James Risen's Pay Any Price

Tue Nov 18, 2014

There’s a line in R. A. Lafferty’s “The Primary Education of the Camiroi” about personality and politics: “Can you imagine a person so sick that he would actually desire to hold high office for any great period of time?” A familiar observation, I think, and one that came to mind as I was reading James Risen’s Pay Any Price. The Camiroi of Lafferty’s story have a comically rigorous educational system and govern themselves by lottery (for short intervals). There are nine chapters in Risen’s book, with each one describing a disastrous consequence of the post-2001 expansion of the state security apparatus. The last third of the book discusses the NSA domestic surveillance program, and it made me wonder what type of people would seek high office in a state of universal surveillance and thus blackmailability. The best? The worst? The most oblivious? I have an opinion, but let us speak of higher things.

Software fraud was the surprising subject of one of Risen’s chapters. He describes an apparent effort to con the military with bogus image-enhancement software. A large-scale steganographic analysis of Al Jazeera broadcasts features in this account. I had not read any accounts of these incidents before. I know enough about computers and the people who live with them to realize that software fraud is in fact a thing in the world, but I had naively not imagined it possible on this scale, with this clientele. (I also assumed all ski resorts were private, so perhaps I’m not worldly enough to be so confident in my beliefs.)

Risen does not, as far as I remember, make the inevitable Bleak House comparison in his chapter on In re Terrorist Attacks on September 11, 2001, but he does have an epigraph from Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King.” I teach this story every so often, and it’s common for students to interpret it as a criticism of imperialism. As with Conrad’s more familiar example, the story actually justifies imperialism by condemning adventurers who lack moderation and suffer exemplary punishments. Risen’s opinion of the second Iraq war is clear enough, and he endorses the view that counterterrorism should largely be handled by criminal investigations. I am less sure of his opinion of the initial war in Afghanistan.

“A decade of fear-mongering has brought power and wealth to those who have been the most skillful at hyping the terrorist threat” (203). Even if you were not inclined to doubt this statement, Risen’s documentation is disturbing. From Derby Line, VT all the way to Stanstead, QC, from the airport to the ballpark—no consumer has been untouched. Perhaps even humanities departments have been affected. Risen’s last chapter describes cybersecurity’s expansion as the next major growth area of the security apparatus. But don’t all things cyber tend towards the withering away of the state? I suppose not.