There are two particularly reflective moments in the newest James Bond thriller, Spectre, that ought to be widely discussed by anyone with even a remote interest in freedom.
The first is when a phone call from the intrepid Bond to the personal secretary of MI6, or the Secret Intelligence Service (that presumably looks after the 00 Licence to Kill programme and who is known as “M” for short) is intercepted by GCHQ, the British Government Communications Headquarters at Cheltenham (“C”) that specialises in signals intelligence. In other words, the interceptor is another British agency, presumably responsible for protecting the nation. When an incredulous M asks the C official whether he was spying on MI6 agents, the chilling reply echoes loud and clear: “We’re spying on everyone.”
The second and equally taunting moment occurs at a Tokyo “Nine Eyes” intelligence summit, where leading states are called upon to accept a global programme that will instantaneously share data, ostensibly to protect ordinary people but, in reality, to benefit a criminal alliance that would put the military, industrial, financial and pharmaceutical complex to shame. In this instance, the script imagines an expansion of the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing programme, which the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand first set up in 1941, but has greatly enlarged since. Viewers only see one of the four potential new members, South Africa, cast a negative electronic ballot, which sinks the plan because the rules in place apparently require unanimity. A sly M offers a wry comment to C, the engaged young official who believes in absolute control, when he intones: “That’s democracy.”
Spying and democracy are not incompatible, of course, but snooping on everyone is vain. Today, US President Barack Obama wants to know what German Chancellor Angela Merkel is thinking, while Russian President Vladimir Putin is anxious to decipher French President Francois Hollande’s mood. British Prime Minister David Cameron is ready to juggle Chinese President Xi Jinping’s mental capabilities to secure the latest deals and just about every junior official in most countries is quite at ease to spy on each other and everyone else.
It seems that our insatiable appetites to know what others are thinking are limitless, not only because one may actually find out something worth finding out, but because we no longer trust each other to do anything in common. We are all, sadly, behaving like zombies, with leading intellectuals holed up in their ivory towers, oblivious to their responsibilities to warn humanity of the calamities that await us just around the corner. Simply stated, humankind in 2015 is not at one of its best moments, though one hopes that it will not last.
This is where the Bond mythology comes in. For Sam Mendes, the brilliant film director, 007 is no longer a mere hired hand licensed to kill to protect the interests of Her Majesty’s government. Rather, we now have a highly-politicised sleuth who shows concern for human rights and international law. Bond is still ready to blow up what needs to be blown up, but he is also aware that he may have a choice not to kill. That is, of course, quite odd and so unlike James Bond. Still, we now live in the post-Edward Snowden era where even our killers must evaluate whether their actions are appropriate, something that few could have envisaged at the height of the Cold War when villains were those who wished to inflict harm. Nowadays, it appears that some of us are the villains, which is unsettling.
To his credit, Mendes focuses on lawlessness and the massive reach of most intelligence agencies that raise fundamental questions, and while his hero develops a conscience, it is up to us to recalibrate our realities. Do we truly wish to live in a world where officials — even elected ones — enjoy unconstrained control over our lives? Have we reached a point in our development that we place more trust in technology than in our fellow human beings? Are we willing to worship the internet, social media outlets and assorted innovations that bind us to soulless devices? Have massive domestic surveillance programmes introduced into western societies — thereby catching up with totalitarian regimes — accomplished anything worthwhile? Have we reached a point where we are willing to surrender our freedoms for elusive security?
Even if Benjamin Franklin, the American founding father who famously wrote “those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety”, was actually protesting excessive taxes — not liberty the way we understand the concept today — his advocacy was on the mark.
Collecting, analysing and storing information in perpetuity is an invitation to misuse our privacy and, in the hands of modern “Cs”, to transform sensitive personal information into weapons that will end freedoms that were secured through revolutions and bloodshed. In Spectre, even James Bond is under surveillance and it behoves us to ponder that detail.
Dr Joseph Kechichian is the author of the forthcoming From Alliance To Union: Challenges Facing Gulf Cooperation Council States In The Twenty-First Century.