2013-08-24 15:32:55 by chort
Thus far I've avoided blogging about the US domestic surveillance scandal. Most of my opinions have been advanced by others, so restating them here would serve little use. However, today an aspect of the debate struck me that I think deserves closer examination
Earlier today I tweeted to the effect that it's notable both Rep. Sensenbrenner (major author of USA PATRIOT Act) and Lord Falconer of Thoroton (helped introduce UK Terrorism Act) have publicly denounced clear abuses of their respective laws. While I don't expect everyone to agree with my views, I was very startled when I received a reply to the effect that both these legislators were "just trying to get in the news." That strikes me as a very odd argument. Rather than deal with the substance of the issue, the commenter was simply trying to dismiss it by impugning the motives of the critics.
This tactic is even more absurd if we think about how many times very authoritarian politicians go to the media with hysterical claims about the scope and impact of terrorist threats, and use those claims to support sweeping invasions of privacy or infringement on rights. I have written before about such incidents. So presumably, if someone you agree with goes on TV, it's just out of intense concern for public safety, but if someone with whom you disagree gets attention, they're only doing it to feed their ego. How convenient.
I think this is a very troubling aspect of the attempts to debate invasive surveillance and detention in a rational manner. The authoritarian side is so convince of their inherent rightness that they will not tolerate any dissent. You can see this in Jennifer Granick's account of her dinner with Gen. Alexander. She doesn't believe Gen. Alexander is a bad person, but he's so single-mindedly focused on "finding terrorists" that he both cannot imagine negative consequences of his quest, and cannot tolerate second-guessing of his methods. To someone that narrow-minded, if you don't fully agree with them, you must be some kind of enemy. Why else would you not agree? After all, they (the authoritarians) are Right, so you must ipso facto be Wrong.
We also see this attitude in the British law enforcement handling of David Miranda. With such statements as "You've had your debate. There's no need to write any more." and "You've had your fun. Now we want the stuff back." it is very clear that the UK security apparatus has already decided that they're Right, so there's no point in any substantial discussion. No doubt they feel they were very generous to even "allow" The Guardian to publish anything at all. In the mind of the state, simply allowing a dissenting opinion to be printed ticks the box for "democratic society," so there's no need for all the tedious and inconvenient public discourse. In other words, a simple show of free press for the sake of being able to claim free press is enough, there's no need to actually have freedom of the press. After all, what if the press disagrees with government policy? The next thing you know, the public might disagree with government policy, and by jove we can't have that!
Western nations are headed down a very dangerous path at the moment. It's very clear that after the September 11th attacks in the US, and the July 7th attacks in the UK, public officials have swung dramatically to the side of "enforcing stability" and "appearance of safety." While these efforts may have been helpful in the very short term to calm nerves and prevent panic, they surely have far outlived their usefulness. The entire point of free society, the thing that sets us apart from the rest of the world, is that we don't cede basic freedoms to the state in exchange for a promise of stability. Many, many brutal strongmen around the world justify their crackdowns and secret police in the name of "stability and order."
It's very apparent from the information now leaking out that western intelligence agencies are wielding enormous, unchecked power. They are keeping secret their activities from the very bodies who are supposed to oversee them. Both the FISC and Congress have complained that the NSA is deceiving them and withholding information. Ironically, both of these bodies had previously protested that they weren't giving the NSA a free pass. It's increasingly looking like the Intelligence Committee was much more interested in preventing the NSA from being embarrassed than they were in actually performing the rigorous oversight they claimed to be.
I think this is natural, once a secretive state reaches a certain mass. Even if you're highly critical of secrecy and unaccountability (as Sen. Obama was prior to his presidential campaign), once you're included in that secret circle, the human tendency is to believe you're now more important than mere mortals. It can be easy to look around at the inner circle and see intelligent, socially elite people and think "these people cannot possibly be that wrong." Over time, as you learn more secret information, you would start to believe that outsiders hold their views only because they don't know the secret information you have access to. In fact, (now) Pres. Obama has made just such assertions.
When you're this convinced of the importance of what you're doing, secrecy itself becomes the cricial. After all you'd say to yourself, "I'm a rational person, I came to this conclusion, so it must be just." The fear would be, if the things you're doing leak to the public, they might become outraged and question your decisions. Well you just can't have that, because you already decided you're right. If anyone might question you, they'd be wrong, so best not go through that exercise at all. This explains the extreme "War on Leaks" mentality.
What is the ultimate impact of this behavior on society? When the government has arrived at such a critical mass of secrecy, echo-chamber decisions, manic pursuit of leaks, backroom deals, and rotating door between elite institutions, the state becomes self-perpetuating. There's no point in listening to citizens, because they don't know the secrets, so they aren't qualified to speak. You can't let the secrets out, because only the government is qualified to know them. If any citizen tries to leak the secrets, they're an enemy. Thus you arrive at a point where the citizens of the so-called democracy are the enemies, and the self-righteous bureaucrats know what's best for everyone.
Folks, this is serious, this is how tyranny happens. You don't just wake up one day and suddenly you've gone from democracy to jack-booted thugs overnight. At every step of the way the measures seem justifiable. The road to hell is paved in good intentions, and what intentions could be better than preventing another 9/11? Just remember, for ultimate stability you need ultimate control. It works for a while, but eventually it all comes crashing down in a horrific implosion. Just ask the people of Syria.
Fortunately, there is a glimmer of hope. In the USA we have a constitution and a bill of rights. This is a hedge against reasonable-sounding politicians trying to chip away our rights in the name of a greater cause. Act now, ask your elected representatives to uphold their oath to the constitution and quit patronizing the public with lies designed to make us turn our brains off.
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