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Security and science are an old, natural couple, mutually reinforcing one another in the fight to extract resources and power from fearful societies. Shameful examples are easy enough: medicine and the emerging field of microbiology helped to explain that Filipinos were dirty people who needed to be washed clean by the U.S.military. Racial science helped lawmakers who wanted to preserve American whiteness to perceive the deep wisdom of their choice. Think tankers put their PhDs to work in the pursuit of more effective bombing, using the very latest in the alleged science of economics to calculate, by precise formulas, the shit-tonnage of explosives that would cause the Vietnamese people to make the rational choice of democracy and peace over communism and blast overpressure.

What looks like a long con in the rearview mirror has really been a series of loosely connected short cons by different actors, linked mostly by the common theme of essentialism. You fund my lab, and I’ll tell you the essential characteristics of the group you wish to act upon: all Chinese are X, all women are Y, all Africans are Z.

Today, with the national security state hurling free cash at anything with a pulse and a good story, the con is on, and the money is good.

In a recent and worthwhile book, the journalist Jesse Walker flipped Richard Hofstadter on his pointy head: fevered paranoia hasn’t just been a hallmark of the American fringe, he argued, but has instead been a defining characteristic of the political center. It becomes harder and harder to argue against that position, as American state policy is to find potential terrorists under every rock, everything that might be a rock, and everything that isn’t a rock but might be construed as being possibly rock-like in some mild degree.

Take the latest from NSA leaker Edward Snowden, whose purloined documents reveal the NSA’s urgent efforts to bring multiplayer online games under tight surveillance, just in case anyone playing “blow up the world” is using the whole thing as a cover for, you know, blowing up the world.

wolf monster

Image: The government has determined that even though this creature is very intimidating looking, it is not a terrorist. You’re welcome./Shatterbonez

“Not limiting their activities to the earthly realm,” reports the New York Times, “American and British spies have infiltrated the fantasy worlds of World of Warcraft and Second Life, conducting surveillance and scooping up data in the online games played by millions of people across the globe, according to newly disclosed classified documents.”

In real life, government failures to catch terrorists have mostly followed failures to examine tips. What we need is better examination of the information we have (easier said than done), not the massive increase in new surveillance and its product, endless new data. The same government that half-assed a pre-shooting examination of Nidal Hassan now seeks to deeply penetrate the world of effing video games, because terrorism. The police are fighting terrorism by spying on Howard Zinn; the NSA and its British counterpart, the Government Communications Headquarters, are all over your Xbox.

And so guess what comes next, right on schedule, per the Times:

In spring 2009, academics and defense contractors gathered at the Marriott at Washington Dulles International Airport to present proposals for a government study about how players’ behavior in a game like World of Warcraft might be linked to their real-world identities . . .

After the conference, both SAIC and Lockheed Martin won contracts worth several million dollars, administered by an office within the intelligence community that finances research projects.

SAIC’s hilarious, too-perfect motto for its government contracting business: “From science to solutions.”

The solutions are already raining down from the golden cloud of science. Watch terrorism fall to the objective world of the laboratory arts, because here’s how the Times explains some of the latest research findings on how terrorists might operate in the world of video games:

A group at the Palo Alto Research Center, for example, produced a government-funded study of World of Warcraft that found ‘younger players and male players preferring competitive, hack-and-slash activities, and older and female players preferring noncombat activities,’ such as exploring the virtual world. A group from the nonprofit SRI International, meanwhile, found that players under age 18 often used all capital letters both in chat messages and in their avatar names.

That money was well spent. I feel safer.


Chris Bray is a sometime history professor and is writing a book about the history of American military justice.

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