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Against Prosecutor Brain
A recent book by Kerry Howley complicates public narratives about Reality Winner, John Walker Lindh, and others who have run afoul of the surveillance state.
PROSECUTORS HAVE A GOOD DEAL IN COMMON with conspiracy theorists, and with the sorts of people who write manuals about feline rescue for screenwriters, or self-help books called, like, StoryTime For Grownups: How the Magic of Aristotelian Narrative Logic Can Supercharge Your Sales. All of these sorts of people want reality to boil down into a nice, clean, linear chain of cause-effect relationships, in which the reason that things happen the way they do is because of clearly understood choices made by beings of undaunted agency.
The purveyors of these kinds of stories proceed as though character were fate—which it sometimes is!—and thus that fate reveals character—which it frequently doesn’t. The prosecutor, like the author who begins with the climax of the story, chooses a particular moment in a person’s life and writes backward, letting that one choice cast a retrospective spell on every recorded intermittence of the defendant’s heart. I call this kind of thinking Prosecutor Brain—the tendency to read every aspect of a person’s life in terms of the worst thing they ever did (or didn’t do).
So take Reality Winner, who is at the center of the large cast of characters in Kerry Howley’s Bottoms Up and the Devil Laughs, a brilliant, elliptical study of the post-9/11 American surveillance state. What we know about this young woman’s life discloses a person of strong will and expansive moral imagination, who is also a bit of a mess. She wants most of all to change a violent world. She hates war and domination. She finds herself dropping drone-bombs for the largest military in the world. (How else than by joining the Army is a young working-class person from a non-coastal state to gain access to the world of Big Events, where things really can be changed? You could also go to college, thence to NGO-world, but that takes forever and might turn you into a bloviating loser.)
But once you leak classified documents to a journalist, you cease to be a complex, disillusioned young soldier. No, you are a type: The Leaker. Your leaky nature is revealed by your most trivial past actions, your most offhand dark jokes. Every detail is part of that single moral or emotional pattern. Every off day becomes a new point on the line that illustrates a smoothly rising, treacherous action. As in middlebrow psychological thrillers or Christopher Nolan movies, no detail fails to pay off.
Howley’s book is pleasingly hard to describe as to genre. Her own website uses the term “nonfiction novel,” but she doesn’t, as Truman Capote did in In Cold Blood, suppress the ways that she involves herself in the story, simply by reporting it. (Of all Capote’s lies, that was one of the worst.) Several reviewers have called it a “meditation,” a handy term that unfortunately always has the effect of making the book sound boring.
At one point Howley tells us, in an aside, that she teaches “what has regrettably come to be called creative nonfiction,” but while her best sentences have an eloquence and style that rank her with the best of the writers associated with that term, the label has always suggested a certain devil-may-care attitude toward facticity that Howley doesn’t seem to share. You can imagine a certain (bad) kind of editor telling her that certain of her “characters”—whistleblowers like Winner, Chelsea Manning, and Edward Snowden; more ambiguous figures like John Kiriakou and Daniel Hale; the journalists Gleen Greenwald and Matthew Cole—should be dropped or conflated for the sake of a simpler narrative, a cleaner throughline. What appeals about Howley’s book is precisely her taste for the anecdote that won’t quite fit, the historical person who won’t settle down and become a consistently admirable character, the way real-life events can seem both plotted and chaotic. She seeks forms that will honor the opaque quality of real people and real events, and that remind us of the shaping, the fictionalizing, that has to accompany any statement of truth.
For these reasons, if I had to summarize Howley’s book, I would say that it’s a series of anti-prosecutions. This is not the same as a case for the defense. Howley takes up the stories of several people who have run afoul of that state, and tells those stories as though these people were, as they are in reality, frequently self-contradictory, obscure to themselves, as imperfect in their badness as in their goodness. Howley’s appreciation for the details that don’t pay off, for the strange connections that lead in several directions and then just as suddenly stop, for the noise in the data patterns, all make her an ideal counternarrator.
