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Candid Camera

When I told you that the future wasn't a fascist dystopia, I may have been speaking a bit prematurely.

You had a small cold--nothing worrisome, just some sniffles--but you decided that nasal decongestant was a necessity were you to be the least bit useful for the rest of the day. Nothing on the shelf was quite right--you know from experience, having spent your teenage years with a chronic case of hypochondria and undiagnosed allergies to animal dander and dust--so you picked a plastic card for Sudafed and brought it to the pharmacy. It would do the trick without making you a drugged out zombie.

Before continuing, I would be remiss if I did not point out that the young woman ahead of you in line picked up a controlled substance, a psychotropic that would be worth a bit on the street. The pharmacist gave this to her with little more than a second look at the prescription, certainly without actually affirming that she was the patient to whom this medication was prescribed. You have no doubt you could have brought it to the counter and said you were picking it up for your girlfriend. When you hand your plastic card in, the woman behind the counter demands your license, then meticulously types in not only you name but ostensibly every single character on it. She even criticizes your picture (almost a decade out of date), as though you would use a fake ID to get a box of twenty-four nasal decongestants. Since this process makes you more than a little uncomfortable, you joke with the pharmacist that you are now going to be on some sort of watch list and won't be able to buy decongestants for a month. She looks over the tops of her glasses, her mistrust renewed, and affirms that what you've said is exactly correct. She thinks you knew that you would be forbidden the pleasure of buying this $3 box of tablets for thirty days and almost denies you. For the privilege of buying a completely legal box of cold medicine, you are now on a list.

Her fear was that you would use the pseudoepinephrine in the tiny red tablets to distill a drug called methamphetamine, also known as ice, speed, crystal meth, and simply meth. As drugs go, it is apparently a highly addictive one that tends to result in its users death. Not being the drug-using sort, you derive the majority of your knowledge of meth from public service announcements when the television stations could not otherwise fill up commercial time and want to therefore fulfill their apparent obligation to society. Meth is somewhat easy to make in one's home or, since you buy into the propaganda, trailer. It apparently leads to tooth loss, rapid weight loss, occasional explosions, and the willingness to prostitute oneself for more of the drug. You have no idea how to create it and don't particularly care to know, beyond the fact that it seems to involve lots of heat and flammable material. And now you are on a list of potential meth users that the government may pore over at a whim.

While this one incident bothers you, what galls you is how indicative you find it of a decline in privacy in America. You recently read a statistic that the average person is filmed 200 times a day, largely without their knowledge or consent. There are signs in front of most stores, warning that anyone entering is subject to filming on security cameras; this passes for a threat and a promise, as a way to waive any legal stickiness resulting from this voyeurism. Seeing these signs, your continued entrance constitutes consent according to the law. You understand the purpose of these signs in stores, for the most part. They wish to prevent theft and even a dummy camera is liable to make someone paranoid enough that they won't stuff a frozen turkey in their purse. You find the fact that many stores secretly film you in the changing room, that they legally can and have released this footage for public consumption in videos titled "Hottest Dressing Rooms, Volume 7," reason enough to just estimate your size when making a purchase, however.

There are also cameras on the streets, most everywhere in cities. These cameras carry no warning, so you really do not have the foggiest idea when a casual stroll can lead to your being entered into a database and cross-referenced against suspected "terrorists," a word that lost all meaning around the time that the government began creating dossiers of anyone who was not explicitly in favor of their policies. You went to a protest when you were ten or twelve, so you might already have one. In a world where you can carry more memory in your pocket than you first three computers had combined, it is all too easy to save a hundred million records of innocent people for one that may actually be guilty. Years ago, while you were passing through a police station's inner sanctum because you had been mugged (no hidden cameras helped you there), you saw that a bulletin board was covered with pictures of your classmates, giving one another handshakes. You understood that the police assumed this was a gang sign and not simple the sort of greeting ritual created among high school friends. You further understood the angles from which the pictures had to be taken and realized how lousy Main Street must have been in cameras, all filming constantly in hopes of getting one incriminating frame for this wall. You then went out of your way to find the cameras, look straight at them, and wave. You definitely have a dossier, though they may believe you are a mental patient.

If the cameras were not enough, one can be stopped and searched by the police at their discretion. As such, you have heard, witnessed, but not experienced the pleasure of random bag checks that encompass everyone on the street. It would be slightly different were it that the police had a credible threat, but they tend to just wait in a subway station or on a sidewalk and detain anyone who happens to be passing so they can be searched and frisked. You are welcome to walk away, but they will decide that declining a bag search qualifies as suspicious behavior and that can result in your arrest on trumped up charges. If the police care to, it is easy enough to contrive a reason to hold you long enough to dissuade you from exercising your constitutionally given rights. You spoke to an officer? No, you spat at then, since microscopic particles of saliva left your mouth. You walked away when they were speaking to you? No, you interfered with police work. They won't be able to hold you for long, especially once the castrated media gets word of what happened, but they only need to scare you into submitting.

While the conceit had been that one was innocent until proven guilt, the talking head now say with full sincerity that you shouldn't be worried about the government treating you as a potential suspect to every crime since your conception unless you have something to hide. It seems to you to be the height of un-American thought to be told to grip your knees and think of England (who are increasingly treating Orwell's 1984 as a manual), though these groups are likely to lob the same accusation back at you for questioning the behavior of your democratically elected representatives.

All of this was before the government passed the PATRIOT Act and the PATRIOT Act II, both of which apparently were titled to sound less vile than the Alien and Sedation Acts that are so obviously their grandparents. These increasingly allow erosion to the rights of privacy previously established. You are fairly sure that a program called Carnivore checks through your postings eventually, because you maintain a website that has been critical of how the present administration in the White House has run things for the past eight years. You may have referred to it as a "regime" or "junta" several times, but still believe you are allowed free speech and press owing to the First Amendment. But, as is so often quoted around this time in these sorts of discourses, the president has been quoted as saying, "Stop throwing the Constitution in my face. It's just a goddamned piece of paper!" This is a sobering proclamation from a man sworn to uphold and protect it.

Xen is sending the text of these essays back in time to his prepubescent self using advanced technology and fairy dust. That you can manage to read them as well is only a glitch in the servers.
Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings.

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