Why should we trust our government? That’s a question civil libertarians would want us to ponder every day.
And recently, more of us have. After all, with the revelations of the IRS screening Tea Party groups and the Justice Department investigating Associated Press reporters, some of us remember the days of the Nixon’s enemies list and J. Edgar Hoover’s trampling of civil rights.
And now, we have the latest intrusion in our privacy, the monitoring of phone calls and internet activity.
For many, Ben Franklin’s warning becomes even more relevant, and possibly for good reason:
“Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty or safety.”
Of course, when we examine the context of Franklin’s comment, we see that he isn’t speaking at all of the tension between freedom and security. In fact, Franklin was arguing for the right of the Pennsylvania Assembly to levy a tax to pay for the French and Indian War.
Nevertheless, Americans treasure our independence. and our right to privacy might be the best example of that independence. We don’t want our government snooping on us, unless it has gone through all kinds of legal hoops to justify doing so. When we hear of the massive collection of phone calls made and received and the observing of internet activity, we naturally have the reaction of “That’s a bridge too far.”
But is it?
Our government’s one big task is to protect us, “to provide for the common defense.” Today, the common defense is against a shadow enemy, one the Founders could never dream of fighting, the dedicated jihadists, intent on inflicting as much damage on the West as they possibly can.
And how do those jihadists communicate? The answer’s obvious.
So what should our government do?
The balance between freedom and security in the time of war seems to be difficult to find. Just think of the Japanese internment camps of World War II, designed to ensure our security but tramping the rights of innocent Japanese-Americans in doing so. The abuse there is breathtakingly obscene.
But is it so here? I’m not so sure. Which is why Edward Snowden might have done us a favor.
I’m not sure he’s any sort of hero, but his actions have — with any luck — precipitated a public discussion of just how far we want our government to go in protecting us.
The phone call monitoring doesn’t monitor the actual calls themselves; instead, it compiles who is called, when and from where. The system then uses complex algorithms to detect anything suspicious. To actually access calls or tap phones, then, the government must get permission. The phone companies in question, as I write, are requesting the government release just how often this happens, in the belief that the number might calm our fears of Big Brother Run Amuck..
And the internet monitoring, PRISM? It does, after all, look at emails, chats and search histories of “non-U.S. persons located outside of the United States.” At the same time, the NSA admits that information about U.S. citizens might be “incidentally acquired.”
Thanks to a 2008 revision in the law, desired by the Bush national security team, the surveillance powers were exponentially expanded.
Little of this was made public, of course. But it’s there now. And now, we need a sober discussion of programs like PRISM and the phone monitoring.
But will we? I have my doubts, in this heated, every-issue-is-a-partisan-one atmosphere, where too politicians seem more intent on scoring political points than solving problems.
In the horror after 9/11, our government restricted our freedoms, restrictions most of us reluctantly agreed to. Would we do the same today, given the privacy invasions of the latest programs used to fight Muslim terrorists?
A careful public discussion would give us an answer. Let’s have it.
Mike McClellan is a Gilbert resident and former English teacher at Dobson High School in Mesa.