Saturday, September 29, 2007

Chill of Surveillance, the "Freedom" of Silence

It was only a matter of time before Stanislaus Obul would gain access to the internet. Stanislaus, one of my students from Peace Corps days in Kenya, lives in Sudan.

We are both old men now, ”wazee,” in Swahili. In Africa, we are granted the respect that comes with age. We speak our minds; people listen. They think we are wise; we know better, but speak we do.

Back in the mid-Sixties at our school in western Kenya, we both stood out.

Stanislaus, like me, was a foreigner, and was tall, perhaps 6’3.” (In the wisdom of my youth, I taught him how to play basketball.) His Dinka tribe is in the non-Arab south of Sudan, a vast country ruled by Arabs.

I stood out because I was the only American on the remote little campus run by an order of Dutch Catholic teaching brothers. Soon, other Americans would join me in my tour at Rapogi Secondary School, but for a few months, early in my three-year tour, I was as much of an oddity as the tall Dinka youth.

After graduating from Rapogi, Stanislaus returned to Sudan, a country wracked by civil war, brutal banditry and terror. We had corresponded over the years. At one point I had sent money so his wife could buy a sewing machine, but the money never found its way through the Sudanese postal system to her.

In recent years, as the Darfur conflict in western Sudan worsened, I became worried about Stanislaus’ welfare. I had written him three years ago and had heard nothing, until last Saturday

There in my e-mail in-box was a message from Stanislaus. It bore a two-letter note line greeting: “hi.”

In the letter he wrote: “We are still far away from each other, but now with this modern communication, you shall know about where I am.”

Indeed. But what is it now safe to tell each other? Could we share our thoughts?

As I wrote him back, expressing my relief and my on-going concern for his safety, I also wanted to tell him about my concern for my own country and about my opposition to the Iraq war and the Bush/Cheney administration.

And that’s when a chill swept through me.

Here I was an American e-mailing a Sudanese. Wasn’t this is exactly the kind of communication that the American government was “monitoring”? No warrant necessary.

Who else would be reading what I had to say? How might they interpret my anti-government remarks? How might my e-mail affect Stanislaus, who has relatives living here in the United States? How might they be affected?

I have recently been appalled by Kafka-esque deportation of musicologist Nalini Ghuman by our government. If the government could do that to her, what might they do to Stanislaus’ relatives who have found refuge here?

And so I did not share my views about the Bush administration and its Oil War in Iraq. I did not tell him of being part of our anti-war vigil here in Hillsdale, off my placard reading “On to Plan B: IMPEACH!”

In essence, the surveillance of messages between this country and abroad was stifling my speech.

In a small way, the repressive Bush administration’s “War on Terror” had found its way into the sanctity of my cluttered study. It had frozen my fingers on the keyboard.

Even as I write this a twinge of fear has returned because this Red Electric post, as a public form of expression, is also a communication to those abroad who choose to read it. I gave Stanislaus the URL for the Red Electric so he could read my thinking and get a sense of my life and interests.

Might the words “Sudan” and “terrorism” in this sentence and elsewhere in this post trigger some U.S. government surveillance computer? Will these words cause some secretive repercussion on Stanislaus, his family and me?

Do those repercussions stop with us, or does do the government’s surveillance computers record the names of Americans who freely choose to read these words. Are you being watched?

America likes to think of itself as “The Land of the Free.” How free can we be when our secretive, increasingly authoritarian government spies on what we write and what we read?

Will we soon arrive at the day when we are “free” only to be silent, only to be ignorant?

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