Propping Up A Police State On Telly

I’m fascinated by the handling of the justice system in pop culture, and the very specific things that tend to get promoted in depictions of law enforcement, investigations, and criminal cases. In the last year or so in particular, I’ve noticed a marked rise in the direction of promoting a police state, advancing questionable and controversial tactics and technologies as indisputably good, and as things that should be welcomed into our lives instead of interrogated to determine whether their high costs are really worth the benefits; look, for instance, to the rise of surveillance tactics on television. These tactics become critical to crimesolving, but rarely are viewers asked to evaluate them from a perspective other than that of law enforcement.

Indeed, we’re often supposed to be sympathising with characters who moan about not being able to get warrants, and who protest other limitations on policing. We’re supposed to see these controls, intended to safeguard the privacy and security of citizens, as a bad thing. If only law enforcement had unfettered access to phone records, camera footage, and other resources! Think of all the crimes they could be solving or perhaps even preventing! Instead, they’re hindered by these foolish and ridiculous restrictions that just make it harder to do their jobs!

In the wake of the 11 September attacks, the United States has become a very different place, and it’s seen a distinct shift to the right in terms of law enforcement and militarisation. This country is becoming a police state, one where civil rights violations that would have been highly questionable 20 years ago are now routine. The passage of the PATRIOT Act, subsequent renewals, and new legislation have normalised this to the point where it seems like there is no turning back without radical and possibly violent revolution in this country, because once these measures are put in place, they are extremely difficult to roll back.

In many cases, people gave up their civil rights without protest or commentary, as though they were waiting for someone else to defend them. Groups like the ACLU, though, can only do so much without the full support of the public, and as the police state has risen, so too has the advancement of the police state in pop culture. It’s woven throughout the entertainment media we consume, reinforcing the idea that this is a good thing, a right thing, something we should be pleased instead of horrified by. Pop culture even goes so far as to suggest that the collapse of civil liberties has not gone far enough, turning viewers into people who question their own civil rights rather than leveling the finger of suspicion at the government.

Why is it that we cheer when the characters on Bones essentially use a drone to spy on the compound of a suspected killer? It turns out that he’s guilty, of course, which justifies the use of the spy equipment; our heroes are brave warriors of justice who have resorted to these not quite legal means in the interest of a better, safer world, but look at the outcome! We should praise them for being willing to stick their necks out a bit and violate some poor man’s civil liberties because the ends justify the means. We caught the bad guy, and that was the goal. Mission accomplished.

What we never see on Bones or, for that matter, other procedurals, is what happens when the legal use as well as abuse of surveillance technology and similar tools doesn’t result in a conviction. The way we see it presented is in an unrelentingly positive light; they use it to track down criminals, and only criminals are ever targeted with this kind of invasive investigation. If you’re not a criminal, you have nothing to fear, because of course you will never fall under investigation. It’s interesting to see it framed this way on television, to suggest that this technology is only ever used on ‘bad guys.’

It’s like they recognise that showing innocent people targeted by surveillance might raise the hackles of audiences, who would start to identify with the wrong people on screen. We’re supposed to support the law enforcement, not the suspects, and we’d be uncomfortable seeing innocent people, people like us, ordinary people who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, targeted by investigations. We wouldn’t like to think of drones over our properties, or bugs on our phones, because the idea makes us uncomfortable; we don’t like the idea of having our privacy violated that way even if we have nothing to hide.

Curious indeed that in the promotion of these technologies and the grinding insistence on law enforcement always being right, few shows are willing to explore what happens when law enfocement is wrong, what happens when the police state rises to the point that anyone, anywhere, can become a target for invasive technologies. Because this would create a nightmare scenario for a lot of viewers who don’t want to imagine themselves in that place; they want to maintain the illusion of privacy and pretend that they would never be caught up in these kinds of investigations because they’re innocent.

But what happens when tracking and surveillance technology is so woven into society that it becomes inescapable? When it’s embedded into the hardware and software you use, the places you go, the objects you interact with? It’s not that we should be questioning this technology because it might be used nefariously, but that it is already being abused, and we are already being watched more closely than many of us seem to realise. The model presented on television, where the police state only affects you if you are guilty, is wrong, but more than that, it suggests a dreamworld where any kind of fear in this technology would be baseless and unnecessary; don’t worry, you’re safe. No one would use this against you.