Giving Just a Little Away
The other night a friend approached to ask how we felt about the unveiling of electronic survelleiance of everyday American citizens by the “military-industrial complex,” i.e., the phone companies under the guidance of the National Security Administration.
We were in public, and it occurred to us to be generous and noncommittal. But our friend wouldn’t have it. “You haven’t answered my question,” he stoutly maintained.
He was right. We hadn’t. But he then helped enormously. “I’d rather lose a little freedom and have security,” he volunteered.
Instantly we knew how we felt. “We’d rather have less security and more freedom,” we said.
To give up freedoms that seem not to apply to oneself is nearly automatic, we find. Forty years ago, before Watergate, promoting a political novel in Chicago, we asked audiences what articles of the Bill of Rights they felt they could do without.
We was stunned to hear how many people would ignore, or allow to be “disappeared,” at least six of the ten statutes. As law-abiding citizens, these audiences clearly felt that what was being proscribed and prescribed applied to them not at all. They were honest, unafraid of stating their values, and felt they had nothing to fear if one article or another were whittled down.
“I don’t care if the government reads my email, or tracks my websites, or even listens in on my telephone conversations,” said the inquisitor. “I have nothing to hide, and they’ll be very, very bored.”
After 9/11, Americans in shock were more than wiling to cede some basic freedoms for the “guarantee” of no further terrorist attacks. This is natural, and in a way, a pulling together of the fabric of the county.
And in a way to let safeguards of freedom lapse temporarily to many made great common sense. The key word in describing the Patriot Act is “temporary.” The Act promised revisions and recisions in the years to come as the US got a handle of what was beginning to happen around the world.
But nothing has been rescinded. In fact, powers granted to the government in an emergency have only been expanded. Worse, in many cases these new powers have reached out to increase the power of the military (drones), surveillance (cameras on every corner), and communications.
Once a nation gives up freedom on a temporary basis, the permanence of those decisions is nearly always a given. (An example: Egypt’s Arab Spring, in which a regime was overthrown in favor of a more transparent, more economically friendly, more modern way of life only to be morphed into an increased dictatorship, religious fervor, and continuing poverty and powerlessness.)
We have learned, painfully it turns out, since 9/11 that our government is not always beneficent.
The Washington Post and Britain’s Guardian newspapers’ revelations are only the latest in a series of shocks to the wholesome American system that wants so badly to believe the US is perfect.
Naturally it isn’t. And even more naturally, especially in the case of electronic surveillance of our citizens, once it begins there is no stopping it. Why? Because the nine communications companies that cooperated with the government have an enormous stake in maintaining their base of customer use and satisfaction. From their point of view, anything that tightens the rules on cellphones or websites or emails could presage a drastic loss of revenue. This is a powerful force that our government will not, probably, overcome.
America is a proud land, unafraid to fight for what it believes right.
But the so-often cited “slippery slope” is already in view. Give a little here, give a little there, and pretty soon you’ve given away the whole shebang.
We did survive 9/11. While we pray nothing remotely like that happens ever again, we can survive the next terrorist shock, if one there is. See us respond to natural disasters and then tell us we can’t band together to combat a common enemy.
And, incidentally, that enemy, whether home-grown or foreign-inspired, still has a tough job doing what it seems to want to do.
If one believes in the strength of our nation as we do, and believes that democracy can withstand challenges and attacks, one cannot simply shrug and say “Fine, it’s no skin off my nose.” It is, and your nose is only one of the targets terrorists want to reach.
The big target? Our sense of determination, of leadership, of courage. All of which depend directly on our Constitution, a document not to be given away piece by piece for any reason in the world.