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America, Passive Nation -- Why Can't We Stand Up for Ourselves When Our Rights Are Stolen?

America's founders would be horrified at our United States of Surveillance.
 
 
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I'm a longtime subscriber to an  Internet mail list that features items from smart, thoughtful people. The list editor forwards items he personally finds interesting, often related to technology and/or civil liberties. Not long after the Guardian and Washington Post first started publishing the leaks describing the  National Security Agency's vast surveillancedragnet, an item appeared about a  White House petition urging President Obama to pardon  Edward Snowden. The post brought this reply, among others:

"Once upon a time I would have signed a White House petition to this administration with no qualms. Now, however, a chilling thought occurs: what 'watch lists' will signing a petition like this put me on?  NSA? IRS? It's not a paranoid question anymore, in the  United States of Surveillance."

As we Americans watch our parades and fire up our grills this 4 July, the 237th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence – the seminal document of the United States – we should take the time to ask ourselves some related questions: how did we come to this state of mind and behavior? How did we become so fearful and timid that we've given away essential liberties? Do we realize what we're giving up? What would the nation's founders think of us?

No one with common sense believes Obama is planning to become a dictator. But the mail list question was indeed not paranoid – because Obama, building on the initiatives of his immediate predecessors, has helped create the foundation for a future police state. This has happened with bipartisan support from patriotic but short-sighted members of Congress and, sad to say, the general public.

The American media have played an essential role. For decades, newspaper editors and television programmers, especially local ones, have chased readers and ratings by spewing panic-inducing "journalism" and entertainment that helped foster support for anti-liberty policies. Ignorance, sometimes willful, has long been part of the media equation. Journalists have consistently highlighted the sensational. They've ignored statistical realities to hype anecdotal – and extremely rare – events that invite us to worry about vanishingly tiny risks and while shrugging off vastly more likely ones. And then, confronted with evidence of a  war on journalism by the people running our government, powerful journalists suggest that their peers – no, their betters – who had the  guts to expose government crimes are criminals. Do they have a clue why the First Amendment is all about? Do they fathom the meaning of liberty?

The founders, for all their dramatic flaws, knew what liberty meant. They created a system of power-sharing and competition, knowing that investing too much authority in any institution was an invitation to despotism. Above all, they knew that liberty doesn't just imply taking risks; it absolutely requires taking risks. Among other protections, the Bill of Rights enshrined an unruly but vital free press and guaranteed that some criminals would escape punishment in order to protect the rest of us from too much government power. How many of those first 10 amendments would be approved by Congress and the states today? Depressingly few, one suspects. We're afraid.

America has gone through spasms of liberty-crushing policies before, almost always amid real or perceived national emergencies. We've come out of them, to one degree or another, with the recognition that we had a Constitution worth protecting and defending, to paraphrase the oath federal office holders take but have so casually ignored in recent years.

What's different this time is the surveillance infrastructure, plus the countless crimes our lawmakers have invented in federal and state codes. As  many people have noted, we can  all be charged with something  if government wants to find something – the Justice Department under Bush and Obama has insisted that simply violating an online terms of service is a felony, for example. And now that our communications are being recorded and stored (you should take that for granted, despite weaselly government denials), those somethings will be available to people looking for them if they decide you are a nuisance. That is the foundation for tyranny, maybe not in the immediate future but, unless we find a way to turn back, someday soon enough.

 
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