Thursday, June 13, 2013
The Power of Terror
First, I wonder why it is news. There were reports many years ago about the "secretive" NSA and how it was intercepting telephone calls, e-mail messages, and other types of electronic communication. Why is it that the same information today becomes such an important news item? There's nothing really new in the information presented in the newspapers and other news sources. One proposed explanation is that we knew that the NSA under the Bush Administration was collecting intercepted communications. We thought naively that the practice had stopped after Obama took office. Not so! The scope of the snooping and the amount of information collected and stored has increased under Obama.
Second, I marvel at the thought that all the information collected will ever be analyzed. It's something like studying beach erosion by conducting a detailed study of every individual grain of sand on the beach. There aren't enough analyzers to do the job.
In a way, the sheer volume of information collected is comforting. The NSA may have copies of all of my e-mails in which CC's or BCC's were sent to individuals or addresses in other countries. The organization has as much information as the beach has grains of sand. There's small chance that my e-mails will ever be looked at.
My third reaction is that I am troubled that the public is not bothered by this large-scale snooping. It can be argued that the NSA has intruded on our privacy in a way that we are helpless to defend against. If the public is willing to put up with what the NSA is now doing, how long before a President wants more information and the NSA begins tapping phone lines of specific individuals, such as political opponents, all in the interest of security against acts of terror? After all, the political defeat of a President can be called an act of terror by his most ardent supporters.
And that is my point. All of this data collecting, legal or illegal, is justified as a means of thwarting terrorists. The public is terrified of terrorists, and as long as that condition exists, any Administration is justified in pursuing the most intrusive and intimate snooping on potential terrorists. We are on the road of replicating the extensive spying and snooping carried out by the "Stasi" of the Peoples' Republic of (East) Germany. In that country, everyone was encouraged to spy on everyone else. The slope of our progress in this direction may be gentle but it is greased with the public fear of terror. According to one poll, 69 percent of us are willing to give up privacy and a bunch of other civil liberties so that we can be "secure" and safe from terror.
How can we stop ourselves from slipping into a copy of East Germany? I think we must attack the basis of our fear: terror itself. Why do we fear terror? An act of terror is almost always a crime. Terrorists are criminals, like muggers and bank robbers. We laugh at the suggestion that we should give up the Bill of Rights to combat muggers and other criminals. Why are terrorists different? This is the question that must be debated in public, so that the public can achieve a balanced and thoughtful opinion about extensive and secret collection of data about our communications with each other. Who is the public figure who can start such a debate and public discussion? First, our President. He is precluded from seeking reelection to a third term, so he is politically immune from the pressure of seeking reelection. Second, a former President. Bill Clinton would be an excellent leader of such a debate. He is a capable speaker and knows how to explain things to just ordinary folks. Third, a former Presidential Candidate. I'm thinking of Bob Dole. He's a Republican and his words would be more persuasive with Republicans than those of Democrats Obama or Clinton.