07 June 2013

No one is (presumed) innocent

Of course, the story started with a leak. Someone leaked to Glenn Greenwald of the Guardian newspaper a copy of a 90-day court order, one of many since the country embarked on a War on Terror, requiring Verizon to provide "metadata" on its customers: not the content of their calls, but information on whom they call, how often, for how long, etc.  Verizon is not the only service provider in this respect. The Internet is being monitored as well. This should not be news to anyone, but some people continue to be shocked that these practices continue under a Democratic administration. Some of that shock may be exaggerated for partisan reasons, and the leak itself may have been timed to exacerbate anxiety over the Obama administration's surveillance on other fronts. The opposition hasn't really shown a united front on this;  neocons have defended the practice while libertarians are alarmed and some congressmen dispute the President's claim that "every member" of the House of Representatives was briefed about the program. Nevertheless, the shoe is definitely on the other foot now. A decade ago, liberals feared the Patriot Act in large part because they feared that the Bush administration would use it to link dissent with sympathy for terrorism. Some conservatives will worry now because they may suspect that Obama will use this power to target his own rather than the country's enemies. A relative handful of libertarians and leftists have been consistent in opposition. How many people really trust government -- not just a particular partisan administration but government in general --  not to abuse such powers? On the other hand, how many of us really trust our fellow man? If this is all about the War on Terror, the simple answer remains to change the policies that provoke terrorism. You might still have a handful of jihadists waging a self-conscious war of aggression, as some presume all jihadists have been doing all along, but they wouldn't last long. But while the present controversy is a legacy of the war on Islamist terrorism, a case can be made that there remains good reason for the government to continue these practices -- if they can be useful in any way in preventing domestic terrorism or lone-wolf amoklaufs. If you want to prevent crime -- particularly mass murder -- rather than punish it after the fact, isn't surveillance inevitably necessary? Liberals may look to gun control or social reform as the effective solutions to violence, while conservatives may want to restrict surveillance to the realm of mental health. Across the board, however, the biggest objection is the offense widely felt at the mere idea of being surveilled. To many, it is a fundamental violation of privacy, or a denial of the presumption of innocence to which they consider themselves entitled. Well, James Madison said government itself wouldn't be necessary if men were angels, and the further we get from that ideal, the more government we're bound to get. Maybe we've reached a point where we don't -- or can't -- presume each other innocent in a way that should exempt us from suspicion and surveillance. On the issue of gun violence I've written repeatedly that we can't divide the populace between the innocent whose rights should not be infringed and the "criminals" who should and somehow can be kept from guns without infringing the rights of the innocent. We simply can't know when an innocent person will snap, cross over to the dark side, etc. That's why entrusting our protection to the innocent only leaves us vulnerable on every side. Maybe, rather than worry or grumble about what's necessary today, we should think about what it will take to get back to, or for the first time reach, that point where we all trust each other enough to respect each other as both citizens in public and individuals in private, not only in this country but around the world.

For all I know, discussing that will put us under suspicion, but that's life -- for now, at least.


Anonymous said...

Well said.

Anonymous said...

The sick and ironic thing is that last evening I was watching old footage of Obama from the Bush presidency where he was decrying the patriot act and spoke out against the government spying on American citizens.