Citizen Four and the Snowden Storm

In 1941 Erich Fromm wrote “Fear of Freedom” in which he writes about the individual’s need for community and freedom and the inherent conflicts of those two needs.
Being free “from” and free “to” are two very different types of freedom, and currently our fear and need to be free “from” is leading us down a dangerous road in some misguided pursuit of security and safety. A common substitute for exercising our own agency and authenticity is to submit to an authoritarian system that can eliminate uncertainty by prescribing what we think and how we act. That’s how dictatorships start, right?
Why are we so desperate for “security” that we would willingly give up agency? Why are we so scared of being free?

I just finished watching Laura Poitras’ masterly documentary about Edward Snowden: hero for some, exposing government agency lies and betrayal of citizens’ trust; for others, a spy who betrayed his country.

Berlin, my chosen home, also plays a minor role, as the place where the film was edited and where both Glen Greenwald and Laura Poitras sought refuge repeatedly (a nice touch was a long shot of Rosa Luxemburg Platz, the square dedicated to the memory of a woman who fought for democracy and who was murdered by the police and thrown in the local canal for her troubles in 1919). It is also the place where lawyers got together to brainstorm about the fact that Edward Snowden would be tried under the Espionage Act, which would effectively condemn him to life-long imprisonment despite the fact that his perceived crime was based on revealing the fact that the NSA is actively tracking the movements of 1.7 million Americans, unsanctioned by the public.

Spending time both in London and Berlin, I am all too aware of a different atmosphere that pervades the two cities when it comes to issues like fear, privacy and civil liberties. It starts with the way kids get to school (London: accompanied, or by car, Berlin: alone, in groups, on foot/by bike) and continues with the divergent security measures at airports, to the perceived or real danger on the streets at night.

We tend to think of Germans as more law abiding: the cliché (but still largely true) image of people standing at an empty crossroads at 2am waiting for the light to turn green. But a shift has taken place. The British seem to have become afraid of freedom. Everything has to be fenced off and secured: ‘Adult Supervision Required’ signs pepper the playgrounds, conjuring fears before the kid has even scraped his knee.

And then there’s the CCTV. Wherever I walked, wherever I looked, I saw cameras. Maybe Londoners don’t even notice it anymore, but for me it was a constant presence, like having some old uncle twitching his Nikon every time you moved at a birthday party. A constant reminder not to pick your nose. Above me at the underground station, in the stores I shopped in, in any public place and street.

Ten years ago, my eight-year-old daughter was playing alone on the street outside my dad’s house in a suburban corner of London. The neighbour, who had been watching for a while through the window, came out, and upon discovering my dad was the person who had “allowed her” to play alone, berated him and threatened to call the police because of neglect. The punch line is, my daughter had been pretending to be a “spy” a game that involved looking through hedges, writing down car number plates and making notes. We laughed about it at the time, but given the same situation now I probably wouldn’t let her play alone outside, not in London, despite the CCTV camera mounted across the road. Not for fear of crime or abduction, but simply because of the attention it would attract, and the hassle it would cause.

Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights gives all of us a right to privacy, even in public places if the public interest does not outweigh our right to privacy:

1. Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.

2. There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”

Yet I am forced to keep my kid at home to conform with the societal norms of a country gone security-mad. Germans have a deep and healthy distrust of surveillance of any kind, perhaps one of the more positive side effects of their chequered history when it comes to civil liberties.

In an interesting mirroring of the “war on terror” in the US after 9/11, West Germany also used the fear of terrorism in the seventies, personified by the RAF (Baader Meinhof Group), as a justification for a massive broadening of police powers and crackdowns on anyone to the left of the SPD. The crackdowns had a strong left-wing bias…while teachers were being hauled out of classrooms for being too left-wing, the neo-fascist NPD (National Democratic Party) was deemed “not anti-constitutional” by a Mannheim court in the seventies. Which was just as well, since any ban on fascists in the public service would have seriously debilitated the civil service, which, after the Second World War, absorbed the bureaucracy of the Third Reich intact.

The West German “war on terror” took the form of widespread surveillance of journalists, “Berufsverbot” (blacklists effectively preventing people of left wing political persuasion to work in their professions) and the “Kontaktsperregesetz” a law under which people suspected of terrorist activity could be denied the right to a lawyer. Meanwhile, in the East the Stasi collected information on anyone deemed not to be “Staatstreu” (loyal to the state). So, rightly, the German government feels an extra pressure now to justify any intelligence gathering undertaken amongst its citizens.

