The Stalker State, or Why We Should All Have the Creeps

In the wake of 9/11/01, like many people, I've felt a growing unease about actions taken--and events set into motion--by this strange cast of characters we call (for lack of better words, or fear of being too interesting when we use them) our government. The charade we've all witnessed regarding National Security, for example. Harassing nursing mothers and disabled war veterans at the airport isn't going to make anyone safer, and we all know it. A recent headline on made something click and it finally dawned on me why I've been so agitated and angry: I've seen it before, felt it before. The headline read: "Man Allegedly Uses GPS To Stalk Ex-Girlfriend - Tracking System Found In Her Car." Damn. That's exactly what my ex (RIP, or not) would have done. It also foreshadows what our government (see the above disclaimer) is proposing to do--to all of us.

Have you ever been stalked, or found yourself roped into a scary relationship? Perhaps you've known someone who has, or followed a local drama in the news. Stalkers may single out a celebrity, like Jodie Foster or George Harrison. More often the target is an ordinary person; a former girlfriend or boyfriend, a judge or juror, a doctor, a waitress, a librarian. The stalker may be merely annoying, or an extremely dangerous person. Chances are, this isn't a person with a healthy mindset to begin with, or s/he'd find something better to do. Our government (see above) is different, you say? How so? Delve into the methodology a stalker uses, the stalker's motives, and--most importantly--the resulting effects on the life of the person being stalked; count to 10,010,010 and then write to quarrel with me, but only if you've been keeping a weather eye on our illustrious pied pipers (watching TV doesn't qualify, sorry).

Someone who is stalking you may do (or attempt to do) any of the following: watch you, follow you or track your movements, observe your contacts, monitor your correspondence, eavesdrop on your conversations. S/he may block your path or impede your movements. S/he'll discern patterns of behavior with the object of predicting your actions in a given situation. S/he may try to trap or confine you in ingenious ways. S/he may search through your belongings or your trash, or ask prying questions about you. S/he may violate your privacy in a number of ways, using stealth and gadgetry to record, document, photograph, and capture details of your personal life. S/he may try to construct a maze of events into which you walk unwarily and guide your steps toward a desired outcome. S/he might even pretend to be someone else, and set up a "sting operation" to net information or crack down on your deviations from his/her schemes for you.

The stalker may "love" you, ascribe good intentions to him/herself, wish to possess, protect, or control you, or enjoy a feeling of superiority from having an intimate knowledge of you which gives him/her power over you. [Knowledge Is Power indeed, Mr. Poindexter, which is why you and your agency give me major-league creeps.] The stalker sees you as a piece on his/her chessboard, or has some "grand design" in which you play a part, if unwittingly or unwillingly. The skillful stalker will draw you into the game or the scheme long before you're aware that it exists, and makes it difficult for you to extricate yourself once you've been drawn in. Like the spider who spins a strong but subtle web, the stalker is adept at waiting patiently and knowing when to strike. The stalker has no respect for your privacy, but s/he despises your autonomy. The stalker wishes to know everything about you, and no detail will be too trivial to take note of.

The stalker usually doesn't deal in overt terror, although there are some who do. S/he might wish to keep you on edge, but beyond creating a sense of vague apprehension, is not likely to alarm you with specific threats until the game has progressed to a contest of wills. S/he takes advantage of the tendency people have to be unsuspicious, and prefers to remain on the dark side of a two-way mirror where s/he can study you and not be noticed until s/he chooses to enter the picture. S/he may choreograph personal encounters with you, anticipating your reactions, again based on observation of your previous behavior.

