Always a good read.
The U.S. surveillance state as outlined and explained by Edward Snowden is not worth the price. Its size, scope and intrusiveness, its ability to target and monitor American citizens, its essential unaccountability—all these things are extreme.
The purpose of the surveillance is enhanced security, a necessary goal to say the least. The price is a now formal and agreed-upon acceptance of the end of the last vestiges of Americans’ sense of individual distance and privacy from the government. The price too is a knowledge, based on human experience and held by all but fools and children, that the gleanings of the surveillance state will eventually be used by the mischievous, the malicious and the ignorant in ways the creators of the system did not intend.
For all we know that’s already happened. But of course we don’t know: It’s secret. Only the intelligence officials know, and they say everything’s A-OK. The end of human confidence in a zone of individual privacy from the government, plus the very real presence of a system that can harm, harass or invade the everyday liberties of Americans. This is a recipe for democratic disaster.
If—again, if—what Mr. Snowden says is substantially true, the surveillance state will in time encourage an air of subtle oppression, and encourage too a sense of paranoia that may in time—not next week, but in time, as the years unfold—loosen and disrupt the ties the people of America feel to our country. “They spy on you here and will abuse the information they get from spying on you here. I don’t like ‘here.’ ”
Trust in government, historically, ebbs and flows, and currently, because of the Internal Revenue Service, the Justice Department, Benghazi, etc.—and the growing evidence that the executive agencies have been reduced to mere political tools—is at an ebb that may not be fully reversible anytime soon. It is a great irony, and history will marvel at it, that the president most committed to expanding the centrality, power, prerogatives and controls of the federal government is also the president who, through lack of care, arrogance, and an absence of any sense of prudential political boundaries, has done the most in our time to damage trust in government.
But again, you can always, or every four years, hire a new president. The ties you feel to your country are altogether more consequential, more crucial. And this is something we have to watch out for, and it has to do with the word “extreme,” more on which in a moment.
How did we get here? You know. In the days after 9/11 all the clamor was for safety. Improve intelligence, find the bad guys, heighten surveillance. The government went to work. It is important to remember that 9/11 coincided almost exactly with the Internet revolution. They happened at pretty much the same time.
In the past 10 years technology sped up, could do more and more—big data, metadata. Capabilities became massive, and menacing.
Our government is not totalitarian. Our leaders, even the worst of them, are not totalitarian. But our technology is totalitarian, or rather it is there and can be used and abused by those whose impulses tend, even unconsciously or unthinkingly, in that direction.
So what’s needed? We must realize this is a crucial moment: We either go forward with these programs now or we stop, and think. Some call for a conversation, but what we really need is a debate—a real argument. It will require a new candor from the government as to what the National Security Agency does and doesn’t do. We need a new rigor in the areas of oversight and accountability—including explicit limits on what can and should be allowed, accompanied by explicit and even harsh penalties for violations. This debate will also require information that is reliable—that is, true—from the government about what past terrorist attempts have been slowed or stopped by the surveillance state.
The NSA is only one of many recent revelations and events that have the ability to damage the ties Americans feel toward their country. It’s not only big stories like the IRS, but stories that have flown mostly below the media’s interest. Here is one: There was a doctor in Philadelphia who routinely killed full-term babies for years, and no one wanted to stop him for years. It got out of hand—he was collecting body parts in jars—and he was finally arrested, tried, sent to prison. People who are not extreme—people, forgive me, who are normal—who followed the story watched in a horrified, traumatized wonder. “They have places where they kill kids in America now, and it’s kind of accepted.” Those who watch closely say there are more such clinics, still up and operating. There’s a bill in Congress now to limit abortions after the fifth month, the age at which hospitals can keep babies alive. It’s not an extreme proposal, not in the least, but it’s probably going nowhere. It’s been called anti-woman.
I feel that almost everyone who talks about America for a living—politicians and journalists and even historians—is missing a huge and essential story: that too many things are happening that are making a lot of Americans feel a new distance from, a frayed affiliation with, the country they have loved for half a century and more, the country they loved without every having to think about it, so natural was it.
This isn’t the kind of thing that can be quantified in polls—it’s barely the kind of thing people admit to themselves. But talk to older Americans—they feel they barely know this country anymore. In governance its crucial to stay within parameters, it’s important not to strain ties, push too far, be extreme. And if you think this does not carry implications for down the road, for our healthy continuance as a nation, you are mistaken. Love keeps great nations going.
Some of the reaction to the NSA story is said to be generational. The young are said not to fear losing privacy, because they never knew it. The middle-aged, who grew up in peace and have families, want safety first, whatever it takes, even excess. Lately for wisdom I’ve been looking to the old. Go to somebody who’s 75 and ask, “So if it turns out the U.S. government is really spying on American citizens and tracking everything they do, is that OK with you?” They’ll likely say no, that’s not what we do in America.
The other day on Fox News Channel I saw 79-year-old Eugene Cernan, an Apollo astronaut. Mr. Cernan’s indignation about the state of things was so sincere, so there. China had just blasted into space, bringing its pride and sense of nationhood with it. America doesn’t do that anymore, said Mr. Cernan, we’re not achieving big things. Now we go nowhere.
The interviewer, Neil Cavuto, threw in a question about the spying.
Yes, we’re under attack, said Mr. Cernan, but “we can handle it,” we can go after “the bad guys” without hurting “the good guys,” you can’t give up your own liberty and your own freedom.
Exactly how a lot of us feel about it, rocket man.
A version of this article appeared June 15, 2013, on page A15 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Privacy Isn’t All We’re Losing.