With the exposure of the National Security Agency’s PRISM program, privacy has once again become part of the national debate in America – and rightly so. But there’s one thing the public should consider when searching for the right “balance” between privacy and security. And that’s the undeniable reality that we can never fully prevent another 9/11. Never.
It’s the old adage: where there is a will, there is a way. And terrorists are always quick to change and adapt to whatever security measures we put into place, including signals intelligence.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t be vigil. What I am saying is that we shouldn’t kid ourselves that all of this expensive and invasive surveillance is really going to matter when the time comes. There’s no such thing as safe. There’s only safer.
And the 9/11 Commission, the only independent inquiry into what led to the biggest terrorist attack on American soil, did not identify the need for additional information as one of the problems. No, we didn’t need to tap phone lines and emails. The problem, as the experts who studied it determined, was that our various government agencies failed to share the information they had, and to analyze it in a timely and effective manner.
Rather than follow those recommendations, our government chose to drastically increase the amount of information it collects, including electronic surveillance of our own citizens. So now those agencies that failed to analyze the intelligence they had pre-9/11 have exponentially more intelligence to sort through. The only way that makes any sense is if all this data is being collected to help with prosecution, after an attack, rather than to prevent one, as they claim.
Sacrificing Our Rights
With 9/11 and its other attacks, Al Qaeda’s goal was to harm America. Not just kill our citizens, but to fundamentally undermine who we are as a nation. And despite our resolve, and eventual revenge, in some ways they have succeeded. PRISM, the Patriot Act, and other such measures – those that force US citizens to sacrifice their constitutional rights and freedoms – are prime examples. Whenever we forfeit what makes America great, even if it’s in the name of safety and security, which are the two false promises propagated by our government to usurp our right to privacy, we hand a little bit of our nation over to the enemy.
The frustrating irony is that the folks who have been the most vocal about protecting our constitutional rights on the gun front are the ones who seem the least concerned about sacrificing them on the privacy front. Sure, there is a poorly organized effort to add some restrictions to the Second Amendment, in hopes of making it more difficult for criminals and the dangerously insane to acquire the kind of weapons more suited for a combat zone than recreational shooting, hunting, or home defense. And most right-wing Republicans refuse to entertain any sort of “balance” on that issue, at least not until someone walks into an NRA convention loaded with an AR-15 assault rifle, a Stryker 12 “street sweeper,” and enough ammo to fill a ballot box, and puts things in perspective for them. Yet they are the first to say that it’s OK to compromise on our Fourth Amendment rights, for the sake of safety, protecting lives, all that “sissy stuff” the gun control advocates always whine about.
Think of privacy this way. The federal government is taking away something that is constitutionally yours, something upon which our nation and the notion of democracy is fundamentally based. They aren’t telling you how they are taking it, or how much they are taking. In fact, they are not even telling you that they are taking it. They just are. And when you ask why, they simply tell you that it’s for your own good. They won’t tell you how it benefits you. You have to take their word on that.
In other words, they have already lied to us about what they are doing, but now they insist that doing so has saved us from danger. How so? Well, we are just going to have to take their word on that.
Perhaps it is easier to understand if it becomes more personal. For example, imagine if you learned from a friend that I was having an affair with your wife. I then told you that the reason I was banging the shit out of your wife was for your own good, to protect your marriage. Naturally you would demand to know how, but I refuse to explain exactly how that’s protecting your marriage. Instead, I invoke marital security and say that you’ll just have to trust me!
Would you be happy? No, of course you wouldn’t. Would you vilify the person who told you about our affair? No, I don’t think he’d be begging for asylum in another country. But that’s how we as a nation, particularly those in the Red States, are acting in the wake of the government’s mass invasion of our privacy.
And the NSA’s PRISM program is just one in the list of many that are robbing us of our rights. The New York Times just ran a story about two programs being conducted by the US Postal Service, including one that has been photographing and recording every piece of mail that you send and receive. You thought that ball gag you bought online was your little secret, since the store promised to ship it “discretely?” Well, if they used the US Postal Service (and no one knows if UPS and other shippers operate similar programs), Uncle Sam knows who sent that package, and they can easily connect the “discreet” return address with Deviant Dungeon Supply LLC.