A Snowden explains, “Terror is what we call a cover for action. Terror provokes an emotional response that allows people to rationalize authorizing powers and programmes that they wouldn’t give otherwise.”*

The fact that we are willing to have our every move recorded doesn’t bode well for any resistance to being tracked in our entirety.
Snowden puts it like this:

“Allowing the NSA to continue gathering information is like giving up our rights ahead of time, saying “hey you know I am probably not going to need them…I haven’t done anything wrong…But your rights matter because you never know when you are going to need them.“*

We know that we are being tracked by our mobile phones, by our unencrypted browsing activities, we know that using our credit cards, our oyster cards, activating our GPS location finder whilst jogging, we are creating an enormous pile of metadata and real content with which governments whom we have elected can create a profile, detailing our consumer behaviour, our political allegiances, our movements, our workout capabilities, hell even our nutritional preferences.

We have been tricked into giving up information willingly out of fear and complacency, for ease of moving through this world. Want to get through immigration quickly? Pick the short line or no line at all for retina recognition. The long line is for losers and people with kids.
Want reduced prices for product X? Use paypal and an app, and you can pay for taxi fares cash-free. But know that the date, time, duration, destination of the taxi trip is forever stored in some data bank for later use.

Who will protect us from ourselves and our desire to eradicate uncertainty and fear?

In order to ensure “freedom” we are willing to become enslaved. Surely that’s how all dictatorships start out? Phrases like “sometimes hard decisions have to be made” or “for the greater good” or “so that the streets are safe for our children” echo desolately up through the decades, conjuring conformism to norms, forcing children and women back in to the home, discouraging political discourse and diversity, fear, as you witness your rights being whittled away in the mad pursuit of some elusive idea of security.

There is no such thing. Freedom is scary. And involves making decisions and choices. It’s much harder than being told what to do. But as Erich Fromm said:

“There is only one meaning of life: the act of living it.”

* https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yVwAodrjZMY



  1. Excellent piece! Reiterates what Benjamin Franklin said two centuries ago:

    “Those who surrender freedom for security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.”

  2. This is a bit to one side of your topic but I’d be interested to hear your view on Berlin v London.

    Our ‘news’ media (certainly here in Australia, and almost certainly in the UK and elsewhere), largely thanks to the trailblazing of Rupert Murdoch mostly peddle anxiety because that is the only surefire way they can attract the eyeballs that justify their existence.

    This is not a new phenomenon but it has become much more widespread since the internet took away the ‘rivers of gold’ (advertising) which allowed newspapers and tv to be somewhat indulgent. These days they are engaged in a fight to the death to maintain their existence.

    I have no idea how responsible (or otherwise) the German news media is, so I’m wondering whether you see a link between the UK paranoia that you write about in this piece, and the performance of the news media there compared to Berlin?

    1. Thanks for your comment and interesting question…There is no doubt that there is a connection between the media and anxiety in the population. And yes, in Germany it does seem to be different…
      Back in the day, the Nazis censored and monopolized the entire media, so after that the Allies introduced their models of press freedom. With four allies, that meant an incredible diversity in terms of radio and newspaper input. French, Russians, Brits and the US all contributed to the diverse mix of opinion and discussion. Freedom of the press was added to the constitution in the late 40s, and there is a general tendency by journalists to avoid political extremes to avoid accusations of “Volkshetze” (content that “incites to racial hatred or which depicts cruel and inhuman acts” which is illegal.) Fox News simply couldn’t happen here.
      Germans tend to read a lot and be generally well-informed. That could well be due to their unwillingness to be “duped” again by any political upstart. When I moved here I was astounded to find (in the East) that the general population (I am talking bar-stool-conversation) was vastly more knowledgeable than me on topics like the Northern Ireland crisis, or the Falklands War, even though they had often never travelled further than the Baltic Coast. They often knew more about my country than I did myself!
      Of course the Springer Verlag ( a loose parallel to Murdoch) has a great deal of power (23% of print media) and owns the tabloids, which includes “Bild” which has the largest circulation in Germany (apparently 5th largest worldwide!) It is sensationalist and skewed, but so lacking in political content (mainly half dressed women, shock headings and sport) that it doesn’t seem to impact on attitudes too gravely.
      But when it comes down to it, I really think it’s a question of money and education. Germans generally have more money to spend on weekly magazines and newspapers, so the print media landscape is still relatively healthy and less reliant on sensationalism to maintain its existence. And (disclaimer: gross generalisation to follow!) Germans are know-it-alls! They love to be right, and love nothing more than to chew the fat discussing philosophy and politics of an evening. The classic “don’t talk politics or money” principle which applies in vast sections of British and US society just doesn’t fly here. Germans don’t do weather as a conversation starter so that only leaves sports! ; )

  3. This post makes me so glad I’ll be seeing Germany in a six weeks. Erich Fromm is a man after my own heart 😉 I’ll be coming back to your blog for sure. Thanks for checking mine out to by the way 🙂

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