In the aftermath of 9/11, our leaders in Washington insisted a wide-ranging security upgrade was necessary if we were to protect our "freedoms and way of life". Shocked by the attackers' success, citizens both Democrat and Republican largely supported the Patriot Act and the enhanced security it entailed, recognizing that our government would have to be slightly more invasive if we were to be kept safe. Americans could tweak their civil liberties a bit if it meant keeping al Qaeda at bay.
But no further attacks were forthcoming--at least nothing even remotely as successful as 9/11. Which was either to say that al Qaeda wasn't as deadly as we'd assumed or that our security efforts were paying off. In any case, al Qaeda continued at least to exist, and thus the Patriot Act was renewed, to enforce which our government had earmarked generous funding for Homeland Security and related agencies, which now took on a life of their own in the race to protect us.
And soon we began taking our shoes off before boarding planes (thanks to British high school dropout Richard Reid) and allowing for X-ray scans and intimate frisking, all in the interests of enhanced security, and it didn't seem much of a sacrifice compared to the sacrifice our troops were making in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And soon we noticed that our metropolitan police departments had significantly beefed up, and could now appear in force at the drop of a hat, armored cars and all, policemen looking more like high-tech shock troops than city cops. They showed up in force to protect us from those "hippie radical" Americans who tried to protest the no-strings-attached Wall Street bailouts and the staggering corruption in our financial institutions. Across the nation mayors called out their new "anti-terrorist" forces so that firms too big to fail (JPMorgan, BoA and friends) could continue with business as usual.
And of course we knew all along that the Internet was being scoured for clues of terrorist plots and that phones were being tapped here and there. We accepted it as reasonable that frequent attendance at a mosque where men ranted against US foreign policy would bring about one's phone getting bugged or one getting an FBI file at the very least--though somehow the FBI didn't manage to nab the Chechen brothers who planted pressure-cooker bombs at the Boston Marathon.
Though we accepted a little inconvenience in terms of government intrusiveness, even a little overreach if necessary, that didn't mean we were prepared to learn that all domestic phone calls of all US citizens were being logged and stored by our government. Or that all Google searches conducted by everyone at any time were fair game for government collection and mining. That the initial revelations of these government actions were slightly exaggerated didn't alter the basic fact: our government had begun collecting and storing private data on millions of Americans.
Finding out about these programs (though they were really little more than implementation of the Patriot Act supported by so many) made a lot of Americans angry, but most, it seemed, just shrugged it off. After all, these agencies had strict procedural rules and ultimately they were there to protect us from people who, we knew, were spending their days dreaming up ways to kill us. Besides: it wasn't as if government operatives had starting using anything against me personally. And then we heard that reasonable explanatory phrase: If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about.
And many of us did a double-take.
Nothing to hide? Did that government spokesman just say If I have nothing to hide? What does that even mean? Do I maybe have something to hide? Is there something I maybe should be trying to hide? What, Mr. NSA talking head, are you getting at?
Like many, I felt the appearance of this phrase in our national discourse--If you have nothing to hide--was evidence of a new low being reached.
Previously I had had a large domain of my life that was considered private, a domain that included things like: whom I called and when I called them, what articles and books I read, what programs or videos I watched, what ideas or rants or declarations I decided to share in correspondence with friends or others, etc., etc. But now I was being asked whether I might not "have anything to hide". That a citizen would ever think to ask this question, before sending off an email or clicking on a YouTube lecture, was in itself proof that our private realm had suddenly shrunk enormously.
Again: Is this "hiding" strictly in relation to Islamic terrorism or does it perhaps include other things? Will it maybe, in the long run, come to include other things?
Anyone with political or historical sense knows that it is in fact very likely that such government powers, once instituted, will sooner or later drift in their application and come to include other things.
Privacy--the normal space of a private home or phone conversation or email exchange--used to mean by definition that I didn't have to worry what an eavesdropper might make of what I said or wrote. Once others are logging or mining or eavesdropping, regardless of the protocols they operate under, it is no longer quite privacy, but rather something else. I become a member of the kind of transparent citizenry dreamed of by every totalitarian regime in history. This is what Edward Snowden has shown us. The programs that we have already implemented are but a half-step and a shuffle away from a Big Brother government more far-reaching in its powers of control than anything Orwell could have thought up. Perhaps Americans haven't been more outraged by these programs because they haven't yet realized how threatening such caches of information can be: how easily they can be used against anyone.
Such government programs pre-empt the possibility of civil resistance to the state, because the state, if it feels even slightly threatened, will use these programs to defend itself. Since democracy recognizes the need for robust civil resistance as a corrective, such programs are inherently incompatible with democracy. Only an authoritarian or totalitarian state will have such programs at its disposal.
Was it really our desire to protect "the American way of life and freedom" that led us to accept these police-state government powers? If so, it's a sad irony. And it's pathetic too--pathetic in the common sense of shameful and ridiculous. I say so because those who now threaten America--militarily the most powerful nation in the world--are little more than a ragtag bunch of second-rate thugs, men without access to serious weaponry, men who have to make bombs from cleaning materials and wear explosive underwear onto planes--and still they can't manage to pull off their attacks. Meanwhile we, better defended by far than any nation in the world, must face the shameful fact that this is the bunch of losers who have scared us into changing our country into something unrecognizable. Will we ever live down the shameful truth that we willingly gave away our liberty to keep a ragtag bunch of unarmed criminals at bay?
We're so damned worried about a plane going down or a bomb going off in a subway terminal that we create the basis for a totalitarian regime in our own homeland. As a domestic population we're apparently such cowards that we'd rather let NSA analysts read our emails than risk a 1 in 100,000,000 chance that we might lose our life at the hands of an angry Muslim youth. It seems it doesn't much matter to us if we die in a car accident or from obesity or killed by a nutcase neighbor with a private arsenal of guns--but Please, God, please don't let me die in a terrorist attack!
If it could be shown that al Qaeda had access to actual WMD, if we were at risk of a suitcase nuclear device or a sophisticated biological attack, then such programs might become debatable. But as things stand, our enemy is not nearly deadly enough to warrant the extensive erosion of liberty we've allowed.
Our ever-hysterical and scare-mongering media is partly to blame for this of course, but more to blame is a public so gullible as to accept such media as anything other than sensationalist entertainment. And to think that large sectors of our public call themselves "conservative"--which in American parlance means in part "wary of large government or expanding government powers". How is it that between such "conservatives", on the one hand, and liberals, who are supposedly concerned about civil rights, on the other--how is it that these two American constituencies have let things get this far?
What is happening to America is akin to what might happen to a boy allergic to bee stings. He's playing in the meadow, against doctor's orders, and is stung by a bee, fatally so. It's not the bee sting that kills the boy, of course, but his own body's reaction to the sting. He puffs up, he can't breathe, his throat contracts. He dies before help arrives. The boy's own physical overreaction has killed him. Another child in the same meadow stung by a bee would cry awhile, then get on with life, but not this unfortunate boy. Somehow his body doesn't understand that a mere bee sting does not require a life-threatening general mobilization.
America is like that boy. 9/11 was the sting, and we are suffocating ourselves in overreaction to it.