Written by Tracy Lawson
This was a difficult post to write. It’s been on the to-do list for months while I ruminated. And hedged. And procrastinated.
1984 is one of the big boys in the dystopian genre. I assume that most of you have read it, or are at least familiar with its theme.
1984 by George Orwell (1949) and Little Brother by Cory Doctorow (2008) are inextricably linked by their subject matter. Both serve as warnings. Both have the power to mesmerize and horrify the reader. Both should make us think. But today, I’m asking you to read Little Brother and think long and hard about what it has to say.
1984 is a classic cry against totalitarian government. It’s easy to assume that Orwell was railing against the post-World War II spread of communism, but he was also warning countries like England and the United States against believing that they could save freedom and democracy by continuing an arms race to find a stable “deterrent.” Orwell asserts that freedom cannot continue to exist in a world preparing for nuclear war.
In a world punctuated by war, oppression, deprivation, loneliness, paranoia, and despair, Winston reaches out for truth and love. And pays a terrible cost.
Little Brother relays an updated message: freedom cannot exist in a world that has given in to the fear of terrorism. Marcus Yallow (online handle W1n5t0n) is a hacker and a gamer who loves to outsmart surveillance technology. While skipping school one afternoon, he finds himself near the epicenter of a terrorist attack on San Francisco’s rapid transit system. Within minutes of the attack, Marcus and his three friends are taken prisoner by “military looking guys in coveralls.”
“Hey,” I said to the soldiers. “Hey, listen! We’re just high school students. I wanted to flag you down because my friend was bleeding. Someone stabbed him.” I had no idea how much of this was making it through the muffling bag. I kept talking. “Listen—this is some kind of misunderstanding. We’ve got to get my friend to a hospital—“
Someone went upside my head again. It felt like they used a baton or something—it was harder than anyone had ever hit me in the head before. My eyes swam and watered and I literally couldn’t breathe through the pain. A moment later, I caught my breath, but I didn’t say anything. I’d learned my lesson.
Who were these clowns? They weren’t wearing insignia. Maybe they were the terrorists! I’d never really believed in terrorists before—I mean I knew that in the abstract there were terrorists somewhere in the world, but they didn’t really represent any risk to me. There were millions of ways that the world could kill me—starting with getting run down by a drunk burning his way down Valencia—that were infinitely more likely and immediate than terrorists. Terrorists kill a lot fewer people than bathroom falls and accidental electrocutions. Worrying about them always struck me as about as useful as worrying about getting hit by lightning.
Marcus soon learns he’s been detained by the Department of Homeland Security as a person of interest in the terrorist attack.
“You think I’m a terrorist? I’m seventeen years old!”
Just the right age—Al Qaeda loves recruiting impressionable, idealistic kids. We googled you, you know. You’ve posted a lot of very ugly stuff on the public Internet.”
”I’d like to speak to an attorney.”
Severe haircut lady looked at me like I was a bug. “You’re under the mistaken impression that you’ve been picked up by the police for a crime. You need to get past that. You are being detained as a potential enemy combatant by the government of the United States. If I were you, I’d be thinking very hard about how to convince us that you are not an enemy combatant.”
Despite the threats made by his captors, Marcus refuses to unlock and uncrypt his cell phone, or give any information to them. He feels that he is a citizen who loves freedom, which makes him the patriot and his captors the traitors. He is detained for five days, and released when he agrees to sign papers that declared he had been held for voluntary questioning. He is then released and told to say nothing of what has happened to him to anyone, even his parents. He is told that he will be under constant surveillance.
When he returns to school the following week, he finds things have changed since the terrorist attack. The school board has installed closed circuit televisions in every classroom for the students’ protection.
Why did we have cameras in our classrooms now? Terrorists. Of course. Because by blowing up a bridge, terrorists had indicated that schools were next. Somehow that was the conclusion the Board had reached anyway.
I stuck my hand up.
“Ms. Galvez, about this note?”
“Isn’t the point of terrorism to make us afraid? That’s why it’s called terrorism, right?”
”I suppose so.” The class was staring at me. I wasn’t the best student in school, but I did like a good in-class debate. They were waiting to hear what I’d say next.
“So aren’t we doing what the terrorists want from us? Don’t they win if we act all afraid and put cameras in the classrooms and all of that?”
There was some nervous tittering. One of the others put his hand up. It was Charles. Ms. Galvez called on him.
“Putting cameras in makes us safe, which makes us less afraid.”
”Safe from what?” I asked, without waiting to be called on.
“Terrorism,” Charles said. The others were nodding their heads.
“How do they do that? If a suicide bomber rushed in here and blew us all up—“
“Ms. Galvez, Marcus is violating school policy. We’re not supposed to make jokes about terrorist attacks—“
“Who’s making jokes?”
“Thank you, both of you,” Ms. Galvez said. She looked really unhappy.
Marcus is watched and followed in the days to come. When he finally tells his parents what really happened to him, they are horrified at his ordeal, contact an investigative reporter, and from that moment on, Marcus is in danger. He organizes an event that will bring the overreaching arm of the DHS into the public eye, and things go horribly wrong, causing Marcus’ worst fears to be realized.
Both 1984 and Little Brother serve as warnings. In the Afterword to Little Brother, Andrew Huang asks whether the terrorists have already won:
“Have we given in to fear, such that artists, hobbyists, hackers, iconoclasts or perhaps a group of kids playing Harajuku Fun Madness could be so trivially implicated as terrorists?” He goes on to say that “technology is no cure for paranoia. Coercing millions of people to strip off their outer garments and walk barefoot through metal detectors everyday is no solution, either. It only serves to remind the population that they have a reason to be afraid, while in practice providing only a flimsy barrier to a determined adversary.”
We are fond of slogans like “Freedom isn’t Free.” We must remember that we win freedom by having the courage to live every day as free people—no matter how big the threats on the horizon.
Please don’t give in to fear and paranoia. Don’t forget to be brave. Don’t believe that the things the government does to take away our freedoms are merely a small price to pay for our safety.
Tracy’s original post can be read here.