I have been all over the map on the NSA stuff since the story broke. From the outset the affair struck me as somewhat overblown, not so much revelation as confirmation of things the reasonably well informed should have known or at least suspected. Surely anyone of a terrorist bent would take it granted that the Great Satan is monitoring any and everything it possibly can. Are comrades on the left really surprised to learn that the Evil Empire is warehousing every scrap of data it can lay its virtual hands on? Do patriots of the right expect anything less from jack-booted government thugs? It is unfortunate that the spotlight shines far too brightly on paranoid conjectures of a categorically different order from legitimate concern about a ravenous state security apparatus operating under dubious congressional oversight and FISA courts shrouded in secrecy. One can concede the need for military and security operations, and the case that these must sometimes be conducted in secrecy, deriving from the state’s responsibility to provide a degree of safety and security for its citizens. But how much security? And of that, what is genuine and what illusory? What is to be sacrificed for it?
That l’affaire Snowden turned into a media circus at the get-go is business as usual. Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald complain that the media and government have sought to distract from the state’s misdeeds by making the story about them. This is a surprise? To whom? Tabloid blather that only distracts attention from important issues is awful, terrible, horrible, not good. It is also far from new. To be fair, the saga of Snowden holed up in a Hong Kong hotel and Moscow airport desperately seeking asylum lends itself to this sort of thing. The story’s principals seem blithely oblivious to their own contributions to personalization of the story. Lest anyone forget or be unaware of his crucial role, Greenwald routinely peppers articles and interviews with references to “our stories, “our front-page revelations,” and the like (e.g., James Clapper, EU play-acting, and political priorities, The Guardian, 3 July 2013). There are repeated hints and insinuations that Snowden is or might be or could be targeted for assassination. Greenwald’s fondness for taunting the authorities along with his zest for dismissing those whose take on the affair differs from his as members of a media and political elite or Obama worshippers is not conducive to the gravitas warranted by the story (Noah Rothman, Mediaite’s Tommy Christopher And Glenn Greenwald In Tense Twitter Brawl Over Snowden, Mediaite, 2 July 2013). As for the government’s response, we should expect officials to take anything but a dim view of what they sincerely perceive, rightly or wrongly, to be a serious security breach? Obama should perhaps award Snowden the Presidential Medal of Freedom? Jay Carny should promote Greenwald’s nomination for a Pulitzer?
Does the messenger, or the character of the messenger, matter? Well, yes, somewhat at least, for evaluation of the messenger’s trustworthiness and agenda. Snowden does not help his case with a rationale that is a few syllogisms shy of intellectual rigor. “I don’t want to live in a society that does these (surveillance) sort of things… I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded.” (Bonnie Greer, Edward Snowden: there will be more ‘Libertarian Millennials’ like him, The Telegraph, 3 July 2013). I am not unsympathetic with this sentiment. However, I am aware that many Americans will not be swayed by it. A longtime friend for whom I have the highest regard and respect, a man of the liberal persuasion, put it this way:
You have to come down on one side or the other, and I have to come down on the side of government having enough leeway to take care of my interests, that being to keep the USA in the driver’s seat to the extent possible.
There is not a doubt in my military mind that many Americans come down, uneasily in some cases but nonetheless, far more with my friend than with the Snowden-Greenwald camp. Was it legitimate for Snowden to take it on himself to bring down “these sort of things” of which he personally does not approve? Might he have been more effective, and might I be more kindly disposed toward him, if he had taken his information not to a zealous journalist with a demonstrated passion for this issue but to, say, Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, who have long expressed concern about surveillance programs and pressed for greater accountability, oversight, and openness? Might Snowden’s moral stature, and with it the power of his message, have been enhanced had he remained in the country to stand with the angels and speak truth to power even at risk of imprisonment?
Recently I attended a workshop on the topic of ethical internet research. The speaker observed in passing that we live in a surveillance state. This is a simply a fact of life in the 21st century, though it might be better and more broadly put that we live in a state of surveillance, for it goes well beyond NSA data gathering, security cameras in public spaces, and an annoying array of airport scrutiny. The gathering of data by actors in the private sphere is every bit as eagerly pursued and every bit as troubling as what is done by the state, which after all at least in principle has a mandate to promote the general welfare and common good and is accountable to the people. Yes, it falls short on every count for a variety of reasons ranging from influence of powerful actors pursuing private interests at the expense of the commonweal to a fractious, contentious populace desirous of wildly inconsistent, conflicting, and not infrequently mutually exclusive ends. Nonetheless there is at least in principle accountability to something other than the next quarter’s financial report.
President Obama was right when he said we need a public debate about the tension between privacy and security. He has been remiss in not fostering that debate, to which convenience might be added to the mix. Generally speaking we want privacy, we want security, and we do not want to be inconvenienced by any of it. We are also quite taken with the convenience, not to mention opportunity for narcissistic indulgence, that goes with social media, mobile phones, the blogosphere, and all the rest.
Seldom do we wish to consider that, as Emerson put it, nothing is got for nothing. We might do well to ask how much privacy we are willing to sacrifice to save one American life? two? ten? five hundred? five thousand? How many lives in other parts of the world, as innocent as our own loved ones, are we willing to sacrifice in the vain effort to ensure that not five thousand, not five hundred, not ten or two or even a single American will ever be victim of whoever might wish to do them harm? Conversely, how many lives are we willing to risk to ensure that not one iota of privacy is violated? To what degree are we willing to put American lives at risk to ensure that not one innocent life elsewhere in the world suffers harm in pursuit of those who would willingly do harm to Americans, Europeans, and others, even their own countrymen, if not deterred? For some the answers are all too easy: not one iota of privacy is to be given up, ever, not one life in some other place is to be put at risk. For others, anything and everything is justified for the sake of safety and security of American lives and interests. Such people are fortunate to dwell in a world where moral dilemma and ambiguity do not exist, where absolute security can be vouchsafed, and where the problematic and contingent can be whitewashed out of existence. Nothing is got for nothing.
David Bromwich, Diary, London Review of Books, 4 July 2013
Jonathan Chait, Remember the Obama Scandals? That Used to Be a Thing, New York, 27 June 2013
Greenwald, About the Reuters article, The Guardian, 13 July 2013
Glenn Greenwald, James Clapper, EU play-acting, and political priorities, The Guardian, 3 July 2013
Bonnie Greer, Edward Snowden: there will be more ‘Libertarian Millennials’ like him, The Telegraph, 3 July 2013
Martin Luther King, Letter from Birmingham Jail, 16 April 1963: “One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.”
Lana Lam, Snowden sought Booz Allen job to gather evidence on NSA surveillance, South China Morning Post, 25 June 2013
Ruth Marcus, Edward Snowden is no hero, Washington Post, 18 July 2013
David :: Jul.20.2013 ::
House Red: Politics & Current Affairs ::
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