We have been warned

Nov. 15, 2001, midnight | By Joe Howley | 19 years, 7 months ago

Shades of 1984 in 2001

It's amazing how complacent we are, for all that we have been warned. Well, most of us have – most people I know, at least, have read George Orwell's 1984, either for school or for fun.

It's a connection I cannot help making to current events. Most people are glued to their television screens, watching for news on the war our government is waging on (at the moment) Afghanistan.

But how much news are we getting that's not from the government? Anyone remember, oh, several weeks ago, when they fed us that grainy night-vision video of "special forces" troops running around in what was, apparently, a terrorist training camp? We ate that up. Or how about those photographs of missiles being launched from US ships?

All the real news on troop movements and battles in Afghanistan is coming through the government – and if they don't want to talk about it, they don't. All we hear is what they want us to, and the news we've been getting seems finely tuned to keep us engaged in this war. Oh, Time has maps of battles and territory, but if you look at them closely, they're telling you nothing. It's better if they don't divulge too much, of course, for our troops' safety. Ignorance is Strength.

Perhaps I am being overly cynical and paranoid in this, so let's look at other aspects of the situation.

Hundreds of citizens and non-citizens are being held as "material witnesses" or "suspected terrorists," many by laws or on charges that have nothing to do with terrorism. They are being held in secret locations for indeterminate amounts of time, and just today, the president signed an executive order allowing "suspected terrorists" who are not American citizens to be tried in secret, military tribunals. Don't worry, it's in the interest of national security. We can't let these people go free. Freedom is Slavery.

The government says we are fighting this war to put an end to terrorism around the world (note that there are no specified targets or victory conditions). War is Peace.

Days after terrorists levelled the World Trade Center and crippled the Pentagon, legislators were introducing "anti-terrorist" legislation that contained unprecedented limitations on our civil liberties, giving the government obscenely open abilities to monitor our lives. The Internet, which many people look to for news and information, may now be looking right back at us.

Every major American commercial news outlet is using language like "America Strikes Back" and "War on Terror" to paint a pretty picture of the current war. From them, we are learning the new lexicon of this war. The newspeak, if you will.

Who the enemy is has changed in the past two months. Today's news headlines have forgotten about Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network, supposedly behind the attacks of September 11. The enemy is the Taleban regime, and their continuing defeat is smugly celebrated by government officials. In one month, who will the enemy be? Iraq? Chechen rebels in Russia? Eurasia?

Public documents, even those with only marginal potential relevance to terrorism, are being restricted and hidden in the name of national security.

Politicians praise (though not as much as they did in the first weeks after the attacks) newfound party unity. Old allegiances are forgotten; we all belong to the American Party.

Peer pressure encourages us to stand for and say the pledge of allegiance, to wear and bear flags, not to speak out against the president. Alternative theories about the cause of and responsibilty for the terrorist attacks are quickly stifled. The government verbally discourages racial hate, but does nothing to prevent it.

I fear this may be slipping by those not familiar with Orwell's excellent novel. In it, citizens of the city-state of Oceania get all their information from and are incidentally observerved around the clock by the ruling (and sole) Party via telescreens, two-way television-like devices.

Those capitalized slogans I mentioned earlier are the mottos of the Party. They adorn the Ministry of Truth, where the protagonist, Winston Smith, works for the Party, altering documents of the past to fit the current Party line (if you will). The Party, it should be noted, controls all such documents and all transmissions via telescreen.

Oceania is always at war, but it is a war that people know of only through their telescreens, through the probably fake footage of foreign soldiers and, of course, the Party's fearless and omnipotent leader, Big Brother. The enemy in the war may change on a certain day, and all the Party outlets and mouthpieces will change their tunes so quickly that the next day, no one will remember a time when they were fighting anyone different. They are blissfully ignorant and complacently sheeplike.

Eventually, Winston breaks the mold and is ruthlessly stomped down by the Party. He is taken into custody by the Thought Police and brought to the ironically named Ministry of Love on the only charge there is, with no evidence: thoughtcrime.

Am I the only person for whom these words seem to almost rhyme with "Homeland Defense" and "National Security?"

1984 is frequently classified as science fiction, a genre I have been studying in depth this year as a part of my Senior Research Project. I have come to the conclusion that what sets science fiction apart from "flat" fiction is that the setting and circumstances are substantially different from today's (in ways that can be scientifically explained). Given that definition, to what extent is 1984 really science fiction?

I'm not saying that the Thought Police will be breaking down my door tomorrow. But the current state of affairs, as a whole, composes a somewhat disturbing trend.

The title of 1984 is the year you get when you reverse the last two digits of the year Orwell wrote it in, 1948. The same operation performed now produces 2010. In nine years – or even five – will I even be able to publish something like this? Will this piece even exist?

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Joe Howley. Joe Howley is a senior at Blair in the Communication Arts Program. He is Editor-in-Chief of the Online division of Chips and shares the Graphics Editorship with the infamous Brandon Proia. He is resigned to being a hopeless computer "geek," and is already an object … More »

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