In 2001 when Congress passed the PATRIOT Act, granting unparalleled surveillance and detention powers to the federal government, it allowed the powers-that-be to McCarthyize and silence those opposed to the act as unpatriotic. Its name alone was, in essence, as masterstroke of propagandizing. In 2007, the PATRIOT Act was made permanent by Congress. And though each of these votes occurred during President G.W. Bush’s two terms in office, Republicans now want the country to forget that part and absolve the forty-third president of any responsibility simply because he is no longer in the White House. “Stop blaming Bush,” they scream. This is not unlike tracking mud in the house and blaming the rug.
One important question here is if the G.O.P. intended to pass that kind of power to the next president the way they did. It’s certainly plausible that this program of theirs was the same as the NDAA scandal — wherein congressional Republicans use riders to fill the Defense Department budget bill (which is what the National Defense Authorization Act is and always has been) with unsavory bits that the president can’t excise by line-item veto but has to approve carte blanche in order to fund the military — in that they get to blame the Democrat for their own ideas and thereby fracture the opposition. Maybe they were so confident in following up Bush with another opportunist hack named John McCain that they could never imagine the NSA’s system even being used by a Democrat. The fact is that this surveillance has been going on a lot longer than the current media firestorm over Edward Snowden’s actions would lead us to believe.
I was in sixth grade when the PATRIOT Act was passed, and I completely bought into the mindset presented by its backers that if I wasn’t doing anything wrong, I didn’t have anything to hide. After all, this was the way things worked in school. If I wasn’t doodling in class, why be so secretive when the teacher walked by? Now that I’m in college, that’s a moot point given how little my teachers care about laptop use in class. In fact, I’m pretty much obligated to use my laptop everyday or risk missing things during lectures or not being able to put enough time into my written assignments, much less all my online quizzes and exams. That being said, it’s clear now that the argument above about not having anything to hide was basically constructed for people who shared the same mentality that I did in elementary school: black-and-white, with no room for shades of gray or complexities.
The current surveillance debate is far from cut and dry. None of us wants the U.S. government observing our electronic communications behind the walls of social media, yet undoubtedly some people need to be further scrutinized. That would be the Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaevs, the Timothy McVeighs, and Wade Michael Pages among us, whom none of us would say should’ve gone unobserved. Yet for all intents and purposes, it appears that they did. As in all human endeavors, there will be errors and missteps that can allow tragedies to happen. But we must also consider that increasing the vigilance with which we engage in surveillance operations will by definition affect us all. As was posited back in 2001, “if you aren’t doing anything wrong, then you have nothing to hide,” right?
Taking this conversation to the present day, we arrive at the fallout of the Edward Snowden case and the unprecedented amounts of information he leaked regarding the PRISM program, which was created by the Protect America Act of 2007 and renewed last year until 2017. Included were records implicating companies like Verizon Wireless, Google, Yahoo, and Apple in a vast network of data harvesting that encompassed almost the entire world, all leading back to the NSA. In the clamor for answers, we’ve seen two sides develop with not much in between. The first, represented by FOX contributor Ralph Peters, argued that leaking of government documents — even those proving that government agencies are behaving unethically — is treasonous and should be punished as such. On the other side, we have perhaps the only instance in which Michael Moore and Glenn Beck will agree and herald Snowden a hero.
In a recent response to the ongoing debate over the NSA, Obama, in straightforward terms said:
“You can’t have 100 percent security and then also have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience. You know, we’re going to have to make some choices as a society.”
As tempting as it is to retort cleverly with a certain quote from Benjamin Franklin about what is deserved by those who sacrifice liberty for security, we need to look at President Obama’s words in more realistic terms. To be clear, human societies need both law and law enforcement to function properly. We admit that this is the reality, inasmuch as we don’t yet live in Sir Thomas More’s Utopia. If law enforcement lacks the tools to get the job done, then laws simply go unenforced. On the other hand, we want to avoid a police state as much as reasonably possible. If it’s depressing to know that we still don’t have a solution yet, then it should comfort you (at least slightly) to know that the U.S. is no exception in that regard, as pretty much every human civilization since the dawn of agriculture hasn’t been able to do it either.
But is there a solution? With a complex issue such as this, necessary reasoned debates dissolved into little more than polarized histrionics since Snowdon surfaced. One of the arguments flaring across the right wing media is the checkered flag of “Stop blaming Bush!” And should you hear this feckless retort, you’d be wise to smite the screamer with a history book posthaste. That’s where this program began. We can quite literally state that if it weren’t for the Bush administration, then we wouldn’t be in this mess, among the many other messes we’re currently in as a result of his presidential failings.
The Obama administration first comes into play in 2008, where he defended a revised version of the plan and stated his reservations for doing so, and the Senate vote in 2012 that occurred on his watch. Even taking into consideration the fact that PRISM “can’t be used to intentionally target any Americans or anyone in the U.S.” but rather foreign nationals living abroad who could pose a threat to our national security (as well as U.S. citizens living abroad on a very limited basis), we have to admit that we’re dealing with some very complex moral arguments on both sides of the issue.
The sooner we admit that, the closer we come to the state of mind necessary to debate this logically. Violent revolution is not the solution we need, but neither is continuance down the road to a total police state. If anything, these kinds of programs need to be highly regulated if they can’t be removed entirely. Even transparency has its risks. As much as we need to know what our government is doing supposedly on our behalf, it would also have been tragic for the Operation Overlord plans to be revealed prematurely, even “for the sake of transparency.”
Happy mediums are seldom struck in terms of security. After all, who says our ethicists are any better than those of ancient Rome or the Greek city-states? Those civilizations also wrestled with these same questions. That is precisely why you should take issue with claims of American exceptionalism, at least in practice; just because some of our nation’s solutions to age-old human problems are different in scope, the problems are just as real. We still fight over rights stated to be “inalienable” and granted by our Creator, as we have from the days before the American Revolution and as we likely will until the end of time. If anything, we feel them more strongly than they’ve ever been felt before, due to the high standards we set for ourselves in this nation’s founding documents.
The only way for this kind of compromise to be possible is if the U.S. were to collectively wise up and realize its position in regard to historical context. After all, governments prying into their citizens’ personal affairs is nothing new — much of our lives are already open to so much scrutiny on Facebook, Twitter and the like — yet the relative ease of surveillance, and in some cases the necessity for that surveillance, have both dramatically increased. So in the end, the real question is a paraphrasing of the first: If you’re not doing anything wrong; is it right for the government to watch you?