State secrets and a naked, ignorant public.
With yesterday's shocking revelations by the Guardian and Washington Post that the National Security Agency has engaged in wholesale data collection of our phone calls and almost all our online activity, it seems that those paranoid conspiracy theorists have finally been proven right. Most of us have probably suspected for some time now that our activities were being monitored in ways far beyond the scope of what a traditional warrant would allow. We assumed that if necessary, the government could somehow access our data, especially if that data had something to do with terrorism. But just as a person is still shocked to see a dirty cheater in the act even if they suspected all along, so too are we shocked to know that definitively and without a doubt, the government not only has access to nearly all our electronic personal communications and actions, but that it has a system in place that routinely monitors and analyses that data to look for suspicious activity.
Should we really care about this though? The ever faithful steward of our blessed freedoms, Senator Lindsey Graham
said yesterday he is "Glad" the NSA is collecting phone records on all Americans, and that those who are not talking to terrorists "have nothing to worry about". Ah, the typical canned response that if you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to fear. Well, my response has also been repeated millions of times before and it should be repeated a million times more until the end of time and these self-appointed messiahs get it. This is not about terrorism or terrorists, this is about the indisputable reality that power corrupts and that the more power you give to the government; the more likely it is that some form of abuse will occur.
Will the current administration use this and all the other militaristic powers it has amassed to harass, silence, or intimidate those who hold unpopular opinions or ideas? Probably not, but could a future President Rubio, or Clinton, or whomever? Maybe, especially if we face some grave crisis that puts everyone on edge. And that's the point, we don't know who will use these powers in the future or for what end, and once a power is conferred upon our government, history shows that it is extremely unlikely it will ever be taken away.
The founders were not perfect; they were not some other-worldly gods that magically created the United States out of dust, but they were men who looked honestly and soberly at the long and bloody history of our species, and realized that in order for peace, justice, and freedom to prosper; the power of the state must be controlled, it must be checked. Yet now we live in a world where people like Graham see almost no limit to the power of the state so long as it is "protecting" us, he feels that because you put on a uniform or wear a flag-pin to work, that somehow your deeply flawed and capricious human nature somehow vanishes and all that is left is incorruptible apple-pie patriotism. How does this man even begin to call himself a "conservative?"
Unfortunately, President Obama, in stark contrast to Senator and constitutional law professor Obama, does not see this as a big deal. Perhaps when he was sworn in back in January of 2009, he was given a briefing by the CIA that rocked him to his core and quickly washed away the na?ve support of civil liberties he once had. Perhaps Obama and all the others who are privy to classified information are perfectly justified in what they are doing. Maybe if they don't do it we will all face certain death. The problem is though, if the President, the national security establishment, and most in congress had their way, we would never even know what actual threats are out there and what is really being done to counter them. Almost everything the government does in regards to terrorism is classified and thus we as a people have no ability to make informed decisions on whether or not giving the government this sort of power is necessary in the first place. We are forced to place blind trust in our elected officials and hope that they do what is best for us.
Whatever form of government that sort of faith entails, it is not a representative democracy. For a representative democracy to work, a sovereign citizenry must understand what is going on behind the curtains. I don't think many expect or would even demand to be informed about activities against terrorists in real time because makes sense that active operations need to be kept secret, especially if people's lives are on the line. But why is it that decades old operations are still classified, long after the participants and leaders who gave the orders have either retired or are resting 6 feet under? If we have to wait generations to know what was done in our name, then how can we ever hold our leaders accountable and ensure they respect our wishes? President Obama said today that you can't have "100% security and 100% liberty", that choices have to be made. No reasonable American would argue against this and it would be plainly obvious even to the na?ve sheep he seems to think we are. What the President and sometimes we forget is that such fundamental choices concerning liberty are ours to make, not theirs.
Yet we face a difficult situation; in order to exercise our sovereign right to decide when, how and for what reasons our rights will be curtailed, we must be aware of how the government proposes to curtail them in the first place. From warrantless spying, to massive collection of phone data, to back doors into all the major online services, to torture and secret detention, to the use of drones, all of these things were only revealed to us after courageous whistle-blowers decided their duty to the constitution was greater than their duty to the government. We must demand a real overhaul of the classification system within the government, as well as a hard look at and real debate over the future of our national security apparatus in general. If Americans want to throw away their birthright and the legacy bequeathed to us by the founders, then so be it, but only after they know what that will really entail and not just on the worthless vague assertions of elected officials who ask for trust but have done nothing to earn it.