The Domino Principle
This isn’t just about our right to privacy. How can conscientious conservatives (if such creatures even exist) turn a blind eye to a violation of our rights under the Fourth Amendment, in the interest of public safety, and then so vehemently oppose a violation of our rights under the Second Amendment, in the interest of public safety?
I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that most people who oppose gun control under the Second Amendment also have a tendency to believe in the domino principle, that the sacrifice of one thing (a third world nation, for example) could lead to the sacrificing of other, more important things (like our nation). It’s the old adage: give them an inch and they’ll take a mile. So if you allow the government violate one of your constitutional rights, isn’t that opening the door for them to violate others?
Think You Have Nothing to Hide?
Of course there are those who claim that it’s OK for the government to spy en masse on its citizens, in clear violation of the US Constitution, because it only effects the guilty, those who have something to hide. For those still clinging to the “I have nothing to hide” fallacy, here’s another scenario to consider.
Imagine that I, a middle-class white American, am standing on a subway platform around 10:00 AM on a Friday. And just as the train is pulling into the station, a man “falls” onto the tracks in front of it. He is killed.
The police arrive and I explain what I saw: a young black man who had been slowly walking down the platform, wearing a hoody and pants that sagged to show his underwear. He was standing to my right and, as the train pulled into the station, I turned my head to the left, towards the oncoming train. And just as it approached us, I saw movement to my right – out of the corner of my eye – someone falling onto the tracks.
There were no other witnesses. And since the station has a slight curve, the train’s conductor didn’t see anything except the kid appearing on the tracks just before impact.
The police begin their investigation. Security cameras show me following the young black man down the subway platform. Police also learn that I had just been fired from my job before heading into the subway. They speak with my former boss, who happens to be a black man, and he tells them that I was very upset when I left the office (which I was, feeling that I shouldn’t have been fired).
Using data collected by PRISM, the authorities were able to find an email I had sent my nephews the week before, asking them if they knew how kids managed to wear their pants below the waist and not have them fall down. PRISM also produces a text I sent a friend of mine earlier that week, asking why black people walk so slow and yet run so fast.
Based on this evidence, the police arrest me. The PRISM evidence demonstrates an apparent “problem” with black people. Being fired by a black man moments before the incident suggests a motive. Security cameras show me following the victim right before his death. And my own testimony puts me next to him at the time it occurred.
So, you still think that I shouldn’t worry about things like PRISM and privacy if I have nothing to hide? Despite what it sizing up to be a strong case against me, I have committed no crime in this scenario. I am completely innocent. In reality, the young black man committed suicide.
In a split-second decision, he chose to jump in front of the train to end his life because he had a freak sexual liaison with another man the night before. That morning the guy confronted him with evidence of the encounter and demanded money in return for his silence. The young man considered himself to be straight and feared what consequences this might have for him. His suicide wasn’t premeditated, so he left no note indicating his intentions, nor was there any evidence of his motive. He had not told anyone about what had happened the night before, and the blackmailer certainly wasn’t going to come forward and incriminate himself.
Out of Context and in to Court
Of course this is all fiction – a tale I created to help illustrate my point. But there are two things about it which are true, and those are the things that PRISM could use as evidence to make me appear guilty…despite the fact that I am innocent, and therefore should have nothing to hide.
I do admit to being perplexed about how young kids – black, white, etc. – manage to wear their pants so low and not have them fall off. And I have, in fact, sent my nephews an email like the one I describe in real life (they could offer no explanation).
I have also sent a text to a friend of mine, jokingly asking why black people can run so fast but walk so slow. The recipient happens to be an ex-girlfriend. And she also happens to be black. We’ve known each other for more than 25 years, and have a running joke about me asking her silly questions about black people and expecting her to have answers simply because she’s black (she could offer no explanation either).
So I clearly don’t have any problems with any race, black or otherwise. And I have never been fired from a job, though I imagine I would be angry when I left the office if I was. But hopefully now you can see how PRISM – which, in theory, collects massive amounts of information that we share with family and friends in confidence every day of our lives – can give you something to worry about, even if you don’t think you have anything to worry about. Be worried. Very worried.