John Feffer Hopes His Interrogation
Will Jolt Us Out of Our Complacency

John Feffer began working on his new play, Interrogation, shortly before Edward J. Snowden began making headlines for leaking information about U.S. surveillance. Feffer’s inspiration did not come from the National Security Agency, but from local police departments that for years ran a kind of scam to ensnare those evading the law. “They used to send out invitations to big parties to people who violated the law, either they owed money for traffic tickets, or they missed their alimony payments, or they were out on bail and didn’t show up for their court date,” he said. “Unbelievably, people would show up and they would be arrested. I couldn’t believe that police departments would come up with something so clever and that people would actually fall for it. It was, for a while, quite a revenue generator.”

So Feffer began to imagine using that ploy to trap those plotting attacks. “What if you applied that [tactic] to our current situation?” he said. “You’re not trying to get people who haven’t paid their traffic tickets, but instead people who are suspected for their terrorist activity. You could just step in and grab them.” And interrogate them. Thus the plot for his latest play took form.

John FefferFor six years, Feffer’s plays –  Krapp’s Last Power Point, Edible Rex, The Bird, The Pundit, and The Politician – have received rave reviews and been crowd pleasers at the Capital Fringe Festival, quickly selling out and sparking controversy and discussion among those who attend the performances. Interrogation no doubt will continue that trend. Unlike last year’s play, The Politician, which included a cast, Interrogation will be a one person play performed by Feffer with “considerable audience participation.”

While Snowden’s disclosures didn’t inspire Feffer’s Interrogation, all the furor that has followed certainly has placed the controversy over surveillance front and center. “We’ve learned our cellphone notations are hacked; the content of our emails is aggregated,” Feffer said. “Companies like to figure out what our buying patterns are. They aggregate that information and they use it.”

Feffer admitted that most Americans have a love-hate relationship with surveillance. “If you would say to someone that your Easy Pass information is being used for nefarious reasons, that person would say, `please don’t take my Easy Pass away from me! I don’t want to wait on that exorbitant line on the turnpike.’ The way that surveillance has been integrated into our lives, it’s not perceived as a burden, but more often as a convenience. `Thank god I can do one click with Amazon! They know where I live. They even know what I want to buy! Netflix tells me what movies I want to buy. That’s incredible convenience. I feel more secure if I know there are cameras all over my neighborhood telling me who is intruding.’”

Yet, there’s a downside. How many people have clicked something by accident and ordered something they didn’t want? “Or if a surveillance camera has captured you doing something which is totally normal but because of the angle, makes it seem that you’re doing something unacceptable,” he said. “You’re brought in for questioning. `How did this happen? I was just walking along with my hands in my pockets.’ Well, it looks like there was a bulge in your pocket. You become the object of suspicious. That becomes troublesome. There’s the assumption that there’s a level playing field, that everyone who’s playing in this surveillance game is playing by the proper rules, and they have no malicious intent. And we can’t assume that.”

According to Feffer, any institution that has this kind of power, will sometimes abuse that power. “Americans feel very uncomfortable about the possibility of the abuse of power – people taken in for questioning, deprived of their rights or, in a couple of cases, Americans who are questioned and held in custody for long periods of time based on their travel itineraries on the suggestion they might be terrorists. That’s the hate part. How we balance this? This is the age old question.”

Feffer’s day job is as a foreign policy expert at the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington, D.C. think tank. He was recently an Open Society Foundation fellow, looking at Eastern Europe 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. He’s the author of Shock Waves: Eastern Europe After the Revolution; North Korea/South Korea: U.S. Policy at a Time of Crisis; Beyond Detente: Soviet Foreign Policy and U.S. Options; and, his most recent, Crusade 2.0: The West’s Resurgent War on Islam. His articles have appeared in many publications including the Washington Post and the New York Times. His recent articles on surveillance include “Participatory Totalitarianism” and “Surveillance Bllitz.”

InterrogationIn Interrogation, Feffer set out to explore the impact surveillance is having on U.S. foreign policy. “Do we think it’s entirely legitimate to tap into Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphone?” he said.”Is that an acceptable thing?” When Snowden’s disclosures revealed that the U.S. was spying on foreign leaders, there was “enormous outrage” from the Germans and from the Brazilians, said Feffer. In the U.S., the attitude was more subdued. “`Hey, that’s what the NSA is for!’” Feffer said. “Essentially that’s what the president said. `We’re sorry this came out. You guys probably do it to us, we do it to you. That’s the way things work.’” However, around the world, the U.S. is held to a different standard. “How in this world, in which transparency is an important value and virtue to promote as a government in all of our programs overseas, how does that work when we’re talking about national security? How do these two worlds intersect?”

Germans who live in what was once East Germany, compare what the U.S. government does in America with what Stasi, the former State Security Service, did under Communism. “I’ve done interviews with them,” Feffer said. “They saw tremendous parallels with what the U.S. government does here and what the Stasi diid there. Whether or not everyone was against the Stasi, many people collaborated with them, and not in a forced way. Some people were forced but many people were not forced because they felt it made for a more stable society. They made that same trade – my security and the security of my family and the security of my society for the intrusion.”

When Germany reunited, the country got rid of the Stasi, but those files were available for people to read. “For East Germans, that was actually pretty painful,” said Feffer. “Their lives were exposed to everybody. But there was no comparable act by the West Germans, because the West Germans said basically the same thing as the U.S. government, that it’s a different system. The West German government was very careful to protect that information. So there’s a double standard.”

Feffer hopes that his play will have an impact. “Here in Washington, maybe because so many of us are involved in government work, we have a higher tolerance for government being involved in some way in our affairs,” he said. “But that tolerance disappears when you go outside the Beltway. Bringing that conversation inside the Beltway so that it reflects more of the average person’s perception, I think that’s important. I want the play to jolt us out of our complacency. And the complacency would be best represented by the line, `Hey, I’ve got nothing to be afraid of. Sure, you can engage in surveillance on me. I’m not doing anything wrong. So what should I worry about?’ I think that’s the danger of complacency and I’d like to jolt people out of that.”

Read our review of The Politician.

Written and Performed by John Feffer
Directed by Mattie Griffiths
Capital Fringe Festival
Mount Vernon Mountain
900 Massachusetts Avenue, NW
Show times:
July 10, 8:30 p.m., July 12, 10:15 p.m., July 18, 8:15 p.m., July 20, 4 p.m., July 24, 6 p.m., and July 26, 1 p.m.

About Charlene Giannetti (822 Articles)
Charlene Giannetti, editor of Woman Around Town, is the recipient of seven awards from the New York Press Club for articles that have appeared on the website. A graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Charlene began her career working for a newspaper in Pennsylvania, then wrote for several publications in Washington covering environment and energy policy. In New York, she was an editor at Business Week magazine and her articles have appeared in many newspapers and magazines including the New York Times. She is the author of 12 non-fiction books, eight for parents of young adolescents written with Margaret Sagarese, including "The Roller-Coaster Years," "Cliques," and "Boy Crazy." She and Margaret have been keynote speakers at many events and have appeared on the Today Show, CBS Morning, FOX News, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, and many others. Her new book, "The Plantations of Virginia," written with Jai Williams, was published by Globe Pequot Press in February, 2017. Charlene divides her time between homes in Manhattan and Alexandria, Virginia.