Thursday, September 18, 2008
The "A" Team
Since the elusive internet vigilante group known only as "Anonymous" has chosen to once again make its presence known, I thought I'd revisit something I wrote back in February of this year. This piece was never published here; it was exclusive to the Huffington Post. It deals with Anonymous's strange and somewhat gratifying war on Scientology.
Let me start off by paraphrasing a popular disclaimer: I'm not "Anonymous," nor am I affiliated with the mysterious internet group in any way.
That said, as a fan of The X Files I love a good conspiracy theory, which means that the recent antics of the shadowy entity known only as "Anonymous" have admittedly piqued my interest. In deference to those who just stepped out of a bathysphere, Anonymous is the name that's been adopted by a self-proclaimed collective of hackers and supposedly pissed-off average folks for the purpose of meting out justice via the internet -- and it's now declared war on Scientology. Two weeks ago, the group launched the first salvo in what it says will be an extended campaign to bring down the controversial "church"; it released an eerie video message attacking Scientology's tactics and promising retaliation for what it claims is a history of lies and generally sinister behavior on the part of the organization. To its credit I guess, Anonymous didn't keep anyone waiting: It launched a series of coordinated denial-of-service attacks on the official Scientology website almost immediately, effectively shutting it down. This was supposedly followed by prank phone calls and "black fax" transmissions to Scientology offices across the country.
At least two more videos have been released by Anonymous since its initial declaration of hostilities, one promising a global protest at Scientology centers on February 10th.
Needless to say, the normally confident Scientology big shots, who've raised damage control through vindictive litigation to an art form, suddenly find themselves in an amusing PR bind: If they dismiss Anonymous as a bunch of pathetic computer geeks -- which they already have, word for word -- they appear hopelessly arrogant; If they take the group seriously, they give it power; if they just ignore it altogether, they look stupid.
In other words, for all their supposed higher-brain functions, compliments of L. Ron Hubbard's questionable teachings, they can't win this one.
A group of internet savvy kid vigilantes has, to some extent, already beaten them.
The question some are asking though is whether Anonymous has crossed the line -- whether, in its battle to expose Scientology, it's engaging in the same kind of underhanded tactics it accuses the church of. The founder of one popular anti-Scientology website, Operation Clambake, has already criticized the group's supposed skulduggery, claiming that it'll only put Scientologists in a position to play the religious persecution card.
Maybe, but honestly -- who cares?
Almost since its inception as an organization, Scientology has been involved in one unscrupulous scheme or another -- at various points guilty of fraud, exploitation of its adherents for financial gain, and the illegal infiltration of government agencies. It's upheld the basic edict of its paranoid narcissist founder and set out to destroy its critics through intimidation, innuendo and impossibly dirty tricks. It was once called the "most lucrative cult the country has ever seen" by the Cult Awareness Network, a watchdog group which was eventually taken over by associates of the Church of Scientology. The whole thing, including the silly cosmology that serves as the basis for Scientology's belief system -- the kind of nonsense only a hack sci-fi writer could dream up -- would be laughable if it weren't so damn scary.
Anonymous claims that it was the Church of Scientology's efforts to suppress the recently leaked and utterly surreal video tribute to Tom Cruise which led to its decision to take action. Admittedly, watching Cruise -- looking not simply crazy but dangerously crazy -- spouting Hubbard's official-sounding acronymic lingo and making ex cathedra declarations of "no mercy" for psychiatrists is as mesmerizing as it is frightening. He almost seems like he's channeling his Frank T.J. Mackey character from Magnolia, demanding that we all "respect the crock."
The problem of course is that if you say any of this too loudly, the church will have no compunction about removing the choke collar from its legal pit bulls, which is what makes the mischievous guerilla attacks of Anonymous tough not to enjoy a little -- provided they never cross the line into the realm of genuine terrorism.
The bottom line: It's kind of satisfying to watch someone turn the tables on Scientology, using the same brand of furtive cloak-and-dagger absurdity to publicly shame an adversary that the church has used for decades.
If the Scientology people knew who to file a lawsuit against, you can bet it would've already happened.
That's why it's so much fun that they're left chasing shadows.