Why Do Americans Care More About the Government Taking Our Guns Than Our Data?

Justice Richard Leon's feisty decision striking down the National Security Agency's mass collection of metadata from American citizens has given privacy advocates a much-needed boost in morale. Will that translate to a political tipping point?

The sad answer is no, don't count on it. Sure, the decision offers further grist for the slow accumulation of bipartisan discontent. It gives Republican Senator Rand Paul another applause line. But I doubt we can expect the debate over privacy to play much of a role in the electoral battles of the coming election cycles.

Though Obama critics can reliably add the NSA's overreach to their litany of complaints about the administration, it does not fit easily into the "angry socialist Muslim" narrative that winds through the other scandals they use to gin up support. You can't accuse him of turning a blind eye toward Benghazi and being too aggressive in the war on terrorism. Well, OK, you can, but you look like an idiot.

To be sure, there's something of a parallel between the fable of IRS's vindictiveness against Tea Party groups and NSA surveillance. Yet that comparison relies on voters regarding metadata snooping as a threat on par with an audit. It's probably safe to assume a lot more Americans cheat on their taxes than make phone calls to the Middle East.

The GOP cannot easily reverse course on their decades-long railing against "activist judges", either – though really, the principle that "it's only activism if you don't like it" has been fairly reliable cover before.

Democrats, while somewhat hamstrung by their necessary embrace of the administration, are probably more bound by their newfound foreign policy muscularity; their success at being as bloodthirsty as any Republican when it comes to "enemies" seems to have intoxicated former critics of executive abuses – a form of philosophical roid rage – the most significant of these defectors being Obama himself.

Americans themselves are hopelessly, perhaps helplessly, conflicted about the NSA program as it's been revealed thus far. A growing percentage (46% in the lastest poll) of Americans say that the government has "gone too far" in restricting "the average person's civil liberties" in order to protect the country. Even more say that the program constitutes "too much intrusion" (55% to 41% saying "not too much"). Almost the exact same number say it is "necessary" (50%) and that they "support" it. Looking at those numbers, no wonder politicians do not feel called to take a stand of any particular conviction, not when there are so many other issues where pandering can achieve a much greater effect.

Still, there is actually more support for a re-examination of our national security state than a desire to repeal Obamacare (just 38% of the country, a number unchanged despite the rocky roll-out of the exchanges, by the way). Only 12%of Americans think gun ownership laws should be made less strict (though that's exactly what's happened in past year – Newtown tragedy or no) yet I doubt we'll see many ads where politicians proudly brandish their Silent Circle app, or show footage of themselves surfing the web with Tor.

If only Americans were as concerned about their phone calls as they were about their guns.

The easy answer to the riddle of our elected official's inertia on privacy issues is that there's no money in civil rights. There's no National Rifle Association to reap the benefits and distribute the influence of a multi-billion dollar privacy industry. There's no conglomeration of wealthy business owners to complain that privacy will drive up their costs. There's no chin-stroking over the relative value of "privacy makers " over "privacy takers". There are no heartbreaking stories of families whose privacy was cancelled, or whose child will go hungry for lack of privacy.

More to the point, there will never be a 9/11 of privacy. There will never be a large-scale singular tragedy because the government knew too much. The slippery genius of "the war on terror" is that without frontlines and without tangible objectives, there's no need to guard against injuries sustained by friendly fire. The promise that extreme sacrifices will be justified by eventual victory is never tested. You can look at your causalities after a battle and decide if the loss of life was worth it. But the tragedies of eroded civil rights are excruciatingly small scale – just one person's liberty at a time … until those rights completely gone, of course.

Those in power rely on this fact. They use it to disguise a more fundamental one: that liberty is always, always more important, and more fundamental, than national security. It is the first right, it is the thing we have that we can be asked to sacrifice. The language of government invasion of privacy is that it's a "trade-off", that there is one party (the government) that approaches another (the people) with a deal – you give me this (your metadata), I'll give you that (your safety). This thinking only enshrines "government" as an entity, and makes it easier for those who work inside it to think of themselves as separate – and more powerful – than those outside it.

But this "trade" isn't a deal between two parties, it's a decision made by one group: all citizens. We are not trading with the government, we are giving orders to the servants we put there.

Well, that's the idea, anyway.

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