Henninger: The Sum of All Fears

Mr. Henniger… says it so well, again…
Here is Barack Obama commenting last Friday on the National Security Agency’s antiterrorist surveillance programs: “We’ve got congressional oversight and judicial oversight. And if people can’t trust not only the executive branch but also don’t trust Congress and don’t trust federal judges to make sure that we’re abiding by the Constitution, due process and rule of law, then we’re going to have some problems here.”


Herewith a partial list of political groups that said they were subjected to over-the-top audits by the Internal Revenue Service:

Greenwich Tea Party Patriots, Greater Phoenix Tea Party Patriots, Laurens County Tea Party, Northeast Tarrant Tea Party, Myrtle Beach Tea Party, Albuquerque Tea Party, San Antonio Tea Party, Richmond Tea Party, Manassas Tea Party, Honolulu Tea Party, Waco Tea Party, Chattanooga Tea Party and American Patriots Against Government Excess. [ Did you get the list??????  These are just those who testified…]

What that target list shows is there was never one “tea party.” It was collections of citizens spontaneously gathering all over the country under one easy-to-remember name. Their purpose was to do politics. For that, their government hit them hard.

In January the pollsters at the Pew Research Center reported that for the first time a majority of Americans—53%—now agree that “the federal government threatens your own personal rights and freedoms.”

This is far beyond concerns about the size of government. A majority of people now see the government of Madison, Jefferson and Franklin as a direct, personal threat.  So yes, we have “some problems” here.  People ask whether the IRS scandal will damage the president. Who knows? It depends on who talks to avoid prison. The IRS audits matter because they are a destructive event that happened at a particularly unsettled moment in the country’s political and social life.

Cynics say presidents have always sicced the IRS on opponents. Perhaps. But those were simpler times. The IRS audit scandal and the NSA’s metadata surveillance may be apples and oranges, but for many the distinctions aren’t so obvious. We live today inside a constant torrent of big government and big data. No one should be surprised if a political backlash, however inarticulate, forms against both for inconsistent reasons.

Consider what people are asked to absorb in the news flow now—some of it political, some not. Beyond the IRS audits and NSA surveillance we have a Department of Justice penetrating press activity protected by the First Amendment, stories about Iran’s hackers accessing the control-room software of U.S. energy firms, China hacking into everything, reports last month of cyberthieves siphoning millions of dollars from ATMs, rivers of email spam that fill inboxes alongside constant warnings to protect yourself against phishing and malware by storing industrial-strength passwords on encrypted flash drives, stories in this newspaper about social-media apps that exist mainly to collect your personal data for sale to advertisers.

Books have been written about governments using Web technology to censor and control their populations. What’s good and evil, helpful and menacing, comes at us with equal force from the same technologies. “Dual-use” was formerly a phrase used mostly in the military. We’re all living in a dual-use world now.

Electronic sophisticates say it’s all good. Sun Microsystems’ former CEO Scott McNealy famously said: “You have zero privacy. Get over it.” That’s what he thinks. This is a sum-of-all-fears environment tailor-made for eventually producing a public backlash. It’s already in the water, with Sen. Rand Paul offering a Fourth Amendment Restoration Act, which he says would stop the NSA’s data-mining program. That would be the one protecting us all from homicidal Islamist bombers.

Scott McNealy was almost right. Unavoidably, the citizens of the U.S. or any free society will have to reach an accommodation—a modus vivendi—with complex systems created by experts with abstruse knowledge. But if so, those citizens need to be free to talk about the terms of their accommodations. In short, they need to be free to do politics.

Effective antiterrorism programs such as metadata surveillance or for that matter efforts to produce progress through genetic manipulation may seem self-evidently good to their proponents. But these technologies are inevitably controversial and will only survive if they gain public support. Today that means exposing them to politics.  The goal of the IRS audits was to suppress politics, to shut up those “conservative” tea-party groups to increase the odds that Mr. Obama’s side would win. One doubts that Mr. Obama’s supporters were distressed about it. But this week they’re stressed about “an alarming age of surveillance.”

Whatever inchoate anxieties predated this presidency are now worse: a politics rife with suspicion and retribution, and most of the people believing the government, for starters, threatens their freedom.  One may hope Mr. Obama has sufficient political skill to protect the antiterrorism structures he inherited. It will be the job of the next president to prevent the public’s sense of personal political threat from heading toward 60% and beyond.

Write to henninger@wsj.com

A version of this article appeared June 13, 2013, on page A15 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Sum of All Fears.

Henninger: The Sum of All Fears – WSJ.com.


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