"Shame," wrote the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, "is the index of the shuddering proximity of man to himself."
The best way to grasp Agamben's point is to study not his text, but his action. Scheduled to lecture at universities in New York and Califorinia, Agamben learned that visitors from most nations, though not his, must be photographed and fingerprinted upon reaching our shores. He cancelled his visit.
The proximity of Giorgio Agamben to the rest of humanity piled into a database, our facial characteristics readable by computers from Pittsburgh to Portland, our fingertips reminding us that we will never again move without trace, was more than he cared to accept. He remained in Italy.
One will note that the United States government intensified its border identification program after terrorists -- whose identities were established without the slightest problem -- attacked us four years ago. We are in a state of emergency. Agamben would reply with his 1991 essay, "The Sovereign Police," which explores the juncture between sovereign and enforcer, "the police operate in what amounts to 'a permanent state of emergency.' "
Let us turn now to Houston, Texas, a city without zoning laws, but in which schools are zoned internally through the good offices of Raptor Technologies.
Carol L. Measom, marketing director, touched base a day after I published a story about John Gilmore, a California dot-com millionaire who is going to court to challenge the government's secretive airport identification requirements. His argument is that magnetometers, luggage x-rays, body searches and weapons screens find out all we need to know about passengers but, if there is to be such a regulation, it should be an openly written law, not classified.
Measom wrote as follows: "I expect we will have more people like John Gilmore complaining about their civil rights as our software sweeps the nation. We are a small technology company in Houston ... that has found success in providing web-based software that helps screen for RSOs at schools." RSOs are "repeat sex offenders," the definition of which is left up to each of the 43 states that have so far provided their databases to Raptor. Presumably it could range from a serial rapist to a peeping Tom to someone seen urinating outdoors and slapped with an indecent exposure arrest.
Persons entering school buildings have their drivers licenses scanned, the information is checked against the combined databases, and, voila!, one is known as one of "us" or one of "them," though the nomenclature is doubtless less coarse.
"We get sex offender alerts almost every single day," Measom said. I asked if there had been a problem with sex assaults at the schools of late.
"You know what? I guess basically the deal is we're trying to prevent that," she said. "Do you want to wait until there's a problem?"
There is much to be said for preventing a problem before it occurs, but there might be just as much to be said for not creating a larger one during the act of prevention. The greatest problem here is the creation of databases that have begun, yes, with the socially unpopular crime of sexual offense. There is in this a shame factor. Both perpetrator and victim are shamed, either by the act or the conviction, and a shamed society is, if nothing else, an orderly one.
Brazil, indignant that its citizens are among those fingerprinted and photographed when visiting the United States, responded in kind. In January 2004 Dale Robin Hirsch, an American Airlines pilot, found himself jailed when, during his photographing, he displayed an upturned middle-finger, which, when one thinks about it, is a hopeful sign. Most Americans simply complied, despite the fact that one frequent visitor said Americans are simply informed they must get in the line for fingerprints and photos, but nobody really checks for compliance. He just ignores it, understanding that the Brazilians are making a political statement. The U.S. government is making an administrative one. The latter is always the greater danger.
Other offenses against public order, drug abuse seems a likely category, could easily join sex crimes in the protective databases from which vendors will dispense confirmation of our worst fears. Just as violent crime declined as our terror of it increased, the idea of turning schools into security fortresses, their visitors stratified into the worthy and unworthy, the virtuous and the questionable, will move apace absent urgent evidence that people are fondling the younguns in the hallways.
Measom's cheery note notwithstanding, the great worry is that more people like John Gilmore are not complaining.
"In today's society, they're going to want to know who's in there," she said. "We don't have a lot of complaints."
The axiom about trading freedom for safety and getting neither only comes true every once in a blue moon, the night sky is taking on an odd tint. Forgiveness, redemption, anonymity, the saving of face, the freedom that comes with walking a hallway without feeling put upon by some agent of authority, all become problematic when we have no place to hide our faults, when we have the narrative of our past imposed upon us not at our bidding but someone else's. It's a hard argument to make in a world where the abduction of every white child from the suburbs now warrants a bulletin on the cable channels. It is an argument we need to make to software companies so emboldened by our fears that they will name themselves after a bird of prey.
© 2005 PG Publishing