Photo by Marian Dörk

ecently, I attended a forum in New York, convened by American PEN, ACLU, and the Center for National Security at the Fordham School of Law, in order to address the contemporary dilemma of proliferating surveillance in the digital age. During the day, experts and participants explored how free expression might exactly be hurt by the new technologies, how spying concretely impacts creative freedom in democratic societies. And they tried to come up with ways in which advocacy groups could press the case in Congress and the courts that such an assault on privacy is detrimental to our public discourse and civil liberties.

The forum was entitled “Surveillance: What’s the Harm?” and when it was my turn to speak, I observed that the very question would be greeted with incredulity and more than a tremor of recollected fear if it were posed in my own country, Chile, one of so many unfortunate lands around the world where the legacy of broken bodies and twisted minds, the lingering aftermath of executions and torture, the long term effects of atrocities and persecution and censorship, are more than sufficient evidence of the damage a surveillance state can inflict on its populace. For seventeen years—from 1973 to 1990—Chileans suffered a government that expended immense funds and manpower to implement a strategy of terror based on its ability to track down any and all of its citizens and mercilessly punish the slightest hint of misbehavior or rebellious expression.

Having lived clandestinely in Chile during the first months of the Pinochet dictatorship, I can bear witness to the dread of what it means to be hunted down, praying that those in power do not know your identity, who your friends are, or where in the city you happen to be. Soon, as my life was in peril, I was ordered by the resistance to go into exile and thus, with my wife Angelica and our small son, spent the next ten years abroad in the relative freedom of Europe and the United States, dedicated to telling the world the sad story of our land and the more encouraging one of peaceful insurrection and possible victory.

All this changed when, in 1983, the dictatorship allowed me to return to Santiago. I found a country drastically changed from the one we had left ten years earlier. People had learned to suspect everyone and anything. Friends who had been outgoing and clear-throated were now hushed and guarded, coding and encrypting each sentence with double and triple entendres. The opposition to the regime of General Augusto Pinochet had grown, slowly and painfully reconquering the surface of the country, inching bravely into the public spaces and non-governmental institutions and associations. But even the most heroic opponents of the regime, those who risked conspicuousness and defied the authorities—even those protagonists of courage acted with circumspection and detachment, holding back information, avoiding openness, aware that the slightest slip of the tongue could bring down upon them the full force of the secret police.

Upon that first return to Chile in 1983, it was not easy for me, as a writer, to adjust to this culture of shadows and subterfuge, nor to the poisoning and derangement of everyday language. When I spoke, I was told that, “Usted no habla en chileno,” that I wasn’t speaking “in Chilean” or as Chileans now did. Meaning that Chile, the land of Neruda, had become for them synonymous with silence. Meaning that my compatriots felt I did not really recognize what they had been through, that my absence had turned me into an alien, foreign to the culture and the community.

I understood in my flesh and my skin and my sex why people in my country were exquisitely, brutally careful with what they said and thought and breathed.

They were right. I was deliberately expressing myself in Chile as I had when I was abroad, trying to preserve the freedom and confidence of a voice assiduously cultivated in banishment. It was almost as if I already inhabited a post-atrocity society. The dictatorship could watch me all it wanted! I had arranged for my own exposure to other eyes—international eyes, powerful eyes—as a way of safeguarding my words: on that 1983 return to Chile, a CBS news crew followed me around; the BBC was interviewing me; and my New York Times editor Howard Goldberg had commissioned an Op-Ed from Santiago.

Presumably protected by the aura of the U.S. and world media, I believed myself to be untouchable, someone too notorious for the generals to maltreat, an arrogance I continued to feel as I phoned in that opinion piece accusing Pinochet of the devastation, misery, and dismay plaguing the land. And I felt even safer once I had finished my dictation; my incendiary words were no longer here in repressive Santiago but way over there in the glorious and sheltered New York Times copy center.

But due to a glitch in the recording system, I was forced to dictate the Op-Ed all over again. Except that this time, I felt completely vulnerable. I was sweating over each provocative statement, certain that the Chilean Gestapo was taking note of every word and would soon cut the phone line, intercept my Op-Ed so it never reached New York, subverting the protection I had supposedly arranged, and then come and arrest me and my family. During the ten- or fifteen-minute interval it took to reiterate my prolonged affront to Pinochet, I became aware—truly, scathingly aware—of what it meant to be submerged in an atmosphere of unrelenting oppression, exposed and naked for an all-seeing, all-hearing, all-killing tormentor. I understood in my flesh and my skin and my sex why people in my country were exquisitely, brutally careful with what they said and thought and breathed. My ten years of exile and freedom under an inaccessible democratic flag were wiped away, made irrelevant. I became a chileno once again. Somebody malignant and unstoppable was coming for me and my loved ones, they were coming, and there was nowhere to hide, there was no one who could save us.

