Choose the Form of the Destructor

November 14, 2013

I’m in a gloomy mood because of Edward Snowden.  He got me thinking again about super-empowered individuals and I find that to be a tremendously frightening subject.  In particular, I fear that they may have dire implications for privacy and liberty.

What are super-empowered individuals?  Thomas Friedman invented the term in his book, The Lexus and the Olive TreeHe argued that the balance between individuals and nation-states was changing, and that globalization and interconnectivity were giving great power to individuals to influence the world.  Friedman gave the examples of Osama Bin Laden and Jodie Williams, the woman who organized the campaign that led to the international treaty to ban land mines.  Other super-empowered individuals might be the nineteen 9/11 hijackers and the small cabal of people who made a cause celebre out of the Danish Mohammed cartoons.  Most of the writing on super-empowered individuals thus far has been focused on the nature of the idea itself.  (See, for instance T.X. Hammes and John Robb, as well as Adam Elkus writing both alone and with Crispin Burke.)  Both the U.S. military and law enforcement have been active participants in this discussion.

Of course, super-empowered individuals can do very good things.  Jodie Williams was a fine example of this.  Indeed, it may be that most such individuals do good.  However, I want to think for a moment about the response to dangerous super-empowered individuals, and this is where I get really frightened.

Snowden took advantage of the global media and communications networks to get his stories about NSA out to everyone who might have the slightest interest.  The result has been almost certainly severe damage to the intelligence capabilities of the United States and the United Kingdom and serious damage to the diplomatic relations between the U.S. and the U.K., as well as between those countries and numerous friendly countries.  Snowden’s actions have also endangered a major economic treaty that would benefit Americans and Europeans, may have motivated a Balkanization of the Internet, and could well enable the otherwise avoidable deaths of some number of terrorism victims.  By some accounts, they have even aided those who would do harm to children.

Thus far, most super-empowered individuals have used the Internet as their primary tool and have sought primarily to change people’s perceptions—to affect the state of the infosphere, if you will.  However, it could be that future super-empowered individuals will augment their online activity with physical violence in the future.  They might do this directly, like the 9/11 hijackers did.  However, we are also likely to see more cyberattacks in the future that intend to cause physical damage.  And T.X. Hammes has argued that developments in biology and in nanotechnology are likely to open up even more frightening prospects for the super-empowered individuals. Twelve Monkeys shows one possible outcome: a disgruntled scientist unleashes a devastating plague.  (By the way, the origin of the AIDS epidemic in North America may be a partial precedent for that.)

Now, in any sufficiently large population, someone will be disgruntled.  But the odds are increasing over time that that person will have the power to do major damage to society, up to and including creating a mass casualty event.  Hence, a solution to the problem of the super-empowered person who is also a threat is clearly necessary.  But the problem is that this solution must apply literally to all of humanity.  Otherwise, the black swan can still burst forth.  Preventing the hatching of black swans is a notoriously difficult endeavor, but there are three potential strategies for making sure that super-empowered individuals don’t do truly serious damage to society.

One solution is to have a societal transformation that puts us all in harmony with one another so that nobody is motivated to cause massive destruction or disruption because everyone has it good and the society is moving in a positive trajectory.  This would be great, but I’m not holding my breath.

George Orwell’s 1984 points the way to two other strategies to counter the potential threats posed by super-empowered individuals: terror and panopticonic surveillance.  Actually, however, Big Brother’s regime was inefficient.  At least in theory, you don’t need to impose both terror and complete surveillance; either one will suffice.  The East German Stasi pointed the way here.  In its early years it imposed terror on the East German population through brute force methods.  The secret police could haul off anybody and it exercised that power freely.  The result was that nobody wanted to stick their heads up and be noticed and thereby increase their odds of being the next victim.  Later, the kinder, gentler Stasi merely watched and listened to everyone. If you didn’t have any unorthodox political thoughts, late-era East Germany could be a tolerable place to live (as long as you didn’t mind bad beer, bad consumer goods, and ugly architecture).  Yet the result was much the same as under the terror: very few people got out of line.  Still, even so, a few people did.  (In this connection check out The Lives of Others if you haven’t already.)  That suggests that surveillance to keep dangerous individuals in check would have to be even more comprehensive than the Stasi’s.

So, unless the Messiah arrives to usher in the kumbaya solution, we face a tough choice if we are to stop the super-empowered individual from inflicting greater damage than even Edward Snowden did .  We must “Choose the form of the destructor.”  What will it be: 1984 or Twelve Monkeys?  Oppression leading to safe misery or liberty leading to chaos and death?

Frankly, I don’t want either one, but I can’t think of a plausible alternative.


Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, DC.


Photo credit: squirrel83