I have been very remiss about blogging these last few weeks/months. I have been reserving my energy for my Washington Spectator posts and trying to build a head of steam for my next, still nascent, long-form project. Also I have been pretty depressed about what I read in the news. It isn’t so much the “scandals”–try as I might, I don’t see the Nixonian parallels with the IRS, who it sounds to me were doing their job (albeit heavy-handedly and glacially) in scrutinizing political-sounding groups that claimed to be non-political. Benghazi is a non-starter.
But the NSA stuff….. The huge scandal there, it seems to me, isn’t what’s illegal but what’s legal–and that the Patriot Act was both signed into law and subsequently protested without sufficient thought as to the civil liberty implications of proactive policing.
How can you keep an eye on suspicious parties without watching them? How can you even tell who’s suspicious? How can you look for worrisome patterns like “chatter” without having a data base to scan? You can’t; you have to make choices. Me personally, I’m willing to err on the side of civil liberties, but that means that I’m willing to trade a considerable measure of security. Are you?
You can’t demand that the government keep you 100 percent safe, personally blaming the president for not connecting the dots with the Tsarnaev brothers and kicking them out of the country two years ago (or not letting them in when they were children) a la Rand Paul, while also insisting that it wear blinders. Everyone is innocent until a crime is committed; if your aim is to preempt crimes, you can’t do it without looking into the affairs of innocent people. David Simon of The Wire fame had a smart blog post about this yesterday.
If you’re really worried about being watched, there are a number of things you can do. You can follow the lead of far-right patriots and bonafide terrorists and criminals, and stay off the grid. Use burner phones, change them constantly, and keep your conversations short and cryptic. Don’t post your whereabouts on Facebook, throw out your EZ Pass and your GPS. Drive unregistered vehicles, don’t pay your taxes, don’t collect your benefits. Use cash only. And most of all, don’t trust corporations or anyone else in the private sector to keep your stuff private. Not only will they use it to push advertisements at you and sell your particulars to God knows who–they’ll turn them over to the government in a drop of a hat if that’s what they need to do to protect their interests.
On the less extreme side, we can have a frank discussion about how much risk we’re willing to tolerate. If maximal privacy is our ideal, if we deplore any and all data “dragnets,” if we are appalled by Guantanamos and tribunals, then we should fight them, loudly but also consistently. If right wing groups that call for the overthrow of the state want to be left alone, then they should be OK with leaving their left wing and Islamist counterparts alone as well. If long security lines at airports are intolerable, then we should be willing to tolerate a greater risk of highjacking. Be transparent and grown up and actuarial about it–at least put the issues on the table. If you’re too afraid of terrorists to hold public trials for them in venues like New York City, then you’re not brave enough to have all those liberties you demand. What did Benjamin Franklin say? “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
Mind you, I’m not justifying the NSA business or even defending it–I’m just saying that I think a lot of the outrage is both knee jerk and shallow. We’re living in an increasingly Orwellian society, but the Patriot Act was passed long before Obama became president–and we should be as worried about the information we’re giving up voluntarily every time we look for something on Google as what the government is taking.
If we really do live in a police state (and every state is poised on a slippery slope that leads there), they’re going to be watching us, no matter how many constitutional protections we put into place. When it comes down to it, power flows out of the barrel of a gun. Judges can be convinced to rubber stamp exemptions; whole unaccountable, unacknowledged agencies can be set up to carry out black ops–like Peter Graves’ and Martin Landau’s IM Force, whose exploits I so enjoyed watching on TV when I was a kid in the not-so-innocent 1960s (“As always, should you or any of your I.M. Force be caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions”).
Public outrage–fueled by whistle blowers and leaks–may be our last line of defense. But the outrage has to be sustained, considered, informed, and principled. Comparing Obama to Nixon and the NSA to the Stazi doesn’t get us anywhere. If the ACLU and the Tea Party are really on the same page about this, then they should get on the same page about a whole lot of other things as well.