Posted by: gdevi | June 24, 2016

Omar Mateen and the FBI: The Failed Minority Report

But first, Ralph Stanley, the bluegrass musician has died. Read NBC obituary here. I like the Stanley Brothers music a lot. I hope Robert Duvall will play you, Ralph Stanley, if they make a movie about your music. Rest in peace, Ralph Stanley.

And very very sad news: Michael Herr, the author of Dispatches has died as well. Dispatches is a great great book. Sometimes, all you need is one book. That is your life’s karma. I remember reading Dispatches in India in the late 80s–it was an incredible read. Unburied corpses of American soldiers lying out in trucks to rot, white napalm nights. A frightening, courageous book. A courageous writer. Rest in peace, Michael Herr. I shall mourn your death with a personal sorrow. You are beloved the world over among literate people. I think Bob Lewis, my old teacher, became my friend as soon as we met because I had read Dispatches.

The article was reblogged on the community spotlight of Daily Kos.

One of the most interesting findings from the recent murders at the gay nightclub in Florida is the fact that the FBI had been informed and evidently been made aware of Omar Mateen’s interest in online fundamentalist and anti-American propaganda sites.  The FBI had indeed interviewed Mateen over the last few years. The authorities had decided not to arrest him, since they could not find probable cause under the fourth amendment of the constitution.

The media discussion about this fact tends to be polarized into two extremes. Certain foreign policy experts, in particular, ask to relax the fourth amendment guidelines to monitor and apprehend individuals deemed a threat to national security and the safety of American citizens. Others are understandably skeptical of giving more power to the government to snoop on its citizens citing privacy concerns.

In particular, those who advocate greater surveillance by the government of its own citizens appear to reveal a continuing belief in the ability of law enforcement, and surveillance, in particular, to stop crimes such as murder from taking place. In this context, it is fascinating to interrogate purely in a theoretical and perhaps metaphysical way, the status of the event where the FBI apprehended Mateen and then released him.

The “probable cause” and fourth amendment constraints that are being put forward as the reasons for letting Mateen go–are these rather pedestrian explanations? Or is this a case where surveillance failed in the face of free will? Can surveillance capture the free will of its subjects?

The FBI’s strategy in the Mateen case–take the information that he is consorting with the wrong kind of people; interrogate him; then release him for lack of probable cause–is reminiscent of the dynamic of the “minority report,” popularized with a distinct political flavor in Philip K. Dick’s classic short story “The Minority Report” (1956). Dick’s concept of a “minority report” – a criminal might not commit the crime that he is capable of committing — gives a useful template to frame the successes and failures of political surveillance, particularly, surveillance used as a method to detect enemies of the state in the new order of nations living under the threat of terrorism.

In Dick’s story, the protagonist, John Anderton, the commissioner of police in New York city of 2054 is identified as the perpetrator of a murder that he will commit in the future by the three “precogs” working for Anderton and the Precrime unit of the government of which he is the director. The precogs are data machines, much like surveillance machines for data collection and analytics. The Precrime unit’s job in Dick’s short story is to follow the data streams developed by the three precogs who can see crimes that will be committed in the future, particularly murders, before they are committed. The precogs thus assist the Precrime unit to apprehend the criminals, and put them away so they cannot commit the murders. “Precrime has cut down felonies by ninety-nine and decimal point eight percent” says Anderton proudly to Witwer the Justice department’s envoy who has come to audit Precrime. The three precogs, Mike, Donna and Jerry are genetic mutants who are able to see the future “one week or two ahead the most.” In the Precrime’s headquarters, the three precogs, who Dick’s narrator labels “babbling idiots,” “retarded,” “gibbering, fumbling creatures” and “monkeys” sit surrounded by “analytical machinery . . .recording prophecies”:

 In the gloomy half-darkness the three idiots sat babbling. Every incoherent utterance, every random syllable, was analysed, compared, reassembled in the form of visual symbols, transcribed on conventional punchcards, and ejected into various coded slots. All day long the idiots babbled, imprisoned in their special high-backed chairs, held in one rigid position by metal bands, and bundles of wiring, clamps. Their physical needs were taken care of automatically. They had no spiritual needs. Vegetable-like, they muttered and dozed and existed. Their minds were dull, confused, lost in shadows. (3-4)