Operation TIPS, TIA, Know Your Customer, the Patriot Act, Model Health laws, and other intrusions into our lives in the name of Homeland Security are efforts to achieve similar ends on a national scale. From the time we're old enough to express or demonstrate our needs, privacy is near the top of that list after food, water, shelter, clothing, love, and warmth. Children build tree houses and forts where they go to develop a sense of self and exert some independence, once they've outgrown hiding in the big box the new TV set came in. Adults seek sanctuary in an office or bedroom, in a car, boat, private plane, or on a tropical island. We may take up jogging, or spend time browsing in the bookstore, but time alone is an essential aspect of well-being. We're being waltzed into forfeiting a vital ability to seek pure solitude, without considering the devastating impact of that loss beforehand. Cell phone tracking, implantable chips, National ID, GPS, electronic data trails, fiat money, video surveillance, DNA analysis, integration of commercial databases with government resources; all may have a role to play in the hostile takeover of human lives by those who claim superior authority and knowledge, and plead necessity. We're so oversold on the benefits that we underestimate the long-term costs; however useful we may find these things, they will serve the stalker just as readily, and most effectively.

Being stalked isn't a pleasant experience. You never know when you're being watched, what snippet might be overheard or message intercepted, and how it might be used. You never really feel safe, though life may go on without dramatic incidents. Little things take on new meaning. That rustling outside the window, the object you find out of place and can't remember moving, mail that looks like it's been opened, the car tailing you, all become harder to dismiss as paranoia. The awful feeling that no matter where you go, s/he may know where to find you. It's like being shadowed by the invisible man, or being a shut-in in a haunted house; it's a hell that's hard to describe to someone who hasn't experienced it.

Once you're in a relationship with the stalker, s/he is likely to gradually erode your external relationships by undermining trust, creating conflicts, exhibitions of jealousy, picking humiliating fights with you in public, sulking, or professing concern for your welfare. S/he may increasingly exert control over your affairs, beginning with small things you're not willing to fight about, and progressing to larger things. The stalker likes to foster your dependence upon him/her. S/he may insist on controlling finances, household affairs, even your dietary or medical decisions. S/he may use physical violence or restraint, threat of violence, psychological torture, guilt, even drug addiction, to keep you in check. The stalker tends to be an abusive partner or parent, and doesn't need to "stalk" you when you stay within prescribed boundaries of behavior or geography. That leash may be invisible, but it will only grow shorter.

At some point, you're forced to confront the fact that you've been a conspirator in the demise of your own freedom, and a profound sense of shame and grief accompanies that realization. Either you sink deeper into the mire, or struggle out of it--which usually requires asking assistance from people uninvolved in your situation, even complete strangers. The stalker may try to convince you that there's something wrong with you, because s/he's looking out for you; you're ungrateful, and maybe mentally ill. It's risky to leave this type of relationship, and the attempt too often ends in tragedy. If you do manage, you find that much of your life (children, pets, furniture, mutual friends, financial records, even identity) may simply have to be left behind as a down payment on freedom. Your fragile sense of liberation trembles on a knife edge while the stalker pursues you, which s/he is likely to do relentlessly. It may be years before you can contemplate venturing into a new relationship, if ever. At least, it is possible to escape a traditional stalker, if not easy. Even if a Restraining Order ever did any good, who is going to issue one against the government? There are no shelters for those who flee from abuse of government power.

You may well ask how a person might fall into a relationship with someone like that, since stalkers are most often estranged romantic or sexual partners . . . they're obviously unbalanced people, and it ought to be easy to avoid entanglements with them if you're smart. Well, they may be attentive, charming, attractive, fun to be with, intelligent, sensitive--like anybody else, at first. They don't sport skull and crossbones tattoos, or wave banners saying "I am evil." They don't stand out in a crowd, but they take special notice of you, which is flattering. They may seem considerate, supportive, engaging and entertaining, and you give them the benefit of a doubt. The stalker may have plotted for months before finally asking you for that first dance, but it may be a dance you never forget - or one you never cease to regret. Right now, it looks like a terrifying certainty that a vast majority of Americans are saying, "Yes, I'd love to dance, thank you." Now I'd like to ask you, HOW IS THAT POSSIBLE? After all, I can see what's coming, because I've got hindsight--and that, as we all know, is 20/20.