State of Emergency

Hagrid was just about to rescue Harry Potter from his horrid aunt and uncle when the picture melted into digital squares, then disappeared into darkness with a pop. Before the audience could boo, a surprisingly sedate computer-generated voice announced, "An emergency has been reported. Please walk out of the nearest exit." Two white lights began strobing next to the dead screen as the message repeated itself over and over.

I think everyone in that theater on Thanksgiving night was thinking the same thing. It could be terrorists. After all, what better time and place to hit? There would be both tactical and symbolic advantages: we were in a huge multi-plex packed with a crowd, and we were celebrating a uniquely American holiday.

But the worst was yet to come. When my friends and I attempted to evacuate, the theater employees repeatedly urged our pal in a wheelchair to "take the stairs." After we'd told about 10 different people that she was in a 400-pound automated wheelchair and couldn't possibly do that, someone finally sent her and two of my friends "to wait" on a balcony that had no exit. Meanwhile, some of us had gone down the stairs and were standing in a crowd outside, waiting for them, wondering if they were safe.

It was eerie and terrible, watching the weirdly quiet holiday mobs as they mingled around the possibly-about-to-blow-up megaplex. Fire trucks arrived, and finally, without warning or announcement, the crowd began to move back inside. False alarm. The movie played on. Had it been a fire or a bomb, two of my friends and my lover might have died on that balcony because nobody at the theater knew how to evacuate people in wheelchairs.

My vacation day had been destroyed by corporate fuckup and government fuckup. I was left with a sense of grotesque, muted phobia that I haven't been able to shake.

Something about that calm, synthetic, repetitious voice at the theater -- "An emergency has been reported" -- stuck in my mind. It reminded me of the inhumanly low-key way Ashcroft has been peeling away our civil liberties in the days since USA PATRIOT passed. First he allowed the feds to wiretap attorney-client conversations; now he and George are setting up secret military tribunals for immigrants.

Worse is the truth behind what we mean when we say "America is open for business." Consider the surrealistic report on Yahoo! about how several American tech companies are in a quiet bidding war to supply the Saudi Arabian government with the tools to block Web sites deemed inappropriate for Saudi citizens. Currently the Saudis get their Net censorship tools from Secure Computing, a San Jose company. Meanwhile, the U.S. government has ordered the shutdown of Somalia's only Internet company -- aptly named Somalia Internet Company -- because George believes they have ties to the al-Qaeda network. This means Internet blackout for Somalia, where people are already starved for information.

Need I point out the insanity of this? U.S. companies rush to supply censorware to the government of Saudi Arabia -- bin Laden's home country -- while they cut the Somalian government's only digital connection to the outside world. If only the Somalian government were rich enough to spark a bidding war among Internet companies, I'm sure they'd have Earthlink and AOL offering them groovy deals.

On top of everything else, Safeweb (a free, private Web-browsing service) shut its doors last week. Sure, they were funded partly by the CIA, and they offered no defense against Carnivore, but their service did allow people to surf the Web without worrying that someone looking at their browser cache could tell where they'd been. This was particularly useful for people working at giant corporations that forbid you to do "personal browsing" at work. If any corporate drones tried to peek at where you'd gone on the Web, all they'd find out was that you'd visited someplace called Safeweb. But that's gone now. No more safety on the Web for you.

When I returned home after my FUBARish evacuation from the theater, ugly thoughts of ambient terror whirling in my mind, I found that someone had left a corporate token on my doorstep. A CD-ROM with 45 days of free AOL service! Who says America ain't a free country?

Annalee Newitz (harry@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd who misses Siu Gwai (R.I.P.), a sweet, funny, beautiful kitty who used to chase the laser pointer in circles until she fell over. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.

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