Thirteen years ago, at a university seminar about the history of the United States in the 20th century, a question was raised about whether the world’s obvious — at the time — leading power could be considered an empire or not. As a child “raised” with Radio Free Europe and Ronald Reagan’s harsh anti-Soviet rhetoric, growing up behind the Iron Curtain at the end of the Cold War, I entered into a debate with the older, skeptical teacher, trying to demonstrate that the democratic political system is the guarantee that the U.S. wouldn’t turn from a leading power into an empire.
I recall this debate, less than an hour long, based only on my memory — thus, significantly simplified — now that we are concerned with American monitoring as a new episode in the fading of historical naivety. Let my excuse be that, until the events of 9/11, many more important personalities than a student or a starting journalist lived in the illusory world propagating “the end of history.” In this, the United States was considered an idealized model, an example on which the “new, beautiful world” should be built.
The disclosure of the monitoring program called PRISM by an insider expert shows again that there’s still plenty of the above-mentioned illusion left — illusion that needs to be reckoned with. The United States is great in selling itself, but the answer to our question from university is that it actually is an empire, or at least it acts like one. The aggression, as well as the repression, represents an integral part of its being. The background of the development and the methods are of course different, as well as — and this is of key importance — the technology that is available for achieving its goal. Rome, Persia and Napoleon also wanted to dominate and maximally monitor their empires, but the messengers’ traveling speed limited their possibilities, as well as their ability to apply state violence. Since the invention of the telegraph at the beginning of the 19th century the space became compressed, the masses could be reached and influenced much more easily. Then, before the U.S. could fall into the same mistake, the totalitarian regimes from the 20th century demonstrated — illustrated with hundreds of millions of lives — how effectively they could use modern technology for violence.
At this current stage all we can say about the oppression of the United States is that in its imperial attempts it lived down the temptation of intimidation based on mass violence. It is regularly fighting wars where the number of victims can reach several hundred thousands, but all the signs show that the United States wants to maintain the “world peace” it itself dictates, even though it puts [this peace] in jeopardy on a regular basis with its actions. However, its day-to-day methods are more sophisticated than this. Like it or not, the vector for these methods is the info-communication field developed for our times, whose main feature is that it can be used by the dominating power to reach its purposes — even though this goes far beyond the needs or intentions of the participants (the majority of the people) and, if need be, violates their civil rights. Every mobile phone and computer connected to the network, in our pocket or on our table, might be a potential monitoring device; every activity we have on the internet, everything we do on social media sites is a model of our individual and collective behavior, a description of how we act. The PRISM and other such instruments are in the hands of the United States, who take advantage of this fact when necessary. As long and as widely as it can, we may add; but one thing is for sure: the United States will not be shy at all.