What can we learn from the medieval church about biometric identification? Quite a lot it turns out, according to Santa Barbara city officials. Biometrics is the science of human identification by noting an individual’s unique characteristics in order to classify them for authorized activities and pursuits. It gathers information about the appearance and mannerisms of an individual using markers like fingerprints, iris scans, facial recognition and manner of walk to determine whether or not the individual will be permitted entry to restricted sites or become the target of surveillance.
Social classification is a function of institutional paradigms in any epoch. In the Middle Ages, the dominant social institution was the church and one of its greatest concerns was the identification of those suspected of heresy, witchcraft or demonic possession. Church officials developed several ingenious methods for identifying such individuals. For example, they could engage in the examination of the suspect’s body for telltale warts, moles, birthmarks and other signs of heresy, or even test them by throwing them into a pond to see whether they would float. In the case of the latter, individuals who floated were witches and promptly burned at the stake. Many a heretic and witch met their fate at the stake for failing church biometric standards.
Since at least the 18th century, the dominant social institution has been the state and one of its biggest concerns has been the identification of those suspected of criminal behavior. Nineteenth century biometric techniques included the science of phrenology, a method of cranial measurement in order to map the human head for signs of unusually concentrated brain activity as evinced by the bumps, protrusions, and other outward manifestations of potentially deviant cognitive dispositions. Though later dismissed as psuedoscience, dedicated phrenologists nevertheless played a role in the development of the idea of the innate criminality of classificatory groups based on the observable traits and mannerisms of its members.
Fast forward to present-day biometric discussions prompted by the national security state and its growing interest in the identification of terrorists — particularly domestic terrorists as defined by the Patriot Act. On that front, city prosecutor Hilary Dozer has made the case for the gang injunction in the Superior Court of Judge Colleen Stern this past May in order to abate the alleged public nuisance posed by Latino youth in the city of Santa Barbara.
A key component of the prosecutor’s argument lies in the testimony of expert witness Detective Gary Siegel. The 450 pages of the one and only declaration submitted by the D.A. in support of his case was drafted by the detective. Much like their inquisitor and phrenologist predecessors before them, Siegel and Dozer seek to define, categorize and punish a suspect class of people they nominally identify as “gang members.”According to the biometric standards presented by Siegel, membership in gang culture can be observed in such dubious behaviors as speaking Spanish and talking on cell phones. The appearance of tattoos — specifically those of Aztec and Mayan origin — and “gang clothing” such as 805 attire or professional sports clothing, also signify evidence of gang affiliation.
Other indicators of gang membership include writing graffiti and public intoxication, as well as the use of Spanish-sounding nicknames and/or the making of gestures like the “V” and “W” sign. Graffiti seems to have posed a particularly thorny area of gang activity for the D.A. so a great deal of the prosecution’s argument addressed the alleged coded messages gang members send to each other through graffiti. Like smoke signals on street corners, gang graffiti indicates the presence of “criminal enterprises” that, taken along with tattoos, clothing, language and gestures, serves to intimidate local residents, according to city officials.
Yet the problem with biometric identification is that its essentializing nature can lead to the dehumanization of people dubbed problematic by authorities. When the D.A. and the detective conflate gang culture with Mexican culture it starts the inevitable downward spiral toward the demonization of an entire race of people.
What can be learned from the politics of demonization? We need look no further than the recent mass murders committed in Isla Vista a couple of weekends ago. Dictated by Elliot Rodger’s world view that reduced women and minorities to cardboard plastic villainy, his belief that women should suffer “divine retribution” for failing to provide him with sex led to the tragic murder of six innocent students. His manifesto essentialized both women and minorities and his decision to punish them bore testament to his mad logic.
While covering a broad spectrum of rational rigor through the ages, biometric identification permits no room for nuances, ambiguities or complexities for the people caught in its classificatory logic. It offers absolutely no chance for rebuttal or discussion, and its tragic finale is one recorded in history time after time.
The take away from Elliot Rodger is that the politics of demonization can be murder. In making the case for the crypto-racist biometric standards for identifying gang members that Dozer has argued for, city officials are setting in motion the historical juggernaut of Rodger’s final solution.
— Kat Swift is a Ph.D candidate at UC Santa Barbara.