Precrime acts on the prophecies of the precogs only if there is a “collaborative majority report of two precogs, plus a minority report of some slight variation.” Witwer explains the similarity between what the three precogs do and statistical computations: “ How are the results of an electronic computer checked? By feeding data to a second computer of identical design. But two computers are not sufficient. If each computer arrived at a different answer, it is impossible to say which is correct. The solution, based on a careful study of statistical method, is to utilize a third computer to check the results of the first two. In this manner, a so-called majority report is obtained. . . It would not be likely that two computers would arrive at identically incorrect answers.”

The joke at the heart of Dick’s political allegory is that Anderton accused of a murder in the future thinks that there is a minority report in which he does not commit the murder and that if he shows that report to Witver, he would be free. But as Anderton finds out, there is no true minority report with a different outcome. The precogs generate reports that are diachronic and consecutive, and not synchronic in space/time, with alternate futures as Witver and Precrime claims. Anderton will commit the murder out of his own free will for political reasons. The important thing is for readers to be aware of Dick’s narrative cues through an almost dumbed-down third person selective point of view to alert us as to who is telling this story.

In Dick’s story, the three reports are initially presented as three different time paths: one in which Anderton kills Kaplan, his victim (first majority report); the second one where Anderton does not kill Kaplan and thus is innocent–this is the minority report; and the third one where Anderton kills Kaplan (third majority report). The third one is the correct report since statistically it cannot be changed, Anderton discovers; in other words, the first report was correct thus creating a majority report. He would kill Kaplan. Why? Because the second one, where Anderton does not kill Kaplan (the minority report) is Kaplan interfering with Anderson’s free choice to kill Kaplan. In order to prevent the Justice department from shutting down Precrime, Anderton had, out of free choice, decided to kill Kaplan. He is a good employee of the System. This is the “first” report that had shown Anderton committing a crime. The System’s will/dictum and Anderton’s free will were identical. The minority report in which he does not kill Kaplan was Kaplan intervening in the unfolding of this free act that Anderton had decided to commit in the first place. In the third report, which is the final report—and all that is needed for the statistical method, as Witver explained—Anderton kills Kaplan to save Precrime as he had intended to do. The majority report is correct, both statistically and metaphysically.

Who is telling this story? The System and Anderton. Metaphysically, in Dick’s political allegory, the minority report has no power to trump Anderton’s exercise of free will to kill to save Precrime. Because Anderton’s free will and the System’s will are one and the same.  Anderton tells a story told by an employee of the surveillance state. This is the powerful critique at the center of Dick’s great story. Anderton’s story is a compromised story. In the story that the government or the System tells you, your free will is identical with what the System wants. Anderton kills to save the System. There is no minority report where you betray the System if you are a faithful employee of the System. In return, the System takes care of you and makes sure that Anderton leaves earth and moves to Centaurus X in order to escape punishment.

When the FBI let Mateen go after they apprehended him for consorting with online fundamentalist websites, they had set into motion the minority report on Mateen. Civic surveillance created by the times we live in had shown up Mateen as a potentially dangerous individual. However, the minority report was that Mateen was innocent under fourth amendment. Mateen, however, exercised his free will, we have to assume — to murder the patrons of the nightclub — just as he had exercised his free will to allegedly consort with the extremist websites. There appears to be no way for government surveillance to predict the outcome of the exercise of an individual’s free will. Surveillance and free will exist in a diachronic continuum where the actions of the former affect the latter and change it. Free will exists as long as the individual is alive, but it exists in a path unknowable to data analytics.

In the precarious world of current biopolitics—the intersection of the life, body and mind of the unknown individual and political acts—there is no third collaborative report, no third precog that would independently supply the confirmation and proof the System needs to put away an individual with future criminal intent who has revealed that intent already.  There is no third precog. There is no third computer.  Dick’s powerful story anticipates the myth of such a certainty that a surveillance state would like to tell its citizens.



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