry. Perhaps.

And then there’s this business of having a black president. It seemed like a good idea. We’ve had white ones forever and it hasn’t worked, so a black one made sense. We have now established that a black president is exactly like a white one. Next time, maybe a Melanesian or Lao. I hoped O’Bama would stand in the Rose Garden and holler, “You blue-eyed muhfuhs done got it all wrong, and I’m gonna unscrew things.” No. Smart guy, decent guy, guy you could heist a brew with and tell dirty stories, but it’s business as usual. Same tired hacks.

I think I know why. Inexperience. Ponder his relation to the Five-Sided Wind Tunnel on the Potomac. I spent thirty years covering the military and I know all the Pentagon’s songs. O’Bama doesn’t. He missed Vietnam, wasn’t in the military, hasn’t had much to do with generals or soldiers. It’s not his fault and it isn’t a character defect, but there it is.

So in walks Power Point Petraeus, back from bombing weddings in Afghanistan. Power Point is impressive. I’ve never met him, but I’ve met plenty of identical units. Erect posture, firm handshake, carefully deferential enough but you can just tell he’s strong and reliable. And he can sling the lingo (“Ohhhh, I love it when you talk that way.”) with the stern honesty of an overgrown Boy Scout and the guile of a serpent, and he’s patriotic to the gills and he’s got charts.

And O’Bama doesn’t know better. So Afghan brides will continue to need Kevlar dresses.

Meanwhile, things get loonier on the street. I went to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore from DC by train and, so help me, they’re doing the same garish security theater on trains that they do at hairports. Cops and German Shepherds everywhere. To buy a freaking commuter-rail ticket, you need a photo ID, and they type heaven knows what into a computer.

Okay, suppose I show up at the Obedience Training window with my suitcase full of Semtex, buy my ticket with my own ID or any ID with a balding ugly mutt on it—they barely look at it—and blow the 9:07 MARC to metallic sawdust. After the fact they assemble my shards, check the computer, and determine that It Must Have Been Fred. This miraculously brings the dead back to life. Bet you didn’t know I had such powers.

None of it makes sense, except as Pavlovian conditioning. Every few minutes a tedious recording plays in stations saying to call some number if you see suspicious behavior. Blah blah blah. No one pays the least attention. No one writes the number down. Has anyone ever called it?

“Uh, I want to report suspicious behavior.”

Voice, annoyed at having the Redskins game interrupted: “Yeah, what?”

“Well, there’s like, this guy, he has a funny looking raincoat and he keeps, you know, looking around, and I think his left hand is twitching.”

“Uh…yeah. Tell him to stop twitching.”

“What if he, you know, blows up or something?”

“What am I, your mother?”

I don’t get it. Something is happening to this country. It still has a lot going for it—friendly people, great diners, good blues, country bands, widespread availability of illegal drugs. But the government is out of control. Everything is illegal and watched. It’s getting so you can’t shoot cats from a car window with a twelve-gauge any more. Who wants to live in that kind of world? We’ll probably be overrun by cats, drown in them.

Today I went to the Hill to see the new Visitors Center. As usual, cops everywhere, squad cars parked on sidewalks, steel stop’em-cars plates rising from streets. People don’t seem frightened, but the government is, or pretends to be.

The Visitors Center turns out to be underground at the Capitol. It is said to have cost $761 temporarily deflated green ones and has the mental fingerprints of Albert Speer all over it: It’s huge, drab, squarish, monumental without even being imposing, with the élan of a K-Street office building.

I don’t get it. This is the country that produced Peggy Lee and Tampa Red and the ‘fitty-sedden Chevy, the country that spits techno-whizz golf carts onto Mars just like it was even possible, that brought the hamburger to gorgeous bejuiced perfection and invented most of the modern world. It’s the home of sand-lot baseball and Little Peggy March and BB guns and Tasty Freeze. It is, in a phrase, one fine place.

How did it sink to being a proto-Soviet surveillance state that builds vast awful Visitor Centers in the style of a Hitlerian mauseoleum? You can’t go to the john without a photo ID anymore. Something ain’t right.

Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well and the just-published A Brass Pole in Bangkok: A Thing I Aspire to Be. Visit his blog.

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