By Zachary Klein
Since the 1960s (and probably before) it’s been no secret that our government spies on its own citizens. We knew that S.D.S. meetings, demonstrations, activists, and people the government distrusted have always been under systematic surveillance. Books have been written about it; friends had it proven to themselves by requesting their own dossiers after the Freedom Of Information Act was passed.
Like I said, it was no secret, but I never cared. If the government wanted to play garbologist with my life, so be it. It was their hands that got dirty. And when the Internet blossomed and people had the opportunity to chat with others far and wide, let alone visit websites that discussed everything from politics to porn, I just assumed they were being monitored. And I still didn’t care. If they wanted to watch me look at naked ladies, go for it. I’d lost any belief of the “right of privacy” a long, long time ago. I had other fish to fry and barely considered the implications of my own facile attitude.
But a week ago I saw a movie called Citizenfour, a documentary by Academy Award winner Laura Poitras. Shot in real time Poitras follows Edward Snowden leaking thousands of classified documents, primarily to Glen Greenwald, at that time a reporter and columnist for the British newspaper The Guardian. Then she followed the aftermath of the published leaks.
These leaks detailed the wholesale data interception by the N.S.A. We’re not just talking about spying upon known or suspected terrorists and their connections and associates. We’re talking about damn near everybody including prime ministers of other countries. (One example was Germany’s Andrea Merkel). And when I say everybody I mean pretty much that. Telephone companies, cable companies, Internet search engines, and any institution who gathered personal information were essentially ordered to turn everything over that they had on all of their customers or clients.
When the story first broke publicly in early June, 2013 I met it with a shrug, continuing to believe we were talking about rummaging around in people’s underwear. But at one point in the movie (and I’m going to paraphrase) someone commented that while we were calling this massive collection of information the loss of privacy, it really went much, much deeper. The enormity of this invasion of peoples’ lives actually represented the loss of freedom and liberty. A situation where the quantitative morphs into qualitative.
Well, that notion spun my head. If our own government quietly watches every person, with access to all our conversations, we are living in what ought to be described as a benign police state. A police state usually conjures images of barbed wire and machine guns and, in many countries throughout the world, that’s exactly what it is. But let’s remember what has always been true: information is power. Having virtually all information about every one of us residing in the hands of the government is more power than I’m willing to cede.
I’ve listened to the other side of the argument. “We need to be safe and secure.” “Everything changed after 9/11 and that tragedy demands heightened security—even at the loss of some liberty.” “We don’t know how many attacks have been thwarted because of the N.S.A.’s eyes and ears.” Which is true. We don’t know. But that lack of knowledge is due to our government’s ongoing refusal to provide any hard, real information.
Then there’s also the demand to show how this overwhelming amount of spying has affected anyone’s rights. Where is that slippery slope that will lead to the loss of liberty? Which organizations have been affected by the government’s knowledge about everything they do or say?
I can’t answer those questions. But the government can. And won’t—though some small glimmer occasionally shines through. Does anyone really believe that every major news organization decided on their own not to show the body-bags of our dead soldiers returning home? And that due process has been denied for every single person who has been sent to Guantanamo on the basis of information the government refuses to make public? Do we really have to wait until neighbors, relatives, or friends are arrested and detained because they had a conversation with someone who knew someone who knew someone else that attended the same church as someone who might have known a person who had possible ties to a radical organization? From where I now sit that’s way too late. That’s stick a fork in it time.
I’m sure there are people who believe that all undercover espionage on our citizenry should be eliminated. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world and the possibility does exist that dangers might be greater than some reasonable surveillance.
But the key word is reasonable and that is not what’s happening. What’s really happening is blatantly unreasonable. For our government to secretly spy on its entire population because they can and not be held accountable in any way (and please don’t throw the secret F.I.S.A. court in my face because apparently they have no accountability to anyone but themselves) is shameful for any country that calls itself an open democracy.
Edward Snowden, Laura Poitras, Glen Greenwald, and those who drew back the curtains on the N.S.A.’s illegal activities should be honored for their attempt to expose our government’s spitting in the face of liberty and freedom. Dictionary.com defines a police state as a nation in which the police, especially a secret police, summarily suppresses any social, economic, or political act that conflicts with governmental policy.
We aren’t there or that. Yet. But most of the Patriot Act and especially the N.S.A’s extraordinary hidden reach, brings us a giant step closer.
“The best people possess the…, courage to take risks, the discipline to tell the truth, the capacity for sacrifice.” – Ernest Hemingway