Killing at a Distance: the loss of trust

In 1584, William the Silent was assassinated by a French Catholic, Balthasar Gérard.  William, Prince of Orange, was the leader of the Dutch revolt against Spanish rule in the Netherlands, and the Spanish king had promised 25,000 crowns to anyone who killed him.  William had just finished dinner in his home in Delft when Gérard arrived, on the pretext of delivering a message, pulled out his pistols, and shot him 3 times.

William the Silent, Prince of Orange, Stadthol...

Assassination wasn’t new.  People have been stabbing, skewering and poisoning their rulers since Suetonius was reporting from Rome, but this death was different. In The Awful End of William the Silent (2005), Lisa Jardine calls it a turning point in European history, the first time a head of state was killed by a handgun (though Wikipedia, which always knows better, points out that the Scottish Regent, the Earl of Moray, was shot dead 13 years earlier).

William’s death introduced a new, more deadly technology into the business of killing leaders.  Unlike a dagger, where the killer had to be within arm’s length of his victim, a gun made it possible to kill from a distance. Gérard was caught, but at least in theory an assassin using a gun could act anonymously, killing a head of state without facing the inevitable retribution by the state for his actions.  It was a scary prospect for kings and princes.

One result of this and other assassinations – there was a rash of them during these years of religious turmoil – was that 17th century rulers began to withdraw physically from their subjects and treat them more suspiciously, for any petitioner or messenger might be a killer in disguise.  Later in the 17th century, Louis XIV moved the French court from Paris to Versailles – away from the danger of the rabble – and other kings followed suit, like American Presidents retreating behind bulletproof glass after the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan.

Within their palaces, too, rulers withdrew from direct contact with their subjects.  The new technology of handguns helped change the architecture of great houses, introducing more defined private and public spaces.  The king still needed to display himself to his subjects, but these occasions of contact, like photo opportunities, were carefully stage-managed events.

Out of this studied remoteness emerged one of the blights of modern society, the lobbyist, for the lobby was a transitional room separating public and private areas.  The first lobbyists were men and women who traded on their close contact with the powerful, for a fee or a favour, because the powerful had become too remote to approach directly.  Come to think of it, that’s still what they are.

The link between ruler and ruled became more tenuous for many reasons – but one was fear, the fear that comes with a new, more deadly technology.  And when rulers no longer trust their subjects, trouble follows.

Which brings me to the current controversy in the United States about the National Security Agency collecting the telephone and Internet records of millions of American citizens, and the inevitable conflict between security and privacy that this involves. I only know what I read, but I gather that the information being collected isn’t content-related. The NSA seems to be interested in traffic patterns.

Back in the 1980s, mathematicians were dealing with traffic of a different kind, and another technology, the mobile/cell phone.  Mobile phones use communication towers which are spaced fairly evenly across populated areas, and can handle normal amounts of traffic, until a traffic jam – a real traffic jam, involving cars – occurs.  When a tailback occurs, every driver phones home to say he will be late for dinner – and the telecommunications system in that area crashes.

These mathematicians developed analytical tools to predict and handle sudden inexplicable surges in communications traffic.  But their algorithms can also be used for other purposes.  Financial analysts look at surges on the stock market.  Intelligence analysts look at chatter on the internet, the rise and fall of twitter hashtags and blips and clusters in phone calls.

Sometimes, something worthwhile is achieved – and it must be very frustrating, I imagine, that these successes have to be kept secret, while every failure becomes public knowledge.  But we are all under surveillance now. I know FaceBook collects content, because it has me tagged as an older woman eager to buy cures for belly fat and hot flushes, and you can go to Google Earth for a birds’ eye view of my backyard.

No doubt William the Silent would have been grateful for better intelligence, but that intelligence comes at a price.  And sometimes, in the hands of fearful people or fearful states, it’s not very intelligent at all.

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One response to “Killing at a Distance: the loss of trust

  1. Pingback: Nearly Departed | Trust killed at the point of a pistol

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