Hypervigilance in a time of terror: Counting the cost

Hypervigilance in a time of terror: Counting the cost
Comment: Unsolicited emergency alerts such as those received by millions of New Yorkers following the explosion in Chelsea last week, have many far-reaching and disturbing implications, writes Lara Bitar.
6 min read
26 Sep, 2016
Many New Yorkers took to online platforms to complain about the mobile phone alert [Getty]
Emergency alert systems in the United States predate mobile telecommunication and have been in use since the early years of the Cold War. Similarly, the wanted poster, once displayed in post offices and police stations, precedes the digital version now disseminated online, mainly on social media sites and law enforcement apps.

So why was the New York City Office of Emergency Management's deployment of a Wireless Emergency Alert (W.E.A) on Monday morning, mired in controversy?

The first nationwide alert system, CONELRAD (Control of Electromagnetic Radiation), was established in 1951 to provide the public with vital information in case of an attack. Throughout the years, the system continued to evolve and adapt to new technology and needs, albeit slowly.

Anyone who has watched television or listened to the radio in the past few decades has undoubtedly come across either system tests or legitimate messages during local and state emergencies.

The latest iteration of the US government's alert system, the Wireless Emergency Alert (W.E.A), was launched in 2012. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), an alert could be sent if there is an imminent threat to the safety or life of its recipients; an Amber alert for a missing child; or an urgent message from the president.

Unlike the first two types of notices, it is impossible to block presidential alerts.

In the aftermath of the Chelsea bombing, the following message "WANTED: Ahmad Khan Rahami, 28-yr-old male. See media for pic. Call 9–1–1 if seen," was broadcast to millions of New Yorkers.
Although there are precedents to the use of the service to notify community members of the presence of a suspicious individual, as reported in Wisconsin by Think Progress, this is the first time a W.E.A has been used to appeal to the public for assistance during a rapidly evolving investigation.

In contrast, in the aftermath of the 2013 Boston marathon bombings, city residents were asked to seek shelter - not aid in the search for the suspect.

At a news conference held last Monday, Mayor of New York Bill de Blasio credited the emergency alert for creating "a lot of focus and urgency," despite the fact that the suspect was caught in New Jersey - outside of the alert's geographic reach. He went on to tout the "modern approach that really engaged the whole community".

The recently appointed NY police commissioner, James O'Neill, echoed the mayor's sentiment about the W.E.A system, praising it as "the future."

"There's 36,000 of us, a number of FBI agents, but if we can get everybody in this city engaged in helping us keep it safe, I think this is the way to go," O'Neill offered.

It wasn't the future, however, for the Tripathi family who went through a real-life experiment in the crowd-sourcing of a terror investigation after their missing son, Sunil Tripathi was misidentified as one of the Boston bombers.

The 2015-released documentary "Help Us Find Sunil Tripathi" chronicles some of the repercussions the family endured, as digital vigilantism, abetted by mainstream media, took over their lives.
The implications of a case of mistaken identity or faulty intelligence can be especially terrifying for Muslims and Arabs in a climate of heightened xenophobia and racism
The implications of a case of mistaken identity or faulty intelligence can be especially terrifying for Muslims and Arabs in a climate of heightened xenophobia and racism. According to data published by California State University, hate crimes against Muslim-Americans increased by 78 percent over the course of 2015, whereas attacks on Arabs rose by a whopping 219 percent.

But aside from the obvious risk of increased violence targeting vulnerable communities, and despite the criticism leveled at the W.E.A. system's many limitations (as detailed by Motherboard), the virtual wanted poster is but the natural evolution of the "If You See Something, Say Something" campaign launched after the 9/11 attacks.

The move from informational alerts to actionable and participatory messaging is one way to allocate some policing duties to the general public. And it can be read as another chapter in the creation of a cohesive and controllable citizenry ready for deployment at a moment's notice.
Hate crimes against Muslim-Americans increased by 78 percent over the course of 2015
It is reminiscent of the co-optation of The American Trucking Association's Highway Watch program by the Department of Homeland Security in 2004. Originally designed to teach truck drivers how to deal with roadside emergencies, it now enlists everyone from toll collectors to school bus drivers to keep a watchful eye for "suspicious" activity and to report it to the relevant authorities.

If we accept image theorist John Berger's view that the act of seeing establishes our place in the world, then much can be inferred about training civilians to see the world through the lens of security. In the fifteen years since the most deadly attack on US soil, architects of the so-called war on terror have crafted an identity of the model citizen as opposed to a racialised threatening "other."

The repeated appeal to responsible citizenry - broadly defined as abiding by the state's directives - has transformed every obedient individual into a willing and eager informant while fostering the illusion of agency and participation in the political process.

The hypervigilance demanded by the national security apparatus — normalised by relinquishing photographic evidence of criminalised activity to the police, neighborhood watches, the scrutinising of people read as "alien," etc., - not only delineates this "other," but absorbs entire communities into the surveillance state.
The surveillance state is in turn, omnipresent in the lives of millions of people whose interactions with one another are mediated through security agencies.
The hypervigilance demanded by the national security absorbs entire communities into the surveillance state
Many New Yorkers took to online platforms to complain about the notice, some simply for being woken up before 8am, and others to express aggravation at the folly of causing mass panic without providing any clear guidance.

But what makes this particular use of a W.E.A insidious is its forced - borderline violent - entry into the private sphere to alarm, then dispatch to the streets an army of civilian vigilantes in the age of terror.

Receivers of the message heard an eerie tone that blared repeatedly for a few seconds, and was followed by an urgent message that vanished just as rapidly as it appeared. With the potential to leave its recipients suspended and possibly scared, they were forced to wait for the state to manifest itself again and, in turn, remain at its mercy to ensure their safety.

In fact, a study published in the Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management, "Disaster Warnings in Your Pocket: How Audiences Interpret Mobile Alerts for an Unfamiliar Hazard," revealed that people found W.E.As "confusing" and "fear inducing."

This infiltration of sounds and images into intimate private spaces without permission allows the state to mark an entire territory as sovereign while leaving its subjects subdued. By encroaching on diverse spaces across the five boroughs and asserting a form of control over them, even if temporarily, NY state managed to turn the city's residents into docile subjects.

As evidence of the implications, look no further than the reported "adoration" of law enforcement and "nearly universal" support for it during the manhunt for the marathon bombing suspects, despite the many violations of the residents' civil liberties.

In a time of relative peace, the next alert could be to warn of a serious hurricane. However, the militarised future envisioned by the US ruling class, looks likely to remain on the trajectory of perpetual war. On the "homefront," that means sounding emergencies that demand a model citizenry.

Lara Bitar is a Beirut-based media worker and researcher specialising in grassroots political movements, institutional violence and media: spectacles and justice.

Follow her on Twitter: @larsbit

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.