That initial panic attack lasted for many hours. As it subsided, my very prudent and fearless wife convinced me that my reaction had been irrational. The government couldn’t possibly be that much in control, listening to every conversation, pinpointing each subversive statement, monitoring all contacts and intersections. It couldn’t possibly translate my English into Spanish instantaneously and act on that information; it couldn’t possibly discern my location, find me if I wanted to go underground, detect all the acquaintances with whom I had ever crossed paths. It couldn’t predict what I would do. No government could know that much about me.

But perhaps it could.

Many years later, I discovered how overwhelming and pervasive the invasion of privacy in Chile under Pinochet’s regime of terror really was. While filming A Promise to the Dead in 2006, a documentary by the Canadian director Peter Raymont about my life, we visited the Fundación Salvador Allende and discovered that in its previous incarnation, the house where the Fundación was lodged had been the headquarters of one of the dictatorship’s surveillance centers. My host, an old friend from college days, led me to the basement where tangled snarls of wire were splayed in a multitude of bright colors, coiling in and around each other, listening devices snaking like intertwined vines, left behind on purpose by the former spies to perversely parade a message of impunity, so that whoever descended into that underground cavern would be sickened, as I was, by the sight.

We knew that we were being spied on. That was the point of terror, to let our imagination conjure up and exaggerate the supremacy of those in power.

Why did that mesh of twisting wires fill me with such horror? Not only because I realized that my voice and words had been captured there, minutely examined by primitive computers, soiled by the eyes and ears of torturers and executioners; not only because the lives of my friends and family, of my beloved Angélica, had been dissected and measured and clicked and scratched to see if pain could be inflicted and secrets extracted; not only because the plural voices of a whole country were squeezed and suffocated inside those cables. But also because that sculpture of foreboding brought into sight what the government preferred to keep covert, preferred to deny. We all knew that wires like those were buried somewhere; we knew that we were being spied on. That was the point of terror, to let our imagination conjure up and exaggerate the supremacy of those in power. At the same time, in order not to be paralyzed with dread, we had to dismiss that omnipotence, pretend that we could outwit the authorities, picture arenas, no matter how small, of potential liberty, immune from surveillance. It was a mirage, but one that allowed us to remain sane, just as inhabitants of a land beset by earthquakes or tsunamis do not deplete every instant of their days fretting about the next oncoming calamity.

What nauseated me about that warped jungle of bright filaments was how it confirmed our worst suspicions from the past, made me see, really see, the extent of that interference in our lives, awoke me to the danger we had been in, and suggested this danger was permanent, not merely remote, belonging to faraway yesterdays. Who was to guarantee that someday, someone might not activate a network like this one all over again? Someday? Someone? Why not right then and there, in democratic, supposedly post-atrocity Santiago in 2006? Were not similar links and nexuses and connections and eyes and ears doing the same job, eavesdropping, collecting data and voices and knowledge for a day when the men in the shadows might be asked once again to act drastically and lethally?

And why only in Santiago? What about America today, where, compared to the data-crunching clout of the NSA and other dis-intelligence agencies, Pinochet’s multicolored wires look puny and outdated—like a samurai sword noticed by an airman above, about to drop a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima? What about elsewhere on this planet, where democratic governments far and wide systematically spy on their own citizens? Aren’t we all in harm’s way?

Most people living in the United States and other countries subject to the rule of law would respond by taking comfort in the distance between a dictatorship like Chile and the sort of open society that they inhabit. And rightly so. Ordinary citizens can derive some solace from the fact that they, at least, are not threatened with the arbitrary repression and onslaught that we suffered in Chile merely because we wanted to exercise our right to speak freely and think divergently. It is heartening that revelations about NSA illegal snooping and overreach have been met by a massive critical reaction in the press, in Congress and, of course, abroad, where the indignation of German, French, Brazilian, Mexican, and Spanish leaders is already leading—or so we have been told, who knows with what degree of truth—to significant changes in the way the United States will authorize eavesdropping, at least for “allies.” Of course, the U.S. government will continue to spy, no matter what limited and cosmetic restrictions may henceforth be enacted, and of course the criminalization of journalists who question or inform about these activities and methods is bound to increase as leaks and whistleblowers proliferate. And yet, almost every time I bring up the cautionary example of Chile, I tend to be harangued with something approaching flippancy: Hey, not to worry, what happened there can’t happen here.

