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The 1,000-Yard Stare and the Surveillance State

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Subway Driver in PragueAfter reading this week’s blogs I found that most of the class is on the fence between happy that something is being done to help secure their safety, but unsure whether the privacy intrusion is worth it.

Remel in his blog talks about the experience that the Europeans had especially after World War II with intrusive government police looking over their shoulders and coercing people into invading each other’s privacy under the guise of “security.”

Because of their experience, Europeans are almost universally against this kind intrusion to the point where personal privacy in all its forms (including electronic) was written into the European Union’s constitution.

Deepest Escalator to Metro Station in Europe: Prague

Deepest Escalator to Metro Station in Europe: Prague

If you wonder what the social ramifications of living in a surveillance state are – as we are currently finding out – I have actually experienced the fallout from that when my wife and I were in Prague in the fall of 2001.

After World War II the Czech Republic (as part of Czechoslovakia) fell under the Soviet sphere and remained under the Soviet sphere as an occupied country until 1989 when the Soviet Union collapsed and the Czech Republic gained its independence.

If you want to see the social and personal ramifications of what living in a police state all your life can do to an individual, all you need to do is ride the Prague Metro. The Prague Metro is a subway system much like other subway systems in Paris, London, New York City, and Boston.

You ride some of the longest escalators in Europe deep into the bedrock to the sunken but surprisingly comfortable metro stations deep under the city.

Shortly thereafter, you board a sturdy, spacious subway train.

Like many subways, the trains are designed with seats that face one another with large open spaces for standing. When you’re sitting in the seats you can’t help but looking at the people sitting directly across from you. That’s where you notice the difference.

The younger people – the twentysomethings, the teenagers and the children are all generally laughing, joking, talking and having a really good time.

Prague Metro Car

Prague Metro Car

For older people, on the other hand, it’s a completely different story. All the older people, folks who came of age and lived during Soviet occupation all act completely differently. And, they all act the same way when they’re riding any public transportation.

They sit with her hands folded in their lap staring straight ahead — staring straight into your pupils – emotionless; expressionless; saying nothing to anyone around them. They just stare straight into your face with neither smiles nor frowns. It’s called the thousand-yard stare and they’re looking right through you as if you were invisible.

I mentioned to my friends that I worked with how unsettling I found this to be and they explained it this way during the Soviet times the Czech Republic had its own secret police (StB) much like the Stasi in East Germany. The secret police’s job was to spy on and report on possible “troublemakers.”

It was a well-known open secret that the secret police often encouraged you to inform on your friends; your coworkers and your families. In order to fly under the radar of the secret police, people became informants and did so, often making things up.

Metro Open Door

Metro Open Door

The secret police operated in public and since they were secret, they didn’t wear uniforms. You never knew who was a secret police agent. You never knew who the confidential informants were, so to mitigate that, people adopted this public face when they were out of their houses. They did not smile; they didn’t laugh; they didn’t show that they were having any sort of a good time because in the Soviet sphere, people who were carefree and laughing were obviously “up to something.”

So to mitigate that as much as possible, people adopted a public face of expressionlessness to try to remain as invisible as possible so as not raise the attention of anybody who might be the secret police or their informers.

Written by digitalanalogues

July 5, 2014 at 12:42 PM