The past few days have been a whirlwind of leaks, disclosures, and revelations regarding the NSA and their methods of domestic surveillance. Thanks to the efforts of intrepid journalists and the courageous whistleblower Edward Snowden, we now know that the citizenry- in the eyes of our government- has been rendered unnecessary in the debate concerning the balance of privacy, liberty and security. It appears that our elected officials believe that a secret law, pertaining to a secret program, enacted in secret, which infiltrates every corner of our private lives, is something we’d find irrelevant.
Most people I’ve interacted with are rightly outraged, if not a bit frightened, but there have been several bad arguments made in quasi-defense of the government’s actions that I want to address.
1.) The notion that “If we have nothing to hide, we should have nothing to fear” is one of the most obscenely myopic statements one can utter. The government has access to every meaningful piece of information we have ever shared, expressed, pondered or cared enough to put into correspondence; how is that not unacceptably invasive? In concert these varying bits of data are enough to construct a composite of who we are, with the stated intent of protecting our personal and collective safety. Perhaps I’m in the minority, but that sounds more like an illusion of safety, if not the total converse of it.
The Republic the founders envisioned was one in which the citizen knew everything his government was doing, while the State remained oblivious to how he or she lived their private lives. (Private and public do have distinctive meanings after all.) This ideal has today been inverted in the name of National Security. And given the lack of transparency on an array of imperative issues, what reason do we have to believe the government isn’t using this data opportunistically? According to aforementioned whistleblower Edward Snowden, that’s precisely what they are doing. This is why he felt compelled to come forward. According to him, not only can the government encapsulate every facet of one’s life, they can use this information to coerce one’s conformity or worse.
We must look at this from both the personal and collective standpoint. Are we comfortable in asserting that just because we have nothing to hide, the government couldn’t ruin the innocent lives of our fellow citizens by mistake? Greater access to our private information increases that risk. It’s certainly happened before, and once it does, there is little to no recourse for restitution. Indeed to be Muslim in America already wrongly evokes suspicion. It’s certainly reasonable to assume that Arab-Americans are being unscrupulously targeted by these indiscriminate programs. We all are. This is why we must see the breadth of the canvas. If we acquiesce to these programs by saying that “I don’t care” because “I have nothing to hide”, we make it easier for our government to exceed the necessary partitions erected by an inherently free society. It’s not about having nothing to hide. It’s about the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness unfettered by government oversight. And that affects us all.
We should also think about this in terms of journalism and the rights of a free press to investigate stories, protect sources, and inform the public. Surveillance of this magnitude endeavors to stifle the flow of information, thereby making it harder and more dangerous for journalists to do their job. This kind of disclosure underscores how necessary whistleblowers and adversarial journalists are to the public good, and if we allow these programs to continue unimpeded, we’ll find it harder to gain other insights in the future.
2.) The notion that any politician, now that these programs are public knowledge, is suddenly “open to the debate” is a farce. Obama himself has now said that he welcomes the debate between privacy and national security. How convenient. We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that he’s only claiming a desire to engage in this “debate” because the information was leaked. He never had the intention of discussing this openly. The document concerning the metadata mining of Verizon customers wasn’t supposed to be declassified until 2038. Was he expecting to have this debate from the grave?
What he really means is, “Okay, you’ve caught us. But now that you have, let’s talk about it, because that’s really what I wanted all along.” It’s a cynical line meant for a credulous populace and we should consider it an insult. The truth is if Obama and Congress (with some exceptions) had it their way, these programs would still be operating in the dark, in total secrecy. And this fictitious debate he welcomes would be relegated to the periphery, where those of us who’ve been vociferously warning about domestic spying have lingered for most of his presidency.
3.) We should be wary of the “These programs are necessary to protect us against terrorism” line everyone defending these programs inevitably utilizes. It’s the last line of defense. The frequency with which this rationale is invoked is revealing, but I’m uncertain whether that’s because our officials are convinced it’s true, or if it’s because they believe screaming “TERROR” loudly enough is justification for anything.
I’m not suggesting that terrorism isn’t a real threat, nor am I saying that we shouldn’t actively attempt to defend our citizens. I’m simply stating that liberty comes with a price. We’ll never completely expunge the threat of terror, so it’s worth it to engage in a dialogue pertaining to the level of government intrusion we find permissible. The fires of fear are stoked in times like these with the intention of validating the surrender of just a fraction more of our freedom, in order to ensure security. The exact opposite must be true. In moments like this, the measure of our resolve must be uncompromising: liberty must prevail.
4.) If we are comfortable with this level of surveillance; if the trade off- privacy for security- is a reasonable one to us, then so be it. But in order to engage the argument one must know what’s being argued. Thanks to people like Glenn Greenwald and ultimately, Edward Snowden, we can now participate in this discussion and decide if this is the kind of country we want to live in. Snowden, like Daniel Ellsberg and Bradley Manning before him, is a hero. He will unquestionably be portrayed with suspicion and skepticism. With vigor, he’ll be cast as an unstable, disenfranchised misanthrope. Everything but the substance of what he exposed will be beaten like the deadest of horses, in an effort to shift the focus away from the message. A message, I remind you, motivated by conscience, integrity, and transparency; not to mention tremendous danger and personal loss. It’s important not to become so immersed in the spin that you find yourself adrift. The content is what matters. Not the petty musings of an obsequious press refusing to come to terms with its own hypocrisy.
5.) We shouldn’t lose sight of what this means in the larger War on Terror. Our policies continue to create more, not less, terrorist threats, which in turn justify the existence of secret programs. The incentive to achieve absolute omniscience within the virtual universe is one perpetuated by the supposed ubiquity of terrorist threats. And thus, the war is cyclical by design, as is the money flowing to the contractors and government entities building these tools of “security” and” pacification”. Engaging one is to indirectly engage the other, if we’re to treat this issue honestly. Until we see that our liberty and privacy are directly tied to what our government has done, and continues to do, throughout the Middle East and elsewhere, the impetus in Washington will be to remain reactionary, opaque, and self-serving.
“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”- Benjamin Franklin
“I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it.”- Thomas Jefferson