A warning for those who bask in the glow of that self-congratulatory phrase, “It can’t happen here.” We also chanted those words in the streets of Santiago and from the hills of Valparaíso before the coup swept our lives away. We also labored under the delusion that our oh-so-stable democracy was exempt from the savagery of history and the depredations of an unbridled government. We also were targeted by a regime that defined dissidents as terrorists. We also consented to the degradation of our speech. And we have also realized that, of the many crimes tyrants commit against their own people, the most persistent and enduring crime of all may be the one committed against language. Even today in Chile, more than twenty years after we reconquered democracy and seven years after the death of Pinochet, most people are wary of using the word “dictatorship” to refer to the past, preferring the more neutral “régimen militar.” I could multiply examples of this toxic avoidance of significance and, therefore, of reality. Instead of “torture,” for instance, we have “excesses.” Instead of “crimes,” we have “mistakes.” Instead of “golpe militar,” we are tendered “pronunciamiento,” as if this had been a matter of words pronounced rather than virulence delivered. “Golpe” is a violent blow; “pronunciamiento” means that the soldiers have given vent to an idea, the need to change the government.

Behind the destruction of language lurks the destruction of trust in one another.

Behind the destruction of language lurks the destruction of trust in one another. We also watched how so many of our countrymen, fearful for their safety, looked away as human rights were violated, and they today continue to bear the toxic burden of guilt for not having protested, for not having defended those unjustly accused and victimized.

Surveillance, in any land where it is ubiquitous and inescapable, generates distrust and divisions among its citizens, curbs their readiness to speak freely to each other, and diminishes their willingness to even dare to think freely.

It can always happen here. It can happen anywhere.

Look at the internment of the Japanese-Americans during World War II. Look at McCarthyism and the Red Scare. Look at the subsequent decades of self-censorship that still persists. Or go back to the Espionage Act of 1917 and the 1918 Sedition Act. Or plumb the origins of the Republic and the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798.

But why journey so far into the past?

As the 2001 Patriot Act proves (only sixty-six members of the House and one member of the Senate voted against it), if people are frightened enough, manipulated enough, fear-mongered enough, they are more than willing to abrogate their own freedom, as so many did in Chile, in the name of personal and national security. And if there were to be another terrorist attack like the vile ones perpetrated on September 11, 2001, even more invasive surveillance would be eagerly authorized—indeed demanded. Or conjure up an economic catastrophe or collapse leading to Ted Cruz becoming president with Michele Bachmann, say, as his attorney general. Think of what fanatics like them could do with such colossal executive muscle at their disposal. Though what’s really unsettling is to grasp that prospective tyrants wouldn’t require new legislation to rein in—now, as during so much of American history—free expression.

Because now, right now, there is in place a state surveillance system that already can pry into every aspect of our lives. At this very moment, anonymous and unelected administrators scoop up and store metadata that has the potential to allow them or their masters to manipulate, blackmail, influence, browbeat, hound their fellow citizens into submission.

What is most dismal about this situation—and most astounding to someone from a country where activists and intellectuals were able to survive because we were cunning enough to hide our secrets and thwart the spying—is that most of the records available about our lives in contemporary society do not come from a furtive government program. They are incessantly culled and mined from consensual exchange—happily, voluntarily, loudly offered up to the blatant gods of commerce and the Internet. The same people who fume about totalitarian meddling in their existence seem to be blissfully unaware that digital eyeballs are measuring and bundling and gouging their every action, every hit, every profile, every purchase, every trip, every medicine, every texting, every friending, every like, every smile, every frown.

What a contrast with Chileans who, when under the boot, were vibrantly aware of the damage that could ensue to our bodies and souls if we were not cautious when we communicated. Hoping to become invisible, to disappear so that we would not be “disappeared,” taken away and never heard of again. Lucky for us that in Pinochet’s time we had no Facebook or Twitter, no Instagram or Tumblr or MapQuesting, no linked grid of consumer signals that would have been more efficient than any intelligence agency in tracking down our mysteries and passions and preferences. Lucky for us that we were not subjected to logarithms gone berserk, Googled or Amazoned or iPhoned into overtness and disclosure; lucky for us that our secret police could not use these instruments to predict with remarkable accuracy our acquaintances, our desires, our obscurities, our whereabouts. Or perhaps we would have been smart enough or scared enough back then to withdraw from those social media networks and live, hermit-like, in the wastelands of existence, removed from the everyday Web of ordinary human events.