Howley begins, more or less, with John Walker Lindh, famous two decades ago as the “American Taliban,” now half-forgotten. He seems like an odd choice of subject—certainly less sympathetic than Winner, Manning, or Snowden—but for Howley, he is exemplary in two ways. On the one hand, Lindh generated so many red flags during his suburban ’80s-’90s childhood that, if he were a child today, he would almost certainly have been caught long before he managed to proffer his services to the Taliban. That he wasn’t caught earlier makes him a period piece. The slapdash way that those earlier biographical details were assembled into a picture of someone fearsome rather than feckless, though—the way prosecutors, Bush administration personnel, journalists, and the general public were able to make a frightening villain of a confused kid who was trying to escape his white, suburban self—that makes him a man ahead of his time: He was canceled on every front. (This consensus formed so quickly that George W. Bush couldn’t initially keep up with it.)
Howley details how the same process unfolded again and again, sometimes with figures far more sympathetic than Lindh. In each case, she shows how many sorts of details we have learned to capture, to flag, and how our cynicism and fear make us paradoxically naïve—childish and melodramatic—in the stories that we use those details to tell. (Edward Snowden, Russian agent; Chelsea Manning, vicious traitor.)
As Howley tells these stories—as she un-tells, expands, perforates the stories that Prosecutor Brain has arranged for us—her sensitivity to patterns, to unexpected echoes, allows her to say a great deal more than just The surveillance state is bloated and ridiculous. By the book’s end, that surveillance state itself begins to look, in a small way, like the people it has prosecuted: fragmented, flimsy, illusory.
CHANCES ARE, YOU ARE UNDERESTIMATING your ability to acquire a drone fleet. “Anyone can build a combat drone,” Howley writes. “If you build a drone for your little makeshift country, no one will be impressed. You could use the same engine they use for snowblowers, slap on a propeller, pour in some motor oil.” She follows this prime example of the Annie Dillard description-via-deflation technique with a surprisingly lyrical peroration on all the ways that a drone can be destroyed:
We may think of drones as indestructible, ironclad, and this is the impression defense companies attempt to impart with the hard names they give machines they build: Predator drone, Reaper drone, Hunter drone; but in fact the original word, drone, is elegantly apt, and all of these are an attempt to mask the dumb delicacy it captures. Drones are cheap, flimsy, light little wisps of things, vulnerable to lost signals and sleepy pilots; vulnerable to gusts of wind and hard rain, lightning, ice; vulnerable even to themselves, as dropping a missile creates a thrust that threatens to spin a drone to the ground. You will send a drone whirling into the sand should you turn too hard into a breeze, or press the wrong button on your joystick; should you fly into an area of excessive electromagnetic noise or accidentally, as has happened to one American drone pilot, fly the drone upside down for a long while, oblivious. They slam into mountains, crash into other planes, fall into farms, sidewalks, waterways. . . . It’s okay. They’re cheap. We make new ones.
A lovely, rhythmic flight of description that stutters to a halt, like a drone crash-rolling down the side of a mountain: We are in the hands of a real prose stylist.
But this passage isn’t in the book just because it’s funny, or because it’s surprising, or pretty. Howley is setting up a contrast that looms throughout Bottoms Up and the Devil Laughs:
What is impressive is not the drone, but the network that keeps it aloft. . . . We capture waves, of course, and we capture light, not only via drone, but in every way we can contrive to capture. The light and the waves come from Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Northern Africa, anywhere we can lay the hard bulk that sucks in the invisible. The waves and the light come from the United States, though much of that is technically illegal. They contain phone calls between children, YouTube tutorials, eviction notices, breakup emails, cancer diagnoses, love letters, selfies sent by text. Electrons stream through air and wire, underwater and overland. They whir back to us in search of embodiment.
This passage, too, enacts what it describes, embodying a network in words, making the invisible architecture of global communications visible.
But this image—of junk objects zipping around a seemingly invulnerable field—also describes a lot more than how we surveil ourselves. Is it not also a picture of our economy? I can buy a washing machine, have it drop-shipped and just-in-time-deliveried to my house later today, and if I’m lucky, it will still work tomorrow. Is it not also an image of American power? An unchallengeable empire, every part of which is barely holding together, all watched over by machines that have the integrity of a knockoff designer watch you found on the street. Howley tells many stories—and she tells them in sentences that are sturdy, lovingly made, no just-in-time phrases to be found. But this image is what they all add up to. This is the “unipolar world,” and unlike this book, it is not built to last.