Monday, June 10, 2013

The Illusion Of Safety

Due to commitments I made a long time ago, I've been largely unable to discuss much about the ongoing NSA surveillance revelations. Basically, when I see something that says "Top Secret/NOFORN" or the like on something, I'm not allowed to discuss it. I signed up for that, and I don't mind that much. What I mind is the people who abuse that system, who are the folks in the Obama Administration and Congress who are talking about how "gut-wrenching" it is that some of those slides were released to the public. I don't have grief with the whistle blower who released this stuff. He clearly didn't do this for personal profit. At worst, he mishandled classified data, which is a serious offense. I think it's more accurate to say he did this country a big favor. My beef is with the folks who created a system of surveillance that has no meaningful oversight or control, and who make it their priority to punish anyone who reveals anything about it - other than them, of course.

So, I can't discuss the details much, which is too bad. The details are pretty fascinating. I can, however, offer some observations about the public's reaction to this news. I'll start with my favorite Abe Lincoln quote:

“All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, … with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

He spoke those words in 1838, regarding the lynching of a black man. He worried that if we lost our respect for law that we would quickly lose our freedom as well. The Constitution is the supreme law of the land, and it quite clearly says that among other things, we should be secure from government in our persons, our papers, and effects. If we ignore that principle in the interest of “defending ourselves” from some crackpots halfway around the world, we have truly become a pathetic shadow of a free nation.

Those who maintain that somehow all this intrusiveness and secrecy is necessary to keep us “safe” have clearly never considered what it’s like to not be safe from your own government. They haven’t considered what the cost is of corruption that can’t be punished because it can’t be revealed, or how many lives bad policy and bad government can cost. If they had, they’d know that what they were saying is utterly foolish. We lose more people every month for lack of health care, and for letting people who shouldn’t be near them have guns. We lost more people in Iraq and Afghanistan than we did to terrorism. We lost way more in Vietnam. All that death is due, at least in part, to foolish government policy. While we spend vast sums of money on surveillance equipment that may not even work, we don't educate our young well enough to operate all those whiz-bang weapons we always seem to have money to build.

Nearly everything our government does affects lives and livelihoods. Not being able to discuss that, because we know that if we do the government will use the data it collects against us, will be the price we pay for these absurd priorities. If you think otherwise, ask yourself who watches the watchers? Who makes sure those people are doing what they’re supposed to, and is there anyone outside of government who can make sure that watching process, in fact, is happening as it’s supposed to? The answers, in order, are "who knows?" and "nobody".

And if you think that the only people who have something to fear are those who have nothing to hide, think again. Or maybe I should just say “think”.

Giving our rights over to our own government isn't safety. At best, it's the illusion of safety. there is no such thing as perfect safety. There is only the hope that we can make things safer, through informed debate and the actions of citizens who feel empowered to make change. Neither will happen if the government can collect whatever information it wants, and use it with no oversight or accountability.

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