Or would we? Would the majority of the people who resisted the dictatorship have been able to extract themselves from the daily desires and temptations of the mini-celebrity, attention-seeking society, the credit cards and iPads and cell phones that are as prevalent in Chile today as they are in the United States and the rest of the planet? Post-atrocity Chileans, like so many other inhabitants of lands across the globe who have lived through dictatorships and transitioned to precarious democracies, uneasily participate in both worlds, the traumatic one they have left behind and the consumer world they are shopping and texting in now. Inside their minds prowl the harrowing memories of distress, carried out in attics and dark cellars, that still erode the public trust, while outside they celebrate the falsely sunny consumer universe of exposure and display that creates an excess of trust. Would we, can we, do we even wish to, escape the social media universe of our time?

In The Circle, his recent best-selling novel, Dave Eggers offers a disquieting answer to that question. In the dystopian world of the Circle, where all human activity is under the constant and cheerful surveillance of an omniscient and godlike mega-corporation, social media users gladly give up their liberty and privacy, invariably for the most benevolent of platitudes and reasons. Arguing that such overweening power accumulated in such few hands would never be allowed in democratic societies misses the point. What is chilling about The Circle is how willingly the protagonist Mae Holland submits to the dictates requiring absolute and instantaneous transparency in all human affairs, how needy she is, how typical, how representative, how unaware she is of the perils embedded in her desire to belong, to believe, to succumb. Instead of answering yes to questions posed by her minders, Mae answers, over and over again, I do, I do, I do, subconsciously implying that she has become the spiritual bride of the smiling Frankenstein of the World Wide Web.

Literature often helps us discern the hidden currents contained in the present, portending what may come to pass.

She barely realizes the harm being done to her humanity.

Is this the future?

Possibly. Literature often helps us discern the hidden currents contained in the present, portending what may come to pass.

Let me respond to some of the apprehensions I have been expressing in this essay with my own prophetic piece of literature.

During one of my many returns to dictatorial Chile, I wrote a fable for children entitled La Rebelión de los Conejos Mágicos, or The Rebellion of the Magical Rabbits.

In that story, the King of the Wolves invades the land of the rabbits and immediately decrees that rabbits do not exist. He expunges any appearance of them from books and bans any public or private mention of their name. He sets up a gigantic system of pythons that slither through houses and hawks that fly everywhere, which together ensure that nobody contravene his commands. In order to dispel persistent rumors that the bunnies are audaciously alive, he orders that a series of photos of himself be taken by a monkey photographer, whose daughter happens to be a big fan of the rabbits and insists, in spite of being punished by her parents, that the forbidden creatures come to visit her in dreams. The photographer soon finds himself in trouble, because each photo that he takes—and that is displayed all over the kingdom so the Wolf’s eyes can scrutinize all the actions of his citizens—each and every photo ends up being infiltrated and overrun, timidly at first, and then more daringly, by the recalcitrant rabbits. No matter how much the photographer and the Wolf King’s counselors try to erase their presence, the mischievous ears of the rabbits keep intruding into the margins of the photographs. When His Wolfiness erects a gigantic throne to prove that he is invulnerable, the rabbits finally decide to move out of the photos and into reality, munching away at the legs of the throne until it comes crashing down. The final directive of the Wolf King, before he retreats into anonymity, is to the photographer: Don’t print this picture!

But those are not the last words of the story. The last words belong to the little monkey girl who would not let her imagination be subdued, who kept dreaming of rebellion despite the fear and spying that reigned in that kingdom. I trust that the last words of that children’s story, written decades ago during a brutal dictatorship, still resonate today.

The world, the story says—the world, the story predicts—is and was and will be full of rabbits.

The Free Word Centre looks at what we can really do to protect ourselves in a world of social media and pervasive online surveillance here.

Ariel Dorfman

Ariel Dorfman’s latest book is Feeding on Dreams: Confessions of an Unrepentant Exile. He teaches at Duke University. He lives with his wife, Angélica, in Durham, North Carolina, and, from time to time, in Chile.

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