What is panopticism? And what might it tell us about Hamas' October 7 attack? This is the beginning and end of the present post. Panopticism has its origin in a plan for prison architecture proposed at the end of the 17th century by the very same English philosopher who provided modern economics with a quantifiable "pleasure principle," to use the words of Janet Jackson, or, utilitarianism, to use a more technical term. Bentham's vision for the ultimate prison, which was never realized in Europe, can only be described as brilliant and foundational. We live in a world that in principle is one with Bentham's architectural nightmare. Indeed, this understanding informed the key chapter in Michel Foucault's greatest book, Discipline and Punish, "Panopticism."
Bentham's prison was structured in a way that made it impossible for inmates to see if they were being watched or not by prison guards. As a consequence, the prisoners had to assume they were always being watched. Unknown to the inhabitants of Gaza, Israel imposed this surveillance concept on their whole city. It always seemed like the state was constantly monitoring them: the drones; the satellites spying from space; the cameras on every corner and checkpoint. Then October 7 happened. Hamas attacked Israel and found no one was watching them. No one was there. They were in a panoptic prison.
Bentham's prison had two structures: a center and periphery. The periphery was circular and walled with prison cells. In the center was a tower with windows that could look out but prevented anyone from looking in. In Bentham's words:
The Building circular... The Prisoners in their Cells, occupying the Circumference – The Officers, the Centre. By Blinds, and other contrivances, the Inspectors concealed from the observation of the Prisoners: hence the sentiment of a sort of invisible omnipresence. – The whole circuit reviewable with little, or, if necessary, without any, change of place.
Foucault put it this way:
In view of this, Bentham laid down the principle that power should be visible and unverifiable. Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall ouline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so.
This prison regime has, in the 21st century, thus been generalized. Though cameras are found all over the place (malls, gas stations, porches, parking lots, computers, so on and so on), is anyone really there? And do you really want to find out if there is? Maybe AI is doing the job for human eyes. The program identifies alarming behavior and then informs the human to wake up and take action. Is this possible? Or is AI oversold? Even AI gets bored of watching nothing much happening most of the time and falls asleep to save energy, to save money. AI is not as cheap as all that. Whatever the case, it's best for the subject of surveillance to make obeying the law the default behavior.
Let's turn to October 7. There's much talk these days about how exactly Hamas jumped Israel, how it caught the whole world by surprise. The word on the street: Hamas expected very heavy casualties from the attack and small (if no) gains. Israel told themselves and all other nations that they were second to none in surveillance. If you (as a state) wanted to be on top of social control, you had to follow their lead. The unquestioned domination of the Gaza Strip (population 2.4 million) confirmed Israel's know-how. Hamas was apparently also of this view. Their enemy was watching them all of the time. The best it could hope for, under these conditions, was capturing a few Israeli soldiers from nearby posts and bringing them back to Gaza: Mission accomplished. The plan and ambition was no deeper than this. It was tactical; not strategic.
Ragıp Soylu, a MEE's Turkey Bureau Chief:
NEW: One thing that looks odd about Hamas attack on October 7 was, despite its success, it didn’t have any contingency planning, further steps weren’t thought out.— Ragıp Soylu (@ragipsoylu) November 1, 2023
Now two sources tell Middle East Eye that Hamas didn’t plan to take no more than 20-30 hostages, and it didn’t… pic.twitter.com/L65S5iglFh
Now two sources tell Middle East Eye that Hamas didn’t plan to take no more than 20-30 hostages, and it didn’t expect that Israel’s Gaza division would collapse. They argue that Hamas didn’t plan for this:
• The original attack plan, according to several sources, was to strike military targets and then make a quick withdrawal.
• Hamas wanted to inflict maximum embarrassment on Netanyahu and get something to bargain with for a mass prisoner release.
• While Hamas was ready for the war, it did not expect the attack to provoke anything more than limited retaliatory strikes on Gaza. “The strike was supposed to be tactical, not strategic,” one source said.
• Hamas sent in 1,500 fighters, expecting that most would be killed. “Somewhere around 1,400 fighters came back,” said one source.
This is revealing. It also has about it the high-quality grade you'd expect to find in a competent CIA dossier or a career member of the State Department. This information and analysis is not for the majority of America's hoi polloi. It's just too much to process. It takes too much time to receive and carefully consider this kind of intelligence. CNN, Fox, CBS News, and so on do not have that kind of time (the American hoi polloi has been trained to demand answers right now). Nor would these mainstream organizations relate the intelligence to Bentham's panopticon.
But if this relationship is made, Israel's ferocious (or, to use the words of Thomas Friedman, "biblical and primordial") response to an attack that also committed war crimes, can be better explained. Keep in mind that Bentham admired (indeed, delighted in) the efficiency of his correctional architecture, which was conceived not long after Adam Smith published the first major examination of commercial society, the Wealth of Nations. Bentham was simply trying to cut costs, a concern for the emerging class of capitalists and consumers.
My point in a nutshell. Israel appears to have resorted to panopticon (which is, after all, widespread—visit the QFCs on Broadway today) for what in the economics Bentham's utilitarianism inspired is defined as efficiency. October 7 is to the surveillance state what the 737 MAX crashes were to Boeing.
End note: As Thomas Friedman pointed out in what has to be the best center-right article about the conflict, the embarrassment the absence of guards in the watchtower was so considerable, Netanyahu tweeted and then deleted the tweet that "blamed Israel’s defense and intelligence establishment for failing to anticipate Hamas’s surprise attack."